FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 9, 2018
Park Morton residents and affordable housing supporters call on Court to allow stalled mixed-income housing development at old school site
Housing supporters including DC Appleseed, the Park Morton Residents Council, and the Coalition for Smarter Growth file amicus brief asking Court to affirm DC Zoning Commission’s decision in favor of Bruce Monroe Planned Unit Development
Washington, DC — On Monday, May 7, a group of affordable housing, community development, and public policy organizations, filed a “friend of the court” or amicus brief to show support for the mixed-income Bruce Monroe Planned Unit Development (PUD), a case stalled at the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia. The group’s main argument is that the Bruce Monroe PUD, that fronts Georgia Avenue, plays a vital role in achieving the District’s affordable housing goals and revitalizing public housing communities.
“The Bruce Monroe project is about giving the residents of Park Morton access to safe, clean, quality housing; the chance to stay in this community and maintain their networks; and new opportunities to thrive and prosper in Park View for many years to come. We want housing that reflects our best hopes and dreams for our families, and we hope the Court will listen to what we have to say,” said Shonta High, President of the Park Morton Residents Council.
The Bruce Monroe PUD and Park Morton PUD were approved by the DC Zoning Commission in April 2017, but four nearby neighbors of the Bruce Monroe site appealed the decision. While the Park Morton redevelopment plan was not contested, it cannot move forward without the Bruce Monroe site first delivering new replacement homes for many of the current Park Morton residents. The Bruce Monroe site is the second and largest component of the revitalization plan to ensure all Park Morton units are fully replaced.
“The Bruce Monroe Planned Unit Development makes good on a promise to Park Morton residents and uses the ‘build first’ principle to restoring decent homes for our public housing residents without forcing them to leave their community,” said Danielle Burs, DC Appleseed.
The Bruce Monroe PUD would include 273 residential units, including 90 public housing replacement units for the Park Morton public housing complex, located four blocks northeast of the Bruce Monroe site. Park Morton residents will have priority for the public housing units on the Bruce Monroe site.
The remainder of the new homes would consist of about 109 low-income units affordable at 60 percent median family income, and approximately 70 units at market rate. The Bruce Monroe development would consist of an apartment building, a 76-unit affordable senior building, and eight townhouses. The new buildings will better provide for a changing community’s needs by providing 1, 2, and 3 bedroom units, in contrast to current Park Morton units which are all 2 bedrooms. Bruce Monroe was a school site until the building was demolished in 2009, and has served as a park as an interim use. The plan for the site would create a permanent one-acre park alongside the new buildings. The Bruce Monroe plan demonstrates that PUDs can be a powerful tool to promote affordable housing.
“This case is about ensuring we can use the zoning tools we have to help our city preserve the diversity of our neighborhoods in the face of so much change. The Petworth and Park View neighborhoods are in high demand, with housing prices soaring, but few new homes have been built. The Bruce Monroe and Park Morton development plans are securing a place for many of our long-time and low-income residents,” said Cheryl Cort, Coalition for Smarter Growth.
To date, 4,593 homes in the District of Columbia, including 706 dedicated affordable homes, have been stalled by lawsuits appealing approved PUDs. On Monday, another 199-home PUD in DC’s middle-class Shepherd Park neighborhood was dropped after it was appealed and will open instead as a single story retail store. Thirty-three of the units were to be affordable. Days before, another PUD in the affluent Tenleytown neighborhood was appealed. It was to provide 146 units. Fifteen of these would be affordable at the 60 percent area median income level.
These groups hope that the amicus brief will serve as a voice in support of the Bruce Monroe PUD and the use of PUDs in creating affordable housing in the District. At this time, a decision on the Bruce Monroe case at the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has no set timeline.
About the Coalition for Smarter Growth: The Coalition for Smarter Growth is the leading organization in the Washington DC region dedicated to making the case for smart growth. Its mission is to promote walkable, inclusive, and transit-oriented communities, and the land use and transportation policies and investments needed to make those communities flourish. Learn more at smartergrowth.net.
About DC Appleseed: DC Appleseed has worked for over 20 years to make the National Capital Area a better place to live and work. DC Appleseed’s projects involve working with broad coalitions, researching best practices, issuing reports, participating in regulatory proceedings, bringing lawsuits, managing public education campaigns, meeting with, and testifying before governmental decision-makers. The ultimate goal of all our projects is to do whatever is needed to achieve real, tangible improvements in the National Capital Area. Learn more at www.dcappleseed.com.
Activists seeking to thwart the breakneck speed of development across the District have turned with greater frequency to the city’s highest court, filing legal challenges that have delayed more than two dozen projects in the past two years and driven up their costs.
Now the Bowser administration wants to curtail those challenges, proposing to amend District policies in ways to reduce those avenues for protest.
District officials say that the changes would end nuisance legal challenges, reduce the cost of doing business in Washington, and expedite the construction of housing units that the city needs.
“We have thousands of new homes that are hung up in court, including hundreds of affordable homes,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition For Smarter Growth. “The courts seem much more willing to second-guess the process, and it has thrown everything into uncertainty.”
But activists counter that the city is making it more difficult to stave off gentrification. They say their ability to turn to the D.C. Court of Appeals is necessary to prevent District officials from violating their own policies to accommodate luxury projects that drive up housing prices in exchange for minimal benefits for neighborhoods.
“It’s the most basic part of our checks and review,” said Kirby Vining, an activist who successfully appealed the city’s approval of a project in his neighborhood. “Without it, we would have been stuck.” He called the administration’s proposals a “Christmas present for developers.”
The proposed changes are part of a periodic review of the District’s policies that guide future growth, a process that has generated unusual public interest as residents, community groups and city agencies have suggested an estimated 3,000 amendments.
The D.C. Council, which must approve any changes, is slated to hold a hearing on the proposed new language later this month.
Since 2016, 25 appeals have been filed against projects approved by the District, three times the number lodged between 2013 and 2015, according to the District’s Zoning Commission. Members of one community group, Union Market Neighbors, have filed appeals against eight projects in the blocks adjoining Gallaudet University in Northeast, including one that was recently dismissed after the group reached a settlement with a developer.
The number of legal challenges in the District surged after the appeals court in 2016 overturned the Zoning Commission’s approval of a project to redevelop McMillan Park in Northwest into a complex of residential units, offices, a new park and a supermarket.
The development’s opponents successfully argued that zoning officials failed to consider the project’s potential to intensify gentrification. The opponents also contended that the officials had violated the city’s own regulations by permitting buildings denser than allowed under the D.C. Comprehensive Plan. The plan is the District’s compendium of policies that guide its evolution in housing, transportation, economic development and the environment.
The McMillan project’s opponents say that kind of contradiction would be less clear under new language the Bowser administration wants to insert in the Comprehensive Plan that asserts that references to such categories are “intended to give broad guidance and are not intended to be strictly followed.”
The D.C. Council’s first hearing on the proposed changes to the comprehensive plan is scheduled for March 20.
Other proposed changes include deleting specific measurements — “8 or more floors,” for example — that define terms such as “high density residential.”
“They are removing specificity and making the rules fuzzy,” said Aristotle Theresa, a lawyer who has appealed Zoning Commission approvals 14 times and represented the opponents to the McMillan project. “This is all to make it harder to file appeals.”
The proposed changes would make it more difficult for his largely poor clients to negotiate with developers, he said. They would be unable to “extract some equity out of the cycles of disinvestment and gentrification. It also takes away the say in how our neighborhoods develop.”
But District officials and advocates contend that it is the current language in the plan that’s ambiguous.
“To say we’re trying to wipe out any appeals or the ability to have due process is false,” said Andrew Trueblood, an economic adviser to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). “The problem is we’re litigated to the letter of the words in the Comprehensive Plan rather than the policy’s intent. This is meant to clarify what we’re trying to do. The more we can clarify the policies and remove ambiguity, then everyone will know the rules of the road from the beginning.”
The mayor’s proposals have generated widespread and sometimes heated discussion, with a coalition of advocates, community organizations and developers teaming up to press for changes.
At the same time, council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) warned his 15,000 Facebook followers recently that the mayor is seeking to remove “language that helps folks have leverage in court against major development that does not protect poor communities #STAYWOKE.”
Developers have said that costs incurred by the appeals discourage them from seeking zoning changes for their projects, instead of building only what they are allowed under existing regulations.
As a result, they say they are more likely to propose smaller projects that create less housing, both market-rate and affordable.
“There’s a chilling effect on development,” developer Martin Ditto said about the appeals, one of which was filed — and eventually dismissed — against his project near Union Market in Northeast. “People aren’t likely to go after deals that are uncertain.”
Ditto is part of a coalition advocating changes to the Comprehensive Plan, a group that includes the Coalition For Smarter Growth and Greater Greater Washington, as well as developers such as JBG Smith and Trammell Crow, which have been the target of appeals.
Activists who have filed the appeals argue that the subsidized housing included in the projects is aimed at people making more than $50,000 and not the District’s poorest residents.
“It’s affordable only for single, wealthy professionals,” said Chris Otten, a community organizer who has helped file a flurry of appeals in recent years. “It’s not affordable to working-class families and longtime District residents. They use the term ‘affordable’ to cover up the harm that’s created when you build big boxes for professionals.”
Bowser did not invoke Otten’s name, but she seemed to have him in mind when answering council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) at a recent meeting. McDuffie asked if “there’s anything else we need to do” to curtail appeals that “slow down the production of thousands of units of housing — both market-rate and affordable.”
The mayor replied that she hoped to reduce the influence of “outside parties” driving opposition to projects in places where residents are largely supportive. Her priorities, Bowser said, include “ensuring that the citizens’ voice is not diluted by someone who has a totally outside agenda that isn’t impacted directly.”
Otten helped organize the appeal in the McMillan case, as well as at Barry Farm, the public-housing complex in Southeast that the city is seeking to redevelop. He also led an Adams Morgan community group that received $2 million from a developer to drop its opposition to a new hotel in the neighborhood.
More recently, he helped organize Union Market Neighbors, which has appealed eight projects surrounding the market, a 40-acre swath of wholesale warehouses that District officials have rezoned to accommodate apartments, hotels and ret ail.
The appeals court has dismissed several of the cases, one of them Feb. 7 after the developer agreed to pay Union Market Neighbors $150,000. Otten said the group has discussed using the funds to hire a liaison to talk with “the developers about how are we going to get local people jobs and who is going to tell the community that a giant crane is rolling through their neighborhood?”
“This money is going to a community that’s about to see a dramatic adverse change to their future,” Otten said. “At one point, it was a low-rise market. Now it’s going to be replaced by glass-and-steel behemoths.”
Not everyone in the neighborhood opposed the project, a total of 1,100 apartments spread across five buildings. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission twice voted to support the development.
Philip Evans, a lawyer for the developer, Kettler, declined to comment on the settlement.