Author: Erin Phillips

Needed: The Right Parking Policies for a Growing Richmond

Parking is perhaps the most important aspect of a city to get right if we are going to address traffic, make housing more affordable, and create a sustainable, walkable, bikeable city. The City of Richmond is growing, but if it’s to grow without making traffic really bad, we need to get parking right. Too much parking, especially free or underpriced, will lead to more driving and traffic. Too much parking can also drive up building costs and housing prices, making it harder to provide housing affordable to the full range of our workforce.

As we grow, we need to provide good alternatives by expanding our transit system and adding more dedicated bus lanes over time, and adding bike lanes — especially protected ones, and make walking safer and interesting. Combine these with car sharing like Zipcar and Car2Go, taxis, and ride hailing like Uber and Lyft. With all of these options, you may not need a second car, and for some people, any car at all.

Cities around the U.S. are adopting a range of creative parking policies that combine both market-oriented and regulatory approaches to managing parking. These include:

1) Setting the right price for parking on the street so that there is good turnover in retail districts and 20% of spaces are rotating open at any one time.

2) Using residential parking permit programs but pricing the parking passes appropriately and adding car sharing options to the neighborhood.

3) Dropping use of parking minimums and putting in a maximum limit on number of spaces, while exempting small buildings from having to have any parking. Today our city actually has many zoning districts which actually do get parking right — without requiring too much.

4) Sharing parking between users — one example is daytime office parking used for nighttime entertainment parking.

5) Pricing all off-street parking in lots and structures and separating the rental of parking spaces from the apartment lease or condo purchase price, and from the office lease. This makes clear the high cost of providing parking and always results in lower demand.

6) Equalizing employee commute benefits — instead of just offering free or subsidized parking, an employer should also offer a transit pass benefit, or even a “parking cash out” where an employee offered a parking space can “cash it out” for an equal value in a transit pass + cash, or cash + walk or bike to work.

For a comprehensive presentation on modern parking policies, I recommend this presentation to the City of Portland, Oregon by Jeff Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard. Jeff is one of the premier national experts in parking policy. Or for the scientific and technical basis for changing a city’s parking policies, see UCLA Professor Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

If Richmond wants to maintain its quality of life as it grows, the city needs to get parking right. Hopefully, the ongoing study will lead to the adoption of the best combination of market-rate and policy solutions for our community.

Read the full story here.

Episode 107: Coalition for Smarter Growth

There is an adage in economic development: “Roofs Before Retail.” Meaning, of course, that savvy entrepreneurs will choose to locate in communities that not only want their retail services, but also contain the right mix of residential density and spending power. And as we are all aware, creating affordable housing in DC is always a challenge. In this episode, we visit with Cheryl Cort, the policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Cheryl addresses the need to create compact, walkable communities to increase housing opportunities in DC via “accessory dwelling units.” We also visit with Casey from Good Food Markets – summer produce is rolling in. Listen now!

Listen to the full podcast episode here.

D.C. affordable housing advocates call on court to support $97M Bruce Monroe project

Several affordable housing advocates that support the long-planned Bruce Monroe mixed-use development banded together this month to file an amicus brief with the D.C. Court Appeals in hopes of moving the $97 million project forward.

The project is one of dozens of planned-unit developments that have stalled due to appeals by local citizens or groups. The Bruce Monroe case is before the court, but there is no set timeline for a decision.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which filed the brief with policy research firm D.C. Appleseed, the Park Morton Residents Council, Enterprise Community Partners and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, is asking the court to consider how the development will “affect citizens who need access to quality affordable housing.”

At issue is a project led by a partnership between the District, the D.C. Housing Authority and private developers Dantes Partners and The Community Builders. It was formed to redevelop the Park Morton public housing development and nearby Bruce Monroe Park with mixed-income projects.

The Bruce Monroe and Park Morton PUDs represent the fulfillment of long-overdue promises to the community, and provide a model for how the District and other cities facing the pressures of rising housing costs can preserve housing and economic opportunities for all residents,” the amicus brief stated.

Cheryl Cort, policy director of the coalition, said it could take months to hear back from the Court of Appeals. But she said the amicus brief is important in convincing the court to affirm the Zoning Commission’s decision on Bruce Monroe. PUDs are considered ideal because they provide community benefits and amenities in exchange for greater density that can result in more affordable housing.

“We want the court to re-establish a predictable process for planned-unit developments,” Cort said. “We think there are a lot of meritless appeals going forward.”

The Bruce Monroe project is particularly significant because it would provide 273 affordable units, including 189 in an apartment building, 76 in a senior building, and eight townhomes. Of the 273 units, 90 will be Park Morton replacements. The remaining 109 low-income units would be affordable at 60 percent of the median family income, while 70 would be market-rate. The site is to be anchored by a 1-acre park.

The Zoning Commission approved the project in April 2017, but four nearby neighbors appealed the decision in May, leaving the development plans in limbo. The neighbors object to the height of one of the development’s buildings.

Delaying the project further will be detrimental to affordable housing goals, said Angie Rodgers, director of the District’s New Communities Initiative, a government program whose mission is to replace public housing units one-for-one and integrate those units into new, mixed-income neighborhoods.

“We are certainly anxious to see the court move along with this process,” Rodgers said. “We hope that we can get resolution this year.”

Despite the appeal, the development team behind Bruce Monroe continues to work on designs for the project, Rodgers said. The project will be funded by a combination of low-income housing tax credits, private loans as well as up to $37 million in gap funding from New Communities.

Read the full story here.

D.C. developers fight back as wave of appeals stall projects

From his office window, D.C. developer Bo Menkiti can see the vacant lot where he has long envisioned a mixed-use development on Monroe Street NE in Brookland.

The $60 million project, which was supposed to begin in 2012, was slated to include 213 residential units and 13,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, with commercial space fronting Monroe. It was expected to feature 23 units for residents earning between 50 percent and 80 percent of the area median income. And it would have been built right across the street from a Metro station, tying in with the future development of Catholic University, including Bozzuto’s Monroe Street Market project.

“In my mind, it was about doing something unique,” said Menkiti, founder and CEO of the Menkiti Group, which planned to complete the project by 2014. “There was very little there. This would have been the first significant construction in the neighborhood in many, many years.”

Today, the lot remains vacant, covered in nothing but spring dandelions.

On three separate occasions, D.C.’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, rejected the Brookland development, leaving the Monroe Street project in a state of perpetual limbo. Monroe Street Market has long since delivered, while Menkiti’s project has earned the distinction of being the first in a wave of dozens of planned-unit developments, referred to as PUDs, appealed by community groups since 2012.

What was once a reliable planning tool to create lucrative market-rate homes while preserving affordable housing in one of the country’s most expensive cities has created insurmountable obstacles for developers like Menkiti, as protesters increasingly sue to block PUD projects. Those hurdles reflect growing tensions between developers and neighbors who oppose projects and encapsulate a continuous fight over gentrification in the District and desires to revitalize some of the most depressed areas of D.C. with new buildings.

Now D.C. developers are fighting back by turning away from the laborious PUD process, saying it’s too risky to have their projects tied up in litigation for years. Some are eyeing opportunities outside of the District. Others are pursuing “by-right” developments, which are typically smaller, less dense projects that do not require public hearings or amenities for the community.

And many are working through traditional political channels to convince lawmakers to revise the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a document that guides D.C.’s growth, to remove all doubt that the Zoning Commission has the power and flexibility to approve projects under the plan.

The community appeals have delayed 4,593 new housing units — including 706 deemed affordable — since 2012, according to the latest data available from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a nonprofit that generally supports higher-density developments and has criticized the repeated citizen appeals.

As of April, about 12 planned-unit developments were under appeal, and there are at least another dozen under the threat of appeal over a variety of assertions, from intense density to displacement of longtime residents.

A combination of forces has given rise to the appeals, including soaring housing prices, population growth and the negative effects of gentrification. The parties behind the appeals are typically grassroots citizens group. And the appeals are relatively cheap and easy to file — it costs only $100.

“It’s an untenable position for the future of a community or a city to be in where one or two individuals can hijack a community process,” Menkiti said. “If that continues, you face some unintended consequences in the health and vitality of those communities.”

All about PUDs

District planners consider PUDs ideal because they check a lot of boxes: They provide community benefits and amenities in exchange for greater density that can result in more affordable housing.

PUDs are also attractive to developers because they can achieve more square footage and more flexibility in design, which allows them to make more money, even with a greater affordable housing component.

But developers say the city needs to fix the process.

“Until the rules are clear, it’s going to be very challenging for any developer in the city to pursue a PUD,” said John Clarkson, a senior vice president with JBG Smith Properties Inc., which teamed up with Gallaudet University to propose an 1,800-unit, 1.3 million-square-foot development that was appealed last year.

“We are working on a few projects in the city right now, and we are looking for partners and it’s challenging when you explain to them the situation. It’s a longer conversation than you would otherwise like to have.”

Developers and Mayor Muriel Bowser have proposed a fix: They want to add language to the 60-page framework of the Comprehensive Plan to erase any ambiguity about the Zoning Commission’s authority. The plan is being revised for the first time since 2011 as part of a regular amendment cycle.

After receiving more than 3,000 amendment proposals from community groups, nonprofits, ANCs and federal agencies, Bowser and the D.C. Office of Planning in March introduced legislation to make clear that the comp plan is meant to serve as a guide — not a straitjacket — and that the Zoning Commission has the authority to engage in a discretionary review of land use categories when deciding whether to approve projects.

“We want the PUD process to work as designed and to be able to generate those public benefits for the community where the development is happening,” said Christopher Delfs, chief of staff for the Office of Planning.

If or when the comp plan will be officially revised will depend on the D.C. Council.

The council held a nearly 16-hour hearing in March collecting feedback from both citizens opposed to the changes and developers who support them. Chairman Phil Mendelson says the body will likely take up the measure after its work on the fiscal 2019 budget is complete.

It’s unclear if a majority supports the change, but Mendelson said he is “very concerned” about developers going through so many appeals.

“It’s not a good thing if the appeal process can simply be used to hold up development,” Mendelson said. “Litigation is rarely a good thing so we have to find a solution to this increase.”

Being vigilant

Developers say the change is needed to remove inconsistency in the process.

“We’re concerned that the courts are substituting their judgment for that of the local bodies who deal in zoning everyday. …I think we need to be vigilant about using our voice to express all the things that communities are negotiating,”said Jamie Weinbaum, executive vice president with Bethesda-based MidCity Development, the company behind the $600 million redevelopment of Brookland Manor in Northeast D.C.

MidCity continues to face legal challenges to its $600 million redevelopment of the 1,800-unit Brookland Manor. Just this week, the president of the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association filed an appeal, forcing the company to hold off breaking ground on the first two facilities — a 200-unit all-affordable senior building and a 131-unit multifamily building — this summer. Weinbaum said MidCity is now studying alternative options for the project.

Separately, a group called One DC has filed a federal lawsuit over the size of the units approved for Brookland Manor.

EYA Senior Vice President Aakash Thakkar said the citizens appealing projects typically don’t represent the majority.

“The projects that I am involved in have widespread support,” said Thakkar, whose company is involved in the McMillan Sand Filtration project as well as an 80-townhome development at the Josephites Seminary in Michigan Park that also has been appealed. “I’m not saying there isn’t some resistance, but in both cases — McMillan and Josephites — we had full ANC support, which is the group you are supposed to get community support from.”

He and other developers have joined the D.C. Housing Priorities Coalition to lobby for comp plan changes. The unlikely coalition of developers, affordable housing organizations and public policy groups was organized by Greater Greater Washington, a blog and nonprofit founded in 2008 with a focus on housing and transportation issues. GGW was awarded a $250,000 grant in 2017 from the Open Philanthropy project to fund housing advocacy initiatives, including the coalition.

Broad consequences

In a city faced with a dearth of affordable housing and rising land costs, the movement away from PUDs could have serious consequences, exacerbating an ever-growing divide between affluent citizens and the city’s poor.

Public policy advocates say it will further constrict the supply of affordable housing for those who want and need to live in the District — such as middle-income employees and young families who rely on a variety of multifamily units in the city. And a flight to by-right developments that don’t require public hearings means less participation from local citizens to offer input on what is best for their community, said Cheryl Cort, policy director with the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“We know that we are losing affordable housing through the seizing up of the process,” Cort said. “We are getting less housing out of sites that are perfectly capable of producing more housing. … It just worsens the city’s housing market from an affordability perspective.”

The protesters are equally upset, ironically for largely the same reason: the need for more affordable housing. Their frustration lies with the Zoning Commission’s decisions to approve developments that they believe lack sufficient housing for families and the working class. D.C., they say, will become even more exclusive than it already is, due to high-density projects they fear will push out longtime residents of developments such as Barry Farm, a public housing complex near the Anacostia Metro station.

“I think we are all fed up,” said Ari Theresa, an attorney for Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, which recently won its appeal of the public-private partnership’s PUD. “People are upset. The city has lost 40,000 black residents over the past 10 years. These high-density projects that these developers are proposing displace neighborhoods, the social connection that people have in these neighborhoods.”

The affordability question

By-right developments — those that are essentially allowed automatically by zoning and don’t require a PUD — also must include affordable housing, though usually not as much as provided with a PUD.

The city’s Inclusionary Zoning law requires 8 percent to 10 percent of residential floor area to be set aside for affordable rental or for-sale units in new residential projects of 10 or more units. But when development proposals go through the PUD process, the Office of Planning is able to negotiate a higher level of affordability than IZ requires.

Between 2012 and 2017, there were nearly 6,000 affordable housing units approved through the PUD process, the Office of Planning reports. That’s 3,600 more than would have been required under the IZ law alone.

Jim Campbell, principal of D.C.-based Somerset Development Co., was able to boost the affordability component when he used the PUD process to complete a $200 million redevelopment of the distressed 48-unit Portner Place Section 8 complex on U Street NW. He delivered 288 market-rate units and 96 affordable homes.

“The increase in density enabled us to double the affordability on site in the most expensive land location in the District of Columbia,” Campbell said.

By-right only?

After years of dealing with appeals of the controversial redevelopment of the McMillan Sand Filtration site, developers like Adam Weers have learned a valuable lesson: The PUD process is not worth the hassle.

Weers, a principal with Trammell Crow, said his company plans to bypass the entire process by working on smaller by-right projects. Doing so won’t open up developments planned by Trammell Crow to the same legal challenges that have hamstrung McMillan. It was appealed in 2016 to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which vacated the Zoning Commission’s previous approval on the basis that it did not adequately address issues related to the environment, land values, open space, building height and increased demand for public services. However, the Mayor’s Agent recently ruled in favor of the project and approved the necessary demolition for it to proceed. Weers hopes demolition will begin this year.

Weers declined to name specific projects, but said Trammell Crow is now actively engaged in multiple RFPs on sites across the District, with the key selling point being that they are by-right developments. “We believe this approach gives us a competitive advantage that provides tangible benefits to the owners of these properties in the form of faster execution, lower risk and a shorter timeline to completing the project. And we have communicated it as such,” Weers said.

MRP Realty has already abandoned a PUD at its Bryant Street project. Senior Vice President Michael Skena said the developer lost 14 months of planning time after a citizens group called Ward 5 Alliance for Equity appealed the company’s $650 million, 1,631-unit, Zoning Commission-approved PUD on Rhode Island Avenue NE, of which 8 percent, or about 130 units, would be affordable. To allow for more flexibility in later phases of the Bryant Street project, MRP last year dropped the PUD and switched to by-right development. MRP’s approved by-right plan is smaller, now calling for approximately 1,450 units of which 8 percent, or 116 units, would be affordable.

“I think it would be very difficult for a developer like us to move forward with a plan that requires a PUD,” Skena said. “The most important thing we lost was time. When we were appealed, we stopped all design. We had to go back and do a whole new schematic design for our phase one buildings.”

That said, MRP remained committed to the amenities it had already promised the community as part of the PUD plan.

“We went back to all of our stakeholders and said, ‘Look, there’s a way for us to move forward by-right,’” Skena said. “We lose about 10 percent of our density but because we have already invested in the community engagement, we don’t believe it is right to give up on the amenities we have already promised so we are going to move forward by-right, but we are also going to do all the things we said we were going to do in the PUD.”

Skena didn’t have a specific cost for the amenities, but said the benefits package certainly runs into the thousands of dollars. Among the amenities that MRP will provide are the affordable housing units required as part of Inclusionary Zoning laws, new pedestrian paths, upgraded bike paths adjacent to the site, and new publicly accessible green space. MRP is also providing grants to various local nonprofits and has committed to local hiring for the project, which is expected to begin this year and be complete within a decade.

Abandon D.C.?

Menkiti, the developer behind the Monroe Street project, said he is thinking twice about investing in D.C. projects after the Brookland development became the poster child for everything that can go wrong with a PUD.

“A lot of these organizations, including ours, have other places to invest,” Menkiti said. “We’ve made investments in Massachusetts and Prince George’s County. I don’t need to invest in Washington, D.C., if this is the process.”

It’s easy for any developer to make such pronouncements, but Menkiti says the numbers back up the threat: The delays have cost Menkiti construction and holding costs of about $5 million, not to mention legal costs of around $1 million. He estimates that the lost tax revenue and other public benefits have reached more than $10 million, growing by another $2 million each year the project is delayed.

“If we hadn’t had a very successful brokerage business, this would have put us out of business as a company,” Menkiti said.

The project has mainly been held up by appeals from a group of residents known as the “200 Footers,” who live within 200 feet of the Monroe Street project. They have repeatedly asserted that the development should not have been approved because the Zoning Commission erred in classifying its density.

For now, the project is stalled, as Menkiti needs to go back to the commission once again for another approval. But he is dedicated to seeing the development through, even if it’s potentially the last one he’ll pursue in Washington.

“The idea that there is going to be a vacant lot across the street from a Metro station in a community that desperately needs that connectivity doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said.

ULI studying approval process

The local chapter of the Urban Land Institute has convened a task force to analyze the approvals process in D.C. and other jurisdictions. It expects to complete a report in December and provide ULI members with an action plan for taking information out to the real estate community.

Yolanda Cole, district chair of ULI Washington, said the study is urgently needed, as at least three developers have told her within the last six months that they are now going the by-right route to avoid the risk of waiting years to get through the approval process.

“People are walking in the door saying, ‘We are going to do this by-right, because we are not going to go through the headache, effort, time and have the risk that we are going to be overturned,” Cole said. “By-right is a whole lot easier, and it’s less risky. It takes less time.”

The delays are not just costly to the developers. It affects everyone in the development food chain, including architects and engineers, said Cole, senior principal at Hickok Cole Architects Inc.

“It’s very hard for us to get paid for all that time as well, because it’s more than anybody has in their pro forma,” Cole said. “It’s squeezing everybody.”


Stands for: Planned-unit development

Description: A PUD is an agreement on how much space and what uses — generally residential and retail — can be built in a specific area of the city, down to a development site or block. PUDs generally cover a minimum of 15,000 square feet or 1 acre. The goal is to create a high-quality development that not only permits developers to construct higher and denser buildings than they could without a PUD, but to also provide public benefits for the surrounding neighborhood, ranging from green space to bike paths to affordable housing and community grants.

How it works: Once the developer files its PUD application, it negotiates a benefits package with the affected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions while negotiating design and density before the Zoning Commission. The Zoning Commission then holds public hearings and considers the proposal while giving “great weight” to the ANC position as required.

The final say: The commission issues a decision, usually an approval with conditions, and issues a formalized zoning order. PUD applications do not go before the D.C. Council.


The first step: If a party wants to oppose the Zoning Commission’s decision, it files a petition for judicial review of a specific case to the D.C. Court of Appeals. The fee is $100. The Zoning Commission has 60 days to file an administrative record with the court that typically includes the transcript of its original hearing, a written decision and written submissions from various parties. Based on briefs and a potential oral argument, the Court of Appeals, typically a three-judge panel — will affirm the Zoning Commission’s decision, deny the PUD or remand the case back to the commission for further review. The process can easily take six months to a year.

The next step: If a PUD is rejected by a Court of Appeals panel, there are few avenues besides a petition for a full-court review or seeking the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention. The developer would have to file revised plans with the Zoning Commission it hopes would survive future challenges, or just give up.
Read the full story here

D.C.’s Plan For Future Growth Fails Low-Income Residents, Activists Say

Nearly 300 people signed up to testify before the D.C. Council Tuesday on what might sound like an obscure subject: the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

More than just a turgid government document, the plan is a roadmap for the District’s future development. It establishes the city’s guiding principles over the next 20 years for land use, economic development, environmental protection, transportation and beyond. But as officials prepare to update the roadmap for the first time in seven years, some activists and nonprofit groups worry the process is steering the city toward a less equitable future.

The Office of Planning has proposed a slew of updates to the plan’s framework — the guiding document that sets the tone for the rest of the plan — and most haven’t attracted much controversy. But at a hearing at the Wilson Building on March 20, two points in particular had witnesses fired up: They said the plan doesn’t make a sincere commitment to preserving and building more affordable housing, and that it makes it much harder for residents to appeal development they believe could worsen gentrification.

“The agencies and the city are not really working to make sure that the displacement crisis is addressed,” said Empower DC Executive Director Parisa Norouzi outside the hearing. “Are we building exclusive communities for wealthier single people? Yes, we are. Is that what we should be doing, given evidence of the need that exists in the city? No.”

In its proposed updates, the Office of Planning mentions affordability multiple times. For example, one new passage reads, “The degree to which the District’s family-sized housing stock can be retained or expanded, and remain affordable is … critical.” But many say the updates fall short of a real pledge to keep low-income people in their homes.

Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, says the District could mitigate displacement by investing more in the D.C. Local Rent Supplement Program and Housing Production Trust Fund (although a recent audit alleges the fund is seriously mismanaged). But above all, she says, the city must build more places for people to live.

“We need more housing to keep up with demand,” Cort said Monday, “so we can hold down rising prices that are caused by not having enough supply.”

That’s where groups like Empower DC and the Coalition for Smarter Growth diverge. Affordable-housing advocates have chosen to battle gentrification by stopping development in its tracks, a strategy critics dismiss as short-sighted. Activist Chris Otten, who heads the group D.C. for Reasonable Development, has been particularly successful at appealing projects in federal court, miring developers in red tape for months. In some cases, he’s managed to block development altogether, successfully arguing that certain projects violate the Comprehensive Plan. One legal dispute with an Adams Morgan hotel developer didn’t stop the hotel from being built, but it won a group of residents, led by Otten, a $2 million settlement.

Norouzi says taking developers to court is the most effective way to put power back in the public’s hands. “The reason why people are appealing is because nobody’s looking out for the residents,” she said.

The string of legal challenges has struck fear into the hearts of developers, but it hasn’t stopped development altogether. Now some builders are choosing to circumvent the public process — called Planned Unit Development — that makes them vulnerable to appeals. The move is creating unintended consequences, observers say.

The city relies on the PUD process to extract better community amenities from developers, such as more affordable units than are legally required. D.C. Planning Director Eric Shaw has said that PUDs produced 2,530 affordable units in FY 2017, 19 percent of all new apartments built that year.

The last thing housing advocates should want, says David Alpert of nonprofit Greater Greater Washington, is to prevent residents from striking better deals with developers.

“The recent court decisions, some of them call into question whether any community benefits agreement can be negotiated, agreed to, and then enforced without someone simply bringing a lawsuit and trying to overturn the entire thing,” Alpert said.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Alpert criticized activists’ tactics as “filibustering,” and voiced his support for a proposed update to the Comprehensive Plan that would protect the Planned Unit Development process from being hijacked.

“A few people can delay or halt even something which has had robust community input and support,” Alpert said at the hearing. “Is a land-use system, where no matter the community support, anything can be filibustered, really good government?”

But while witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing didn’t agree on how D.C. government should control skyrocketing housing prices, they concurred that the city is in the midst of an affordability crisis that the Comprehensive Plan must address. That idea found support among Council members who spoke before the hearing.

“The Comprehensive Plan has potential to impact the cost of housing, incomes and other things that could lead to displacement,” said Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, “and government has a responsibility to minimize displacement at all costs.”

The Council took no decisive action Tuesday, and lawmakers expect to negotiate changes to the planning document in the coming months.

Read the full story here.

Expect Crowds at Tuesday’s Hearing on Proposed Amendments to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan

More than 270 people have signed up to testify at a D.C. Council hearing on Tuesday afternoon. The topic: Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed amendments to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan, the thick planning bible that guides how tall and dense new construction should be throughout the District.

Drafted by the mayor’s Office of Planning (OP), the initial 60 pages of amendments would make it easier for developers to construct large projects and withstand a court appeals process that has paralyzed several projects.

Since late January, a loose coalition has mobilized to fight these amendments. They call themselves the Grassroots Planning Coalition and their tagline is “Stop the #ComprehensiveScam.” In their view, the proposed changes to the plan would be a coup for pro-smart growth urbanists and the developer class.

This election cycle, the Coalition hopes to tap into voter anger over displacement and offer an alternative to their perceived enemies, an urbanist bloc that tends to support more development. On their side are lefty candidates like Jeremiah Lowery, who is challenging At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds. Lowery peppers his speeches with disdain for millionaire developers.

The Coalition’s strategizing meetings have drawn intrepid zoning wonks, street organizers, and historic preservationists. Together, its members, in their own words, aim to counterbalance the power of developers over public officials.

“They have their foot on the Wilson Building,” said David Schwartzman, a perennial D.C. Council candidate from the D.C. Statehood Green Party, at a March 10 strategizing meeting in Anacostia. He recited a dizzying list of foes, starting with the “big banks” and “big developers” and ending with the Federal City Council, the D.C. Policy Center, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and Greater Greater Washington.

“This whole thing was supposed to be an amendments cycle, and OP approached it as a whole rewrite,” says Stephen Hansen, chair of the Committee of 100. Founded in 1923, the Committee of 100 is a longtime guard of D.C.’s Height Act and often engages in historic preservation and nitty-gritty zoning policy issues. In terms of taking on the mayor this time around, Hansen says: “I would say it’s one of our stronger stances historically.”

“The Committee tends to be more policy-orientated. The advantage to our joining this coalition is that it’s a more grassroots reach,” he explains. “It’s a good symbiotic relationship.”

The coalition is chiefly worried that the amendments would weaken their hand in appealing development projects. Amid the District’s development boom, those well-schooled in the Comprehensive Plan have successfully slowed down projects through the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has become a thorn in the side of developers and city planning officials.

In the telling of the Committee and their allies, developers and the D.C. Zoning Commission ignored the Comprehensive Plan for years, even as the Home Rule Act mandates that zoning should “not be inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.”

Local activists like Chris Otten, who is part of a group called DC for Reasonable Development, began appealing projects to the D.C. Court of Appeals. These appeals tend to rest on arguments that the Zoning Commission did not adequately address the potential ripple effects of a given large development project: its effects on the environment, displacement, and the most vulnerable existing residents.

Otten’s big break came in December 2016, when the appeals court tossed out the Zoning Commission’s approval of the giant redevelopment proposal at the McMillan Sand Filtration site. The court ruled that “the project is inconsistent with the District’s Comprehensive Plan”—music to the ears for types like Otten. The precedent paved the way for over a dozen other appeals to the federal court, which have resulted in delays for major projects.

Now, Otten and opponents of the mayor’s amendments say developers over the past two years have proposed rewriting the Comprehensive Plan to avoid legal tangles. (The Office of Planning received more than 3,000 public submissions for amendments to the plan.) Through wordsmithing, critics say, the plan has been loosened to allow open interpretation.

“It’s not eliminating our rights to appeal. We will be able to appeal a decision in the future. But we don’t have any teeth,” Otten said at a meeting of the Grassroots Planning Coalition on March 10. “We go into the court, and they’ll just laugh us out of there, because they’re weakening [the Comprehensive Plan], fuzzy-ing it.”

While Otten and other complainants profess they are acting in the interests of keeping neighborhoods affordable, smart-growth proponents call the appeals obstruction. Yet worse, many city planners and developers say the throttling of residential development has exacerbated the crisis of affordability in D.C.

“When we hold up all housing, we hold up affordable housing,” said Eric Shaw, director of the Office of Planning, at a Feb. 28 D.C. Council oversight meeting. “That’s the truth.”


While the Grassroots Planning Coalition sees the city’s pro-smart-growth bloc as in bed with developers, the two sides have similar goals on paper. David Alpert, founder and president of Greater Greater Washington, says he shares concerns that OP’s amendments don’t adequately address affordable housing and displacement.

“We were also disappointed with the amendments that were created,” Alpert says. GGWworked with over a dozen groups to come up with a package of proposals for the Comprehensive Plan.

That coalition released a 43-page “DC Housing Priorities” paper, advocating for the “creation and preservation of a supply of housing (market-rate and subsidized affordable) to meet the demand at all income levels.” Alpert emphasizes that the city needs to push for more housing for those making 30 percent and 50 percent of the area median income, or between $33,000 and $55,150 a year for a family of four.

“There needs to be a really strong focus on affordable housing and displacement,” Alpert says, which sounds a lot like the talking points of the Grassroots Planning Coalition.

When asked about the opportunity for common ground, Hansen sounded tired. “I don’t want to put my energy in talking about them,” the Committee of 100 chair says. “It looks like we have common goals, but how we hope to reach them is very different avenues.”

Hansen sees Alpert and his allies as adherents of Reagonimcs and the “build, baby build” mentality, with hopes that the free market will one day help lower-income residents. “It failed in the ’80s, and it would fail with housing as well,” Hansen says. (Alpert says, “We’re not people who say, ‘Merely loosening rules will on its own bring down prices.’ I don’t believe that’s the case.”)

Another division exists between the two sides on Planned Unit Developments, known as PUDs. These development projects undergo community review through Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and require Zoning Commission approval. Developers typically file for PUDs to ask for permission to build greater density than what is allowed by-right on a lot.

In exchange for exemptions from zoning rules, the developers will offer public benefits, which can include more affordable housing than what is required by law or other concessions to the community. Shaw testified to the D.C. Council that “nearly 6,000 affordable housing units” have been approved through PUDs over the past five years—3,500 more than what zoning regulations alone would have required. The whole PUD process can run over a year, with ANCs sometimes negotiating with developers for a favorable public benefits package.

Otten has filed about a dozen appeals of PUDs that the Zoning Commission has approved, arguing that they in some way don’t adhere to the Comprehensive Plan. He now says the proposed amendments are “attacking the ability of the people to hold the Zoning Commission accountable.”

Alpert calls it a course correction. “The changes being proposed just try to realign the PUD process with the way it worked before,” Alpert says. But he adds he wants a greater focus on prioritizing affordable housing and displacement, which OP’s amendments don’t yet address.

Eyes now turn to the D.C. Council and to its chairman. Over his term, Phil Mendelson has earned a reputation as a legislative reengineer, taking many of the mayor’s bills and redoing them along points of consensus. (See: the mayor’s homeless shelter plan.) But he demurs on whether he’ll turn the Comprehensive Plan edits into a personal project. “I take seriously every bill that we move and mark up,” he says dryly.

Mendelson does have his early worries. “I am concerned whether the bill goes too far in making the plan more vague and therefore less useful,” he says. “I think the Office of Planning shot itself in the foot promising 60 days of public comment before submitting the bill, and it didn’t do that.”

OP originally planned for a public comment period after releasing their proposed amendments in January, but reversed after receiving 10 times the anticipated number of public proposals, Shaw told the D.C. Council. The proposed changes on the table deal with the Framework Element of the Comprehensive Plan, the introduction section of the 1,000-page document. Public submissions for changes to the other sections of the plan are still under review.

“The city’s gonna grow, and that’s a good thing,” Mendelson says. “And I’ve never known of any city that’s turned people away”—exactly what some critics are not shy to suggest should happen. At the February meeting of the Grassroots Planning Coalition, Otten flatly asked: “Fundamentally, the question for our city is, do we want a million people?”

Activists like Parisa Norouzi, the executive director of community organizing outfit Empower DC, aren’t betting on help from the Wilson Building. “Whether or not we’re aligned on all the points, it’s yet to be seen,” she says of Mendelson, before calling him one of the most knowledgeable councilmembers on the Comprehensive Plan. “We’re used to taking on hard fights and having not many allies on the Council.”

Meanwhile, Ed Lazere, who is running against Mendelson this year, says: “If I were chair, I would make sure the Comp Plan update is really clear about preservation and creation of affordable housing.” Lazere is on leave as the head of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

“The current leadership, as reflected in the Comp Plan,” Lazere says, “it prioritizes the wishes of big developers over the needs of hardworking families.”

Read the full story here.

Dozens of developers will testify next week before the D.C. Council. Here’s why they are upset.

Dozens of developers and other pro-business advocates will testify before the D.C. Council on Tuesday to voice concerns about the volume of appeals that have tied up projects in litigation.

They will push for changes to the city’s comprehensive plan that would clarify land use rules regarding planned-unit developments, make it easier for developers to expedite projects and lower the number of legal challenges developers face. Roughly two dozen projects, from the Union Market area to McMillan, have faced legal hurdles despite prior zoning approval.

“As a developer and as someone who works for one of the world’s largest commercial real estate developers in the city, I am very concerned about the frequency with which these appeals are happening,” said Adam Weers, a principal with Trammell Crow Co., one of three companies, along with EYA and Jair Lynch Real Estate, co-developing the 25-acre McMillan site into a mix of office, residential and retail. “There were three in 2015, there were two or three in 2016. There were 17 appeals in 2017. There are four appeals already in 2018.”

The ongoing battle highlights tensions between local developers who want to move forward with more than 6,000 planned housing units and a contingent of residents who believe that those projects, as currently conceived, will displace locals, raise land values and make the city less affordable. Both groups want to change language in the comprehensive plan, which will have a profound impact on the city’s growth over the next 20 years.

“If the land values go up when they put in a development, it forces the people who are there to leave,” said Nick DelleDonne, who is on the steering committee for the D.C. Grassroots Planning Coalition and will testify on Tuesday. “They are not going for better opportunities. They can’t afford to stay there any longer.”

DelleDonne’s organization, according to its website, consists of individuals and organizations “committed to furthering racial, economic and environmental justice by challenging rampant development which contributes to gentrification and displacement of existing residents.” Its membership include representatives of Empower DC, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and the Democratic Socialists of DC.

One of the most controversial proposed comprehensive plan changes would provide the Zoning Commission more flexibility on PUDs, making an appeal more difficult to win if the panel doesn’t follow the zoning map to a T. The language reads: “References to representative and specific zone districts in each land use category are intended to provide broad guidance, and are not intended to be strictly followed with respect to determining consistency of a zoning map amendment and/or Planned Unit Development with the Comprehensive Plan.”

Chris Otten, who leads D.C. for Reasonable Development and is the organizer, or backer, of several appeals (and is also a member of the D.C. Grassroots Planning Coalition), said his group isn’t “against development per se.” But he believes the comp plan should provide specific directives for community benefits and amenity packages, identify potential impacts such as displacement and require developers to provide more affordable units.

“We want to strengthen the plan so developers know at the outset when they talk to the Office of Planning, these are things they can expect to talk about, like contributions to infrastructure, contributions to transportation systems, contributions to a community protection fund that protects the community during construction, and real affordability, not just 10 percent,” he said.

Onerous but predictable process

Developers are especially troubled by the appeals that usually follow a lengthy entitlement process — one that requires them to negotiate with city officials and residents on a community benefits package in exchange for zoning flexibility. It is an onerous but predictable process that developers say they have become accustomed when getting projects approved by the D.C. Zoning Commission.

“You get through this and all of the sudden you have to deal with an appeal and a lawsuit,” Weers said.

Perhaps the prime example of this is the controversial $720 McMillan project, which Weers said went through 22 public hearings and well over 200 community meetings.

“We got our entitlements approved in 2015. It’s 2018, I’m still dealing with an appeal,” Weers said. “We had a process. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. Now we are changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

There are now “thousands of units caught up in these lawsuits and every single one of these projects went through the entitlements process,” he added.

Kirby Vining, treasurer of Friends of McMillan Park, an organization that has fought the McMillan project for many years, said he believes the proposed comp plan changes would give the Zoning Commission “carte blanche” to approve projects and eviscerate a community’s ability to appeal. The friends group has long argued that the city-owned McMillan — entitled for 1 million square feet of medical office space, more than 500 apartments, nearly 150 townhomes and a Harris Teeter — should be scaled back or reimagined as public open space.

“It removes all the checks and balances in the due process that the community has in working with developers,” said Vining, who plans to testify on Tuesday.

In addition to McMillan, appealed projects that have delayed or quashed by the courts include The Menkiti Group’s 901 Monroe St. NE in Brookland, Foulger-Pratt’s 370-unit Press House at Union District at 301 N St. NE, Kettler’s Market Terminal near Union Market, and Trammell Crow’s Central Armature Works redo.

‘Functional’ process

David Alpert, founder and president of Greater Greater Washington and an organizer of the D.C. Housing Priorities Coalition, said his group is pushing the city to change language in the comprehensive plan that will allow the “PUD process be able function well.”

Alpert’s coalition includes the support of organizations that, on occasion, do not see eye to eye — multiple developers like Menkiti, MRP Realty and Ditto Residential, numerous advisory neighborhood commissions, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and SEIU 32BJ.

“We want it to be able to function where the Zoning Commission can hear from the community, they can hear from the neighborhood advisory commission, it can determine what community benefits are possible in a project and then it can make a decision saying that the community benefits are sufficient to approve that project and have every project move forward,” Alpert said.

Alpert said the legal challenges have become so pervasive that many developers are no longer pursuing PUDs.

“They are building smaller projects. There are no community benefits,” he said. “There is less housing being created. There’s less affordable housing being created.”

He also said there needs to be clearer language in the comp plan about preserving and creating affordable housing.

“It’s possible to avoid displacement in a way that is in partnership with the development community,” he said.

Read the full story here.