Search Results for: "Housing Priorities Coalition"

Updates to the DC Comprehensive Plan Pass!

Updates to the DC Comprehensive Plan Pass!

Photo credit: Ted Eytan, Flickr

On May 18, after five years of advocacy and hard work, the DC Council voted unanimously to approve the amendments to the 2006 Comprehensive Plan. Thanks to all those who have taken action over these five years to convince the city to do more to address our acute need for affordable housing and more homes near transit.  

Working with a terrific group of partners in the Housing Priorities Coalition, with the DC Office of Planning, and with the Council, we fought for and helped create a much better document to guide the future of our city. The updated plan puts a priority on affordable housing, sets a goal of 15% for each part of the city, and highlights the opportunity in Ward 3, which today hosts just 1% of the city’s affordable housing stock.

The Future Land Use Map creates room to build more homes, especially near transit. This reduces pressure on existing housing, and helps those who should be able to be served by the market to find a place to live. At the same time, the plan also better addresses displacement of vulnerable residents. 

The update focuses on bringing racial equity into every land use decision we make. Recognizing that Black families in DC earn a third of what white families earn and have a median family income (MFI) at just 40% of the region’s MFI, the plan refocuses goals, policies, and spending priorities to meet the needs of these families. Until now, DC programs have too often focused on 80% of median family income. 

Donate to support our work!

We are eager to get on with implementation — ensuring the Council increases public funding for deeply affordable housing, creating local plans to guide neighborhood change, rezoning for more mixed-income housing near transit, and incorporation of racial equity assessments into Zoning Commission decisions. Then we’ll participate in the full rewrite of our Comp Plan, due to start in 2025. 

Thank you for your involvement and contribution to this success! With this milestone behind us, stay with us as we continue our work to build a more sustainable, equitable and vibrant DC.

RELEASE: Diverse group of housing supporters urges Chairman Mendelson & DC Council to pass the DC Comp Plan

RELEASE: Diverse group of housing supporters urges Chairman Mendelson & DC Council to pass the DC Comp Plan

Today, the Housing Priorities Coalition and allies urged the DC Council to pass the DC Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act. The letter cited the Comp Plan update as one of our most critical tools to address housing affordability, racial equity and a number of other challenges. The proposed legislation has been waiting for DC Council action since the Mayor submitted it in April 2020.

The Housing Priorities Coalition formed four years ago to help update the DC Comprehensive Plan, the land use policy that guides development decisions in the District.  Learn more here.

How we’re building a more equitable and sustainable region

February has arrived, and the CSG team is continuing to incorporate equity into our work. We spent the past week tuning in to Smart Growth America’s Equity Summit, which featured great speakers and leaders from across the smart growth and urbanism community, and we’re excited to continue building a more equitable smart growth movement for a more equitable and inclusive DC region. Be sure to check out the videos and recommended reading from the Summit when available!

Transit Equity Day

Transit Equity Day is this Thursday, February 4, celebrated on Rosa Parks’ birthday! We’re joining advocates across the U.S. and DC region to highlight both the progress and challenges in achieving equity through better, more accessible transit.

We’re co-sponsoring the national Labor Network for Sustainability’s Transit Equity Day with virtual public hearings on February 3 and 4.  

In VA, we’re co-hosting with the Sierra Club – Virginia Chapter a lunch and learn panel on February 4 at 12pm, featuring transit champions from NoVA, Richmond, Charlottesville, and Hampton Roads.

In DC, we’re cosponsoring #TranspoBINGO! The bingo card will be revealed at a virtual happy hour (RSVP here) on Feb 3rd at 8pm and the game will run Feb 4 to 11, with another virtual happy hour on Feb 11 at 6pm to announce winners. It’s a great chance to connect with fellow transit advocates! Tweet your progress using #TranspoBINGO. Learn more here.


Speaking of transit, Fairfax County continues public outreach for their Transit Strategic Plan, which is a county-wide review of bus service and a plan for future service. You can provide input here until February 19.

Meanwhile, Sonya is working across NoVA organizing and speaking up in support of inclusive and sustainable housing policies. Thanks to Alexandria residents and CSG supporters, the city passed a strong new accessory dwelling unit policy by a 6-1 vote last week! In Fairfax, Stewart and Sonya provided testimony to the Planning Commission in support of the county’s Workforce Dwelling Unit policy update and their zoning modernization (zMOD) updates to accessory living units. Both will go before the Board of Supervisors and needs your support. Arlington County extended the survey deadline to provide input on their Missing Middle Housing study to Feb 8, so there’s still time to support missing middle housing by filling out the survey!


Missing middle housing is also up for consideration in Montgomery County! The county is discussing missing middle as part of their Thrive2050 General Plan update, as well as Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) 20-07. The ZTA would allow missing middle housing on lots zoned for single family houses within a mile of Metro stations. To learn more, check out last week’s Montgomery for All meeting, hosted by Jane, with experts Lisa Govoni and Eli Spevak. The Council will hold a public hearing on the ZTA on Feb 11, so join the waitlist to testify or submit written testimony here

If you live in downtown Silver Spring, RSVP to a virtual meeting on Feb 9 at 7pm to learn more about the drafting of the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan, which will guide the area’s growth for the next 20 years.


The fight continues for passage of the Comprehensive Plan! Cheryl is working with the Housing Priorities Coalition to organize support from DC residents, including submitting a sign-on letter from residents to urge passage. The updated plan removes exclusionary language, requires the use of a racial-equity lens when making decisions, increases affordable housing supply and sets goals for equitable distribution of housing opportunities. It would also allow construction of over 1,000 affordable homes stalled by the Comp Plan’s delay. Click here to send an email to Council!

Cheryl is also continuing to work on expanding DC’s inclusionary zoning (IZ) regulations, or IZ+, which would require additional affordable homes in developments resulting from upzoning. Stay tuned for our event on IZ+ later in February. And ICYMI, we released the long-awaited ADU DC Homeowner’s Manual: How to Build an Accessory Apartment or Second Dwelling in the District of Columbia with United Planning Organization and Citi.


Transportation is our #1 source of emissions, but officials aren’t doing enough to reduce the amount we have to drive. Thanks to Bill, we won a vote at the Transportation Planning Board to require projects to be prioritized to reduce vehicles miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. But we’re seeing delays by staff and aren’t convinced some jurisdictions will do their part to select transportation projects that reduce emissions, so we sent a joint sign-on letter to every local government. Multiple CSG staff are also providing input to local government climate action plans under development in Virginia and Maryland.

Want to volunteer for CSG?


We’ve recently received several inquiries from supporters who are interested in volunteering their time to support CSG’s advocacy. If that describes you, please fill out this form to let us know how you’d like to help. Two key projects — local photography and monitoring local government meetings.

Thanks for all you do,

Stewart, Cheryl, Jane, Sonya, Emily, and Bill

Support DC Expanded Inclusionary Zoning

The DC Zoning Commission will hear the proposal for Expanded Inclusionary Zoning on Nov. 16, 2020 at 6:30pm.

Read our testimony in support of Expanded IZ:

You can read our preliminary support in July 2020 for this proposal: CSG’s testimony here, and our joint support with Housing Priorities Coalition testimony. View Expanded IZ Case No. 20-02 Zoning Commission hearing notice and case documents here.

Sign up to testify at the 11/16/20 hearing, 6:30pm, Case Number 20-02 here.

DC Comp Plan Testimony Workshop Materials

DC Comp Plan Testimony Workshop Materials

DC Housing Priorities Coalition provided a testimony workshop for the DC Comp Plan on October 27 in preparation of the DC Council hearing on the Comp Plan scheduled for Nov. 12 and 13, 2020.

YouTube Recording of 10/27/20 Testimony Workshop

What is the Comp Plan? Housing Priorities Coalition Presentation

CSG Model Letter to DC Council in Support of the Comp Plan

Greater Greater Washington Petition

Housing Priorities Coalition letter to DC Council in support of the Comp Plan, Sept. 30, 2020

Blog post by Greater Greater Washington: Here’s how you can weigh in to make sure the Comp Plan will help, not hurt, housing production in DC

HAND’s webpage on the Comp Plan

DC Comprehensive Plan webpage:

Expanded Inclusionary Zoning – learn about it and sign up to testify for the Nov. 16, 2020 hearing. Housing Priorities Coalition Testimony on Expanded IZ proposal by OP. View Expanded IZ case no. 20-02 Zoning Commission notice and case documents here. Sign up for 11/16/20 hearing, 6:30pm, case number 20-02 here.

ALERT: We won! Yesterday, the DC Council voted for a more inclusive city!

ALERT: We won! DC Comprehensive Plan will help build a more inclusive city!
Photo credit: BeyondDC on Flickr

Yesterday, Oct. 9, 2019, after many delays, the DC Council voted on the Framework Element of the Comprehensive Plan, the guiding document that will shape our city for years to come.

With your help, we fought for and won two key amendments. The first prioritizes preserving and building more affordable housing, and preventing the displacement of residents. The second fixes the broken review process for Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) so it can be predictable, while also prioritizing affordable housing and preventing displacement.

These changes go a long way towards making the District more inclusive!

Take a moment to thank the DC Council!

What happened? Over the last few months we partnered with other housing advocacy groups, sent alerts to you at key points, met with Councilmembers and staff, and explained the issues to the media. With your help we were able to win two critical amendments:

  1. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau’s amendment which helps address racial and social equity in DC by explicitly prioritizing affordable housing and prevention of displacement.
  2. An amendment removing exclusionary language which made preserving “physical and visual character” a dominating requirement in development review. This language was too similar to the type of planning language that has historically perpetuated housing segregation. The Council replaced it with language suggested by the DC Office of Planning, which we supported.

We thank Chairman Mendelson and the Council, who heard us and made the revisions we knew were critical to a better plan. Thanks to these changes, well-designed affordable housing and mixed-income housing proposals will be able to move forward again.

Please be sure to thank the DC Council!

We’re excited to get to work reviewing and supporting good projects. Meanwhile, the rest of the Comp Plan chapters will be coming forward soon. Look for more updates from the CSG team!

We hope you will stay involved, helping to shape land use and housing policies and decisions to ensure our city is a place where longtime residents can stay and thrive, and newcomers can find new opportunities.

Background to the critical Comprehensive Plan amendments 

The 2006 Comprehensive Plan focused too much on preserving the status quo rather than planning for a growing population and the need for more housing that is affordable to middle and lower-income residents. Opponents of new housing have used the 2006 Comprehensive Plan to delay thousands of new homes, and hundreds of new affordable homes — increasing rather than reducing displacement of longtime residents.

That’s why we developed dozens of amendments, and also partnered with other organizations to craft and submit numerous amendments to the Comprehensive Plan, provided testimony at the March 2018 hearing, and why you sent in hundreds of emails to the Council last year.

On July 10, 2019, the DC Council took a preliminary vote on the Framework Element of Comprehensive Plan bill proposed by Chairman Phil Mendelson. While the Chairman’s bill included a significant number of our amendments, as well as the Office of Planning’s amendments, the Chairman’s revised bill still fell short in addressing the need for more affordable housing.

As a result of strong advocacy to the Chairman and the Council by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, our active supporters, and our partners in the DC Housing Priorities Coalition, the DC Council voted for an amended Bill 23-1 on October 8, 2019. Amendments we won:

  • Specific guidance to prioritize affordable housing and preventing displacement in the Planned Unit Development (PUD) approval process (section 224.9).
  • Removal of exclusionary language about “physical and visual character” in the Planned Unit Development approval process, which would have made this “character” more important than any of our other values like preventing displacement and building more affordable housing. The Council supported alternative language recommended by DC Office of Planning, which we supported (section 227.2).

Learn more about the amendments in the CSG blog post: DC Office of Planning and advocates seek to change troubling provision in DC Comprehensive Plan bill

CSG in the News: Phil Mendelson added important affordable housing language to the Comp Plan, but some are trying to undo it

Phil Mendelson added important affordable housing language to the Comp Plan, but some are trying to undo it


…On October 2, Chairman Phil Mendelson’s latest draft of the plan’s Framework Element added language similar to those principles, especially around building and preserving affordable housing and protecting tenants in affordable housing when their properties undergo redevelopment. The chairman’s draft also centers the importance of, as DC grows, building in racial and economic equity, a credit to interventions by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) and Councilmember Trayon White (Ward 8).

The final vote on the Framework bill is on Tuesday, October 8, and last week, some opponents emerged to fight this language. We’re pushing for it to remain….

The Comp Plan Framework now borrows much of this language

Chairman Phil Mendelson’s latest draft of the Framework has…a lot of what the Housing Priorities Coalition proposed! (The final version will be released on Monday.)

Notably, it reflects an amendment introduced by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1) at the bill’s first reading. Advocacy by many of affordable housing groups who were part of the original coalition, like, DC Fiscal Policy Center, Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers, Enterprise Community Partners, Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, and Coalition for Smarter Growth emphasized the necessity of this sort of language, so it’s a win that Mendelson added more beyond what he had included in the version voted on at first reading.

Not everyone is happy with the new community benefits language. Attorney David Goldblatt of Goldblatt Martin Pozen LLP, which does lobbying and real estate transactions for large companies, wrote a letter on behalf of the DC Building Industry Association (DCBIA) asking to water down this language. Goldblatt said the changes were in the interests of the DC Housing Authority, though his letter says he’s not speaking for DCHA, just DCBIA.

It’s worth repeating that this language is only about benefits given in exchange for zoning flexibility as part of a PUD, like more density. It doesn’t impose any kind of unfunded requirement on property owners. What it does is say is that in exchange for more affordable housing or anti-displacement measures, you can build taller or bigger in proportion.

Affordable housing is really necessary. It’s also expensive. With more floors or larger buildings, it can become economically feasible to offer one-for-one replacement, “build first,” and other features that the city’s residents deserve when their homes are redeveloped.

Not all developers are supportive of this concept, but a lot are. Many think it’s a great idea to build more affordable housing and avoid displacing anyone, as long as they can design a project which does so and actually works economically. Sure, if people could build higher and didn’t have to build affordable units, that would be even more profitable, but public policy can ensure we get affordable housing, while projects still “pencil out.”

Right now, DC’s acute limits on new buildings directly prevent developers from paying for more affordable housing to avoid displacement. Some people from the development community, at least, would like to be part of the solution, and the proposed rule would let them.

The proposed Framework language takes a big step toward achieving what the Housing Priorities Coalition recommended. It’s not everything, because this language just applies to PUD benefits. There will be other opportunities to enact these and the rest of the coalition’s 10 principles in the rest of the Comp Plan. The Office of Planning will release its amendments to the rest of the document October 15, along with housing targets and map changes.

Read the full post here.

RELEASE: Affordable Housing Groups Praise Council Chairman’s Comprehensive Plan Bill

Press Release


Cheryl Cort, Coalition for Smarter Growth: 202-251-7516;
Courtney Battle, HAND: 202-384-3764; 

Affordable Housing Groups Praise Council Chairman’s Comprehensive Plan Bill

Washington, D.C. – October 3, 2019 –  Today a coalition of affordable housing stakeholders applaud critical revisions to the draft Comprehensive Plan released by DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. This transformative update incorporates three of the coalition’s priorities: ensuring the creation of affordable housing, preventing displacement, and addressing racial equity. The bill will get its final votes by the full Council next Tuesday, October 8

“We are gratified that the Comprehensive Plan bill offers the guidance our city needs to make affordable housing and preventing displacement top priorities. The bill also provides clarity to the development approval process, clearing the way for increasing affordable housing and other public benefits, along with community input as part of the negotiated process,” said Cheryl Cort, Coalition for Smarter Growth, a member of the DC Housing Priorities Coalition. 

The group pressed for the DC Council to amend its bill after the first vote on July 10, urging the body to adopt stronger language on how affordable housing would be prioritized in land use decisions. It appealed to zoning experts and the DC Office of Planning to work with the DC Council to ensure the development approval process (i.e. Planned Unit Developments), would achieve greater levels of housing affordability, tenant protections, and increased certainty. The group’s goal was to achieve more affordable housing and prevent displacement of existing residents, while reestablishing a more fruitful development review process. 

“We talk about the Framework elements as a “bill of rights” for District residents and communities,” said Melissa Bondi, Mid-Atlantic State & Local Policy Director for Enterprise Community Partners. “It is important that the current language reflects our values, including prioritizing resident protections, emphasizing greater housing affordability, and evolving our approaches to achieve a truly inclusive, equitable city.” 

“We thank Chairman Mendelson for amending the Comprehensive Plan bill to prioritize the creation of affordable housing and prevention of displacement, while also providing needed clarity to the development review process.  We particularly appreciate that the administration, the Council, and advocates were able to find common ground to facilitate a more equitable development process for the District,” said Steve Glaude, President and CEO of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED).

“The revised language provided by Chairman Mendelson will accomplish the goals we set – to elevate affordable housing and racial equity, and fix the broken project review process, said Heather Raspberry, Executive Director of the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers (HAND). “Creating and preserving more affordable housing throughout the District is the cornerstone to building an inclusive city where all of our neighbors have an opportunity to thrive. We appreciate the Chairman and Council’s thoughtful review of the Plan which will serve the city and surrounding region well.”

“Prioritizing affordable housing and the prevention of displacement in the Comprehensive Plan are two necessary steps our city must take in charting a path toward a more equitable future,” said Adam Kent, Senior Program Officer at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). “We look forward to working with the DC Council on the remaining elements of the Comprehensive Plan to ensure these priorities are maintained throughout.”


DC Housing Priorities Coalition

Who We Are

The DC Housing Priorities Coalition includes: Enterprise Community Partners, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED), Somerset Development Company, Coalition for Smarter Growth, Greater Greater Washington, United Planning Organization (UPO), Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers (HAND).

Why We Formed

The Housing Priorities Coalition formed three years ago to help update the DC Comprehensive Plan, the land use policy that guides development decisions in the District. (Learn more from DC Office of Planning on the DC Comprehensive Plan amendment process here). See the full Housing Priorities Coalition amendment package here. The Housing Priorities Coalition’s guiding principles for amending the DC Comprehensive Plan are: 

    • Meet the housing demand
    • Equitably distribute housing
    • Best utilize areas near transit
    • Include families: ensure homes for people of all income levels and of all household sizes, including families. 
    • Prioritize affordable housing as a community benefit
    • Preserve existing affordable housing
    • Protect tenants
    • Support neighborhood commercial corridors
    • Clarify zoning authority
    • Improve data collection and transparency

Why These Priorities:

Lack of affordable housing and risk of displacement are among the greatest challenges DC faces to achieving racial equity, quality of life for residents, and economic sustainability for all.

Low-income District residents, particularly residents of color, do not currently enjoy equal access to affordable housing connected to communities of opportunity, perpetuating a gaping racial equity gap.

The Planned Unit Development (PUD) process, which is an important way to produce new housing with substantial affordability, is now held up in constant court challenges resulting in thousands of stalled homes, including hundreds of affordable homes. Court challenges and rulings have relied heavily on narrow interpretations of the Comp Plan, so the proposed amendments help to clarify how the Zoning Commission should judge and prioritize PUDs. Such clarification is critical, because even the risk of lawsuits has dramatically reduced the use of PUDs for affordable and market-rate housing (ex: Park Morton public housing blocked due to Bruce Monroe PUD lawsuit). View the list of stalled projects published by Washington Business Journal here.


Planners, advocates seek to change troubling provision in DC Comprehensive Plan bill

Planners, advocates seek to change troubling provision in DC Comprehensive Plan bill

DC Office of Planning and advocates seek to change troubling provision in DC Comprehensive Plan bill

by Cheryl Cort & Stewart Schwartz, Coalition for Smarter Growth

On October 8 (postponed from September 17), after three years of discussion, the DC Council is poised to adopt a bill that sets the framework for the rest of the Comprehensive Plan. However, language inserted into the bill in July by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson would impose standards for the Zoning Commission’s review of Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) that would both block new affordable housing and increase displacement.

Housing advocates in the Housing Priorities Coalition have expressing alarm over the provision, while seeking to strengthen the plan’s commitments to affordable housing and displacement prevention. And this week, in a September 11 letter from the DC Office of Planning, Director Andrew Trueblood expressed concern that the Council bill’s language would create “a novel and ambiguous review standard,” that would lead to even more litigation.

Planned Unit Development is a flexible, participatory review process which has been all but halted in the District as a means for building new housing due to lawsuits. Clarifying the PUD approval process has been a goal of both affordable housing advocates and developers in the wake of thousands of housing units being stalled in lawsuits in the last few years. PUDs have been largely abandoned in favor of “by-right” development, meaning loss of opportunities to exchange flexibility and increased density for more affordable housing and other community benefits. Only three PUDs have been proposed in 2019, down from dozens per year in recent history.

The Office of Planning raised concerns about the previous PUD guidance in the Council’s version of bill before the first vote on July 10, 2019. At the same time, affordable housing and smart growth advocates have been urging for clarification of the PUD process so that we can create more housing and give high priority in PUDs to building and preserving more affordable housing, and preventing displacement.

Advocates cite the Bruce Monroe plan (now stalled in litigation) as an example of the benefits of PUDs where affordable housing is made a high priority in review and approval. At the core of the plan to replace all 174 homes for the deteriorating Park Morton public housing complex, is the nearby mixed income PUD for the Bruce Monroe site.

In July, Chairman Mendelson changed the guidance language, adding new standards, including requiring the Zoning Commission to determine if a PUD or Zoning Map Amendment “is generally compatible with the physical and visual character of the surrounding neighborhood.” As noted in previous posts, prioritizing physical form of neighborhoods — rather than its activity or its people — suggests that this factor is more important than other goals in the plan, like preserving and building more affordable housing, and preventing displacement of long-time residents.

This “physical and visual character” language raises the specter of exclusionary zoning according to affordable housing advocates, who note that this language is similar to planning language that has historically perpetuated housing segregation. Office of Planning’s September 11 letter recommends removing the exclusionary language and the other new standards created by Mendelson in the July version of the bill.

Affordable housing advocates are alerting their supporters to the potential exclusionary impact of the language. In addition to recommending adoption of the Office of Planning’s recommended language or its outright removal, the groups are also supporting Councilmember Brianne Nadeau’s proposed amendment for another section of the bill – which would make affordable housing and displacement prevention priorities in PUDs.

Andrew Trueblood’s letter says the Office of Planning looks forward to working with the Council committee to “make sure we get it right and avoid unintended consequences that would undermine the District’s ability to meet the needs of its residents, especially the need for affordable housing.”

On October 8, we’ll see if the DC Council adopts language to make the city more inclusive or more exclusive, and if they will adopt a predictable Planned Unit Development Process that places a priority on affordable housing as part of PUD approvals.

Click here for CSG’s action alert.

Photo credit: Ted Eytan, Flickr

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.
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