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Developers Take Aim at the Comprehensive Plan in Arguments for Affordable Housing

Accompanying images can be viewed in the March 2017 issue pdf

 Stephen A. Hansen*

Under the guise of promoting affordable housing, some developers hope to remove protections for neighborhood densities designated in the DC Comprehensive Plan. The Plan is a key document that provides a framework for the city’s growth and development through Area Elements that outline development priorities for specific neighborhoods, and the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) that designates specific densities for residential and commercial areas. Under current DC regulations, the Zoning Commission must ensure that a project is “not inconsistent with” the Comprehensive Plan in terms of its designated neighborhood densities and land use map, and that it would not have an adverse impact on the public interest.

To bypass density limits established for neighborhoods in the Comprehensive Plan’s land use map, developers are turning to Planned Unit Development (“PUD”) projects. A PUD is a DC Zoning Commission action that permits a project to exceed to some extent “by-right” allowances for density for a site by offering to provide community benefits or amenities.

Last year, citizens appealed decisions in two zoning cases in which the Zoning Commission approved major PUD projects that neighbors argued were more dense than the Comprehensive Plan allowed. In a blow to developers, the DC Court of Appeals overturned the Zoning Commission’s approval of mixed-use PUD projects at 901 Monroe Street, NE (“Colonel Brooks” tavern) and at the McMillan Park project site on North Capitol Street.

 The court’s decision essentially killed the Colonel Brooks project. In the McMillan case, where the Vision McMillan Partners (VMP)’s project called for higher-density zoning than the Plan allowed, the court determined that while the Comprehensive Plan does not exclude any high-density development on the site, the Zoning Commission had failed to adequately address a number of adverse impacts that the project might have on the public interest, including the destabilization of land values and the displacement of neighboring residents.

 The Comprehensive Plan is currently being amended. Calling the Appeals Court decisions on Colonel Brooks and McMillan “a setback for housing in the District,” a coalition of DC-area developers and nonprofit organizations issued a housing and priorities statement for the Plan’s revision. While most of the statement’s 10 priorities advocate for affordable housing, one of them, “Clarify zoning authority,” calls to give the Zoning Commission the power to supersede the density levels in the Plan for PUD projects in exchange for “community benefits.” PUDs are already required to provide some type of community benefit or amenities, so this is simply a call to remove the Plan’s established limits on a PUD’s bonus density.

This far-reaching proposed change would give the Zoning Commission’s five unelected members the final word in the approval of major PUD projects and would preempt the ability of residents to legally challenge developments that do not adhere to the Plan’s land use map for their neighborhoods. It would benefit developers and potentially undermine the coalition’s other stated priorities for affordable housing, as increased building height and density in themselves do not guarantee more affordable housing and could actually threaten existing housing.

Such a measure as called for by this coalition of developers and organizations is not necessary to increase the amount of affordable housing. DC’s Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) program is designed to increase the amount of available affordable housing for working families earning 60 percent of the Area Median Income of $109,200 or $65,520 for a family of four.

In exchange for bonus density, IZ requires that eight to 10 percent of residential floor area in all new developments or any substantial addition to an existing development must be set aside as affordable units and rented or sold to low- and moderate-income households. If the justification to amend the Plan is to be able to increase density to provide for more affordable housing, developers can already do so through IZ.

Providing for affordable housing requires more than just bringing new units onto the market. According to a September 16, 2016 Washington Post article (“The rent is too high in big cities. This mayor has a plan to fix it”), from 2013 to 2015 the city’s boom in apartment construction added 37,267 new units, while 5,000 families teetered on the brink of homelessness at any time. But apartments that lower-income residents are living in or can now afford are being replaced by thousands of costly smaller, luxury units.

Yet the PUDs favored in the developer-backed proposal are virtually all for mixed-use buildings with only studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments. PUDs do little to supply what the District needs most — affordable family housing.

Access to affordable housing also requires protecting the existing housing stock in neighborhoods where residents own their homes or rent. PUD developments with higher densities than otherwise permitted in the Comprehensive Plan for specific neighborhoods could adversely affect existing homeowners who cannot afford higher taxes as the result of higher property values caused by increased density and are forced to leave. They can also cause a rise in neighborhood rents that only those with sufficient incomes can afford. As a result of a recent Zoning Commission ruling, developers can now request PUDs for lots as small as 5,000 square feet, leaving neighborhoods vulnerable to incompatible in-fill and re-development through the combination of as little as just two lots. This creates opportunities to scatter PUDs throughout our less dense and stable residential neighborhoods.

The bar is already very low for developers to qualify for a PUD. A developer need only promise to provide some form of public benefit of special value to the neighborhood or the city as a whole. Providing affordable housing as a PUD benefit is not a requirement. Promised benefits are arbitrary and can be for the building itself, the neighborhood, or somewhere off-site, and at times can also be quite trivial. For example, a green roof or other sustainable building practices may benefit the building’s residents, but it provides no actual community benefit.

Developers may also claim exceptional architectural design as a community benefit.

 In the Mt. Vernon neighborhood, at 9th and L Streets, NW, Capstone Development is currently building Columbia Place, a 570,000-square-foot, 12-story mixed-use PUD project. When completed, the $230 million development will include a 310-room Marriott Courtyard hotel, a 190-room Residence Inn, and 230 studios, one- and two-bedroom residential units to be offered at market rate — and no affordable housing units.

To meet the PUD public benefit requirements, Capstone went for off-site options and proffered to donate only $45,000 in financial contributions to be split between three local groups: $20,000 each to two nearby park friends groups and $5,000 to a local school for playground blocks.

To date, the city has not conducted a thorough study of PUDs, and it is unclear how effective PUD benefits are, or how many proffered benefits have actually ever been delivered.

Residents have a right to expect that their neighborhood’s character and future growth will be in keeping with the Comprehensive Plan. The Plan is a contract with citizens that spells out goals within a set of rules and procedures to reach those goals, including land use, development, and access to affordable housing. For the protection of current and future residents of the city, the Zoning Commission must continue to follow the Comprehensive Plan, and not vice versa.

* Stephen A. Hansen is Chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

[Editor’s note: Just as this article was being prepared for publication we received a press release from Ward 5 Councilmember and chair of the council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development Kenyan R. McDuffie that on March 7th he had introduced legislation to require the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development “to produce a biennial report studying the District’s need for 3, 4, and 5-bedroom apartment units in the District of Columbia — and to increase the amount of family-size units built with funds from the Housing Production Trust Fund.”]

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen All rights reserved.