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A new West End Library is a good deal for DC

Last night, the DC Zoning Commission considered the proposed new West End Library and fire station development project. Despite broad support in the community, some activists now object to the plan because it doesn't contain as much affordable housing as hoped. But residents and the Zoning Commission should support this important project.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The project will rebuild the outdated West End Library and nearby fire station at no cost to the DC government, using the air rights of the public parcels combined with some private land. The new library will provide benefits to the community, including a café and public meeting spaces.

Retail and housing will fill out the block and help make the place a lively place to walk. In all, about 164 residential units will be built above a new library, and a new fire station will be built with housing above.

There is no government budget to replace these obsolete public facilities. If this mixed-use project doesn't move forward, there will be no new library and no new fire station. The decrepit buildings and parking lots will stay as they are.

In its Planned Unit Development (PUD) application, the developer has asked for an exception from Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) on the library site (but not the fire station site), along with several other exceptions which often happen in PUDs. IZ requires offering 8% of housing units to households earning 80% Area Median Income (AMI) or less.

The developer, Eastbanc, and the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) claim that the entire value of the development rights are being used to pay for the new library and fire station, and there's no additional subsidy left over for the IZ units on the library site or more affordable units on the fire station site.

Originally, the District had promised 52 affordable housing units for very low income households (at 60% AMI) above the fire station site, but DMPED doesn't appear to be offering the needed additional subsidy for this component.

This is a big disappointment. We would prefer to see the District provide the financing to create the 52 very affordable units above the fire station. That would be far more beneficial than simply following IZ. At this point, unfortunately, the proposal is to give the library development with the 164 units above an IZ waiver, and to build housing above the new fire station, including the IZ units required for that fire station parcel alone.

The question of how to deal with the shrinking footprint of affordable housing in this complicated public-private development deal is a hot topic. Chris Otten, an organizer with the DC Library Renaissance Project, sent an alert asking people to attend tonight's hearing and oppose the project because of the affordable housing exception request.

We think this is short-sighted, and dismisses the value of the new library and fire station as major public benefits. A good compromise would be to move the IZ units to the fire station site, if DMPED does not come through with the financing for the preferable 100% affordable project above the fire station.

The PUD process does allow for outstanding public benefits, like a new library, to enable relief from IZ standards. The DC Office of Planning has accepted this, calling the new library and fire station exceptional amenities that fulfill the PUD's standard for allowing relief to some zoning requirements. We think it's possible that IZ could be part of a feasible project at the fire station site, if the Zoning Commission presses for it.

Some DC activists are fundamentally opposed to public-private partnerships, which leverage private development to help pay for public benefits. We share the concern that the public land valuation process should be more transparent so we can ensure city residents are getting a good deal. But better utilizing scarce land with great public facilities, new housing, and commercial space should also be recognized for the benefit that it is.

DC lost the opportunity to build mixed-use libraries at Benning Road and Tenleytown, both of which offered affordable housing and other amenities. These projects would have used funds budgeted for renewed public facilities and private development rights. In the West End case, where there's no budget to fix the library, the public benefits couldn't be clearer. If we do not advance this mixed-use project, we keep the obsolete library and fire station and wait for the city to find the money to pay to replace them one day.

We also lose the benefits a mixed-use building offers: a café connected to the library and separate community meeting space that can be used outside of library hours. These features were sought by residents discussing other library projects, but were unrealized as all other libraries were rebuilt as single-use, stand-alone buildings. A mixed-use building also better utilizes precious city space with hundreds of new homes and shops, within walking distance of downtown.

This is the essence of the notion of public land for public good. Rather than building a small replacement library on a city-owned plot, let's take full advantage of the site and add housing (especially affordable housing), a café, and other community amenities. On future public land deals, the Gray Administration should continue to ensure that the full value of a city-owned site is used—to create exciting new public facilities, and to create new places to live and work, especially more affordable places for those with limited incomes.

We have an important opportunity to create a state-of-the-art public library and fire station, save the city tens of millions of dollars, and deliver added benefits through an innovative mixed-use building design. That's why we should support this innovative project. For more, read my testimony to the Zoning Commission in support of the project.

Cheryl Cort is Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She works with community activists, non-profit groups and government agencies to promote transit-oriented development, housing choices, economic development and pedestrian safety, especially in less affluent communities. 


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Good to see that the West End library might get an update. If the design falls short of approval, maybe the developers could go replace the homeless shelter full of books at 9th and G that smells like pee.

by Ronald on Jan 6, 2012 11:40 am • linkreport

Who would want to live above a fire station? Isn't that going to be really noisy?

by J.C. on Jan 6, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

New library is great -- but you got to keep the homeless out.

Does this parcel include the police station on the corner as well.

I thought the fire station was going to be a squash club -- although that idea sounded insane when I heard it.

by charlie on Jan 6, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

@JC "Who would want to live above a fire station? Isn't that going to be really noisy?"

Good observation. It'll be affordable housing ... the old fashioned way.

Instead of stealing from Peter to subsidize a token Paul, we'll have sustainable affordable housing that doesn't depend on Peter having to default on his student loans so that he too can live in a diverse city. It's a much fairer way all around of achieving economic diversity.

by Lance on Jan 6, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

The city is not a real estate broker. Developers should be able to build on property that is already private.

City council - successfully captured.

-Still dubious about 'smart growth'

by Jazzy on Jan 6, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport

@JC "Who would want to live above a fire station? Isn't that going to be really noisy?"

You should visit Chicago, where an apartment on the north side could be 3' from the El tracks--literally a train outside your window every 10-15 minutes--and the rent discount is practically nothing.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 1:32 pm • linkreport

"The city" doesn't do anything. The city government is an elected body that has the right to curtail property rights within reason. That's why we elect them. They represent us.

by oboe on Jan 6, 2012 1:42 pm • linkreport

You should visit Chicago, where an apartment on the north side could be 3' from the El tracks--literally a train outside your window every 10-15 minutes--and the rent discount is practically nothing.

Reminds me of the Blues Brothers:

by Alex B. on Jan 6, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

I'm sure it's not that much worse living above a fire station as opposed to living anywhere in the immediate vicinity. The sirens are likely to be the biggest problem, but one that nobody can very easily avoid. The firehouse crews may potentially make more noise throughout the course of their normal duties, but I'm sure there are way to buffer the area between the housing and the firehouse. Storage and mechanical areas are perfect for that.

by Adam L on Jan 6, 2012 1:57 pm • linkreport

"Developers should be able to build on property that is already private."

They are. So what? What does that have to do with the city selling unused property, in this case the air above two public buildings?

This projects has been through two separate RFP processes. The city is getting the best deal it can from a developer with a pretty solid reputation. Are you arguing that the city should not selling unused assets because there's just too much of a risk that the city's getting screwed?

by TM on Jan 6, 2012 5:28 pm • linkreport

Fire stations can be perfectly fine neighbors. I live in a 2nd floor walk-up right across the street from a fire station and the noise -- other than a PA speaker in the courtyard on warm days -- is essentially nil. My boyfriend lives 8 floors up on Wisconsin Avenue, nowhere near a fire station as far as I know, and the street noise, including trucks, buses, and drunk frat boys in addition to the occasional siren, is a constant annoyance.

by jimble on Jan 6, 2012 5:48 pm • linkreport

Ms. Cort's naive repetition of EastBanc's "The project will rebuild the outdated West End Library and nearby fire station at no cost to the DC government.." just doesn't cut it.

As part of a land disposition agreement--that transfers all three parcels of West End public property along with their exceptional development and air rights to EastBanc--the developer is legally obligated to provide the District with a new fire station and a new library.

No matter how desperately the developer (and all of the "community supporters" and outside advocates like Ms. Cort) wants to double count them as such, these are not "amenities"--their provision by EastBanc is the "pro quo" requirement for DC's "quid" of an obscenely valuable amount of unencumbered public property.

Contrary to Ms. Court's narrative, EastBanc never considered nor publicly claimed that it would fulfill the affordable housing requirement on the WE Library site. EastBanc's plan was always to build the affordable housing, the only meaningful "amenity" in this project, over the fire station.

EastBanc is now reneging on even that one remaining part of its bargain and claiming the need for even more taxpayer-funded subsidies. When asked by the ZC what would happen without subsidies, EastBanc had no hesitation in saying it would build market-rate housing on its new fire station property.

Further, one of the Zoning Commission members asked EastBanc how it could, in all good faith, count the library as anything other than an additional benefit that would increase the value of its residential project.

This is nothing more nor less than tax dollars going to underwrite deals for developers. We pay them to develop a project and then they get to keep the proceeds. Smart growth, indeed!

by Anonymous on Jan 6, 2012 7:27 pm • linkreport

Quite frankly, anonymous NIMBY-person, I couldn't care less about any supposed community amenities in the project. If the developer wanted to build 100% luxury housing on the libarry, that would be fine by me. You've got to look at the big picture - rabid NIMBY opposition to this and other transit-oriented, infill development will hinder smart growth and further push developers out to the periphery of the region to do their bidding, resulting in auto-dependent sprawl and irreversible loss of forest and farmland. tax dollars are already used to help developers in droves (new roads, infrastructure, schools, etc) out in the exurbs, so even in your worst-case scenarion, I'm still in favor of the project.

by MrTinDC on Jan 6, 2012 10:04 pm • linkreport


[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

It's about the City gifting a private developer with extremely valuable public assets, additional subsidies and ultimately paying two to three times what this project should actually cost the taxpayer.

The only other developer that responded to the RFP on this project was prepared to build the library and residences, including affordable housing, with NO subsidies.

I'm all for infill development. I'm just not in favor of welfare for developers.

by Anonymous on Jan 7, 2012 10:08 am • linkreport

What subsidy is East Banc receiving other than the value of the land? Is there a single penny in taxes money being paid?

by Adam L on Jan 7, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

Otten is also leading the small group of folks opposed to the Adams Morgan hotel despite the increased tax revenue and other community benefits offered by that project. Address their demands and they'll find new, less rational ones. It appears to me that ego and ideology drive their protest rather than genuine concern for the longterm wellbeing of the District and her citizens. Their disregard of the benefits offered by this project is particularly egregious and common sense dictates that city officials ignore them.

by D on Jan 9, 2012 12:02 am • linkreport

After the last Eastbanc proposal was shot down, many of us who had opposed that deal - and fought against it - decided to do things in a more transparent fashion.

We participated in community visioning sessions and charettes to determine community needs. Scores of citizens participated. The events were organized by the Foggy Bottom ANC and Foggy Bottom Citizens' Assocaition.

I was in a group that spent a full year working with Friends of West End Library, looking into matters as diverse as core collection, children's services, and how to deal with the homeless. We looked at best practices and structures, from Shirlington to Rancho Mirage. Based on that, we assembled a report and wish list for a new library.

We also toured the Fire Station, and saw an outdated structure beset with electrical, plumbing, drainage, mold, and sanitation problems. Most troubling, however, was the fact that this station provides primary coverage for Marine One at the White House, and yet the station is too small to house newer equipment purchased by the feds for that coverage. I was told by the Chief that the new equipment (I think he mentioned a foam truck) was being housed somewhere on Georgia Avenue.

That's my fire station, folks, and if there was a new station, that new equipment would be available to fight a fire in my building. Right now, it's not. It's miles away.

Eastbanc worked closely with the Library project and the visioning project. Toll Brothers, the other bidder, did not. (Full disclosure: George Toll was Executive Director of my college fraternity and a good friend for many years.)
Both developers made good offers, but our ANC preferred Eastbanc - which we felt was a better fit for the neighborhood needs.

Asher Corson, who was then Chair of the Foggy Bottom ANC, expressed the sentiment of many of us when he said he wasn't willing to wait until 2017 or later for a new library and firehouse. And because of the politics here, that's the reality. Either someone builds it for us, or we wait for years.

Is it just me, or is there some irony that someone from the "Library Renaissance Project" was busy drumming up opposition (including out of town Occupy DC folks) to override people who actually live in the neighborhood and DENY us a new library and firehouse that we have already vetted and desperately want?

Does the Library Renaissance Project actually oppose this plan for a new West End Library, or is Mr Otten doing this on his own?

NIMBY's are one thing. But perhaps the most distressing group of people are those who "swoop and poop" at the last minute. When citizens spend months and even years to put something together in an open process, it is infuriating when somebody who never took part in that process comes by at the last minute, swoops in and poops all over it. I feel like Mr Otten has swooped in and pooped all over the people who actually live in Foggy Bottom, the West End, and Dupont Circle.

by Mike S. on Jan 9, 2012 9:28 am • linkreport

Does the Library Renaissance Project actually oppose this plan for a new West End Library, or is Mr Otten doing this on his own?

From what you say, you have been intimately involved in this project, after initially opposing it the first go round.

Why would you ask this question? How would you not know?

by Jazzy on Jan 9, 2012 10:08 am • linkreport

I have been recovering from a recent illness was very much out of the loop the last part of December and early January. When I heard about the hearing, I wanted to testify, but didn't feel strong enough.

I participated in the charettes, library visioning project, etc when I was asked to volunteer. I also participated at the ANC level. That was the limit to my involvement, in helping ascertain the community's wants and needs.

As to "why would you ask this question," the answer is obvious. I'd like to know. People often wear two hats, and that's perfectly fine. When you belong to a group, you don't give up your personal beliefs. The former head of one well-known community group was often at odds with her Board of Directors and took pains to make it clear to District agencies that the views she expressed when testifying were hers and not that of her group. That's admirable.

Ralph Nader - who funds the Library Renaissance Group - has a political agenda that is certainly unfriendly to many developers. Here is a case where a developer is offering a library and fire station to a neighborhood in exchange for air rights to publicly owned space and other concessions.

I just want to know if Mr Otten was acting on his own - or with the imprimatur of Mr Nader's group. And I don't know because I don't know Mr Otten, he doesn't live in my neighborhood, and it hasn't been made clear in any of the articles that I've read.

by Mike S. on Jan 9, 2012 11:31 am • linkreport

Mike S.,
I would love to see a new library built with housing above it. Now that there are two grocery stores and a movie theater, the West End is actually becoming a mixed-use neighborhood, and that's great.
Accusing people of being NIMBYs about another apartment building is kind of silly. Look around the neighborhood - that's what's here.
Instead of using ad hominems, please address the actual issue. If the city of DC does not require the full amount of affordable housing, we will be giving taxpayer land to a private developer without adequate compensation. Property is finite. We will not and cannot get it back. We are selling our property for a "new" library which will be old in 20 years.
Mixed-income housing is great for the neighborhood, and continues to provide returns to the city. It should be required of any publicly-granted land projects, but especially this one. Eastbanc's reputation is far from beyond repute. They tried to skirt the RFP process once and they have City Council in their pockets.

(Disclaimer, since you have issues with outsiders: I live in your neighborhood. I live southwest of Dupont Circle. Although I attended the original "outrage" meeting against Jack Evans and Eastbanc's no-bid RFP three years ago, and I do follow local politics to some extent, I have not heard of these Foggy Bottom Assoc meetings nor did I sit in on the ANC meetings since I do not live in Foggy Bottom. However, I am about 5 blocks from the West End Library, and have as much stake as you do.)

by Charles on Jan 9, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport


I did NOT accuse anyone of being NIMBY's. I DID accuse them of swooping and pooping.....of coming in at the last minute and dumping on the work that others took years to complete.

The folks of Foggy Bottom spent a couple of years trying to get this right, and did so at a time the economy tanked and the real estate market went south.

Everybody wanted more mixed and moderate income housing and IZ, but the economics of the market - and the project - changed since 2008.

My original post may have been a bit intemperate, but it expressed the frustration of having seen so many people work so long on a project and then have people come in at the last minute to derail it.

Please understand, Charles, that the folks in Foggy Bottom have been fighting a war against GW for years to keep their neighborhood alive despite the endless appetite of the University. They WANT AND DEMAND apartment housing. They want more people in their neighborhood, which is certainly a walkable neighborhood. They want more restaurants and shops, and know that the only way to get them is to have more people living there to support those restaurants and shops.

They also want a new fire house and new library. They made those wants and demands clear in neighborhood visioning sessions. The District is not going to build either in the foreseeable future.

The people in the neighborhood have spent years fashioning a plan that would provide a new library and a desperately needed new firehouse. Those are certainly important amenities, especially since the firehouse will actually enhance our safety by allowing bigger and better equipment to be housed there.

Do you at least understand the frustration of people who volunteer months and years of their time on a project to enhance their neighborhood only to see others who did not participate coming in at the last moment to oppose the project? Especially when one of those enhancements is a library, and one of the main opponents is from a group that is called the Library Renaissance Project?

by Mike S. on Jan 9, 2012 2:55 pm • linkreport


And to answer your main question directly, a new library and a new firehouse are certainly neighborhood amenities, and provide greater benefits to existing neighbors than changing the mix of housing.

The elected ANC Commissioners in both Foggy Bottom and Dupont who backed the Eastbanc proposal believed these amenities provided adequate compensation.

Not all compensation must be low income housing. There should be flexibility to allow for other amenities to improve the livability of a city.

by Mike S. on Jan 9, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport

+1 to Mike S.

by Joel on Jan 9, 2012 3:26 pm • linkreport

I agree that the Library Renaissance Project should have gotten more intimately involved earlier on if it wanted to have more of a voice. It's counterproductive (especially since they did such a good job generating turnout for the meeting when this was first proposed - they should have used that as an entry into the process like FBA and the ANC did).
However, I don't agree with your assertion that a redone library and fire station are more useful than giving people homes. At least we've addressed our disagreement. The FBA and ANCs tend to agree with you, but that is creating a city that is hostile to the vulnerable and (more importantly) sharply divided along income lines. I think that is making us a worse city, both morally and practically for me and for those who are discriminated against.

by Charles on Jan 9, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport

We actually agree on more things than we disagree on. I agree that the city has become - as you say - hostile to the vulnerable.

The reality here was that the original offer was for the full complement of housing, a library, and a fire station. I was among those who fought that offer because of the way it came about.

But since then, the housing market has tanked and the developer claimed they could now only tp offer two of the three. We in the community had a choice and we took the library and fire house - with a reduction in the housing component.

We've known this for two years, so this was no last minute squeeze by the developer. And we all know that the economy has changed radically since they made their original offer. Whether their current offer is fair is a matter where good people can honestly disagree.

As to the fire station, the primary function of government is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. That's why we have police and fire departments. And a new station - that allows them to bring in bigger, newer, and more effective fire fighting equipment would seem to be of primary importance. If you don't think that's important, I think you find yourself in a very small minority.

Thanks for a respectful and civil conversation.

by Mike S. on Jan 9, 2012 4:52 pm • linkreport

Chris Otten once tried to manipulate my opinion when he asked for input on the Mount Pleasant Library, because he didn't agree with what I had to say. It's like taking a poll (presumably, anonymously) and then calling (in my case, emailing) the responder to convince them to vote for the other guy. Otten is rotten.

by SG on Jan 10, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

"I agree that the Library Renaissance Project should have gotten more intimately involved earlier on if it wanted to have more of a voice."

Actually, Charles, DC Library Renaissance Project co-sponsored the Community Visioning sessions in the Spring of 2008 along with the Foggy Bottom Association and has remained quite involved since then.

Unfortunately, the city (aka DMPED in this instance) never responded to the final report's request for a real needs assessment in the Foggy Bottom/West End neighborhood regarding our public property. It simply recrafted its request for bids to preclude anything other than EastBanc's proposal (only one other developer replied--with financing in place, IZ, condos and retail--and did not want to include the fire station site) and has been stonewalling DCLRP since.

Another recommendation from the Visioning Report that DMPED ignored was to seek a grant or funding partnership with the Federal government--something that is still eminently doable--since Engine Company #1 services the White House.

In the meantime, thanks to the 2007-2008 efforts of DCLRP, FBA representatives, other community members and former CM Carol Schwartz, Engine Co. Number 1 has been refurbished and upgraded.

It's hard to take seriously the "support" for this project from groups like the West End Library Friends, when an EastBanc representative sat on its "stakeholders committee" from the outset of WELF's involvement in the project.

It's even harder to believe that WELF and other unwavering EastBanc advocates can seriously support the developer's claim that it's going to cost $10 million to "build" a new library.

At three to five times what it should be costing the city, and a growing opposition from nearby neighbors to the scale of the project, this is a bad deal all around for taxpayers and residents and needs to be denied and rethought.

by Anonymous on Jan 12, 2012 1:15 am • linkreport

DC Zoning Commission wants evidence as to why EastBanc deserves to get out of required affordable housing promises

On Thursday, January 5, local DC activists, community groups, and Occupiers attended a hearing with regard to the West End parcels deal. See details of the deal here >>

See video of the hearing was before the DC Zoning Commission (ZC) here >>

Ultimately, the multinational corporate developers are asking the ZC to waive promised requirements to build 52 units of affordable housing as part of the overall project.

The Deputy Mayor's Office of Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) has already let these corporate developers wiggle out of other promises, like providing interim services to public facilities while they construct their 175 million-dollar condos. Plus, DMPED has undervalued the public land at play in this deal offering the corporate developers nearly half the price of the comparable rates of surrounding land and air rights (see the DMPED Appraisal of the public land in play).

* See DMPED website here >>

*Complete details of the legislation, terms sheet, land appraisals, and fiscal impacts can be found here >>

If this deal is approved, the City will give up three public parcels of land and the air rights (public library, public police station, and public fire station) worth anywhere between 30 to 60 million dollars to this multinational developer. In return the developer is supposed to build a new library and fire station, but who knows, as they also promised to build affordable housing but now don't want to provide that.

The Zoning Commission will meet to decide in early February to determine if the developer has proven they deserve to be get a waiver from their affordable housing promises.

* Why is ok that the public land is being undervalued so much at $91 per square foot/ FAR when neighborhood comparable properties are anywhere between $150 to $180 sq. foot/FAR on the open market?
* Why is ok that the developer bid on an RFP requiring affordable housing (52 units) and interim library and fire station services, but somehow is getting out of these RFP expectations?

by Chris Otten on Jan 13, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

In my prior post, we really wanted to pose my questions to the community this way >>

* Why is it ok that the public land is being undervalued so much at $91 per square foot/ FAR when neighborhood comparable properties are anywhere between $150 to $180 sq. foot/FAR on the open market?
* Why is it ok that the developer bid on an RFP requiring affordable housing (52 units) and interim library and fire station services, but somehow is getting out of these RFP expectations?

by Chris Otten on Jan 15, 2012 2:52 pm • linkreport

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