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Posts about Anti Neighbors


Adams Morgan could get more housing and preserve its plaza, too. But it probably won't.

Some Adams Morgan leaders have said "no" once again to a proposal to replace an ugly 1970s bank building at the corner of 18th and Columbia. Redevelopment would destroy what's now a plaza, but does it have to? If neighbors got over some "height-itis," maybe not.

April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

For most of this year, controversy has swirled around proposals from PN Hoffman to redevelop what's now a two-story SunTrust bank building dating to 1973 and a brick plaza. Hoffman's initial proposal left a much smaller (but more attractively landscaped) plaza at the corner. Opposition was immediate, and took two forms.

Some people, like the "Save Our Plaza" group, focused most on the plaza itself. The place has some history involving the neighborhood's past efforts to push for fair lending to low-income homebuyers from the Perpetual Federal Savings bank, which used to use the building. Others simply feel that an open gathering space at Adams Morgan's central corner is a worthwhile part of the urban environment.

The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Others, like Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A zoning committee chair JonMarc Buffa, focus opposition mostly on the size of the proposed building. Much of the 18th Street strip is three stories high, while this building would have been six or seven to the cornice line (plus a set back penthouse).

There are buildings of similar height in the immediate area, but many people including HPRB member, architect, and stalwart opponent of height (except on his own buildings) Graham Davidson said it was too tall and too massive.

September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

Many others, like the commenters on this Borderstan article, argue that Adams Morgan could benefit from more residents (helping neighborhood retail besides bars and late-night pizza places thrive), that DC needs housing, and besides, this is private property.

Open space isn't a bad thing, but neither are buildings. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

How about a plaza AND new housing?

While this is indeed private property (though the city's historic preservation process has wide latitude to control what's built), there's some merit to the argument that in a well-planned Adams Morgan, it would still be good to have a plaza here.

My neighborhood has a large circular park right at the Metro station. Even though it takes a lot of land away from being used for needed housing, it's a terrific amenity and I wouldn't want it developed.

However, that doesn't mean I want to keep people out of the neighborhood, either. I support building more housing on other sites and would support taller buildings around the circle where they are low.

What is the priority for Adams Morgan residents? If the plaza is the most important thing, they could propose that instead of shrinking the building, PN Hoffman makes it even taller, but in exchange leaves more of the site open. Or want to minimize height? Then the plaza, which is not public land, probably has to go.

Site plan showing the current building.

I'd go with more height and more plaza space if possible. Tall buildings at prominent corners are actually a defining feature of DC (to the extent any DC building is "tall") and other cities. This marquee corner would be a great spot for something really dramatic that could anchor and characterize Adams Morgan. All of the proposals were architecturally conservative, and have gotten even more so in subsequent revisions. This is why DC has a reputation for boring architecture.

The best vehicle for such an arrangement would be what's called a Planned Unit Development. It's a more involved process that gives a developer more zoning latitude in exchange for benefits to a community. Hoffman hadn't been pursuing a PUD, perhaps hoping for a quicker turnaround in the process, but if neighbors agreed to support something with more density and more plaza space, it would reduce the uncertainty of doing a PUD and open up possibilities for a better project.

I don't want to represent that something is possible that might not be: I haven't talked to PN Hoffman about this possibility. Making a building taller adds construction cost; I'm not privy to the dynamics of their deal to control the land. But in most projects, there is some opportunity for give and take if neighbors really were willing to prioritize asking for one thing and being more flexible on another.

Not a lot of activity. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And let's not kid ourselves—this plaza is nothing special. It's hosted a farmer's market, but Hoffman has said they'd work to relocate it to another large expanse of sidewalk right across the intersection. For most people walking through Adams Morgan, this spot is just the ugly dead zone in between the interesting commercial strips in various directions.

A smaller but well-designed plaza could be more useful. A larger AND well-designed one could be even better, and potentially even feasible if height weren't such a bugaboo.

Unfortunately, area activists don't seem likely to suggest a taller building and a better plaza. Instead, the Save Our Plaza people seem almost as angry about the number of feet proposed for the building; their petition actually mentions the height first, before the plaza.

A more detailed plan could help

The DC Office of Planning created a vision plan for the neighborhood last year, and it in fact cites the plaza as something to hopefully preserve. But there was no official policy change to protect it, nor did that plan consider offsetting zoning changes to add more housing elsewhere in the neighborhood. The plan had good uncontroversial ideas (better wayfinding, more green roofs, public art) but doesn't actually determine where new housing can go.

The zoning for this site allows a building atop the plaza. Historic preservation is almost wholly discretionary and the preservation board doesn't publish detailed written decisions, making it impossible to know what is and isn't acceptable.

If DC's practice was to devise more concrete plans, we could imagine having a clear vision that lays out how much housing DC needs, what proportion of that would be fair to allocate to Adams Morgan, and a strategy for where to put it and where not to. The zoning could then match this vision instead of bearing at best a passing resemblance.

Instead, it seems that the only thing that would satisfy Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C is virtually no change at all. That's not reasonable; the city is growing, and so should Adams Morgan's core. But neighborhood leaders can think through how they'd best accommodate that change, and the government could help. And maybe this site could still have a better building and a plaza at the same time.


"Ludicrous" ruling could delay or scuttle the Purple Line

Just four days before Maryland was set to sign a key agreement to build the Purple Line, a federal judge blocked the project, saying declining Metro ridership requires re-studying all of the projections for the light rail line from Bethesda to New Carrollton (which will not be built or operated by WMATA).

This would destroy the environment, right? Image from the State of Maryland. (Governor Hogan has cut the grass tracks and many trees from the plan to save money, in an ironic turn for Purple Line opponents who supported him.)

The decision, from US District Court judge Richard Leon, says that the federal government "arbitrarily and capriciously" violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by deeming it unnecessary to do another, supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

Saving the environment, or protecting an exclusive enclave?

The EIS is the way federal law ensures that public works don't harm the environment, or at the very least, that the government analyze their environmental effect. It's an important way to be sure the environment isn't ignored (and that low-income areas don't bear all the brunt of environmental harm), but it's been widely misused as a way for wealthy communities with lots of legal resources to block projects.

Nobody seriously believes that saving the environment is the goal of the wealthy plaintiffs, most of whom are from the Town of Chevy Chase and who have been fighting the project in the courts and in the political sphere for many years. The Purple Line will run along the edge of the town, in an old railroad right-of-way that is now the unpaved Georgetown Branch Trail and will be part of a forthcoming Capital Crescent Trail extension.

The trail will remain, next to the Purple Line, but in a less forested setting. It will, however, finally connect to Silver Spring, making it usable for far more Montgomery County residents than today. That's not a boon to the few wealthy homeowners who have monopolized this transportation-dedicated land for their own semi-private use.

They have, however, repeatedly cast about for environmental excuses to block the project. For a while, that was the Hays Spring Amphipod, an endangered species of tiny, sightless crustacean found only in Rock Creek in the District. Chevy Chase opponents paid a researcher to try to find evidence of the amphipod near the Purple Line's proposed route in hopes that would stymie the line, but to no avail.

Now, they seem to have hit on an argument that worked at least with one judge: that Metro's woes mean the Purple Line, which will connect four branches of the Metro, won't get as many riders. The EIS uses ridership projections to justify the line, including why it should be light rail as opposed to the "bus rapid transit" that Town of Chevy Chase opponents have pushed for (since a bus wouldn't go through their town). About a quarter of the Purple Line's riders are expected to transfer to or from Metro.

Image by Peter Dovak and David Alpert.

Metro is suffering. That doesn't make the Purple Line a bad idea.

Metro ridership has been declining for the last few years thanks in large part to the system's maintenance, safety, and reliability problems. This, the Purple Line opponents argue, calls into question the calculations in the EIS. Leon bought that argument.

The federal government said that Metro ridership isn't sufficiently connected to the Purple Line. Metro won't operate the Purple Line and it uses different technology (light rail versus heavy rail), so there's no reason to believe the Purple Line would have similar maintenance problems. But Leon said Metro's dropping ridership still counts as a "substantial change[] in the proposed action that [is] relevant to environmental concerns" and that dismissing the issue is "arbitrary and capricious" on the agency's part.

This is, as AU Law professor Tony Varona put it, "absurd." Once could as easily, and perhaps more credibly, argue that Metro's struggles will get more people riding the Purple Line as an alternative to Metrorail.

Regardless, the judge is impermissibly substituting his own judgment for experts' when he decided that Metro missteps create a "substantial change." Ben Ross said, "Metro's current problems will have absolutely no impact on a forecast of 2040 ridership made by FTA-approved models. FTA regulations require that the models must be based on COG demographics and the transportation network in the [Constrained Long-Range Plan]." The FTA also argued that Metro should have its problems under control by 2022, and even if the judge thinks otherwise from what he hears at cocktail parties and in the media, that's not a basis for a legal decision.

Finally, even if ridership will drop, the Purple Line will not harm the environment. Quite the contrary, it will move many people from cars to a more efficient, lower-polluting mode of travel, and likely reduce congestion as well. There's no serious argument that this ridership change could harm the environment, and protecting the environment is the purpose of NEPA.

Transit gets held to an unreasonable standard

Sadly, too often, road projects sail through NEPA while transit has to repeatedly justify its value. Some of this is because people used to believe new road projects relieved traffic, and people driving faster pollute less. This is false; instead, new highway capacity induces some driving demand, increasing the total amount of driving and thus pollution.

That hasn't stopped people from (mis)using NEPA and other laws, like California's even tougher CEQA, to block anything that inconveniences drivers. In San Francisco, a judge held up the city's bike plan for four years because bike foes argued that lanes would add to traffic and thus pollution; they similarly tried to stop the city from charging at parking meters on Sundays under a similar chain of reasoning.

Maryland will appeal the ruling, and hopefully the DC Circuit will quickly reverse Judge Leon's ridiculous ruling. The delay will surely cost money; if it's enough to derail the line is yet to be seen, though certainly what the plaintiffs hope.

If the appeals court doesn't smack Leon down rapidly, it seems someone could sue in DC District Court to overturn every single EIS for a road anywhere. After all, it's not just Metro whose ridership projections have fallen; the government has over-estimated the amount of driving nationwide for at least a decade.

Image from Transportation For America.

While flat VMT does counsel against adding or widening highways, it wouldn't mean Leon ought to block every road on this basis. It'd be interesting to see what he'd do if someone tried, though.


Nobody wants these school buses in their backyard. But moving them is worth it.

Montgomery County wants to move a school bus lot away from the Shady Grove Metro station to make room for new houses there, but residents of other neighborhoods don't want the buses in their backyards. But the move is worth it if it means more people can live walking distance to the train.

The Shady Grove bus depot across from new townhouses being built. All photos by the author.

This week, the Montgomery County Council could vote not to sell off a school bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville, next to the Shady Grove station. Montgomery County Public Schools has outgrown the lot, and the county wants to move it to make room for a new neighborhood around the Metro station that would have 700 new homes, parks, a school, and a library.

The move is part of a decade-long effort that County Executive Ike Leggett calls the Smart Growth Initiative. Until recently, the Shady Grove Metro station was surrounded by government warehouses and depots storing everything from Ride On buses to school cafeteria food. The county's been able to move nearly all of the facilities, many of them to a new site in Montgomery Village. In their place, construction has already begun on an adjacent, 1500-home neighborhood, called Westside at Shady Grove.

The school bus depot needs to stay near Rockville, since its 400 buses serve schools in that area. But neighbors fought attempts to move the buses to a nearby school, an empty parking lot at the school system headquarters, and a gravel lot in a historically-black, working-class neighborhood. At each location, neighbors have raised concerns about traffic, pollution, or reduced property values.

Naturally, councilmembers are nervous about proposing to move the buses anywhere else. Councilmember Marc Elrich has suggested that the best option may be to keep the buses where they are.

But even if the depot stays, the county still has to find more space to store buses. And in an urbanizing county, those buses are likely to go in somebody's backyard.

Councilmember Craig Rice notes that there are already school bus depots next to houses in Glenmont and Clarksburg, and those residents haven't had any problems with them.

Jamison Adcock, one of the bus lot opponents, told me on Twitter that existing communities' needs should come first. But what about people who want to live here but can't afford to because there aren't enough homes to meet the demand, driving up house prices? Or what about people who either can't or don't drive and would like to live near a Metro station? The county is responsible for their needs too.

Moving the bus depot has serious benefits for the county and the people who could live on that land. There are only thirteen Metro stations in or next to Montgomery County, and they represent some of the most valuable land around. We know that lots of people want to live near a Metro station, and that people who already do are way more likely to use transit and have lower transportation costs.

It's increasingly expensive to live near Metro because the demand outstrips the supply of homes near Metro stations. So if the county's going to build new homes, we should prioritize putting them there.

This is a better use of land next to a Metro station than a bus lot.

Meanwhile, there are roads all over the county, and the trucks that carry things to and from the county's warehouses can go pretty much anywhere there's a road. That's why ten years ago, county leaders decided that it made more sense to put homes near the Metro, and warehouses and bus depots somewhere else.

That won't make everybody happy, but it's the right thing to do.


A big development in Woodley Park may spark DC's next housing battle

The Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park is set to get a major influx of new housing. Washington Post reporter Jonathan O'Connell pegs the project as the next big development battle in the District, and he's not sure the opposition will be justified.

Map of the proposed new building. Courtesy David M. Schwarz Architects/Gensler/Lemon Brooke.

Currently, the site at Woodley Park encompasses the Wardman Park hotel, the Woodley apartments and the hotel-condo Wardman Tower. But the DC Comprehensive Plan designates the entire site as high- or medium-density residential. That makes sense, given how close the site is to a Metro station.

Developer JBG has both short- and long-term plans for the site. In the next few years, it hopes to add an "eight-story, 120-unit multifamily building," according to the Washington Business Journal. The addition will include a large green space, and will sit between 2700 Woodley, an existing 212-unit apartment building, and the Wardman Tower.

The longer-term build out calls for replacing the hotel with almost 1300 new residential units, in four new buildings, with more than of 1200 parking spaces and 400 bicycle spaces.

The possible long-term buildout, including almost 1300 new residences. Map of the proposed new building. Courtesy David M. Schwarz Architects/Gensler/Lemon Brooke.

At build-out, the new buildings will have fewer units in them than the Wardman Park Hotel does today, and the big conventions and meetings will go away.

And yet, tensions over development are so high in DC that, Jonathan O'Connell, the Post's main development reporter, tweeted his expectation that this project will spur Woodley Park to become the next in a line of DC neighborhoods to oppose new housing.

Hostility to new housing has becoming increasingly common in the District. Vocal Lanier Heights residents recently won downzoning of that nearby neighborhood. In Northeast DC, Brookland is another front in the so-called "development wars."

"If everything were to go absolutely perfectly," said JBG's Robert Vaughan to the Washington Business Journal, the PUD would be approved by the second quarter of 2017, with groundbreaking to follow in the first quarter of 2018 and delivery by early 2020.

But with a project of this magnitude, even during an affordability crisis, that hardly seems likely.


A court ruling on a Brookland development could imperil future housing near Metro stations

DC's Court of Appeals has overturned approvals for a six-story apartment building across the street from the Brookland Metro station. The decision could give opponents in many parts of DC new ammunition to try to block new housing in their neighborhoods.

Rendering of the proposed 901 Monroe project. Image from the Menkiti Group.

Welcome to Brookland, a major front in development wars

Walk out the Brookland Metro station on the neighborhood side, turn right, and after walking along the loop with bus stops you will reach Monroe Street. On the other side is a large parcel where the Colonel Brooks' Tavern and some houses used to sit.

Now, that property, 901 Monroe Street NE, is empty. Neighbors have three times appealed, successfully, a decision by the DC Zoning Commission to allow a building with six floors, five stores, and 212 apartments.

In a nutshell, a panel of judges for DC's Court of Appeals looked a map in DC's Comprehensive Plan, called the Future Land Use Map (FLUM). The map shows this area in shades of orange, signifying that it is "moderate density." The definitions for the categories say that moderate density areas are generally ones with 2-4 story buildings.

This is not 2-4 stories. Therefore, the court said, it's not reasonable to allow a taller building. For a number of reasons, the legal issue is much more complicated, but here's the rub: There are a lot of places in the city that are orange on this map, and a lot of them have, or could soon have, buildings like this one.

Unless this ruling means that now, they may not be able to.

Once upon a time, some people wanted to build housing near Metro...

In 2010, the owners of 901 Monroe, a partnership between the Menkiti Group, Horning Brothers, and Jim Steigman, applied for a kind of zoning permission called a "Planned Unit Development." A PUD lets a building exceed the zoning for an area in exchange for a high-quality project that provides public benefits. DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board with final authority over zoning, reviews and decides on PUDs.

In 2012, the Zoning Commission approved the project. Neighbors appealed. A three-judge panel found that most of the approval was reasonable, but found some holes in the commission's findings, which it asked the commission to fill in. The commission did so, but by copying verbatim some suggested text from the developer, and in a second appeal, a different panel of judges said that was not okay, as well as identifying some other problems with the order.

The Zoning Commission approved the project a third time, and neighbors appealed a third time. This time, the judges said the commission's approval was not a reasonable interpretation of DC's Comprehensive Plan at all, and overturned the zoning approvals entirely.

Image from the DC Comprehensive Plan.

How comprehensive is the Comprehensive Plan?

DC's Comprehensive Plan, or "Comp Plan," is a document written by DC's Office of Planning and approved by the DC Council. By law, zoning decisions must be consistent with the Comp Plan.

Unfortunately, the Comp Plan is not all that consistent with itself. It contains long lists of policy statements, many vague and many pointing in different directions. It talks about the need to add housing near Metro stations but also the value of preserving single-family home neighborhoods. But what about when low-density houses surround Metro stations? The plan doesn't say how to reconcile these conflicts.

The Zoning Commission does that. In its PUDs and other processes, it considers the various Comp Plan provisions and strikes a balance (for better or worse). Courts in DC, following a widespread legal doctrine called "deference," generally avoid second-guessing Zoning Commission and other agency decisions if they are "not arbitrary and capricious."

In the first of the three appeals (which is referred to as Durant I because it's the first case brought by lead plaintiff and project neighbor Guy Durant), the court generally found the commission's balance-striking to be acceptable.

In its report, OP [the DC Office of Planning] indicated that in its view, the developer's proposal struck an appropriate balance between competing Plan policies, some of which encouraged new development around Metro stations, while others favored the preservation of existing neighborhoods.

[In a second, later report,] OP noted that "[t]here are elements ... that support development of the site as an important link between the new commercial uses that will be developed at [a recently-approved PUD project on Catholic University's campus] and the existing commercial uses on 12th Street. It also pointed to the existence of other, competing policies, which stressed conserving the local neighborhood's residential character. Ultimately, OP reiterated its conclusion that the developer's proposal struck an appropriate balance between these competing policies.

The Zoning Commission ultimately agreed, and the court in Durant I supported that approach, pointing out that:
Even if a proposal conflicts with one or more individual policies associated with the Comprehensive Plan, this does not, in and of itself, preclude the Commission from concluding that the action would be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan as a whole. The Plan is not a code of prohibitions; it is an interpretive guide, which the Commission must consider holistically. [Internal quotations omitted]
However, neighbors claimed the DC Office of Planning had misrepresented what the Future Land Use Map really said. OP's report said that the orange striped area in the map below made up about 50% of the proposed project, while neighbors argued it was 37.5%.

The Durant I court did agree that it wasn't clear that OP's 50% figure was right. Maybe the Zoning Commission had been misled by OP's report, and if so, maybe it would have made a different decision. The court couldn't presume it would have still approved the project, so it asked the Zoning Commission to take another look. "We conclude that the Commission must explicitly resolve the FLUM designation dispute and explain whether, and how, its resolution of the issue affects its ultimate decision."

What's "moderate"? It's a question that applies to more than politics

The Zoning Commission didn't think the 37.5% versus 50% was an issue, nor were any of the other deficiencies the court had identified in Durant I. It issued a new order confirming the approval.

Neighbors appealed again. Some of the second case revolved around whether it was okay for the Zoning Commission to copy, verbatim, suggested text from the developer. But the real relevant question was whether this project qualifies as "moderate density."

In many places in the Comprehensive Plan (including the striped area above) and a 2009 neighborhood specific plan called the Brookland Small Area Plan, the text talks about encouraging "moderate-density mixed use" or otherwise refers to allowed density as "moderate."

Moderate density is everything that's orange on the FLUM. The Comp Plan says moderate density areas are "characterized by a mix of single family homes, 2-4 unit buildings, row houses, and low-rise apartment buildings," while medium density areas are "neighborhoods or areas where mid-rise (4-7 story) apartment buildings are the predominant use."

The Brookland Small Area Plan also says that PUDs are acceptable up to a height of 50 feet in this area.

In Durant II, the court asked the Zoning Commission to better articulate why this 6-story building was "moderate density." It did, noting among other things that the building has setbacks above 50 feet and is set away from the street in a way that would make the overall look and feel of the building fit in with a moderate-density area.

But in the third and final appeal, Durant III, the judges said, "Although those considerations are potentially relevant to other issues, they do not support a conclusion that the proposed building constitutes a moderate-density use under the FLUM, because the FLUM's definitions of "moderate density" and "medium density" focus on buildings' actual physical characteristics, such as the number of stories or units in a building, rather than on how the building would look to an observer."

The opinion says that maybe the Zoning Commission could simply decide that medium density is also okay here, but since neither side asked for it to go back again for a fourth time, the court simply overturned the PUD approval. Bo Menkiti, owner of the Menkiti Group, says he and the other partners in the project are "still committed" to the project and are considering their options.

This case is making planners far more conservative

Meanwhile, however, this case has already reverberated in other proposals. Just south of Rhode Island Avenue from here, there's a proposal to redevelop the Brookland Manor garden apartment complex into a mixed-use village with larger buildings. But the whole neighborhood is colored orange on the FLUM. The DC Office of Planning has worried that some of the buildings didn't seem to fit with the "moderate" density label.

OP hasn't said so outright, but there's reason to believe this issue also was behind their refusal to allow a hearing on Georgetown Day School's proposal for an 80-foot building in an area that's—you guessed it—moderate density orange (and low density commercial pink) on the map.

Opponents of the proposed development at the former McMillan sand filtration plant are challenging that project in court, saying it doesn't fit with the FLUM's classification for the property.

It's not uncommon for opponents of a project to bring a lawsuit, but most of them, such as the ones recently for the Hine School by Eastern Market Metro or the West End library and fire station, don't succeeed. But Hine is seven stories at its highest point (more than 901 Monroe), yet its area on the map is orange.

It's not a log flume, but it's making a big splash

There is a lot of "moderate density" orange on the FLUM, including in many areas with some large apartment buildings. My block is orange, for instance, but behind my house is a large 9-story building; on the end of the block is one that's seven stories.

Heck, the Cairo apartment building, DC's tallest residential building, is 164 feet tall and in an orange zone on the FLUM. It sits among an area of mostly row houses, sure, but it's sure not moderate density.

Meanwhile, on many commercial corridors, the FLUM is a patchwork of color changes from one block to the next based on the prevailing land use right now. Again just in my neighborhood, one block of 17th Street which happens to have residential buildings (and tall ones) is colored residential and not commercial. Yet if they were ever redeveloped, ground-floor retail would be a sensible element to include, since there is retail across the street.

The same principles apply across DC. The FLUM is not really a vision for what neighborhoods could become; it's more a description of what they are now or how planners already anticipated they would change in 2006, when the map was made.

Paul Tummonds, an attorney for Goulston & Storrs which represents 901 Monroe, said, "The problem with the FLUM is that in large swaths, there was no forethought of future land use. It's more, 'This is what's there now.' I don't think there was a real planning perspective of what should be there in the future; it was a recitation of existing conditions."

If courts start taking the FLUM's "this broad area will probably be moderate density" as a stricter dictate that medium-density buildings are verboten, and if OP applies that to other proposals (as it may already be doing), that'd mean a big change for the ability to add housing on major corridors and near Metro stations, housing DC desperately needs.


Upper Northwest hits peak NIMBY about a homeless shelter

Fifty short-term apartments for homeless residents are likely coming to Idaho Avenue in upper Northwest DC. At a community meeting last night, some residents showed just how much they think the poorest people in DC need to stay far away from their exclusive enclaves.

Helder Gil posted this flyer on Twitter, which people anonymously circulated at a community meeting Thursday night on a proposed homeless shelter next to the police station on Idaho Avenue, between Cleveland Park and Cathedral Heights.

It includes the astoundingly offensive phrase, "Homeless lives matter; the lives of community homeowners matter too."

What's being proposed

Mayor Muriel Bowser set a very laudable goal of spreading out homeless shelters across all eight wards of DC. It's not best for homeless residents to all be concentrated in one small area, and puts the burden entirely on one neighborhood.

Most people expected people in some wealthy neighborhoods to fight the idea of any homeless people coming to their communities. But the flaws in how the Bowser administration executed on this plan, with seemingly too-high payments to property owners, some of whom were campaign donors, overshadowed any such debate.

Recently, the DC Council revised the plan to place all shelters on public property or land the District could acquire. In Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, the new site is the parking lot of the police station on Idaho Avenue. And now that the legitimate problems with the plan are past, some are indeed attacking the very idea that upper Northwest has to play any part in solving the need for homeless housing.

Many of the usual arguments against any project have come out in full force: the zoning doesn't match; our schools can't afford it; what about neighborhood security; this will add to traffic and harm my property values.

Misconceptions abound

The anonymous flyer says, "We fundamentally oppose the Mayor's plan of equal distribution of homeless population—to build a shelter in each ward regardless of land availability and economic soundness." (The land seems to be quite available, actually, and economically, DC has to spend nothing to buy a parking lot it already owns.)

The letter, and people at the meeting, alleged that a shelter would harm property values. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson disputed that:

"There are plenty [of] empty public buildings in the city which can be renovated and used as shelters," the letter also says. First off, not really; second, this really is pretty much empty public land. What they mean is, "there are plenty of public buildings in someone else's neighborhood."

Talking about how the statements are wrong on their face is beside the point. The statements are morally wrong. Many people of DC's fancier neighborhoods, even ones who identify as Democrats ("liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets") believe all of the city's need for housing, whether for homeless residents, the working poor, young college grads, or anyone else, should be solved somewhere else where "there's plenty of empty land."

Never mind that all of those other neighborhoods "over there" have people in them too, people who might be okay with some shelters or halfway housing or other social services but understandably don't want it all. Why should one part of the city get an opt out just because it's the richest part?

Not all residents of the area are hostile to the less fortunate:

Yes, to whoever said that, thank you.


It's another delay for 200+ units of housing in Tenleytown

First, Georgetown Day School took 3 floors and 50 units of housing away from its proposed development in Tenleytown, following opposition from neighbors and the DC Office of Planning. Now, it has to delay the entire project because of a zoning technicality.

An earlier rendering of the project. Image from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

First, an exciting plan gets scaled down

The site on Wisconsin Avenue has been through many public battles over the years concerning denser, mixed use development, but this particular project originally looked to be one of the finer plans for the area.

Neighboring Georgetown Day School purchased the Safeway and adjacent parcel near 42nd Street and Wisconsin Avenue in 2013. It planned new school space, a pair of 9-story buildings with 270-290 units of housing (around 10% of those permanently affordable), and a host of other neighborhood amenities, including a bike share station, a beautiful set of pedestrian steps, and a small park.

Unfortunately, as soon as the plans were opened to public comment, a few neighbors began organizing against it. Last month, after the Office of Planning unexpectedly sided with opponents, GDS cut off one floor from one building and two from the other, removing 50 units of housing and a variety of amenities.

Aerial view of the project. Image from the PUD filing.

Now, another delay

This last week, another hiccup. The school decided to withdraw its application entirely and re-submit it. That's because, according to a letter released by the school, one of the opposing neighbors complained about an unspecified detail of the zoning regulations, and DC's Zoning Administrator (the official who interprets the zoning regulations and decides if projects comply with them) agreed with the objection.

Fortunately for GDS, this zoning provision (whatever it is) changed in DC's zoning update, which recently passed and will take effect in September. Therefore, rather than fight the Zoning Administrator's "informal" ruling, GDS will just withdraw and re-submit to be considered under the new rules.

Letter to the community from Georgetown Day School. Click to see the full letter.

Why this matters

While projects do need to conform to the zoning code, this also shows the great length project foes, particularly in some areas of DC such as this, will go to stop change. Remember, GDS's building would have been as tall as the one across the street, and now will be shorter. But that's apparently not enough for opponents.

GDS is fortunate that the zoning update is going into effect very soon, after more than eight years of delay getting finalized and approved. Otherwise, GDS would have had to fight the ruling, and the letter says, "While we may have prevailed at the Zoning Commission with our current PUD application, this informal ruling by the Zoning Administrator would have made us vulnerable to an appeal and cost us additional time and money."

We can imagine that the opposition will not sit idly by for the next round. This is a Tenleytown story, but it affects all of us in the city and region. With the current housing shortage, any loss of new housing, particularly so close to a Metro stop, is a loss we all feel.

If you are interested in staying informed and involved in this particular case, fill out the form below. We will continue to watch what happens here and look for ways for the larger community to make a difference.

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Public Spaces

Ten small parks that prove tiny is terrific

Georgetown Day School recently downsized its plans for a mixed-use project in Tenleytown. Aside from cutting 50 units of housing, the developers also canceled plans for a pocket park. We called that a loss, but some skeptics said it wasn't a big deal because the park would have been very small. But when it comes to parks, quality is way more important than size. These 10 "teacup parks" show that.

Paley Park in Manhattan. Photo by Mike Boucher on Flickr.

In its original proposal, GDS offered to close a slip lane between Wisconsin Avenue and 42nd Street and create a pocket park of roughly 7400 square feet. The school offered a few designs, including a splash pad, a skatepark, and a demonstration garden. With the reduction in size, GDS will still close the slip lane for safety reasons, but it will just be another grass triangle.

Opponents of the GDS deal claimed that this small park was just too small, unlike what's typical in Ward 3. Fort Reno, for example, is 33 acres, or 1.5 million square feet.

But little parks can be everything for building engaging streets, something Tenleytown does not have. Here are 10 great park and plazas less than 15,000 square feet that make their neighborhoods a lot better.

Here are 10 great park and plazas that take up less than 15,000 square feet yet still make their neighborhoods a lot better.

1. Paley Park, New York City

Paley Park. Photo by Matthew Blackburn on Flickr.

If you ask a planner for an example of a pocket park, they'll probably bring up Paley Park. At 4200 square feet, it's smaller than the Ellicott Park would have been. But a water feature, movable seating, and a few delicate trees create a beloved retreat in one of the busiest, loudest parts of Manhattan.

2. Bethesda Row Fountain

Just a slightly thicker street corner. Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Because of the lively nearby streets, this tiny triangle of land in Bethesda has been swamped since it opened in 2000, despite being a mere 1500 square feet.

3. Columbia Heights Civic Plaza

The plaza hosts frequent events. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Designed by ZGF architects, buildings frame this 12,000 square foot plaza, which is just as lively hosting public events or a farmers market as it is demonstrations or a children's splash park.

The design screens the play area from traffic with adult benches. Photo by Bill McNeal on Flickr.

4. Parkman Triangle, Los Angeles

Parkman Triangle. Image from Google Maps

Residents turned a leftover sliver of concrete in Silver Lake into this 2000 square foot parklet, where desert plants shield seating from traffic.

5. Boyd-Jackson Park, Takoma Park

Boy-Jackson Park. Image from Google Streetview

A small neighborhood park, this fits play structures and a field into less than 8,000 square feet. It's hardly the National Mall, but it's still incredibly useful and convenient for its neighborhood.

6. Fowler Square, Brooklyn, New York

Fowler Square's temporary configuration. Image Courtesy NYC DOT.

New York's Department of Transportation connected a little island by transferring a single block from cars to pedestrians to create an 8,400 square foot plaza. Although drivers originally opposed it, it has become the highest-rated of New York's plazas and enough of a neighborhood amenity to make the change permanent.

POPS Skatepark, Philadelphia

Photo by Bill Benzon on Flickr.

One corner of a neighborhood park, this skate park's small, 6,000 square foot size works well for inexperienced, younger skateboarders.

8. Fox and Laurel Park and Community Garden, Los Angeles

Fox-Laurel Park. Image from Google Streetview.

In a space just twice the Ellicot Park lot (15,000), surrounded by a storage facility, the city fit two playgrounds, native plantings, and a community garden.

9. This private park at Brown University

Pocket Park at Brown. Image from Google Streetview.

This quiet space between academic buildings and houses takes up 5,500 square feet, but manages to pack in a secluded urban room.

10. Unnamed Triangle (Reservation 265)

Is this what they call Tactical Urbanism? Image from Google Streetview.

Some residents took a play set out to one of DC's many leftover grass triangles. It's not pretty, and probably not legal, but it's a lot more use than most of them get.

Small can still be great

Whether or not Ellicott Street gets a park, there many neighborhoods in DC that would benefit from a few pocket parks. Meanwhile, Tenleytown is trying to revamp its public spaces through the Main Street program. These examples show that it's foolish to get hung up on the size of a discrete strip of land. With busy nearby streets and good design, you can squeeze a lot of life into a modest space.

Of course, this is just what I could come up with from memory and asking a few people. There are tons of great public spaces of this size. Can you think of any that caught your eye?


Tenleytown won't get 50 units of housing and a park

50-100 people won't be able to live in Tenleytown, and a major intersection won't get a pocket park and become more walkable. That's because DC's Office of Planning and some local leaders got anxious about a mixed-use building from Georgetown Day School that's shorter than another one across the street.

Rendering of the proposed residential buildings along Wisconsin Avenue. All images from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

GDS proposes a transformative project for Tenleytown

In June 2014, after three unsucessful attempts to redevelop a Safeway grocery store at 42nd and Davenport Streets NW, the neighboring Georgetown Day School (GDS) bought the Safeway property, a WMATA chiller plant, and a car dealership across 42nd on Wisconsin Avenue.

Despite initial fears that this would mean no chance to add retail, build much-needed apartments, and link Tenleytown and Friendship Heights, after 20 months of public meetings, GDS proposed a design that would consolidate the school and build two mixed-use buildings on the dealership property.

Plan of the GDS proposal at Wisconsin Avenue's elevation.

Since the low-rise school was much lower density than zoning would allow, GDS wanted to use a process called a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to shift density from the school, closer to single-family homes, and over to the dealership site on Wisconsin Avenue.

The project would have added 270-290 housing units, 22-29 of which would have been permanently affordable. Plus, it offered 38,500 square feet of retail, a pocket park at Elliott Street, a spectacular public staircase, and a 42nd Street redesigned with state-of-the-art traffic calming features.

Traffic calming on 42nd Street. The school is at the left and the mixed-use buildings at right.

The only complication: The zoning would have to be changed from a lower-density commercial zone, C-2-A, to a slightly denser one, C-2-B. The same change was successfully made across the street in 1999, for a project called Tenley Hill. That project's penthouse is actually 7'6" higher than these buildings would have been.

You can read the full PUD submission and an amendment.

The project gets positive reviews but some "height-itis"

Reactions to the project among community members were mostly positive, but two groups of neighbors expressed concern about the scale of the project, "Neighbors of GDS" and the "Wisconsin Avenue Gateway Group," whose leaders live in the Tenley Hill building. Supporting GDS's project were the longstanding smart growth group Ward 3 Vision and a new group called "Revive 3E," which formed to specifically focus on what members felt was obstruction in the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 3E.

The ANC repeatedly expressed support for upzoning of the site, but dithered over whether the package of amenities and mitigation was adequate, demanding an detailed Transportation Management Plan, including a request that no new vehicle trips arrive at the site. The ANC's chair, Jon Bender, openly questioned whether alternative arrangements could fit more residential uses onto the school site.

The big sticking point, however, was the height of the buildings. The zoning change would have let both buildings rise 80 feet from Wisconsin Avenue. Because 42nd Street is down a steep hill, one would have been 86'3" on 42nd Street and the other maxed out at 97'4" adjacent to GDS's high school building.

Height of the school (left), north residential building (center), and across Wisconsin (right).

Office of Planning blocks the project

This week, there was a new surprise: DC's Office of Planning also took issue with the height.

To do a Planned Unit Development, a property owner first applies to the Office of Planning, which then recommends, or doesn't recommend, DC's Zoning Commission "set it down" for a hearing. As GDS's head wrote in a letter to the Northwest Current, OP expressed opposition to setting down the current proposal.

Why the Office of Planning opposed the project is not public knowledge. Once a project is set down, the Zoning Commission schedules a hearing and OP, as well as other city agencies, file public reports with their comments. But because of OP's opposition, the school withdrew this version of its plans.

Some housing and the park are gone

GDS now wants to go forward with fewer floor on the southern building and two fewer on the northern one. It's not even the first height reduction. Critics of the project had asked for a 65-foot nominal height and GDS compromised from the original height, cutting two stories off last fall. Now, the building will be as short as critics requested.

Because of the loss of revenue from three floors, GDS can't afford some of the big-ticket benefits that brought in community support: the pocket park at the north end, the special public space finishes, and the traffic calming measures on 42nd Street.

It's still a fine project, but had the first submitted design been accepted, it would have made Tenleytown one of the most complete urban designs in the city, crossing the work and play of multiple generations of Washingtonians in a single space.

More importantly, this second reduction means a loss of another 50 potential apartments. On a micro-level, that's unfortunate in an area that has a large student population but few small apartments, leading many students to live in group houses that could otherwise hold families with kids. It also reduced the density that can support small businesses and restaurants. On a macro scale it's just another opportunity increase the aggregate amount of housing in the city, lost to the tastes of a vocal minority.

Sure it's only 50 here, but 50 at the next one, and so on, contributing to a deficit across the city. If the 2006 Comprehensive Plan is what's keeping this site from an appropriate level of density, then it's failing. If OP is talking of the need to build shelter for a growing city and reduce automobile use, but disqualifies GDS' modest mixed used density, then the talk of two biggest issues the city faces is just a gesture devoid of substance.

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