Posts about Community Benefits
DC Council considers primary date, diagonal parking, free school transit, taxi medallions and much more
DC's primary will likely move to April, people will get solar rebates, and bills introduced in the DC Council yesterday could establish a taxi medallion system, make transit free for schoolchildren, add diagonal parking, and put requirements on large retailers like Walmart.
The Council approved the first reading of a bill to move DC's presidential and local primary to April 3 next year. The presidential date allows DC to potentially band together with Maryland and Delaware and get bonus delegates from the political parties, which are trying to incentivize regional primaries after March.
For the local primary, March is more problematic. Since DC's primary essentially determines the winner in races including the mayoral race, a primary at the start of March could mean that one person will hold the seat for 10 more months while another is already virtually certain to take over.
We saw Mayor Fenty essentially stop making significant decisions once he lost the primary, but Gray was not yet mayor to start making any decisions, and so little happened in the government in the interim. Having this last for almost a year is dangerous. Councilmembers Phil Mendelson (at-large) and Tommy Wells (ward 6) raised this same objection in the session, but won over no colleagues.
Also during the legislative session, the Council gave those solar rebates to people who had qualified but suddenly found there was no money; unfortunately, this comes out of other sustainable energy funding.
They also delayed a vote on a nominee to the Board of Zoning Adjustment, Gray campaign attorney 1998-2000 DCRA head Lloyd Jordan, in part because of opposition letters from some neighborhood groups.
Sekou Biddle (interim at-large) introduced a bill to make transit free for children traveling to and from school. He argued that this will reduce truancy. It might, but it would also cost money which DC doesn't have, and there was no indication where the money might come from to pay for this.
Harry Thomas, Jr. (ward 5) introduced three car-related bills. A pair of bills asks for regulations to allow diagonal parking in business corridors, when 60% of businesses in an area ask for it, and religious institutions on Sundays, with the approval of the area ANC.
Diagonal parking can be a fine way to fit more parking into an area when there is room on the street that's not already being used. DDOT is proposing this between Tenleytown's Whole Foods and Wilson High, for instance. But in most places in DC where church parking is scarce, there isn't room on the street to add diagonal parking.
Area business corridors, ANCs, and churches should be able to petition DDOT now to consider diagonal parking if they want to. They should also be able to ask DDOT to consider removing parking, or changing a street from one-way to two-way or vice versa, or adding a bike lane.
So yes, diagonal parking should be a part of the overall toolbox, and if DDOT lacks the authority to implement it now, they should get that authority. But diagonal parking will only make sense in a very small number of cases. Thomas talked about holding town halls around his ward, and it's hard not to wonder if he's just introducing this to be able to say he's doing something at those town halls, even if that something is almost always impractical for the specific situation.
On a side note, Thomas seems to be trying to keep the bill from singling out one faith by referring to "religious institutions," but by limiting the rule to Sundays, it does exclude religious institutions which celebrate on Saturdays, for instance.
Another bill that's likely to generate more serious debate is a measure from Thomas, Michael Brown (at-large) and Marion Barry (ward 8) to establish a system of taxicab medallions, with separate categories for DC resident drivers and non-resident drivers, as well as special categories for taxis operating in underserved areas and low-emission (hybrid) taxis. This topic is worth its own, separate post.
Phil Mendelson introduced a pair of bills largely targeted at Wal-Mart. Both apply only to retailers of at least 75,000 square feet, requiring them to negotiate Community Benefits Agreements with their neighborhoods and pay living wages and benefits.
Observers think these have little chance of passing. The bills will go to committees chaired by Thomas and Michael Brown, who both court the union vote but also who have shown little interest in interfering with Walmart's expansion into DC.
Other bills included ones to require food trucks to pay sales tax, as we discussed yesterday, and expand low-income property tax relief, from Jack Evans (ward 2); to publish Council procurement information online, from Chairman Kwame Brown and Mary Cheh (ward 3); to allow L3Cs, a type of hybrid nonprofit/for-profit business entity; and a number of measures from Cheh to improve transparency.
Historic row houses and other old buildings line most of H Street, NE, though with periodic interruptions where more recent modifications have scarred the building fabric such as Meads Row. But one block is all scar: the south side of H between 8th and 10th Streets, which has a one-story, generic strip mall with parking in front, ironically named the H Street Connection.
This isn't appropriate for a major, developing, urban commercial corridor that's slated for a streetcar. Fortunately, developer Rappaport Companies is moving ahead with a Planned Unit Development, designed by Torti Gallas and Partners, to construct a retail and residential mixed-use building on the block conaining 409 apartments and 50,000 square feet of retail.
The community requested that more of the building's massing concentrate to the rear of the block, giving it a lower feel along H Street to better match the existing row houses. It also uses a "sawtooth" pattern, like many other recent buildings in DC, to make the structure read like multiple buildings. Except for the corner structure at 8th and H (pictured above), most of the building will use a masonry facade with a traditional look.
The current plans maintain the existing curb cuts on 8th and 10th behind the building, and locate the garage ramps in that alley. (It's not clear if it's a public alley or part of the private property.) Some neighbors have recommended an entrance on H instead. Today, there's a vehicular entrance there, opposite 9th Street, which ends at the site. Given that this is already an intersection, that makes some sense, but it'd still create a better pedestrian and streetcar experience for cars to come in and out using the much less busy side streets.
The garage will contain 520 spaces, of which 170 will be public. This is much more than zoning requires; if the streetcar were already here, it wouldn't make sense to build so many, but at the moment attracting people to H Street often requires facilitating car storage, and Rappaport should be free to build the spaces it thinks the market demands. However, the community shouldn't push for even more parking spaces as one of their public amenities under the PUD process, as some have suggested.
Other potential community benefits (MS Word) that have come up in neighborhood discussions include Zipcar spaces, a bike sharing station, LEED certification, grants to improve facades on the opposite side of H, funding for an H Street historic survey, or a public toilet to dissuade people from going in the alleys. Those all sound reasonable, and better than even more parking in a project that has plenty for every resident, lots of shoppers, and even some neighbors.
ANCs 6C and 6A split the H Street corridor, and 6C Commissioner Ryan Velasco has written a report about improving the community benefits that come from PUDs. He's also very closely involved with the neighborhood's negotiations on this project. Even though DC hasn't yet made any of the reforms Velasco suggested, hopefully the community can negotiate a good benefits package and let this project reconnect the giant gap created by the H Street Connection.
When communities negotiate with developers, they often lack the knowledge and experience to evaluate proposed Community Benefits Agreements. That puts them at a disadvantage compared to the more experienced developer, argues a team from the DC Neighborhood College public leadership program. Better tools and training could help communities work out better deals. We should also help involve the entire community in the decisionmaking, rather than only those involved in a traditional neighborhood association.
Like many jurisdictions, DC uses a process called the Planned Unit Development (PUD). Developers can choose one of three routes for a project. They can build "as of right", complying with all zoning rules. They can ask for specific variances to exceed those rules in specific ways, but have to prove an "extraordinary and exceptional situation" applies to the specific property. Or, they can file a PUD. A PUD allows broader latitude to craft a project beyond the specific dictates of the zoning rules, but also gives the Zoning Commission and the surrounding community substantial input into the project, and requires the developer to offer benefits in return.
The PUD process offers many advantages. An as of right project could completely disregard good urban design principles, facing the street with a blank wall or creating a bland, unarticulated facade overlooking nearby houses. Except in historic districts and in limited situations with overlays, DC currently has no rules requiring good design. In a PUD, the Zoning Commission essentially gets to micromanage the project. They can require different materials, bicycle or car sharing parking, retail bays, larger or smaller units, rearrange the massing, and more.
A PUD doesn't always generate perfect projects, but they often emerge much improved over the original filings. The Zoning Commission has more flexibility to consider the broader goals of the Comprehensive Plan or individual plans. And neighborhood plans, like the Brookland Small Area Plan, generally require developers to use PUDs. Even though the Council approved that plan, encouraging higher density right at the Metro station and low density farther away, the underlying zoning still doesn't allow those heights as of right. To comply with the plan, developers will need to file PUD applications, follow Zoning Commission guidance, and offer community benefits.
A community benefits agreement is the other part of a PUD. The developer works out an agreement with the neighborhood, refereed by the Zoning Commission. For the Capitol Place building on H Street, NE, neighbors negotiated for a micro-grant program to help nearby property owners repair run-down properties or improve energy efficiency. The Radio One HQ at 7th and S, NW in Shaw offered affordable housing, requirements to employ local residents, and retail space set aside for neighborhood-serving shops.
Some agreements, on the other hand, yield less lasting benefit to the community. Many PUDs simply give a lump sum payment to the local neighborhood association to disburse to other worthy nonprofits. That helps those organizations, but also feels more like a bribe to the community, paying them off in exchange for greater density. Some benefits agreements include requirements that the development use good urban design or green building practices, which ought to happen regardless.
Capitol Hill ANC Commissioner Ryan Velasco and Yvette Rector analyzed this problem as their project for the DC Neighborhood College. The Neighborhood College is a free, selective one-year program for community leaders across the city run by the George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership. Velasco and Rector developed a poster and a list of recommendations to improve CBAs.
One recommendation would create a searchable "PUD database" containing the benefits from each PUD. This would help communities negotiating agreements to compare the developer's offer against similar projects. It would also enable journalists and bloggers to find out whether communities are getting a good deal, something weaker, or a simple "bribe" to the neighborhood association. They also recommend better defining "benefits" to exclude elements that every PUD ought to contain, such as a walkable street-level design.
Velasco and Rector also advocate for creating a PUD Review Task Force, made of representatives from ANCs, civic associations and the DC government, to review the overall process and develop a method for calculating the value of a benefits package. They suggest offering training and financial grants to community organizations
These recommendations could aid communities in getting the best community benefits for their neighborhoods. When designing policies such as the task force or grant, we should ensure that new methods of organizing get equal treatment under the law as traditional neighborhood organizations. Historically, established neighborhood groups organize and amplify the voices of residents and provide a voice for the community when negotiating with developers. However, with the evolution of the Internet, residents are getting involved in their communities through other means, such as blogs and email lists. Just because these residents choose not to pay annual dues to a neighborhood group shouldn't deprive them of the right to participate in the process as well.
A neighborhood blog or an ad hoc group of citizens ought to have equal opportunity to weigh in with the task force, participate in training, or apply for grants. Most of all, the agreement should spell out the final benefits rather than handing money to a neighborhood association to allocate as it sees fit. While most such groups use the money for very worthy causes, such an arrangement shifts the decisions from the public to the hands of a few. All neighbors deserve to have a say in what would most benefit their community.
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