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Development


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.

Bicycling


A new bike trail could connect the Met Branch Trail to 4th Street NE

Plans for Rhode Island Center, which is set to replace the Big Lots and Forman Mills at Rhode Island and 4th Street NE, include a number of changes to the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The trail would move so there'd be less of a chance of cyclists and pedestrians colliding in front of the Metro, and there'd be a connector to the bike lane on 4th Street.


The proposed Rhode Island Center development with the realigned MBT and spur to 4th Street NE in orange. All images by MRP Realty unless noted.

The new off-street bike trail to 4th Street NE from the MBT would stretch about 0.2 miles through the proposed development, says Michael Skena, vice-president of development at MRP Realty, who is developing the Rhode Island Center project.

"We've made integration with the trail a big part of it," he said at an Eckington Civic Association meeting earlier in March.


The planned bike path to 4th Street through the Rhode Island Center development.

Only about half of the trail will be built with the first phase of Rhode Island Center, which is scheduled for completion in 2019, says Skena. The remaining portion will go in with the rest of the development, which he cautions could take up to 20 years because the developer is allowing Big Lots and Forman Mills to remain on the site until their leases expire.

MRP will continue to try to make it easier to bike along the existing shopping center roadways during the interim, he says.


Only half of the bike path to 4th Street will be built with the first phase of Rhode Island Center.

The connection will improve access to the MBT for residents of Edgewood. This is in line with the trail improvements outlined in the NoMa Business Improvement District's (BID) safety and access study that recommends increasing neighborhood connections and awareness of the trail.

Realigning the MBT

MRP also wants to move the MBT under the stairs to the Rhode Island Avenue station bridge where it currently goes around them, says Skena. This would cut back on pedestrian-trail conflicts at the base of the stairs, which will become the focal point of a new entry plaza to Rhode Island Center.


The realigned MBT in orange with the planned entry plaza to Rhode Island Center.


The current MBT alignment past the stairs to the Rhode Island Avenue station bridge. Photo by the author.

Cyclists will be able to safely pass underneath the existing stairs, says Skena in response to resident questions.


The realigned MBT under the stairs to the Rhode Island Avenue Station bridge.

MRP is also working with the local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) on a community benefits agreement, which will likely include new callboxes and improved lighting on the MBT as well as better wayfinding to the trail, he says.

Rhode Island Center will include about 1,550 residences and and 250,000 square feet of retail, including space for a large grocery story, when it its fully built out, says Skena.

MRP plans to include 8% of the residential units—or 124 units—at Rhode Island Center in Washington DC's affordable housing program. Roughly 93 units will be available to families of four that make 80% area median income (AMI) and roughly 31 units to families that make 50% of AMI.

Development


Housing atop Georgetown's Safeway would have strengthened the neighborhood

Retail is struggling in upper Georgetown, and a big reason is because not all that many people live there. Safeway could have added housing when it redesigned its Wisconsin Avenue store, but says it didn't because doing so would have delayed building. That was a lost opportunity.


The Wisconsin Avenue Safeway. Image from Google Maps.

Affectionately called the "Social Safeway" for its fame as a place for singles to meet, the Georgetown Safeway got a full makeover in 2010. The old version was a traditional grocery store with a big parking lot in the front, but the new one fronts the sidewalk and fills in the street. The company also added a strip of retail spaces below and adjacent to the grocery store.

The Safeway itself was obviously done well, as most people who used the old Social Safeway probably continue to use the new one. There are more grocery options across the city than there were 10 years ago, but for western Ward 2 and lower Ward 3, the Georgetown Safeway is still a solid option.

But the retail market around the Safeway has struggled. Noodles and Co. at Wisconsin and S closed after only a couple years, and the Roosters barbershop, tucked away in a poor location off Wisconsin, barely lasted a year. The northernmost street level space under the Safeway briefly had a Verizon store before it sat vacant for years. Other spaces in the older buildings between the Safeway and R Street have also been vacant for years.


Photo by the author.

If more people lived in upper Georgetown, more people would shop there

More residents in the immediate proximity would be a boon to businesses along this stretch of Wisconsin, including those in the Safeway properties (that's the grocery store building itself, plus all the buildings down to the Jos. A Bank just north of S).

Residential could have been part of the grocery store's development, but some zoning relief would have been necessary. The southern building (i.e. the old Noodles and the Jos. A Bank) is zoned C-2-A. That allows commercial and residential up to 50 feet tall, far more than the single story Safeway went with. The lot occupancy allowance, however, would have presented a problem: When you build commercial in C-2-A, you can use 100% of the lot (which the buildings now use), but you can only use 60% when you build residential.

The other buildings are zoned C-1. This doesn't allow residential at all except for group homes. It also only allows three story buildings.

Could Safeway have overcome these relatively minor difficulties? Probably. I asked Craig Muckle, a Safeway representative, whether the company considered building residential. He replied that generally Safeway doesn't reveal their internal considerations but that in this particular case a desire to rebuild the grocery store in "as short a time as possible" was a driving concern. He didn't mention it, but the saga of the Cathedral Commons redevelopment by Giant up Wisconsin Avenue probably weighed in on the decision.


Cathedral Commons. Image from Google Maps.

It's not the case the Safeway simply doesn't do residential development. The company proposed developing its Palisades location into a mixed-use project. Faced with community opposition, though, it dropped it and promptly put the property up for sale (although it doesn't appear to have found a buyer).

Safeway also redesigned its Petworth store, adding residential space to that property. It was even done by the same architect as the Social Safeway.


The Petworth Safeway has lots of housing on top. Image from Google Maps.

Whatever reason they had for not adding a residential component in Georgetown, Safeway missed an opportunity to bring a lot more economic stability to this forlorn section of Wisconsin Avenue.

Roads


Could a Fairfax school turn into an urban street grid?

In 2019, the private school Paul VI will move to Loudoun County from its Fairfax City campus. Plans for what to do with the land are starting to take shape, and there's a big opportunity to make the space walkable and transit-friendly.


Paul VI and the surrounding area. Image from Google Maps.

The 18-acre Paul VI campus is located along Fairfax Boulevard (Route 50/29), where the City of Fairfax wants new commercial development. It's across the street from a shopping center anchored by H-Mart, a popular Asian grocery store. Immediately east and west of the campus are detached houses and garden apartments, and immediately south are Pat Rodio Park and the Chilcott baseball field.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington owns the land Paul VI sits on. It has hired a developer, the IDI Group, to come up with a plan for developing it and to work with Fairfax City through the rezoning and special use permit process. The Archdiocese will ultimately sell the land, presumably to a buyer who wants to carry out the approved plan (that could be the IDI Group).


Paul IV. Image from Google Maps.

Paul VI is a chance to make Fairfax Boulevard walkable, inclusive, and sustainable

Most of Fairfax Boulevard consists of large commercial lots dominated by surface parking, but Paul VI's redevelopment could mean a more compact and walkable street grid. A private drive and parking lot on the Paul VI property currently separate two segments of Cedar Lane, a residential street that extends to Chain Bridge Road. The redevelopment could connect these segments of Cedar to one another and to new internal streets.

While Fairfax Boulevard has not traditionally been a place to build new housing, a 2007 master plan for the street says more residential units would make the area more vibrant and economically successful. The plan also envisions a mix of stores and offices along Fairfax Boulevard.

A nearby piece of land increases the chance for a smart growth plan

Coincidentally, last month Fairfax City also received an application for the redevelopment of the Breezeway Motel and adjacent garden apartments, located on a five-acre site just 300 yards from Paul VI. AvalonBay Communities has filed an application to redevelop the Breezeway and adjacent Fairfax Gardens apartments, as well as several smaller properties, as a 351-unit apartment building, and 11 townhomes.

As it stands, that apartment building would span two blocks and break up the street grid that currently exists, as well as replace relatively affordable housing with what are likely to be far more expensive units.

If the city reviews the Paul VI and the Breezeway projects in the absence of a comprehensive framework for redevelopment, it could miss opportunities to create better transportation connections and plan the right mix of uses. Fairfax City will update its comprehensive plan over the next year and a half, and that could be an opportunity to better coordinate the redevelopment of these two areas.

Community members recently chimed in

Last week, IDI Group held a community meeting to gather ideas about the property's future use. Neighbors, local officials, city staff, and others in the community called for the development to consider the "big picture," including the proposed Breezeway development as well as other nearby sites.

Participants also raised concerns about how redevelopment could affect transportation, particularly the risk of significant cut-through traffic in adjacent neighborhoods that don't have sidewalks. They also voiced a desire for the development to "fit in" with what's already in the area and for planning to account for walking and biking, along with hope that the existing building could be (at least partially) reused and that the site could potentially be home to a youth center, park, and open space.

At a follow-up meeting on March 10, IDI Group will report back to the community on the information gathered at the February 11 meeting and present its initial concept for redeveloping the site.

The Paul VI site has the potential to begin the transformation of Fairfax Boulevard into a well-designed, walkable street with sidewalks, street trees, on-street parking along local lanes, and street-oriented buildings. It is time for the city to implement its master plan and revitalize Fairfax Boulevard, a primary economic engine.

Development


Town and gown clash over development in Takoma Park

Montgomery County's rapidly-growing community college, Montgomery College, wants to expand its northern Takoma Park campus. A number of Takoma Park residents don't like the idea, and are pushing for the college to expand in nearby Silver Spring instead.


Montgomery College sits partially in Takoma Park (inside the red line) and partially in Silver Spring. Image from Google Maps.

With campuses in Takoma Park, Rockville and Germantown, Montgomery College serves more than 60,000 students a year, a number that's growing quickly. Its first campus was built in northern Takoma Park in 1950, and in 2004 it expanded by adding new buildings in Silver Spring.

The college's board of trustees recently approved a new Facilities Master Plan for 2013-2023. The Master Plan is full of proposals and ideas for the Takoma Park campus, such as a new math and science center building, a new health and fitness center, and a new library. According to the plan, Montgomery College's Takoma Park campus has more capacity constraints and "obsolete or dysfunctional existing structures" than Rockville and Germantown.

The plan notes that enrollment has increased 18% over the past five years and is projected to increase another 27% by 2023. All of those additional students will need space for classes and laboratories. In order to achieve greater square footage without acquiring any new land, the plan calls for taller, wider buildings to replace the current ones, which are mostly smaller, two-story structures built to blend into the residential character of northern Takoma Park.

All of that has the college wanting to expand the Takoma Park campus, to the tune of over 56,000 square feet.

RenovationNew ConstructionDemolitionNew Growth
Takoma Park/Silver Spring9,295170,532(113,983)56,549

In the image below, the six buildings colored in yellow are those planned to be demolished and rebuilt, while the orange building is planned for renovation. It's worth noting that the college's daycare center (located on the right side and noted by the letters "DC") will be closed with no plans to reopen, meaning students with kids and some local parents will need to find a new childcare option.


Maps from the Montgomery College Facilities Master Plan.

Neighbors are opposed, but the college says it can address concerns

At a Takoma Park City Council meeting on January 20, 2016, Montgomery College Takoma Park campus provost and Montgomery College vice president Brad Stewart described the draft master plan to both residents and the council.

According to Historic Takoma, a non-profit organization founded to preserve the heritage of Takoma Park and the Takoma neighborhood of DC, the college agreed in writing in 2002 to consult with neighbors and the City Council on any proposed plans that could impact the neighborhood. While Mr. Stewart claims that two neighborhood discussions about the plan occurred (one in Takoma Park and one in Rockville), neighbors of the college claim that nobody told them.

Members of the City Council sided with the college's neighbors and chided Mr. Stewart about what they said was a lack of coordination on the college's part. Neighbors also complained that the larger, wider buildings contemplated in the master plan would be more appropriately located on the western side of its campus, which borders an urban, commercially zoned area on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

Mr. Stewart tried his best to allay concerns, noting that that Master Plan is not the final document with regard to actual design and construction. He assured the City Council that additional outreach will be done the school hires architects and starts considering building designs.

Regarding the building heights, Mr. Stewart responded that the college's architects heard neighborhood concerns and created setbacks on the top floors of buildings facing neighboring homes.

You can watch residents raise their concerns at the City Council meeting here, beginning around 13:20, with Mr. Stewart's presentation to the City Council starting around 2:02:00.

Residents and the college have clashed before

As noted above, during the January 20th City Council meeting a few local residents alleged that the college failed to conduct adequate consultation with the local community. But deeply embedded in the Master Plan is a section discussing the college's relations with its Takoma Park neighbors that brings into question whether opposing residents' demands about community involvement are reasonable.

Here's the critical part:

New development proposals on the Takoma Park side of Campus are nonetheless still opposed by a vocal minority of neighbors, who insist that the College shift all development to the Silver Spring side of Campus, or acquire new properties along Fenton Street and locate College programs there.
Jokingly referred to as "The People's Republic of Takoma Park," the neighborhood has a rich history as a community that is unafraid to challenge moneyed and other powerful interests. A recent blog post by Granola Park explains that in the 1970s the college sought to condemn and demolish 22 adjacent Takoma Park homes for new school buildings, but neighbors fought and won against the college.

Silver Spring development could be in Montgomery College's future

Interestingly, and perhaps as a result of repeated neighborhood opposition, the Master Plan does gesture towards future development on the Silver Spring side of the campus. The following map shows possible expansion sites:

Three of the four lots above are rather sterile space. The two on the east side of the railroad tracks are a combination of storage buildings, auto body shops and local rental car companies. One lot on the west side of the railroad tracks is a parking lot owned by the college's foundation and the remaining one abuts Jesup Blair Park where the college built a walkway to cross the railroad tracks and connect the campus.

Future expansion into Silver Spring would activate this space and make it more pedestrian oriented, which is great since the college is only six blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station and abuts the planned Met Branch Trail. But all of this would require the college to acquire these lots and then redevelop them, which is more costly and would take longer than to simply redevelop the buildings they currently own.

Crossposted at Takoma Talk.

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