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Development


Big developments serve a huge need, but smaller ones help cities too

It's pretty common to see new buildings with hundreds of units going up across the region. But what about smaller buildings, going up one at a time? That kind of small scale development, also referred to as incremental development, is an important part of building a city.


Neighborhoods like Georgetown came about one building at a time. Photo by Norman Maddeaux on Flickr.

Think about your favorite neighborhood in DC. Maybe it's tree-lined Swann Street by Logan Circle, with it's multi-colored row homes, all similar but with details that make them special, like the flower plantings on each stoop. Or maybe it's Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown—a bustling neighborhood commercial street with café seating and colorful shop windows selling specialty wares.

These special places were not created all at once; they are the result of a buildings being built, changed, and rebuilt, which has resulted in a rich urban fabric that supports renters, owners, merchants and service providers.

Today, that process is much more rare, with whole new neighborhoods going up all at once. These projects are often quite successful, and address the need for increased housing and retail in DC. But when large companies are the only ones building in neighborhoods, would-be smaller developers are left out.

Why do we want to avoid that? Because when communities are built by the people who live there, then those people are engaged in the neighborhood. Incremental development brings more wealth into the community; the developers of small projects reap the benefits of property ownership, including income-producing properties and tax benefits. And since small developers are literally invested, they have a stake in the decisions of the community, and take part in decision-making and neighborhood advocacy.

Furthermore, the spaces created by incremental development—from pop-up food kiosks to retail under residential—are more conducive to small entrepreneurs who can't take on the high rents and long terms of new larger retail spaces. In the boom and bust cycle of real estate, communities that are built incrementally are more resilient.

Today, real estate financing, the development process, and housing demand favor larger projects. So even if you want to, say, build a small coffee shop on that vacant corner lot, or fill in a hole in a commercial corridor with a multi-use building, it can be challenging to get the resources and permits to do so.

For example, banks are hesitant to lend money to build project types that have not been proven to create a profit, especially in up and coming neighborhoods. And even if you get financing for a mixed residential/retail building, then your project could be stymied by parking requirements that were meant for larger residential projects. There are roadblocks and unforeseen issues every step of the way.

If smaller projects aren't part of the mix, neighborhoods might be less likely to get a fine-grained feel. Also, it can mean less space for small retail, and fewer business opportunities for people interested in building cities.

A new non-profit is trying to change this

The Incremental Development Alliance was created by small scale developers who had been overwhelmed by the number of people reaching out to them seeking advice on how to build small, multi-unit buildings. Since the group's founding in 2015, the group has conducted over twenty workshops on this topic, and are the recipients of a Knight Foundation grant to encourage incremental development in Columbus, Georgia.

On May 13 and 14, one of the founders of IDA, John Anderson, will be in Silver Spring to run a workshop on developing small real estate projects. The Silver Spring Small Developer Boot Camp will begin with a networking on Friday at Fire Station 1, and run all day on Saturday at the Montgomery County Planning Department. Participants will learn about technical skills and resources to navigate development financing, zoning and entitlement, site selection and building design in order assemble small scale real estate deals.

Discounted pricing is available until this Friday, and registration is available online.

Development


My neighbor is an empty house, one of over 3,500 in the District. The DC Council wants to make it affordable housing.

Within one block of my apartment, there are three separate vacant buildings, with little sign of pending construction or development. They've been that way for years, and I live in Shaw, which is booming. DC Councilmember Anita Bonds has introduced a bill that'd let the mayor turn vacant buildings into affordable housing.


My neighbor, the empty building. Photo by the author.

DC wants to buildings to be used, not stay vacant

Vacant, blighted and condemned buildings are of no use to anyone, especially the city. While the property owner might pay taxes and penalties, there's an overall loss of revenue when you consider that occupants would be both taxpayers and consumers. And that's not to mention the negative effect empty or boarded up buildings have on neighborhoods.

Because of this, DC has laws and systems to try and get these units occupied and reintegrated into neighborhoods. The DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has an entire unit, the Vacant Building Enforcement Unit dedicated to buildings around the District that are like the ones on my street. Its job is to compile these lists twice a year, identifying all of the vacant and blighted properties in the district, and then enforce penalties and taxes on the owners of each unit.

Here are the current numbers on vacant buildings

Just how many of these building are out there in one of the fastest growing "states" in the country? Thousands.

In her opening statement last month introducing a bill to address the issue, Councilmember Anita Bonds explained that as of November 2015, there were a total of:

  • 3,535 vacant buildings
  • 345 blighted buildings
  • 132 condemned properties
  • 67 vacant lots of 650 square feet or larger
That is a lot of potential space in a city fighting for every scrap of usable land.

To encourage owners to occupy or develop buildings, the District taxes vacant and blighted buildings at a much higher rate than occupied ones. While occupied units are taxed at around $1 per $100 of assessed value, vacant buildings are taxed at $5 per $100 and must meet certain maintenance standards. Blighted buildings (those is more serious disrepair) are taxed higher: $10 per $100 of assessed value.

When taxes don't work, the city uses liens. But what about when liens don't work?

At first, it seems illogical for properties to sit unused: DC needs more housing, neighborhoods want more retail, and property owners and developers want returns on their investments, not fines and taxes. But there are many reasons for a building to remain vacant even when developing it might serve the greater good.

Sometimes the culprit is an absent owner waiting to cash in when property values rise, often utilizing loopholes to get out of the tax penalties. Other times it is simply a case where accumulated unpaid taxes and penalties have amounted to such a high amount, the situation is stuck.

If I'm a building owner and I don't pay my property taxes, the government has the option to bundle what I owe into an investment called a tax lien that it can then sell to an investor. An investor can then come and buy that lien, making the government happy (they got their money), and now I owe my overdue taxes, interest, and penalties to this investor. If I still don't pay over a long enough period of time, that investor can foreclose on my building and take it away.

Sometimes, though, nobody buys liens. It might be that an investor doesn't want to buy the lien for a building that is falling a part and is not worth the investment. It might also be that the tax lien has become so high no investor will bite. The list of tax sales that went up earlier this year shows the wide range of liens available to potential investors, and just how high they can be: over $1 million for one particular property.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Anita Bonds wants to change that

Councilmember Bonds' bill, introduced after work with different housing advocacy groups, intends to target vacant properties which haven't or probably won't sell. The bill would allow the Mayor to transfer the rights of properties where the property tax debt is 50% or more of the assessed value of the property to a developer or non-profit. The new owner would have to meet strict affordability standards with their plan for the property:

  • For single family buildings, the new property must be affordable to buyers or renters at 90% AMI (Area Median Income)
  • For multi-unit buildings, one-quarter the new property must be affordable for buyers or renters at 80% or below of AMI, one-quarter at 50% or below of AMI, and one-quarter at 30% or below of AMI
The bill also mandates a 40-year affordability covenant on the property (ensuring the affordability rules above in the deed), and outlines a process for the selection of the profit or non-profit developers who would take over the property. Currently the legislation has been referred to the Committee on Housing and Community Development and the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for analysis. The housing committee will probably address the bill in May.

Have an opinion? Send an email to the Councilmember Bonds, the chairperson of the Housing and Community Development Committee, at abonds@dccouncil.us, or to Committee Director Irene Kang (ikang@dccouncil.us).

In the meantime, know a vacant building you want turned into affordable housing? Call 311 or email vacantbuildings@dc.gov to report.

Development


The first two efforts to turn Petworth's Hebrew Home into housing failed. Will the third time be different?

Just a few blocks from the Petworth Metro, a District-owned apartment that most call the Hebrew Home has been vacant since 2009, and DC is asking for resident input on its latest effort to redevelop the land (the first two fell through). The end result could be 200 new units of mixed-income housing, along with retail and park space.


The Hebrew Home, looking west on Spring Road. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Located at 1125 Spring Road, the Hebrew Home's name is a reference to the building's original use serving the elderly Jewish population with housing and health care. From 1925 to 1969, the property grew to include an array of social services available to young and old within a community that both understood and supported the specific religious, linguistic, and cultural needs of its clients.

When the Hebrew Home determined it could no longer adequately serve the needs of the local Jewish population by remaining on Spring Road, it sold the property to the District government and moved into a new facility in Montgomery County.


The Hebrew Home and the adjacent Robeson School building, at 10th and Spring NW. Image from DMPED.

This isn't the first effort to redevelop the Hebrew Home

From 1968 until its closure in 2009, the District used the Hebrew Home site as a mental health facility for the homeless. Since it closed that facility, the District has attempted to breathe new life into the building without success.

In the fall of 2010, the DC Department of Human Services proposed using the site to shelter families instead of sending them to DC General. That plan would have cost an estimated $800,000 to renovate the building for 74 families. However, the site was removed from consideration due to then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser's concern that the immediate area had an "inordinate amount of group homes" and two homeless shelters within a two-block radius of the site.

More recently, efforts in 2014 to redevelop the historic structure and the Robeson School (which sits immediately adjacent, to the east) resulted in a plan to create approximately 200-units of housing with 90% designated as affordable, including a senior preference for 25% of the units.


The Robeson School building. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Development stalled again, however, when the District learned that it wouldn't be able to transfer ownership to the DC Housing Authority without a formal Request for Proposals process. Moreover, Bowser expressed reservations about the plan being weighted so heavily toward affordable housing. Due to these factors, the District restarted the process to develop the site in April with what it's calling OurRFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

The Hebrew Home could become much-needed housing for all incomes

The first of two OurRFP workshops to decide how to redevelop the Hebrew Home was earlier this month. There, officials from DC's office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) shared some key data:

  • The lot is 144,400 square feet in size.
  • The site includes three buildings. The development will not include the small building at the western edge of the site.
  • The former Hebrew Home structure is historic, but the Robeson School is not and can be razed.
  • The property has good access to transportation. It's near the Georgia Avenue Metro station, numerous bus lines, and Capital Bikeshare stations.
  • The site has a walk score of 93 and a bike score in the 80s.

A map of the transit options surrounding the Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

Workshop attendees split into 13 working groups to discuss what they would like to see happen with the Hebrew Home.

The site has tremendous potential to provide a significant amount of housing in an area with ready access to public transportation and where housing prices and displacement are of great concern. Within my working group, there was general agreement that the RFP should start from the position of including a strong affordability component, with the financing then driving the configuration of affordable and market rate housing to a balanced level. There was an understanding that the economics of development will have an impact on what can be financed and that, at the end of the day, the development must become a reality for any housing to exist.

With regards to the living units, there's a need for both family-sized units and apartments for seniors. I would like to see every unit (if possible) be ADA compliant; as units become vacant in the future it would be ideal if any resident in need of housing would be able to move into the building and not be prevented due to the unit's configuration.


A map showing existing affordable housing surrounding the Hebrew Home site by location and number of affordable units. Image from DMPED.

As for the type of building that goes up, it is clear that people want the new construction to fit into the neighborhood context. Whether the building was traditional, modern, contemporary, or something else, the materials, massing, and architectural detailing's ability to make it fit the character of what's around it certainly exists.

We also discussed the massing of the new construction on the Robeson site. Some suggested that a by-right approach would be more in keeping with the neighborhood and better fit in. I countered that I would prefer a Planned Unit Developmentwhere a developer provides the community with benefits in exchange for a zoning exception— for three reasons:

  1. A PUD would allow for a slightly larger building. The existing Hebrew Home building is one story taller than allowed by by right, and I think that an additional story on the new construction that matched the height of the historic building would not be out of place, especially as it would be located between the Hebrew Home site and the Raymond School & Recreation Center.
  2. A PUD would also result in more oversight and community opportunities to participate.
  3. As zoned, the building is residential. But the existing Hebrew Home building has a space on the first floor with a separate entrance that could support a small store or possibly another use such as an early childhood development center.
I think the community would benefit from vetting these options to see if they're a good fit rather than not discussing them at all.

One of the last things the group discussed was the public space and sustainability. As part of this discussion, we talked about trees, benches, green roofs, and other possible uses for the existing green spaces. As this is an opportunity to enhance our natural environment, I also mentioned that we should advocate for all trees and landscaping to be native plantings. The green space between the small building at 1131 Spring Road and the Hebrew Home is also large enough for a small park or other type of public space.

There will be another OurRFP workshop in May, and DMPED anticipates releasing the RFP solicitation in June 2016.

A version of this post originally ran on Park View, DC.

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.

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