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Development


This new law would mean a better count of DC's vacant buildings

DC probably has a lot more vacant and blighted properties than its official count says, largely because of loophopes in the counting system. A bill before the DC Council is aiming to change that.


Residents proposed ideas for ways a long-vacant property could be put to better use. Photo by Myles Smith.

In February, Elissa Silverman introduced the Vacant Property Enforcement Amendment of 2016 to work in tandem with a similar piece of legislation she introduced in 2015. Both would shift the burden of proof from DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to the property owner, meaning it'd be on the owner to show that a buildint isn't vacant rather than on the city to show that it is.

This change would make building owners much more accountable, as well as strengthen DCRA's ability to enforce existing vacant and blighted properties laws.

First, a quick recap of the current situation

Under current law, properties determined that DCRA's Vacant and Blighted Enforcement Unit determines to be vacant are taxed at elevated tax rates of five percent of assessed value if vacant and 10 percent if the property is found to be blighted.

But the process for classifying a property as vacant or blighted and then maintaining the property's classification is onerous; District law states that the Mayor is the only person in the city who has the authority to list a building as blighted, and there are a number of loopholes in the law that allow negligent owners to avoid elevated tax rates.


A vacant building at 824 Kennedy Street NW. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Every six months, DCRA has to reassess the property and determine that it is still vacant and/or blighted. That means that when a building goes onto the list, chances are high that it will revert to the normal non-vacant, non-blighted tax rate even if the owner does nothing at all.

We estimate that there are as many as 5,000 vacant and blighted properties in the District, a number far too large for the small staff of DCRA's Vacant and Blighted Enforcement Unit to keep a handle on.

Silverman's bills do four things:

It reduces from three years to two years the maximum amount of time a vacant property can qualify for an exemption from higher taxes.

  • Currently, property owners can get exemptions from higher tax rates for up the three years by filing for work permits that cost a fraction of the potential tax penalty. In practice, these exemptions can last much longer than three years, as David Sheon and I have documented in a number of cases. There is no requirement that any actual work be done to earn the exemption.

This vacant building at 5112 9th Street has been vacant for three years, but it regularly falls off the list and its owner doesn't get taxed at a higher level consistently. Neighbors complain of loiterers and drug activity on the property.

It shifts the burden of biannual proof that the building is vacant or blighted from being the responsibility of DCRA inspectors and onto homeowners.

  • As the law stands, DCRA has to inspect every one of the 1300 properties on the list plus any new properties every six months. This bill shifts the burden off of DCRA and onto the owners of vacant properties by making them demonstrate with utility bills that the properties are no longer vacant.
It raises fines for failing to register vacant properties or allow DCRA to inspect them.
  • Accepting a fine is often easier and less expensive than registering a property as vacant. This bill reverses those incentives, making it easier for DCRA to maintain accurate lists with up to date information and to take enforcement actions when necessary.
It provides positive incentives by allowing an owner of a vacant property who follows the law and fills the vacancy within a year to receive a rebate of one year of vacant property taxes.
  • There is currently no mechanism for reimbursing owners of vacant and blighted properties who remediate blight and fill vacancies. This law will provide a strong incentive for owners to move quickly and do the right thing.

A vacant building at 615 Jefferson Street NW. Note the stop work order in the window.

The DC Council will take the next steps in July

The Council has scheduled hearings on the proposed legislation for July 14. Hopefully, we'll see the bill brought up for a vote following the hearings.

While this bill does not address all of the loopholes, it does fix the most obvious flaws. We are pleased to see this development, and urge Council to add the additional amendments needed to address the above listed issues.



Development


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.

Development


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.

Links


National links: Oklahoma City, here we come

If you want to enjoy a good job and an affordable place to live, you might want to head to Oklahoma, Nebraska, or Iowa. San Jose is apparently the weirdest city in the US, and the people who usually build the freeways in Texas are supporting the idea of tearing one down in Dallas. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Matthew Rutledge on Flickr.

Not many housing options: Even when people are willing to make tradeoffs to live in places where housing prices are sky high, it's hard to find quality of life, a good jobs, housing that's affordable all in one place. So hard, in fact, that only three cities in the United States have all 3: Oklahoma City, Omaha, and Des Moines. That's according to a study from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. (Gizmodo)

Weird city science: Cities are full of people and activities that many would label "weird." But which one is actually most different from the county's norm? Based on factors ranging from how many foreign-born workers there are to how many people don't own a car, cotton economist Lyman Stone says it's San Jose, and that Oklahoma City is the least weird. (Washington Post)

Tear down this freeway: Texas' department of transportation, unsurprisingly, loves to build freeways. But in a recent report on what to do with an obsolete downtown Dallas freeway spur, the agency opened up the possibility of thinking less like a typical highway department and more like urban designers, with an option to tear down the freeway and let the city reclaim the land. (Dallas Morning News)

The end of big infrastructure: While there are a few possibilities for national-scale projects we'd benefit from, this author argues that the era of building big infrastructure is over. There just isn't much we could invest in that could bring the return of our railroad or interstate system, meaning smaller, local projects and maintenance should be our priorities. (Transportist)

Ride hailing real talk: Right now, ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft are giving cities a binary set of options: do what we want, or we'll leave. That isn't productive, and the conversation needs to change if there is to be a solution that serves both city residents and companies that want to innovate. Luckily, there are examples of good partnerships. (Sidewalk Labs)

Seattle's big slice: In the Puget Sound region, where Seattle is, there are five "taxing areas" within three counties. The Sound Transit projects that each receives are reflective of how much each pays in taxes, and the organization's leader (a former FTA administrator) says it'd be best to have everyone pay for a new tunnel in downtown Seattle because the entire network will benefit from it. (Seattle Times)

Quote of the Week

"It's possible San Francisco may have unwittingly demonstrated what I'm calling the Indiana Jones Theory of Housing Regulation. The idea is that when cities increase the burden on new development, whether through inclusionary zoning, expiring tax breaks, or new building codes, they create a deadline boom, as builders rush to get approval before the new laws can take effect. Like Indiana Jones, builders try to get through before the door closes." - Slate's Henry Grabar, explaining his Indiana Jones theory of housing regulation.

Development


A new owner bought my apartment and wanted to tear it down. Here's how I ended up owning the place.

In 2001 my landlord sold my apartment complex to the National Cathedral. It wanted to replace our apartments with a visitors' center. I managed to stay put and buy my unit because of a DC law called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA).


The author's building. Image from Google Maps.

TOPA gives tenants' associations the right to refuse contracted sales of their buildings and to purchase them instead for the contracted sale prices. There are lots of TOPA stories. This one is mine.

I learned about the sale of my building from the Northwest Current. When I read the headline my stomach dropped. I'd only been in my apartment for a year. It was affordable, close to work, and pet friendly. I had also just adopted a dog. I didn't know if I could find another pet-friendly building nearby.

My fears weren't unfounded. Tenants are usually vulnerable during building sales. In many cities new owners can institute steep rent hikes, refuse to renew leases, or convert to condo. They can even tear buildings down. Fortunately, as I would find out, DC has protections against these tactics.

A few days later several of my fellow tenants organized a meeting in the alley behind our property. They explained the TOPA process and the rights it gives tenants. It sounded fantastical to me. The most I'd ever gotten as a tenant was an $80 check from a landlord who waited 4 days to fix my broken stove. And, he only issued it after I researched the housing code and told him he was legally required to reimburse me.

Here's how TOPA works

When residential property is sold in D.C. landlords are required to give tenants a TOPA Notice, or Offer of Sale, which informs them that they may refuse the sale and purchase the property instead for the contracted sale price.

Tenants must then incorporate as a tenants' association, if one does not already exist, and submit a letter of interest within 45 days of receiving the offer of sale. The tenants association can then request information from the landlord including floor plans, itemized operating expenses, utility rates, capital expenditures for the previous 2 years, a recent rent roll, and a list of vacant apartments.

The tenants' association then has a 120 day period to exercise their right of first refusal and negotiate to purchase the property. If the tenants' association signs a contract with a deposit they have an additional 120 days to secure financing. After the purchase is complete the tenants' association can convert to condominium or co-operative or remain rental.

My conversion experience

My tenants' association decided to refuse our sale. Our biggest hurdle was finding the 26 million dollars necessary to match the initial sale price.

The city provides loans and technical assistance to help majority low income tenants' associations purchase their buildings, but we weren't eligible since most of us were professionals. Private loans weren't an option either. As a new tenants' association we didn't have a bank account or credit history. We would need a developer to help us buy the property.

The process of selecting a developer usually involves substantial 'horse-trading.' For their part tenants want low/stable housing costs. In buildings converting to condo, like ours, that meant below-market prices for our units. Tenants also want repairs their landlords often neglected to make for years. In our case we needed new boilers, repairs to decaying joists, increased electric voltage, and new plumbing risers.

For their part, developers want to make a profit, and the best way to do that in buildings where tenants want to convert to condo, is to secure some empty units that can be sold at market rates. As such, developers negotiate for the right to offer tenants a buyout, a sum of money a tenant takes in exchange for relinquishing rights to her unit.

My tenants' association found a developer and converted to condominium in late 2002. Just over 30% of my fellow tenants stayed put. Another 30% took buyouts ($7,000 for studios, $10,000 for 1-bedrooms, and $12,000 for 2-bedrooms). The remaining units were vacant at the time of conversion.

I purchased my 1-bedroom unit for $162,000. For me the TOPA process was both exhilarating and terrifying. I loved my condo and my neighborhood. The Cathedral was my front yard. I could walk to work and the grocery store. And, suddenly I felt like I lived in a small village instead of an anonymous city. My fellow tenant convertors and I walked each other's dogs, swapped spare keys, shared drinks (and hangovers), and helped each other through heartaches, job losses, and the like.

But, I was also worried. As an academic I wondered how I would pay my mortgage if I didn't get tenure, and whether I'd be able to sell the condo quickly if I needed to. I also worried that I'd be house poor—able to make the mortgage but scrimping to cover everything else. My unit was in poor shape: 20 year old carpet, peeling wall paper, grungy cabinets and a stove that wasn't up to code.

Looking back, I laugh at my worries. Although I paid a below market price, I worried the market was out of control and that my unit was over-valued. Little did I know that property values would appreciate rapidly after I purchased my unit and that its value would never fall below my purchase price, even during the recession. At the end of the day, I was lucky. My building was sold at a favorable time and my tenants' association leaders (Laura, Matthew, Patty and Stephen) were tenacious.

Classifying TOPA

TOPA doesn't always work so well. The process is also very different in buildings that opt to remain rental because of the city's rent control statute. I will explore these issues in future posts, but it's worth considering here what makes TOPA so powerful.

First, TOPA gives tenants a legal way to stay put when their apartments are sold. Although building sales can happen at any time, they are especially common during gentrification. In fact, the city council introduced the TOPA statute in 1979 in response to a then ongoing condo conversion boom associated with gentrification near downtown.

Tenants who can't afford homeownership can also use TOPA to keep their buildings rental. In fact, a city statute passed at the same time as TOPA only allows a building to convert to condo if 50% (+1) of units vote to convert.

Having a legal right to stay put is exceptionally rare for tenants in the U.S. Most cities offer no or minimal protections for tenants whose buildings have been sold.

Second, TOPA gives tenants market power during gentrification. Lots of people benefit from gentrification, but tenants aren't usually among them. Cities get increased tax revenue. Landlords sell aging building for big profits. Developers turn disinvested buildings into luxury housing with price tags to match. Tenants, by contrast, are usually forced out of their homes. TOPA changes that by giving tenants market power. They can buy their units and build equity, take buyouts and use them to pay down debt or build up savings, or stay rental and negotiate with their development partner for building improvements. For once, tenants don't get the short end of the stick.

I believe affordable housing should be a right and I know the commodification of housing has contributed to rising unaffordability nationwide. Until we can convince cities to provide affordable housing, however, TOPA can at the very least give tenants a fairer shake in the game we're now playing. TOPA doesn't change the game, but it has changed who can play it.

Development


There's an empty seat at your ANC meeting. Whose is it?

Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meetings are a place for making important decisions in DC, and the people who actually fill the seats can have a big impact on their neighborhood. Commissioners also have a real opportunity to consider who's not there, and what their needs and interests are.


Whose seats are these? Image from Tarek on Flickr.

A couple months ago, I went to the ANC 3E meeting in Tenleytown, mostly to learn more about the status of this project that lost three floors and over 50 units of housing because of neighborhood pressure. There were more than 40 people in the room... and more than 50 seats left empty.

Whose seats are those? Of course there are many more in the neighborhood that could engage and that aren't, and we can and should do a better job of getting those people out. But what about the residents who aren't in the seats because they aren't here yet? Last year, a net of 1,000+ new residents arrived to town every month (the actual number moving here is much higher, but the amount of people leaving is high too). Who is speaking for them at these meetings that determine whether their potential housing is built or not?

In DC, ANC meetings can shape housing policy

If there is a war around expanding our housing stock at multiple affordability levels, then the battlefields of that war are ANC meetings. This is where buildings gain or lose floors, and where zoning changes knock down potential development.

Though ANCs have little official political power, District officials do have to give their opinions "great weight," meaning they have a lot of influence with agencies like the Zoning Commission. Commissioners who testify for or against certain developments often have significant impacts on rulings. Moreover, a single commissioner can use their position to control the topics of public meetings, to delay or investigate development processes, or to negotiate on behalf of the community. Commissioners' influence is far reaching.

When an ANC commissioner takes the oath of office, they not only pledge to serve in the interest of their neighborhood constituents. They also pledge that they

"will exercise [their] best judgment and will consider each matter before [them] from the viewpoint of the best interest of the District of Columbia as a whole."
Commissioners who don't consider the needs of next month's, next year's, and next decade's residents are not fulfilling their oath.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

The status quo won't look out for everyone

Of course, even the commissioners who do want to consider future residents are in store for some challenges.

One thing commissioners have to be cautious of is not letting the loudest people in the room shape a neighborhood's direction. ANC meetings can be terrible; they can drag on for hours, and are sometimes full of bitter exchanges between neighbors or boring minutiae. That can often mean that only those with free time and familiarity with the system show up, and decision makers wind up in an echo chamber, even if they're actually just hearing from a vocal minority.

People who work night jobs or two jobs, people who have kids to take care of, or people who simply can't spend four hours listening to debate about liquor licenses so they can speak for five minutes about the building down the block, these people still have opinions that should inform what ANCs do.

We have to look out for tomorrow's neighbors

We need more ways to make sure that next month's 1,000 and the other empty chairs have a voice in our local decisions and politics. I wrote in my introduction to this community that blogging wasn't always enough. I'm an organizer, so I believe strongly that sometimes you have to show up and speak up to get what you want.

But how do you organize people who aren't here yet? I'm normally against speaking for people; I'd rather share the mic and let them use their own voice to say what they want to say. But in this case we need more people who are here today to step up to the mic for those who are coming tomorrow.

As mentioned in the Washington Post not long ago, cities just don't fill up. The idea that there is no room for more housing is fantasy; the idea that there is no political room to build more housing is reality. Growth is coming to our city and region; we must focus on how to shape our cities to accommodate this growth in equitable, beautiful, and smart ways.

Groups around the country are starting to form to fight for the needs of the new comers and the often excluded. In other words, more housing at diverse affordability levels. These YIMBY groups are gathering for an inaugural national conference to share strategy, learn from and engage with each other. GGWash is excited to be there. We know what we need, how to get there is our next question.

In the meantime, neighborhood leaders, next time you sit in a meeting with empty seats, keep the next 1,000 in mind.

Links


National links: More biking in Atlanta

Atlanta's investing a ton of money in bike infrastructure, the negative effects of racist housing policies haven't gone anywhere, and sprawl is costing commuters big time. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Green Lane Project on Flickr.

Bike lanes for Atl: The Atlanta Regional Commission has approved $1 billion dollars for bike infrastructure in the region over a 25 year period. It sounds like a lot, but considering that it's part of an $85 billion plan... is it? (Bicycling)

Redlining the future: Historic housing policies that barred minorities from living in certain neighborhoods. One consequence that's still playing out is that very rich and very poor neighborhoods are increasing in number, and the children in the poor ones tend to make less money in the future and have more mental health problems. These cartoons explain the matter more in-depth. (Vox)

Sprawl Tax: Every year we hear about how much it costs Americans to be stuck in traffic, but what if we framed it as "how much policies that create congestion cause us?" Introducing the Sprawl Tax. In the 50 largest metro areas, sprawling land use costs commuters an average of $107 billion per year. (City Observatory)

Light rail in Austin: Transit advocates in Austin have been pushing for light rail for over 30 years. With the city focusing on mobility and a bond measure possibly going on this fall's ballot, they are hoping that the rail segment will be added to the mix. (Austin American Statesman)

On the edge: A common theme among transit planners is balancing service for an urban core versus the regional edge. It's important not to forget that transit functions as a network, meaning that if gets weaker in one place, it gets weaker everywhere. When we recognize that core improvements can help the edge and vice versa, our conversations are more productive. (Human Transit)

Quote of the Week

"These great shortcuts used to spread by word of mouth, but now they just spread like wildfire" - Traffic Engineer Paul Silberman on more and more cut through traffic directed off of main streets and into neighborhoods by the app Waze. (Washington Post)

Development


The Hebrew Home's neighbors want density and affordability

Neighbors of Petworth's Hebrew Home, which will soon be redeveloped, recently spoke up about what they'd like to see happen with the property. They want a dense building, lots of affordable housing, and better, more sustainable uses of the surrounding public space.


The Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

The Hebrew Home building provided senior housing and medical care for over 40 years before the District bought it and turned it into a mental health care facility. The building became vacant in 2009, and multiple efforts to redevelop it have stalled out.

In April, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development renewed the effort, making the Hebrew Home part of Our RFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

More than 100 residents of Petworth and Columbia Heights attended the second Hebrew Home OurRFP meeting earlier this month to review the outcome of the first meeting and provide feedback on design and density, what kind of housing should go on the site, and public space and sustainability. There were presentation boards with a number of options for addressing each category, and meeting attendees ranked their preferences by placing stickers on measures they considered most important.

Here's what they said they want to see happen with the building:

Build as much housing as can fit

96% of the meeting attendees supported maximizing the possible density of the site through a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which allows a building to exceed the density that its area allows in exchange for projects that benefit the neighborhood.

The Hebrew Home site is currently zoned for residential rowhouse structures with a height limit of 35' (or 40' with a special exception). While the zoning does not impact the existing historic structure—which already exceeds zoning limitations—it does restrict the new construction planned for the eastern section of the property. A PUD would permit additional height and massing.


The profile of the building if there are no zoning exceptions. Image from DMPED.


The profile of the building if there are zoning exceptions via a PUD. Image from DMPED.

While there are many amenities a developer can provide to a community as part of a PUD process, one of those amenities can be (and often is) additional affordable housing units. More on this in just a bit.

In addition to wanting more density, 60% of the participants favored incorporating historic elements of the Hebrew Home building into the new construction. This would probably mean using materials similar to the ones used for the current building, or at least designing a more traditional building.

38% of residents would also like the project to exceed the District's green building requirements. District owned or financed residential projects 10,000 square feet or larger must meet or exceed the Green Communities Standard, but residents say they want the building to do even more to use less energy, consume fewer natural resources such as water and forest products, and emit fewer pollutants into the environment.

Make the housing affordable

As many as 200 new housing units could be part of the Hebrew Home's redevelopment. A key discussion point has been how affordable these units will be.

The Hebrew Home is public property, which means 30% of any housing that goes up there has to be set aside as affordable. Yet 94% of the participants in the June OurRFP meeting indicated that 30% was not enough affordable housing, and that they want to see more. Many participants would like to see significantly more, in fact, and they indicated this by writing 100% on their stickers.


Neighbors visiting the three topic boards and placing stickers on their priorities at the latest Hebrew Home meeting. Photo by the author.

While the outcome will likely be a mix of housing affordability across the income spectrum, there is no reason why a significant number of the housing units can't be affordable at some level—and due to available tax credits, affordable units can be easier to build than market rate units.

Less than a mile to the south, the 273 unit building planned as the "build first" site to replace Park Morton has been proposed with 94 public housing units and 108 workforce units for families earning 60% AMI. The remaining units would be offered at market rate.

In additional to support for housing affordability, 36% of the participants support reserving housing for seniors, 32% would like to have family-sized units included, and 20% would like the Hebrew Home development to create opportunities for home ownership.

Revamp the public space around the building

The Hebrew Home project has significant potential to improve the site's public space and sustainability. As the site exists today, 10th Street at the eastern edge of the property is technically part of the site. Unlike the east side of 10th Street which has sidewalks, trees, and grass, the west side of 10th Street has no sidewalks, no trees, and contains a large surface parking lot.


Image from Google Maps.

There is also a large open grass area between the historic building and its neighbor to the west at 1131 Spring Road, which could be a community garden, a playground, or an improved park space.


The grass area just west of the building. Image from DMPED.

There was more diversity of opinion on this aspect of the project than there was with Housing and Density. Still, participants' preference for sustainability was strong with 76% of them indicating that they would like to see the project incorporate sustainable public space improvements. DMPED defined such improvements as including storm water management, sustainable landscaping, and permeable surfaces.

With the exception of incorporating public art, which only received support from 8% of the participants, support for the other priorities was fairly evenly split with 40% wanting upgrades to 10th Street exceeding DDOT standards, 40% for passive uses of green space such as a community garden or public benches, and 36% wanting active uses of the outdoor areas such as a dog park, playground, or educational programming.

What's next?

After getting a strong sense of what the community wants through two community workshops, DMPED plans to formally open the window for developers to submit proposals for the site in late June. Once a developer is selected, there will be additional opportunities for community engagement.

The historic nature of the site and potential PUD will both provide opportunities for Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 4C and 1A to weigh in. In addition to ANC review, residents will be able to engage through public hearings at the Historic Preservation Review Board and Zoning Commission.

Development


A Fairfax City community center could become George Mason student housing

A small community center across from George Mason's Fairfax Campus is up for redevelopment, and Fairfax City is weighing options for what to do with it. One possibility is to make it student housing, a move that could help bring the school and its surrounding community together.


Image from the City of Fairfax.

Called Green acres, the ten-acre plot of land housed an elementary school from 1961-2000, and is now home to a small community center. The building is in dire need of repair, and last year the Green Acres Feasibility Committee suggested an expanded community center, a new school, or privately owned student or senior housing as possible new uses.

The Fairfax City School Board currently holds a covenant over the land, and can build a new school there if it decides that's what it needs. That the city's school-age population is growing (it has steadily increased over the last 15 years, from 2,652 in 1999 to 3,170 in 2015) could be a reason to do that.

The feasibility committee has received reports on other possible sites for relocating the community center. City staff identified Van Dyck Park, City Hall, and the current site of Paul VI Catholic High School as among the seven "finalists" for locations of a new center. Because Green Acres is at the edge of the city, staff documents note that perhaps a more central location like Van Dyck Park or City Hall would provide better accessibility to residents. There is, however, limited space on the City Hall campus and using land on Van Dyck Park would require collaboration with the Fairfax County.


CAPTION CAPTION CAPTION. Image from the City of Fairfax.

Green Acres could become student housing

Over the past four years, city and Mason officials have taken steps to integrate the campus with Fairfax City's historic downtown, a 15-minute walk down the road. A city and school more in step with one another could mean public and private amenities, from transit to retail, that better served residents of all kinds.

Making Green Acres a place where students live could be a great way to help unify Mason's historically isolated campus with the surrounding community. The very definition of a college town is, almost universally, students and "townies" living amongst each other, and Green Acres is one of only a handful of options for providing private off-campus housing that's within the immediate vicinity of classrooms.


Green Acres sits within the City of Fairfax and right next to George Mason University. Image from the City of Fairfax.

With the city currently finishing a review of its zoning ordinances and on the path towards reviewing its entire Comprehensive Plan, now would be the time to set student-centric priorities for Green Acres. While there are significant challenges, like reconciling the value of the land with housing that's affordable for students, city officials should prioritize working with developers who are interested in extending the student population further into the Fairfax community.

The feasibility committee, which includes representatives from Fairfax City's city council, residents, and George Mason, will present a white paper on the option of student housing to the council within the next month. Jon Stehle, who was recently elected to the council and served on the Green Acres Feasibility Committee, told the Fairfax Times earlier this month that the report would be "a pretty good analysis of how to think about what to put there."

After the committee weighs in on how realistic turning Green Acrews into student housing is, city officials will have a better understanding for how the land should be used, and likely integrate that discussion into its overall Comprehensive Plan review.

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