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Council Giveth, Council Taketh Away From Housing Goals In Land Use Plan Vote

The D.C. Council made a series of late-inning changes to the city's Comprehensive Plan, now one step from final passage, that would create new residential development potential in some areas while removing the opportunity to build housing in others. 

The D.C. Council at a March 2018 hearing on the Comprehensive Plan.

The legislative body voted unanimously Tuesday to pass the amended Comprehensive Plan through first vote. It is scheduled to take the second and final vote later this month. The vote comes after the council in October 2019 passed the Comprehensive Plan's framework element, an introductory section that includes some language intended to curb the wave of appeals that have delayed projects throughout the city.

The council is now considering the remainder of the plan, including the Future Land Use Map, a block-by-block map that guides the density of buildings that can be developed on sites across the District. Mayor Muriel Bowser unveiled her proposed FLUM changes in October 2019 and submitted them to the council in April 2020. 

The mayor sought to increase the number of residential developments that could be built across the city, with a focus on transit-oriented properties, busy corridors and established neighborhoods that haven't contributed an even share of the city's affordable housing stock. The changes are aimed at helping D.C. reach Bowser's goal of building 36,000 new housing units, including 12,000 affordable units, by 2025. 

The council kept many of her proposals in place, but it made a series of changes that could alter the course of development in several neighborhoods. Some of its changes added opportunities for housing by increasing residential density or helping churches build housing on their properties, while other changes reduced the amount of housing that could be built in the city, either by lowering densities or removing residential zoning from an area entirely. 

"There is less housing opportunity than what we proposed," Director of Planning Andrew Trueblood told Bisnow. "Given the changes, I think there are some projects that could be less likely to move forward ... but overall, I think it is still an important step in the right direction."

The council also increased the plan's emphasis on racial equity, following a report last month that concluded the Comprehensive Plan amendments wouldn't do enough to address inequalities across the city. Council members unanimously supported the plan as it stood Tuesday, but they still expressed some concerns about racial equity, and they said the District must use other tools available beyond land use planning to address the issue. 

"It's clearly an improvement on the original draft," said Council Member Anita Bonds, chair of the council's housing committee. "Finding the nexus between increased density and equity for D.C. residents is challenging but essential."

A 'Shocking' Loss Of Development Potential 

The council's changes to the Comprehensive Plan caused a series of properties to lose residential density from what the mayor had proposed, or in the case of many Northeast D.C. properties, to lose the ability to build residential at all. 

The changes Chairman Phil Mendelson submitted ahead of Tuesday's vote removed a series of proposed residential designations from industrial properties in Northeast D.C., an attempt to preserve industrial uses that is opposed by some neighborhood stakeholders. 

The area along the Red Line in Northeast D.C. between the NoMa, Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland Metro stations includes a host of properties with the FLUM designation of Production, Distribution and Repair. These properties house a variety of industrial uses, from warehouses to construction equipment and dump truck storage.

The Future Land Use Map as it stands today between the NoMa and Rhode Island Avenue stations, with the industrial PDR area in Purple.

But many of the properties sit within walking distance of Metro stations and abut the Metropolitan Branch Trail, a corridor that has seen a wave of residential development over the last two years. The mayor sought to support that development by adding the residential to the existing PDR designation, a move supported by local ANCs and civic associations, but the version the council passed Tuesday had removed the proposed residential use for many properties.

Eckington Civic Association President Conor Shaw said the mayor's proposal to add residential was widely supported across the neighborhood, and he was perplexed by the chairman's changes. His association sent a letter to Mendelson last week calling for him to reinstate the proposed residential designation. 

"There has been no opposition on the record until the chairman released his draft a couple weeks ago, and we've been trying desperately ever since to get him to listen to our call for housing," Shaw said. "It is shocking that this came out of nowhere."

Shaw said he sees a large amount of housing development opportunity between the NoMa and Rhode Island Avenue Metro stations that Mendelson's changes would restrict. 

"Land within a half of a mile of a Metro station, the opportunity costs of using that space to park dump trucks, which is the primary use of a lot of this land, is pretty high," Shaw said. "You could be housing 4,000 to 5,000 more people on this kind of corridor, but instead we're using it for things that could easily be placed elsewhere."

The industrial areas affected by the chairman removing the mayor's proposed residential designation also include parts of Brookland around the Franklin Street bridge and parts of Ivy City.

"The removal of the residential [designation] that we added along the Red Line would reduce the ability to build housing," Trueblood said. 

Mendelson told the Washington Business Journal Tuesday that he thinks D.C. should strive to maintain some of its industrial properties. 

"No one wants a concrete plant or an auto repair shop near their house, but we need them," Mendelson told WBJ. "Are we all going to have to go out to the suburbs to get our cars fixed? At some point, we're going to wake up and say, 'Geez, there's no land left for the warehouse or the concrete plant.'"

Trueblood said he does see an importance to keeping some industrial uses in the District, but he thought many of the specific properties Mendelson removed residential designations from would have been valuable places to build housing.  

"Especially when you look at old industrial areas around Brookland and the Red Line, they're not really used as industrial much anymore," Trueblood said. "I thought we did a good job of balancing it, but the chairman has a different view."

While the Northeast industrial areas were the most striking example of the council removing the ability to build residential from a series of properties, there were other areas where it reduced the amount of residential that could be built. 

The low-rise Sam's Park & Shop retail center next to the Cleveland Park Metro station.

In Cleveland Park, one of the upper Northwest areas that the mayor wants to see contribute a larger share of new housing, the council reduced her proposed designation from high-density residential to medium-density residential. The category definitions don't set strict height limits, but reducing the designation effectively lowers the height to which developers can build. 

This change was supported by Ward 3 Council Member Mary Cheh, who also proposed adding some residential density to other parts of her ward. 

Cleveland Park Smart Growth Chair Bob Ward said he was disappointed to see the residential density lowered, but he supported the council member because of the larger vision for Ward 3. 

"At this point, without Cheh's support, we're not going to get high density, and everyone realizes that," Ward said. "So we're supporting her in this effort because she is supporting higher density all around Ward 3."

'Relieving Gentrification Pressure' With More Housing In Northwest

Some parts of the District would have the ability to build more housing under the changes the council made to the mayor's proposal.

In Friendship Heights, the council increased a stretch along Wisconsin Avenue to high-density residential, a designation allowing for high-rise apartment buildings. ANC 3F Chair David Cristeal, also a steering committee member for smart-growth group Ward 3 Vision, said he was happy to see this change. 

"Ward 3 has got access to really good educational resources, open space, shopping. It's a so-called high-opportunity area that's well-served by transit, and it has the infrastructure that supports more residential development," Cristeal said. "If you want to relieve gentrification pressure elsewhere, we've got to have more housing production here in Ward 3."

Cheh, speaking during Tuesday's council meeting, said that higher-density development can help support local businesses, in addition to addressing the housing shortage. She also noted that the land use plan only sets a vision, and the District still must provide the resources necessary to support affordable housing development. 

"We have work to do to achieve the mayor's affordable housing goals and combat displacement, and to embrace higher-density development where that makes sense in Ward 3," Cheh said.

Trueblood said Cheh also added a residential designation in Wardman Park that he supported, and he thinks her amendments overall were a net positive to housing development in Ward 3. 

"I would say overall, Council Member Cheh's amendments probably create more opportunity for housing," Trueblood said. "Overall I think that was a positive for Ward 3."

A series of properties around the U Street corridor would receive a density boost under an amendment Ward 1 Council Member Brianne Nadeau proposed Tuesday that the council adopted. 

The D.C. Housing Finance Agency headquarters at 815 Florida Ave. NW

Nadeau's amendment called for increasing the residential density on city-owned properties on the U Street corridor, including the D.C. Housing Finance Agency headquarters and the Engine 9 fire station, to allow more affordable housing to be built. 

"We have a limited but critical opportunity to utilize District-owned land along U Street in one of the most rapidly gentrifying ZIP codes in the country," Nadeau said during Tuesday's meeting. 

The council also made a change aimed at helping churches build affordable housing on their properties, a growing trend in the District that has helped religious institutions remain financially stable.

"I'm pleased with new language aimed to allow churches and other faith-based organizations to develop affordable housing on-site," Bonds said during the meeting. 

The Rev. Donald Isaac, who leads the Southeast Tabernacle Baptist Church in Ward 8, in March sent a letter to the council signed by 75 faith leaders and other stakeholders requesting an increase in density for land owned by religious institutions.

Isaac told Bisnow Tuesday that the council didn't include the proposed density increases, but it added a section encouraging District agencies to work with religious institutions on housing development options. Isaac said he was satisfied with this compromise. 

"It's a significant step," Isaac said. "It's a process that happens over time, but this amendment to the Comprehensive Plan raises up to the level of the city that the faith institutions are significant partners and are encouraged to participate."