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Developments Across D.C. In Limbo As Council Likely Punts New Comp Plan To 2021

Developers hoping to develop housing out of a former school building in Ivy City, a Metro parking lot in Takoma, a vacant lot in Brookland, a church property in Southwest and a public housing community in Anacostia are all stuck in limbo.

These projects are just five of the countless developments that would create thousands of housing units that aren't moving forward until D.C. enacts a new Comprehensive Plan

The four-year-long process to amend the city's guiding land-use document now appears to be facing another delay.

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

Mayor Muriel Bowser submitted the final set of amendments to the D.C. Council in April, and earlier this month she called on the legislative body to pass it before the end of the year, a call that has been echoed by housing advocates and developers. 

The council is scheduled to hold hearings Nov. 12 and Nov. 13 on the changes, but the prospects of passing it before year-end don't look promising. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said during a press conference last week it is "unlikely" the council will pass the Comprehensive Plan this year. Mendelson confirmed that is still the case Tuesday in a statement to Bisnow.

"With hearings scheduled in November and public comments accepted through December 3, it is unlikely that the Council will complete its review by the end of the year, so we will take it up when we return from recess," Mendelson wrote in an emailed statement. 

The Bowser administration says every additional month delays the groundbreaking of thousands of apartments across the District, many of them affordable housing, and it makes it more difficult to reach the mayor's goal of building 36,000 new housing units by 2025.

"With all the uncertainty in the market, it's critical the Comprehensive Plan gets passed this year to focus on how we get these projects started," Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio told Bisnow

Passage Punted

Pushing the Comprehensive Plan vote to the new year adds more complications than just another month or two of delays. The council will swear in new members at the beginning of the year, and it will start a new legislative session that could require reintroduction of the bill.

"There will be a lot on the council’s plate at the beginning of the year, and thinking about our long-term recovery will be at the forefront of their agenda," said Falcicchio, who was Bowser's chief of staff before being appointed as former DMPED Brian Kenner's replacement earlier this year. "The good thing about taking it up this year is that we would have this bit of certainty and this work behind us so that we can focus on continued pandemic response."

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D.C. Acting Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio speaking at a January DCHFA event.

While the chairman emphasized the importance of public input, Falcicchio highlighted that the Office of Planning extended its own public engagement period earlier this year and utilized feedback from Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and other stakeholders in its proposal. 

"OP did a lot of engagement, and I think what we'll see is the engagement at the hearings next month, I imagine we won't see a lot of new information or insights, we'll probably see a regurgitation of that," Falcicchio said. 

The Bowser administration is not the only party urging the council to pass the Comprehensive Plan.

The Zoning Commission, the body that approves many of D.C.'s largest developments, wrote a letter to the council in August saying the delay is negatively affecting its ability to move zoning cases forward. 

The D.C. Housing Priorities Coalition, a group of advocacy groups and developers, wrote a letter Sept. 30 urging the council to pass the Comprehensive Plan this year to avoid further delays to the city's housing pipeline.

Coalition for Smarter Growth Policy Director Cheryl Cort, who signed the Sept. 30 letter, said there was extensive public engagement when the Office of Planning crafted its proposal, and she urged the Council not to let the bill fall into 2021. 

"We have a bunch of projects that are just stopped, a bunch of important affordable housing investments that are waiting for something to happen because we're stuck at the D.C. Council," Cort said in an interview. "And we're discouraging future investment and planning for building into the longer-term future."

MidCity Executive Vice President Stephanie Liotta-Atkinson, whose firm has multiple projects in planning and has been engaged throughout the Comprehensive Plan process, said the proposal reflects a compromise of viewpoints after months of public engagement, and she thinks the council should push to pass it this year. 

"We want certainty, and the longer it takes, it just attenuates the development cycle for folks that are trying to bring housing units online," she said. "At this point, getting it done in 2020 would be ideal for certainty in the process."

Developments Delayed

As the council waits to pass the new land-use plan, property owners across the District are waiting for the new plan to move forward with a host of projects that would add to the city's housing stock. 

The projects range from those with cases before the Zoning Commission, to those that have been appealed and blocked by the court, to other properties for which the developer is waiting for the new Comprehensive Plan before beginning the entitlement process. 

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A rendering of the 222-unit development planned at 400 I St. SW

D.C. Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood identified two cases before the Zoning Commission that likely can't move forward until the new Comprehensive Plan is put in place: the 222-unit redevelopment of Southwest D.C.'s Westminster Presbyterian Church property and the 285-unit development at 1625 Benning Road NE. 

"These are the kinds of projects that are a day-for-day delay for the Comprehensive Plan passage," Trueblood said. "For each month that this is delayed, we know that it will delay new housing starts."

Bozzuto, the developer partnering with the Westminster Presbyterian Church, said it generally supports the adoption of the Comprehensive Plan, but declined to comment further. Valvare, the developer behind the Benning Road project, didn't respond to requests for comment. 

Trueblood also identified two projects that have had their approvals vacated by the D.C. Court of Appeals that need the new Comprehensive Plan to move forward: the redevelopment of Anacostia's 25-acre Barry Farm community and the 901 Monroe project in Brookland. 

The 220-unit Brookland project from The Menkiti Group was first approved in 2012 but has been appealed and blocked by the court three times. The developer is now waiting for the new Comprehensive Plan before restarting the process, Menkiti Group CEO Bo Menkiti said. 

"It's disappointing that a site across from a Metro station that could bring much-needed housing to a neighborhood that needs that, that could add affordable units and reasonably priced market-rate housing, that it is sitting," Menkiti said. "And it is sitting in the name of folks saying they care about affordable housing. That doesn't make sense."

Additionally, an untold number of developers have sites where they are planning to build housing but are waiting until the new Comprehensive Plan is in place before submitting their plans. 

"We've had conversations with a number of landowners, and there are thousands of units waiting in the wings for the Future Land Use Map and the overall Comprehensive Plan," Trueblood said. 

Two of the developers waiting in the wings are EYA and Stonebridge, and their projects would add more than 500 housing units to underutilized sites in the District. 

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A rendering of the redeveloped Crummell School in Ivy City

D.C. selected a Stonebridge-led team in November 2016 to build 320 apartments, including 60 affordable units, on the site of the former Crummell School building in Ivy City.

Stonebridge principal Doug Firstenberg said the team is waiting to begin the entitlement process until after the Comprehensive Plan amendments are finalized. 

"The changes in the Comprehensive Plan have been, and are always, essential to the vision that the District chose us for, and that the community supported us for," Firstenberg said. "Our schedule is tied to the comp plan update."

WMATA selected EYA in 2000 to build housing on a parking lot next to the Takoma Metro station. Community opposition and other complications have delayed the 200-unit project for two decades, but the developer has been waiting for at least the last two years for the new Comprehensive Plan before beginning its entitlement process. 

"We've been delayed for years, and the comp plan is crucial for that project to move forward," EYA Executive Vice President Aakash Thakkar said. "It seems to fit all the right bills in terms of what the city is looking to do on top of Metro, and it is being held up due to this Comp Plan."

MidCity's 1,700-unit RIA development in Northeast D.C. was delayed for multiple years by an appeal, but it is still using the existing Comprehensive Plan for the first phase of development, a pair of affordable housing buildings. But its future phases will be built under the new Comprehensive Plan and require its passage before moving forward. 

"We're trying as developers to control as many variables as we can," Liotta-Atkinson said. "Understanding the conditions around land use and what you can build and how many units you can deliver is an important piece of the puzzle. Getting certainty on this is important to developers."

Menkiti said the pandemic and economic crisis have made it even more important for the council to pass the plan to allow new developments to begin construction.

“The city has a housing crisis, and the guidance of the Comprehensive Plan is important for everyone being able to move forward," Menkiti said. "Even more so now with everything we’re facing with COVID and the budget pressure that puts on the city, at some point, we need to stop delaying this and get on with moving all these things forward.”