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Top D.C. Officials On Reopening The City, Moving New Developments Forward

D.C. residents this week have begun to dine inside restaurants for the first time in months, the latest step in the city's gradual reopening of its economy. 

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

While the District has been focused on the reopening process, the city's economic development officials have still pushed their agencies forward with initiatives to address the city's housing affordability crisis, from closing new development deals to finalizing the Comprehensive Plan. Three top officials and a leading developer came together on a webinar Thursday to discuss how they have moved these projects forward, and why they will be critical to D.C.'s economic growth beyond the coronavirus pandemic. 

Monday, D.C. entered Phase 2 of its reopening process, allowing restaurants to seat customers inside at half-capacity, and letting other nonessential businesses reopen with restrictions.

Acting Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio, speaking on Bisnow's Town Hall webinar Thursday, said the mayor was confident in moving into Phase 2 because the business community has complied with the guidelines and because COVID-19 cases have continued to decrease in D.C., despite spikes in other parts of the country. 

"Throughout this pandemic, and as we've gotten to Phase 1 and Phase 2, the business community has given us feedback about what they think the guidelines should be," Falcicchio said. "Once we set the guidelines people have complied ... people want to do this in a way that they don't put their employees or customers at risk."

This weekend, 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan will close to vehicular traffic, allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor seating. Falcicchio said the administration is in talks with Business Improvement Districts and other neighborhood groups about expanding the street closure program.

"The idea would be we do use this pilot to learn from it, what worked, what we can do better, and see where we could do it elsewhere in the city," Falcicchio said. 

Before D.C. began its phased reopening process, the government received feedback from the commercial real estate industry on how to best open office buildings, residences and other properties.

Clockwise from top left: Bisnow's Jon Banister, Dantes Partners' Buwa Binitie, Acting Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio, Planning Director Andrew Trueblood and DHCD Director Polly Donaldson.

Dantes Partners Managing Principal Buwa Binitie served as co-chair on the Real Estate and Construction Committee as part of the ReOpen DC advisory group. He said the committee focused on the users of its properties, including residential tenants and office workers, and making sure they felt safe with the reopening guidelines. He said he has been happy to see the mayor follow the committee's guidelines. 

"The thing the mayor did not want to do was impose recommendations on the real estate community," Binitie said. "What she did not want to do was impose another law. She wanted us to come together and police each other and give each other proper guidance."

While D.C.'s economic development and housing agencies have been focusing on reopening and coronavirus relief, they have also closed several new deals, allowing projects to begin construction during the pandemic. 

This week, D.C. announced the 171-unit Riggs Park Place project in Fort Totten closed its financing and will break ground in early July. In May, it announced the closing of financing for the 185-unit Spring Flats project in Petworth. In April, the 323-unit Whole Foods-anchored building at the Parks at Walter Reed closed its financing

"We are seeing that development projects are closing and continuing, and construction is happening," Department of Housing and Community Development Director Polly Donaldson said. "We are fully open for business and are closing transactions."

A rendering of the Parks at Walter Reed development, with The Hartley in the center.

Binitie also serves as chair of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, which has closed five deals since March with a combined total development cost of more than $300M. He said continuing to move construction projects forward will help create jobs, bring new retail opportunities to neighborhoods, create affordable housing and generate property tax revenue for the city. 

"We realize this is how we're going to keep the economy going," Binitie said. "We're doing everything possible working remotely to keep these projects moving forward. We're looking for other creative ways to ensure that we continue to close more deals."

His company, Dantes Partners, is nearing completion on the 104-unit Capitol Vista affordable housing project in Mount Vernon Triangle. Binitie said his team is using a digital leasing process, and it has had nearly 200 people apply for units in the building. 

"There was a lot of pent-up demand for affordable housing units," Binitie said. "We want to deliver that building quickly so people can move into their new homes."

After stepping into the deputy mayor role last year, Falcicchio said he convened a new group with representatives from each of the city's housing and planning agencies to meet once a month and better coordinate the District's ongoing development projects. He said DMPED next month will release new development opportunities after its March Madness event, where it unveils new requests for proposals, was canceled. 

Falcicchio hopes the new developments, plus the District's series of new housing programs and funding tools, will help it reach the mayor's goal of adding 36,000 housing units by 2025. But he said that goal will not be possible if the D.C. Council does not pass the Comprehensive Plan amendments this year. 

"If we don’t have the comp plan, all the tools that we’ve talked about are for naught," Falcicchio said. "For me, the biggest thing is to make sure the Council takes this summer to look at the comp plan, comes back in the fall and has the hearings it needs to have. We’re willing to talk about adjustments that need to be made, but the biggest thing that has to happen is the Council has to pass it in 2020."

The Office of Planning submitted its final round of Comprehensive Plan amendments to the D.C. Council in April. The administration hopes the new comprehensive plan will alleviate the years of delays that court appeals have created for new projects. Yesterday, the D.C. Court of Appeals stripped the approval of the 273-unit Park Morton project, further delaying the project three years after it was appealed. 

In addition to lessening delays, the comprehensive plan will allow for higher-density developments around Metro stations. Director of Planning Andrew Trueblood said he has already heard strong interest from developers interested in opportunities around the Cleveland Park Metro station, part of the upper northwest area that has not contributed the same level of new housing as the rest of the District has in recent years

"The most critical piece of the comp plan around housing is ensuring we have housing density and opportunities around transit," Trueblood said. "What you see in the comp plan is we create a lot more opportunities through more density, especially in transit-oriented areas."