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Appeal Threatens To Further Delay 480-Unit Randall School Development In Southwest D.C.

Efforts to redevelop the Randall School property in Southwest D.C. with hundreds of new housing units have been underway for more than a decade, and a new appeal threatens to further delay the long-stalled project. 

A rendering of the redevelopment plan for Southwest D.C.'s Randall School site.

A group of residents last week filed suit in the D.C. Court of Appeals challenging the approval of the 479-unit project planned at 65 I St. SW, the latest in a wave of appeals that has delayed major developments throughout the District. 

The Zoning Commission voted in late April to approve modifications to the development plan from Lowe Enterprises and Telesis Corp., and its approval order was officially filed June 27. The latest plan calls for 479 apartments in a new 110-foot-tall building behind the historic Randall Junior High School. The school building, constructed in 1906, would be preserved and would include 19K SF of commercial space, potentially for a coworking operator, 32K SF of museum space and potential restaurants. 

The property, one of several historic D.C. schools that are undergoing redevelopment, sits near the intersection of South Capitol and I streets, roughly a half-mile from both the Waterfront and Navy Yard Metro stations. It is less than a mile from The Wharf, the major mixed-use development that has transformed the Southwest Waterfront

The Randall School site had originally been slated for development from the Corcoran College of Art & Design, in partnership with Monument Realty. That plan, approved in January 2008, called for between 440 and 490 residential units, plus 79K SF of exhibition, studio and classroom space for the college. Telesis acquired the development rights in 2010 and proposed revisions to the original development plan that were approved in 2014. After three more years of delay, the team brought on Lowe in 2017 and applied for additional modifications to the plan, which were approved this spring. 

A rendering of the planned Randall School development at 65 I St. SW

The parties challenging the approval include Coy McKinney, Pamela Daley, Linda Brown and Adom Malcolm Cooper. McKinney is a member of D.C. for Reasonable Development, a group led by well-known activist Chris Otten that has appealed several projects around the District. Otten, reached by email, declined to comment. 

The group filed a letter of opposition during the Zoning Commission process in late March, signed by McKinney and Otten, that outlined its issues with the development. It said the city had not sufficiently studied the potential impacts the project could have on the area related to transportation, parking, utilities, noise, emissions and public services. It also raised issues of gentrification and affordable housing, arguing that the project does not include enough three-bedroom apartments and doesn't set aside enough units for low-income residents. The project sets aside 20% of its units as affordable for households earning up to 80% of the area median income, a threshold Otten and McKinney say is too high.

"This will be largely a luxury project for single professional residents paying signficant sums of rent/condo housing costs that will destabilize the area's existing affordability where [our group's] members live, work and play," Otten and McKinney wrote in the letter. 

The development team, which could not be reached for comment on the appeal, issued a written response to McKinney and Otten's complaints April 12. It argued that the complaints should not be considered because they focused on the original planned-unit development application, which was approved in 2008, and did not address the proposed modifications that were being reviewed by the Zoning Commission. It then addressed the substantive issues, saying that Otten ignored evidence that the project's impacts were studied and that the project exceeds the city's affordable housing requirements. 

"Notwithstanding Otten's unsupported and conclusory comments to the contrary, the record in this PUD reflects a decade of extensive dialogue and compromise with a broad range of interested stakeholders, including community representatives, neighbors as well as public agencies and entities," Goulston & Storrs' David Avitabile, an attorney representing the development team, wrote in the letter. 

A rendering of the courtyard in the proposed Randall School redevelopment at 65 I St. SW

The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted unanimously in favor of the project, and the commissioner who represents the site submitted a letter April 19 responding to Otten and McKinney's opposition and reiterating her support for the development. 

"There is no reason that the long-awaited Randall School redevelopment should not move forward," ANC 6D02 Commissioner Cara Shockley wrote in the letter. "Delaying it is very detrimental to the neighborhood — economically and aesthetically. Much needed employment opportunities are also being held up. If the project is not begun soon, it may not begin at all, which would mean losing approximately 80 residences in one of the workforce housing bands." 

Thousands of residential units continue to be delayed as a result of the unprecedented string of development appeals filed by opposition groups, many of which Otten is involved in, over the last few years. In some cases, such as the McMillan, 901 Monroe and Barry Farm projects, the D.C. Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of the opponents, setting back the developments indefinitely. Other cases have delayed projects for over a year before appeals were ultimately dismissed.

The threat of appeals has led developers to shy away from the PUD process and pursue other methods of development that would lead to less density and fewer community benefits.