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D.C. Looks To End 'Outdated' Urban Renewal Plans As Part Of Housing Development Strategy

As Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration continues to pursue policy changes that would help reach her goal of adding 36,000 housing units to the District by 2025, it is now tackling a pair of 50-year-old land-use plans it says act as impediments to development. 

The Washington Apartments at 1205 Seventh St. NW in Shaw, a four-story community with a surface parking lot.

Bowser submitted a proposal to the D.C. Council Jan. 24 to terminate the urban renewal plans for the Shaw and Downtown D.C. neighborhoods. 

Urban renewal in the District is often associated with the overhaul of Southwest D.C. that led to the displacement of minority communities and is widely considered a failure. But that was just one of 12 urban renewal plans implemented throughout the District in the 1950s and 1960s. Planners see some of them as having achieved successes, but say they represent outdated planning goals that don't fit with the type of development the District wants to foster today.  

The Shaw and Downtown urban renewal plans are the last ones still in place, and they are set to expire in 2028, but Bowser seeks to terminate them immediately to help foster more housing development in the areas. 

"Early termination of the Shaw School and Downtown Urban Renewal Plans, which have been in effect since the late 1960s, is desirable because their goals have largely been fulfilled and because they espouse outdated, suburban planning principles unsuited for the vibrant urban settings where they apply," Bowser wrote in a Jan. 24 letter to D.C. Coucil Chairman Phil Mendelson

Especially in the Shaw neighborhood, these plans led to the development of mid-rise apartment communities with surface parking lots. Walking north from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, one would see the Washington Apartments, the Gibson Plaza Apartments and the 1330 Seventh St. NW apartments, all properties on the bustling Seventh Street corridor with pieces of land devoted to surface parking. 

This type of suburban-style development is not considered by planners to be the highest and best use of urban land within walking distance of Metro stations.

"Definitely in Shaw, as some of these properties are coming up to the end of their useful life, we're thinking about how can we preserve affordability while creating more housing and more affordable housing," D.C. Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood told Bisnow

The urban renewal plan has not only created lower-density housing with surface parking in Shaw, it has added another step to the entitlement process that lengthens developers' timelines.

A map showing the Shaw School Urban Renewal area and the land-use categories for each block.

As Shaw has become one of the city's hottest neighborhoods in recent years, developers have sought individual exemptions to the urban renewal plan to allow them to build higher-density projects. Eliminating the plans all together would serve as a blanket approach that would remove this step in the process and make it easier to develop apartments in the neighborhoods, Trueblood said. 

"The mayor, when she put out the bold goal of 36,000 units, said we have to do things differently and find opportunities to remove impediments to housing production, and I see this very much as an example of that," Trueblood said. "This is very much an effort to streamline our planning and approval process to allow us to meet the needs on housing."

Shaw still has some vacant lots that can be developed and older properties that can be redeveloped, and all of these projects would benefit from not having the urban renewal plan in place, Trueblood said. The downtown area has fewer of those opportunities, as it is largely filled with office buildings, but Trueblood said the District would like to see more residential built downtown. 

"We've always been supportive of more residential in downtown," Trueblood said. "I'm not sure the urban renewal plan was the impediment to that. It's more the market that was the bigger impediment."

Office buildings achieving higher per-SF rents than residential has made developers less likely to pursue multifamily development downtown. But as office vacancy continues to rise and residential demand remains strong, Trueblood said certain parts of downtown could make more sense for housing development. 

D.C. Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood and Antunovich Associates' Julian Looney at a December 2019 Bisnow event.

The Office of Planning first submitted its proposal to terminate the urban renewal plans to the National Capital Planning Commission, which approved the request at its Dec. 5 meeting. 

Mendelson, who also serves as one of the 12 NCPC members, submitted the bill to the D.C. Council Jan. 24 at the request of the mayor. If the D.C. Council does not act by April 9, the bill will be automatically approved. Trueblood said he's confident the council will support it. 

"I don't think this is a particular flash point," Trueblood said. "I think everyone recognizes it is a clear, important thing, and so we've heard support."

The NCPC was the planning body that prepared and adopted D.C.'s 12 Urban Renewal plans between 1955 and 1972. NCPC General Counsel Anne Schuyler, in a Dec. 26 blog post, reflected on the legacy of the urban renewal program, which would come to an end with the proposed termination of the Shaw and downtown plans. 

"While a great deal of work went into these efforts, and the intention was to improve cities, the burden of urban renewal in Washington, D.C. fell disproportionately upon African American residents, with many established African-American communities uprooted," Schuyler wrote in the blog post. "Often, the displaced residents and businesses were never able to return to their former neighborhoods."

Schuyler's post noted that the program did accomplish some of its goals and resulted in some some success stories, but that its planning vision is now outdated. Trueblood said he agrees with this assessment. 

"You could both say it's a success and we've learned a lot, and today we are doing things differently," Trueblood said. "With planning, it's always about understanding the contexts and goals of the time. Looking back, many of the goals of these plans were actually achieved."

Related Topics: Mayor Muriel Bowser