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Planners Look To Increase Density In Growing Southeast D.C. Neighborhood

The plan recommends increasing height limits along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Congress Heights from 50 feet to 70 feet.

Planners are envisioning increased density in parts of Southeast D.C.'s Congress Heights neighborhood through a new plan that aims to get ahead of development pressure stemming from the St. Elizabeths East redevelopment.

The D.C. Office of Planning is seeking input on its newly released plan that recommends greater density on part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE commercial corridor near Shepherd Park and in certain residential areas to allow more development of housing and retail. 

"Congress Heights is on the verge of change," the plan says. "Largescale redevelopment of public lands in and around the neighborhood, especially at St. Elizabeths, has coincided with increased interest from private developers."

Responding to these trends, the Office of Planning said it began the process of crafting the Congress Heights Small Area Plan with the goal of strengthening the "community resiliency, livability and housing affordability" of the neighborhood. 

The changes would recommend medium-density mixed-use zoning at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and Malcolm X Avenue, meaning maximum heights could grow from 50 feet to up to 70 feet tall. In residential areas, the proposal would allow single-family homes to be split into two units, essentially doubling the number of residential units allowed in those areas without changing the neighborhood's character.

The plan also calls for providing rent relief to tenants and other housing services. And it recommends funding for new retail, particularly restaurants and grocers through the Nourish DC Collaborative and other funds.

The Small Area Plan itself doesn't change zoning, but its recommendations are a reflection of officials' vision for the neighborhood — informed by community engagement — that the independent Zoning Commission can follow, an Office of Planning spokesperson told Bisnow.

"Congress Heights Small Area Plan is a strategy for leveraging community, public, and private investments in housing, economic development and the public realm to strengthen resilience and improve socioeconomic and health outcomes of longtime residents," Office of Planning Interim Director Anita Cozart said in a statement. 

An illustration of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE that incorporates proposed changes.

Congress Heights is already seeing rising development pressure. The St. Elizabeths campus is being reimagined with hundreds of thousands of square feet of government offices on its western portion, and with major employment centers like a new medical center on its eastern portion.

The campus also features new housing, including District Towns, a collection of 88 for-sale townhomes developed by Redbrick LMD, The Knutson Cos. and Gragg-Cardona Partners that celebrated its ribbon-cutting on April 25.

The Congress Heights plan acknowledges that the development will bring an influx of workers and residents interested in living near job centers like St. Elizabeths and the nearby Entertainment & Sports Arena.

The plan, posted online last week and shared widely on Tuesday, follows one released for Chevy Chase last week.

But while the Chevy Chase plan is mostly designed to encourage development in an area with a history of exclusionary zoning practices, the Congress Heights plan is focused on ensuring the neighborhood's residents, who are 93% Black, are lifted up by development and not left behind.

"Improved housing variety, affordability and equitable economic access will allow longtime Black residents to remain in Congress Heights and benefit from anticipated growth," the plan says.

Current businesses along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

To do that, the plan calls for utilizing publicly owned spaces to build more housing and community amenities, including at the present site of the Congress Heights Recreation Center and on a 14K SF vacant lot near one of the ward's only grocery stores.

The plan also recommends creating a Legacy Business Designation, administered by D.C.'s Historic Preservation Office and the Department of Small & Local Business Development, which would provide grants and technical assistance to longtime businesses of historic significance to ensure they are not displaced.

The plan hasn't been finalized. It is subject to a public comment period through July 31, after which it must be approved by the D.C. Council. The Office of Planning expects it will begin implementing the plan this fall.