Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Last night, the DC Zoning Commission considered the proposed new West End Library and fire station development project. Despite broad support in the community, some activists now object to the plan because it doesn’t contain as much affordable housing as hoped. But residents and the Zoning Commission should support this important project.

The project will rebuild the outdated West End Library and nearby fire station at no cost to the DC government, using the air rights of the public parcels combined with some private land. The new library will provide benefits to the community, including a café and public meeting spaces.

Retail and housing will fill out the block and help make the place a lively place to walk. In all, about 164 residential units will be built above a new library, and a new fire station will be built with housing above.

There is no government budget to replace these obsolete public facilities.  If this mixed-use project doesn’t move forward, there will be no new library and no new fire station. The decrepit buildings and parking lots will stay as they are.

In its Planned Unit Development (PUD) application, the developer has asked for an exception from Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) on the library site (but not the fire station site), along with several other exceptions which often happen in PUDs. IZ requires offering 8% of housing units to households earning 80% Area Median Income (AMI) or less.

The developer, Eastbanc, and the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) claim that the entire value of the development rights are being used to pay for the new library and fire station, and there’s no additional subsidy left over for the IZ units on the library site or more affordable units on the fire station site.

Originally, the District had promised 52 affordable housing units for very low income households (at 60% AMI) above the fire station site, but DMPED doesn’t appear to be offering the needed additional subsidy for this component.

This is a big disappointment. We would prefer to see the District provide the financing to create the 52 very affordable units above the fire station. That would be far more beneficial than simply following IZ. At this point, unfortunately, the proposal is to give the library development with the 164 units above an IZ waiver, and to build housing above the new fire station, including the IZ units required for that fire station parcel alone.

The question of how to deal with the shrinking footprint of affordable housing in this complicated public-private development deal is a hot topic. Chris Otten, an organizer with the DC Library Renaissance Project, sent an alert asking people to attend tonight’s hearing and oppose the project because of the affordable housing exception request. 

We think this is short-sighted, and dismisses the value of the new library and fire station as major public benefits. A good compromise would be to move the IZ units to the fire station site, if DMPED does not come through with the financing for the preferable 100% affordable project above the fire station.

The PUD process does allow for outstanding public benefits, like a new library, to enable relief from IZ standards. The DC Office of Planning has accepted this, calling the new library and fire station exceptional amenities that fulfill the PUD’s standard for allowing relief to some zoning requirements.  We think it’s possible that IZ could be part of a feasible project at the fire station site, if the Zoning Commission presses for it.

Some DC activists are fundamentally opposed to public-private partnerships, which leverage private development to help pay for public benefits. We share the concern that the public land valuation process should be more transparent so we can ensure city residents are getting a good deal. But better utilizing scarce land with great public facilities, new housing, and commercial space should also be recognized for the benefit that it is.

DC lost the opportunity to build mixed-use libraries at Benning Road and Tenleytown, both of which offered affordable housing and other amenities. These projects would have used funds budgeted for renewed public facilities and private development rights.  In the West End case, where there’s no budget to fix the library, the public benefits couldn’t be clearer. If we do not advance this mixed-use project, we keep the obsolete library and fire station and wait for the city to find the money to pay to replace them one day.

We also lose the benefits a mixed-use building offers: a café connected to the library and separate community meeting space that can be used outside of library hours. These features were sought by residents discussing other library projects, but were unrealized as all other libraries were rebuilt as single-use, stand-alone buildings. A mixed-use building also better utilizes precious city space with hundreds of new homes and shops, within walking distance of downtown.

This is the essence of the notion of public land for public good. Rather than building a small replacement library on a city-owned plot, let’s take full advantage of the site and add housing (especially affordable housing), a café, and other community amenities. On future public land deals, the Gray Administration should continue to ensure that the full value of a city-owned site is used — to create exciting new public facilities, and to create new places to live and work, especially more affordable places for those with limited incomes.

We have an important opportunity to create a state-of-the-art public library and fire station, save the city tens of millions of dollars, and deliver added benefits through an innovative mixed-use building design. That’s why we should support this innovative project.  For more, read my testimony to the Zoning Commission in support of the project.