Photo by tbowler.

When communities negotiate with developers, they often lack the knowledge and experience to evaluate proposed Community Benefits Agreements. That puts them at a disadvantage compared to the more experienced developer, argues a team from the DC Neighborhood College public leadership program. Better tools and training could help communities work out better deals. We should also help involve the entire community in the decisionmaking, rather than only those involved in a traditional neighborhood association.

Like many jurisdictions, DC uses a process called the Planned Unit Development (PUD). Developers can choose one of three routes for a project. They can build “as of right”, complying with all zoning rules. They can ask for specific variances to exceed those rules in specific ways, but have to prove an “extraordinary and exceptional situation” applies to the specific property. Or, they can file a PUD. A PUD allows broader latitude to craft a project beyond the specific dictates of the zoning rules, but also gives the Zoning Commission and the surrounding community substantial input into the project, and requires the developer to offer benefits in return.

The PUD process offers many advantages. An as of right project could completely disregard good urban design principles, facing the street with a blank wall or creating a bland, unarticulated facade overlooking nearby houses. Except in historic districts and in limited situations with overlays, DC currently has no rules requiring good design. In a PUD, the Zoning Commission essentially gets to micromanage the project. They can require different materials, bicycle or car sharing parking, retail bays, larger or smaller units, rearrange the massing, and more.

A PUD doesn’t always generate perfect projects, but they often emerge much improved over the original filings. The Zoning Commission has more flexibility to consider the broader goals of the Comprehensive Plan or individual plans. And neighborhood plans, like the Brookland Small Area Plan, generally require developers to use PUDs. Even though the Council approved that plan, encouraging higher density right at the Metro station and low density farther away, the underlying zoning still doesn’t allow those heights as of right. To comply with the plan, developers will need to file PUD applications, follow Zoning Commission guidance, and offer community benefits.

A community benefits agreement is the other part of a PUD. The developer works out an agreement with the neighborhood, refereed by the Zoning Commission. For the Capitol Place building on H Street, NE, neighbors negotiated for a micro-grant program to help nearby property owners repair run-down properties or improve energy efficiency. The Radio One HQ at 7th and S, NW in Shaw offered affordable housing, requirements to employ local residents, and retail space set aside for neighborhood-serving shops.

Some agreements, on the other hand, yield less lasting benefit to the community. Many PUDs simply give a lump sum payment to the local neighborhood association to disburse to other worthy nonprofits. That helps those organizations, but also feels more like a bribe to the community, paying them off in exchange for greater density. Some benefits agreements include requirements that the development use good urban design or green building practices, which ought to happen regardless.

Capitol Hill ANC Commissioner Ryan Velasco and Yvette Rector analyzed this problem as their project for the DC Neighborhood College. The Neighborhood College is a free, selective one-year program for community leaders across the city run by the George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership. Velasco and Rector developed a poster and a list of recommendations to improve CBAs.

One recommendation would create a searchable “PUD database” containing the benefits from each PUD. This would help communities negotiating agreements to compare the developer’s offer against similar projects. It would also enable journalists and bloggers to find out whether communities are getting a good deal, something weaker, or a simple “bribe” to the neighborhood association. They also recommend better defining “benefits” to exclude elements that every PUD ought to contain, such as a walkable street-level design.

Velasco and Rector also advocate for creating a PUD Review Task Force, made of representatives from ANCs, civic associations and the DC government, to review the overall process and develop a method for calculating the value of a benefits package. They suggest offering training and financial grants to community organizations

These recommendations could aid communities in getting the best community benefits for their neighborhoods. When designing policies such as the task force or grant, we should ensure that new methods of organizing get equal treatment under the law as traditional neighborhood organizations. Historically, established neighborhood groups organize and amplify the voices of residents and provide a voice for the community when negotiating with developers. However, with the evolution of the Internet, residents are getting involved in their communities through other means, such as blogs and email lists. Just because these residents choose not to pay annual dues to a neighborhood group shouldn’t deprive them of the right to participate in the process as well.

A neighborhood blog or an ad hoc group of citizens ought to have equal opportunity to weigh in with the task force, participate in training, or apply for grants. Most of all, the agreement should spell out the final benefits rather than handing money to a neighborhood association to allocate as it sees fit. While most such groups use the money for very worthy causes, such an arrangement shifts the decisions from the public to the hands of a few. All neighbors deserve to have a say in what would most benefit their community.

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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.