The St. Joseph’s Seminary in Northeast DC’s Michigan Park neighborhood has a large eight-acre property, but the seminary only uses two acres. Rather than let the rest sit empty, they plan to add 90 new rowhouses on four acres, and turn the rest into a park.

The historic seminary building, as seen from 13th Street NE. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

The Josephites, as the seminarians call themselves, have been working with developer EYA to build on the site. EYA’s proposal is called 12th and Allison. It focuses on the northern part of the site, preserving the southern part and its historic seminary building.

Location of St. Joseph’s Seminary. Image from EYA.

The Josephites would retain ownership of the southern part of the property, which includes both the building itself as well as a little over two acres of open space.

To the north, EYA would extend Webster Street through the block, connecting to 12th Street (Webster currently ends when it hits 13th, on the east side of the property). Surrounding the new Webster Street would be 90 rowhouses, most of them north of the new street.

Triplexes everywhere versus rowhouses and a park

Today the seminary grounds look sort of like a park. But they’re not. The seminary is private property, and if the Josephites sell part or all of it, that part can be developed according to however it’s zoned.

Almost all of Michigan Park is zoned R-2, which allows “semi-detached” housing like duplexes and triplexes. Many of the blocks surrounding the seminary are lined with the latter.

But developers rarely build triplexes these days. They require so many setbacks that it doesn’t pencil out to add in any communal open spaces like parks. But the setbacks are rarely large enough to be very good private yards. For new construction in the city, regular rowhouses are more popular with both sellers and buyers.

Thus, EYA hopes to rezone the property to R-5A, the same as Providence Hospital across the street. R-5A zoning would allow for normal rowhouses, which in turn could be clustered together, allowing for better community open spaces.

But rezoning requires city action, and that opens the door to controversy.

At a community meeting in October of last year, a number of residents made it clear that they were opposed to development of any kind. At least twice throughout the winter, opponents spread these flyers throughout the neighborhood, forewarning against the evils of building:

Opponent flyer. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Michigan Park is a cozy, moderate-density neighborhood. It’s fair for residents to wonder about the impact of a new development, and hope to influence it. But hyperbole like that isn’t helpful and isn’t true. Saying this project would “irrevocably damage our community” is a stretch.

90 new units on two big blocks won’t turn the place on its head. That’s only a little denser in total than the surrounding blocks of duplexes and triplexes.

By clustering the development mostly north of Webster Street and preserving more open space south of it, the northern block will be noticeably denser than triplexes, but in return the historic seminary building and much of the open space on the south will be permanently preserved, designated historic, and off-limits to future development.

That’s a good trade. Right now, if the Josephites wanted, they could sell their entire property and develop 100% of it as duplexes and triplexes by-right, whether anybody objected or not. Rather, in exchange for rezoning to allow rowhouses, the seminary and considerable open space will be saved.

Next steps

In April, EYA will present its latest plans at local ANC meetings. They’ve reduced the density of the proposal from 180 houses to 90, and promised to design the buildings in a high-quality, contextual way.

After that, they’ll submit for zoning approval, and apply to the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board to designate the seminary building as a landmark. Expect hearings on it this fall.