When it comes to development, there’s often tension between what’s practical or ideal and what the zoning rules at a given site allow. One tool available to builders in DC is called a Planned Unit Development. PUDs allow flexibility in the rules, and since they’re happening all over the city, it’s worth understanding what they are and how they work.

 

The space on the left, which is on E Street SE, between 13th and 14th Streets, used to be zoned “light industrial.” Thanks to a PUD, residential units (rendered on the right) are going in. Images from Google Maps and Insight Property, respectively.

What is a Planned Unit Development?

Many residential or mixed use construction projects, whether carried out by a homeowner or a developer, meet the letter of DC’s current zoning laws. In these cases, the city deems the plans “by right” and goes on to issue a construction permit. But other times, zoning rules allow for flexibility in their interpretation, and “zoning relief” can be granted.

For projects where a homeowner or developer wants to do something a bit different, like building closer to the edge of the lot than what’s prescribed, additional review and approval are required, typically by DC’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). However, the BZA process is for relatively minor zoning relief, such as exceeding lot coverage or reduced parking requirements.

A third type of project, a PUD, gives developers more significant zoning relief. This can come by way of allowing a building to be taller or denser than what the zoning code says is allowed, or building a residential or commercial building in space that’s zoned for industrial.

PUDs are managed by DC’s Zoning Commission, which is in charge of changes to the zoning regulations or zoning map. The commission can grant zoning relief if it believes the proposed project— and, in particular, the way it deviates from what’s allowed by right— will allow for something better for the surrounding neighborhood or city.

Because a PUD can provide substantial zoning relief, developers are expected to provide benefits to the community in return. The PUD process also provides the community an opportunity to engage with and influence the project in a substantial way. So while a PUD often means a developer can build higher or denser buildings, it also means the community can get things like streetscape improvements, community resources, or additional affordable housing.

Below is a map of all of the developments in DC that currently have approval to move forward, or whose approval is pending, and that used a PUD. There are 221 of the former and 28 of the latter.

 

Colors represent the proposed zoning through the PUD process. Map by Mao Hu, using the leaflet package for R. Data from DC Open Data.

What do PUD cases mean for the community?

Any case that requires zoning relief provides an opportunity for neighbors to weigh in on the planned project, through the ANC or the BZA. Because a PUD is typically a larger project with larger impacts on the community, PUDs typically involve a longer and more detailed community engagement process.

Another important feature of PUDs is that they require developers to provide a benefits and amenities package to the community in exchange for the request zoning relief. This means community participation in the PUD process is critical.

What is a benefits and amenities package?

When a developer asks for exceptions to zoning rules through a PUD, those exceptions clearly have some value; that means the developer has to “pay” for them. That payment usually comes in the form of a suite of benefits and amenities to the community, which should be roughly equal to the value of the zoning relief.

Benefits and amenities packages vary by project, and there are relatively few restrictions or even guidelines on what a package can include.  The “benefits” component accrues to the community, while the “amenities” are typically more relevant for the residents of the development. An example of a benefit might be improvements to a local dog park or streetscape upgrades. Another might be a transportation “hub” in the development that provides information to residents on local transportation options.

Here are some typical categories of benefits and amenities:

 

  • Architecture and landscaping
  • Efficient and economical land utilization
  • Safe vehicular and pedestrian access; transportation management measures
  • Historic preservation projects
  • Employment and training opportunities
  • Affordable housing
  • Social services or facilities
  • Environmental benefits

In general, District agencies involved in PUD cases prefer public benefits that are physical investments, like playground equipment or bicycle racks, rather than “soft” investments, such as monetary contributions to a nonprofit organization. The rationale is that physical investments are relatively guaranteed to provide benefits to the community for the long term while soft investments may not always provide the intended stream of benefits (for example, the nonprofit could close).

PUD benefits don’t have to be right on the development site, but they must be within a quarter mile or within the boundaries of the ANC in which the PUD sits.

Cross-posted from Nick Burger 6B06.

Nick Burger moved to Washington, DC in 2008 and has been an ANC commissioner (6B06) since 2015. He focuses on housing and urban development issues through the ANC and chairs 6B’s Planning and Zoning Committee. He volunteers most weekends with Habitat for Humanity DC. Nick lives in Capitol Hill with his wife and two children.