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A coalition of affordable housing advocates, faith groups, business groups, tenants' groups, developers, and over 250 residents have unified to support more housing, more affordable housing, and targeted support for communities as DC rewrites its Comprehensive Plan. One of those priorities: Best utilize areas near transit.

The coalition, which includes Greater Greater Washington and many other groups, has agreed on a statement of ten priorities. In a series of posts, coalition members will go through many of the priorities to explain what they mean, why there's a problem, and how the group reached agreement. Do you support the priorities? Sign on today!

What “Best utilize areas near transit” means

The coalition says:

Best utilize areas near transit.​ When redevelopment occurs on blocks surrounding Metrorail stations and priority transit corridors, the District should, through the Comprehensive Plan, permit and encourage mixed-use developments of medium to high density. To the extent feasible, redevelopments involving increased zoning should include affordable housing in excess of what is required by inclusionary zoning.

Put plainly, building housing near Metro stations, bus lines, and streetcar service makes it easier for people to live in the District without owning a car. And that means less congestion and pollution as well as a stronger local economy.

As the District of Columbia continues to grow to historic population levels, our transit corridors and stations offer the best opportunities for creating places to live and work that are more sustainable, accessible, and affordable. Helping more people live close to transit, enabling more jobs near transit, and creating attractive places near transit are all essential to well-managed growth.

The consequences of not creating these opportunities near transit is spread out, sprawling development. 

Pushing growth away from cities, towns, and transit lines means converting more farms into subdivisions and strip malls. This generates ever more polluted stormwater runoff and carves up working agricultural lands.

Sprawl also makes it impractical to get around by walking, biking, or transit, forcing everyone to get around by car, which fuels traffic congestion and air pollution. The cycle then continues, as the congestion leads to bigger roads that simply get congested again, all of which are built with money that gets diverted from transit and existing infrastructure.

Finally, when we sprawl out, low-income people disproportionately feel the negative effects of having no option but to drive.

We've missed chances to build near transit in the past

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of lost opportunities to provide more mixed income housing options at Metro stations in D.C. While some parts of the District have been growing, others— particularly more affluent ones— have not.

The reason for the lack of new homes is not due to lack of interest. Rather, local opposition that takes advantage of a weak and nebulous Comp Plan make it difficult to build new housing in neighborhoods where some existing residents are determined to stop it. That leads to exclusive enclaves with limited housing opportunities for residents of different incomes.

Under our current Comp Plan language, here are a few examples of what we’ve lost:

  • Withdrawn: 1,721 apartments next to the Woodley Park Metro station, including family-sized 3 and 4-bedroom units.

  • Shrunk: An expanded Georgetown Day School offered housing (including affordable units), retail and parks along Wisconsin Avenue and 42nd Street, a few blocks from the Tenleytown Metro station. The school sliced about 50 apartments and now the entire project is on hold.

  • Abandoned: The single use, two story library constructed by the Tenleytown Metro station was supposed to be a mixed use building with affordable and market rate housing above the library. While the city spent extra money to strengthen the foundation to allow some apartments to be built above the library in the future, the prospects for many affordable units is dim.

  • Delayed since 2000: Plans for nearly 200 homes on the Takoma Metro station parking lot, along with preservation of the large open space in front of the station.

All these proposed projects offered below market rate and market-rate homes. They are all examples of the market responding to strong demand to live in the city close to transit by redeveloping sites close to transit.  They are also examples of how determined opponents can use contradictory language in the Comp Plan to stall, stop, and shrink the construction of much needed new homes and affordable homes.

Under the current Future Land Use Map (FLUM), which translates the Comp Plan onto a map, no Metro stations are designated for low density residential development. A reasonable update to these designations could be to take land that the FLUM categorizes as “moderate” density (row houses and low rise garden apartments) and make it “medium” (4-7 stories), and to change what the FLUM categorizes as “medium” to be “high” (8 stories or more).

Based on the experience of the last decade, it’s fair to say that the Comp Plan has not been as effective as it should have been in balancing the need for more housing, and more affordable housing, around transit stations. That’s especially true in affluent neighborhoods. 

Looking into the future, it’s critical that the Comp Plan clarify that a good share of our city’s needed future homes should go to places well-served by transit. Rather than losing out to some neighbors’ objections about new homes, we need to address local concerns while committing to creating more housing opportunities that help more people live more sustainably, and help the city thrive.

Sign on to the priorities!

This is one of ten priorities where the coalition reached agreement. We'll be following up with articles on more of the 10 priorities by a variety of coalition members.

(Note: While the coalition agreed on the priorities, this article is my commentary about one of the priorities, not an official coalition statement, and all members have not signed onto the specific wording here. The same goes for the other posts in this series.)

So far, 65 organizations and over 350 individuals have put their names on the priorities statement. Will you join them?

Sign the Priorities Statement!