The planned Rhode Island Center development next to the Rhode Island Ave Metro station in northeast. Image by MRP Realty.

On Rhode Island Avenue, right next to the Metro, developer MRP Realty has plans to turn what's currently a strip mall into new housing. The company recently changed course on how it's going about its plans, essentially to make them less vulnerable to attacks from a vocal minority of neighbors. This has big ramifications for housing across the District.

Here's what MRP had planned to build

The original plans for Rhode Island Center included roughly 1,600 new residential units, along with ground floor retail and a new public plaza. 8% (around 128 units) were going to be part of DC's inclusionary zoning (IZ) program (which means they'd be designated as affordable for people making certain incomes). MRP planned to split the affordable units that were part of the first phase of development between households earning 50% of the DC region’s area median income (AMI) and those earning 80%.

MRP's plans also included straightening the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) to run under the steps that lead to the Metro station, a short trail that'd run from the MBT to the bike lane on 4th Street NE, and a new public plaza.

The hassle of a lawsuit effectively downsized things

Most of this was going to happen because of a Planned Unit Development, which lets developers build more than the zoning rules allow in exchange for providing community benefits. PUDs have to get special approval, though, and if neighbors oppose a project, they can fight that approval. MRP has dropped its PUD application and is now going to build what the zoning allows because it doesn't want to deal with a lawsuit.

Under the new plans, MRP vice-president of development Michael Skena says the overall project will have between 100 and 150 fewer residential units. And while 8% will remain part of the IZ program, that means the actual number of affordable units will drop by 12, to roughly 116.

The plans to upgrade the MBT, add the new bike trail, and build the public plaza haven't changed. That's because here, some of the benefits are the result of a special tax-increment financing package approved by the mayor rather than being part of the PUD.

The proposed plaza and realigned MBT in Rhode Island Center. Image by MRP Realty.

MRP dropping its PUD shows the gravity of recent zoning decisions in DC

MRP's decision to drop its PUD was partially influenced by an appeal of the project brought by a few individuals earlier this year. This kind of thing is not new; those who oppose new projects sometimes choose to sue. What is different is developers are more hesitant to move forward with PUD applications thanks to recent legal decisions. At both 901 Monroe Street and the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, legal challenges to PUDs that the Zoning Commission had approved led to those plans being pulled back.

For years, PUDs have been useful tools for both communities and developers. Developers get some of what they want, which is more zoning flexibility to build what are usually bigger buildings. In return, the community gets a seat at the table, where it can negotiate for tangible community benefits.

Some of these community benefits bring much needed changes to the neighborhood, like public space and transit. And for those that care about addressing the shortage of homes and affordable homes in the city, PUDs have an added bonus because the extra density they allow for almost always includes more affordable housing.

If the PUD process becomes a non-starter in DC, communities will lose an important tool to better their neighborhoods, and the city will continue to lose the homes and affordable homes that we desperately need.

Edward Russell is an air transport reporter by day with a passion for all things transportation. He is a resident of Eckington and tweets frequently about planes, trains and bikes.

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.