DC is full of great public spaces. We might be losing a tool to create more. Image by Ingfbruno licensed under Creative Commons.

The area near the Eastern Market Metro will have 156 new homes, 46 affordable homes, and a permanent farmer's market plaza. Lower income tenants in older buildings on U Street doubled affordable housing in their building and gained a senior room, a computer center, and a rooftop playground.

The West End is getting a new library, a new fire station, 164 homes, and 55 affordable homes. In NoMA, there will be 650 new homes, a waterfall, and a new plaza that could connect to a future Metro station entrance.

All of these are thanks to a zoning process known as a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which allows more flexibility from zoning rules in exchange for community benefits like parks, walking, bicycle, and transit improvements. They are not a perfect process, but the benefits they bring are now under threat for future buildings.

If we’re not careful, communities will lose this tool due to some recent legal challenges. Part of the problem lies in contradictory readings of the Comprehensive Plan, and we have proposed ways to fix this in our Comp Plan amendment package.

New homes are lost thanks to PUD lawsuits

Lawsuits and appeals of already approved PUDs have blocked new housing and other benefits at multiple sites in Brookland, North Capitol Street, and elsewhere. Rather than face that risk, many developers are considering ignoring the PUD process entirely.

A recent example is MidAltantic Realty Partners, which has been planning a large mixed-use residential project for the lower-density commercial strip to the west of the Rhode Island Avenue Metro stop. Originally, the company had applied for a PUD in order to build a slightly taller building than what is allowed under current zoning, and in return offer a package of community benefits, including bike and street infrastructure.

Earlier in June, the company abruptly dropped the PUD application when a recently-formed neighborhood opposition group appealed the project, instead settling for a “by-right” development plan (meaning it follows the existing zoning rules). Opposing groups suing developments they disagree with is not new, but what is new is how successful these suits have become recently. By functionally shutting down the PUD process, neighborhoods and the city are going to see fewer homes and fewer affordable homes built; they’ll no longer have a seat at the table to negotiate for real beneficial projects in their neighborhood.

This was a unique case where many of the proposed benefits will remain (MRP committed to them to earn a separate tax incentive), but what will be lost are two floors of potential homes, including guaranteed affordable homes under the District’s inclusionary zoning program.

The Comp Plan is part of the problem

The success of these anti-PUD lawsuits originate in part because of recent legal interpretations of the Comprehensive Plan, a 600+ page document that is supposed to guide development decisions made by the Zoning Commission and other district agencies. In the last year, two landmark court cases were decided where citizens cited the Comp Plan to sue about the Zoning Commission's decision (the sites were 901 Monroe and McMillan Sand Filtration Site). Both projects went through a PUD.

While each case is unique, the appeals court overturned the Zoning Commission’s prior approvals based on that central argument that the projects were not consistent with the Comp Plan.

We should be worried about this. Without PUDs, we’ll start to see more by-right projects, which typically include fewer affordable homes and less ability for the community to bargain for neighborhood amenities and changes that benefit everyone.

Rendering of the proposed 901 Monroe project. Image by Menkiti Group used with permission.

PUD’s aren’t perfect, but the problems are fixable

There are legitimate complaints about PUDs. Neighbors and advocacy groups sometimes feel that the benefits negotiated serve only particular interests in the community (such as vocal business, organization or leader), and developers often feel “shaken down” by the process.

PUDs give the Zoning Commission flexibility to let a project exceed the “by right” zoning limits, but how much flexibility they will grant is sometimes not clear either to community members or developers.

The answer is to fix the process to address these issues. For example, the DC Zoning Commission recently adopted rules to limit cash payouts as part of a community benefit. Our amendment package is also recommending that affordable housing be the highest priority community benefit. And expectations can be better set up front about what is allowed.

While few would argue that PUDs are the perfect system, they do represent an important opportunity to work with private money and organizations to build more inclusive, vibrant and beautiful neighborhoods.

What our amendments try to do

Greater Greater Washington recently submitted amendment proposals to the Comp Plan that came from nine months of discussions and input from a diverse group of housing and development stakeholders. One of the many goals under discussion was to improve the PUD process in general and specifically address the legal challenges being brought against PUD projects using the Comp Plan.

You can read the details in our full amendment package (look for section 1-2). In short, we proposed making some adjustments to the definitions of land categories in the Future Land Use Map (the map in the Comp Plan that the Court of Appeals used so strictly in the 901 Monroe case), and highlighting a particular policy that already exists in the Comp Plan that seemed to be ignored in these cases.

What is more, we included amendments that elevate affordable housing as the primary community benefit in PUD deals. This not only brings more certainty to the PUD process, but also retools the process to better address both city wide needs (affordable homes) and long-lasting neighborhood needs.

The Office of Planning is currently reviewing these amendment proposals, and thousands of others submitted from groups and individuals across the city. In the fall the agency will produce a report with their findings, and we will have another chance to advocate for smart changes to the Comp Plan, including reasonable fixes to the PUD process.

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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 Edgewood.