Image by Jonathan Neeley.

A few blocks away from the Petworth Metro station, the former Hebrew Home, which has been vacant for years, has seen multiple attempted redevelopments. Thanks to the newest effort to redevelop and bring affordable housing to the site, eight proposals are now on the table. Will some all-too-familiar concerns from a few vocal neighbors get in the way?

What was there before, and what’s on the table now

Located at 1125 Spring Road NW, the Hebrew Home was a residential and service center for the community’s Jewish seniors until 1969. Later it became a mental health facility for the homeless until 2009, and since then it has been the center of multiple redevelopment disputes among neighbors, homeless and affordable housing activists, and DC officials.

The most recent effort to redevelop the Hebrew Home has been to make it a pilot site for the OurRFP process that the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) runs. The agency spent months gathering extensive community feedback before soliciting proposals for redevelopment.

Last month, eight development teams presented their proposals for the site at a series of meetings in the neighborhood. The table below summarizes some of their key features (this was sample from a more detailed table here. Please note that the simplified version lumps all "affordable units" together and you can find a more accurate, detailed breakdown in the full table. You can also read more narrative analysis here): 

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In the table, “3-br” means 3-bedroom units. "TH" means townhouses. Also, note that the Bozzuto+Menkiti and CPDC+NVR proposals would allocate the affordable units only to seniors, and the Gilbane+NHT-Enterprise proposal would assign 12 units to formerly homeless families.

Some people are worried about parking and density

I heard from many who attended the community meetings for this site, and they said one question almost always came up first: what about parking?

Fears about parking and density appeared online as well on a local blog run by local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kent Boese. Here are a few comments from neighbors on one of his recent blog posts about the site:

I hope they go for one of the lower density ones that don’t completely overwhelm that corner. With as much setback and green space as possible.

Another:

This is NOT the place to maximize development. THIS IS NOT GEORGIA AVENUE. This is a quiet residential row-house neighborhood, which anyone who actually lives here will adamantly tell you. 10th and Spring are not major thoroughfares, and the increased traffic and lack of parking will be a huge problem for our quiet streets.

The Mission First property is a disaster. 224 mostly rental units (the most dense of all the developments), with hulking six-story buildings towering over the row homes and the residential back yards that the property faces on 10th and Spring. Parking will be totally inadequate. Spring Road (one lane in each direction) will become gridlocked with traffic from hundreds of additional residents. 10th Street NW (a quiet one-way street) will become overwhelmed with lack of parking and increased traffic. The architecture is brutal and destroys the row-house aesthetic of the neighborhood. This proposal is a total nightmare.

I highly encourage all of our neighbors who live in our community to RESIST THE HIGH-DENSITY OVERDEVELOPMENT of our quiet residential neighborhood and the activists who don't live here and don't care about us.

SUPPORT the Bozzuto/Menkiti or CPDC/NVR proposals to ensure our homes and our yards aren't dwarfed by huge sky rises, our streets aren't overwhelmed with new traffic, and that our parking situation remains as tenable as possible. Support moderate density that is sustainable and that will encourage neighborhood and community growth, vitality, and sustainability.

This kind of opposition is not surprising, but makes DC less inclusive

Parking and congestion aren't unimportant issues, and neither are green space or architecture. But championing those causes over all else when there is an opportunity to build densely and affordably near a Metro station is problematic.

All neighborhoods, especially those with good access to transit, need to think carefully about how to plan for and accommodate both the region’s burgeoning population and its lower-income residents. Opportunities like the Hebrew Home are unfortunately rare, and neighborhoods cannot continue to push the responsibility of creating more homes and more affordable homes onto other parts of the city.

The “activists who don’t live here and don’t care about us” mentioned above include the hundreds of neighbors (from inside and and outside the direct neighborhood) who have shown up to Hebrew Home meetings for many months now, advocating primarily that significant amounts of affordable housing be built at this important site.

Because Hebrew Home is city-owned land, current law mandates that 30% of the homes built there be made affordable (financed in part by the reduction of the land cost the city will provide to the winning developer). At a previous meeting, many challenged the notion that the site could not be made 100% affordable.

The Hebrew Home and the adjacent Robeson School building, at 10th and Spring NW. Image by DMPED.

Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) make additional affordability possible here

You probably noticed that nearly all of the proposals here include percentages of affordable housing much higher than 30%. Each developer has its own cocktail of financing strategies to make that happen, but common to seven out of the eight proposals is the use of the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process. PUDs are a development process that allows the developer zoning flexibility in order to incorporate more expensive community benefits (in the case of many of these projects, much higher percentages of affordable housing than what is minimally required).

Unfortunately, the PUD process today is riskier than it has been in the past due to a shift in legal precedent and subsequent court challenges that have surfaced. Some developers have chosen to abandon PUDs altogether because of this, and others are worried about delays or increased costs involved in battling lawsuits, both of which make it much harder for these increased affordable housing deals to pencil out.

Greater Greater Washington, along with a diverse set of partners, recently submitted a package of amendments that included some ideas that we hope would address the issues with the PUD process.

While PUDs are not a perfect development tool, these proposals for Hebrew Home are examples of how the process can be used to significantly increase affordable housing and other community benefits in a neighborhood that would not otherwise be possible with current zoning and incentives. It is not coincidence that out of the eight projects proposed for this site, the plans with the highest and deepest mixes of affordable homes are also PUDs; the additional density and flexibility that the PUDs allow help to make these projects possible.

Currently DMPED and the Mayor are reviewing the feedback from the community meetings and the eight proposals before them. Numerous advocacy groups have been gathering support for the proposals they think best meet the needs of the city, and abutting Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 1A and 4C have public meetings to vote on their prefered development plans tonight.

Whatever is chosen, Hebrew Home offers a significant opportunity for not only the immediate neighborhood, but for the entire city to create more homes and more affordable homes for current and incoming residents of all incomes. Let’s hope we prioritize people over parking, and inclusively over fear of building heights.

David Whitehead is the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David works 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.