Hebrew Home for the Aged and Jewish Social Service Agency. Image by Farragutful licensed under Creative Commons.

This summer, DC adopted a plan to bring almost 200 homes to a city-owned block just a five-minute walk from the Petworth Metro. The plan finally came together after years of failed attempts, thanks in part to a unique public process in which the community provided input on the site’s redevelopment from the very beginning.

The 3.3-acre site, at 1125 Spring Road, NW, includes two vacant buildings: the historic Hebrew Home for the Aged, and the former Paul Robeson School. Over the years, there’s been a lot of back and forth about what to do with these empty buildings.

Then on August 22, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the city had selected Victory Housing and Brinshore Development to redevelop the site to its first productive use since 2009, providing 187 new housing options, 148 of them designated as affordable.

Many residents are excited that almost 80 percent of the housing will be affordable units for households of varying income levels, including 88 affordable senior units in the Hebrew Home building. Since DC law only requires 30 percent of new homes on District-owned property be made affordable, this is a real achievement.

Adding new density to existing neighborhoods is often a very difficult process because it will mean change for existing community members. And while there are still a few steps before construction begins here, it’s heartening that the community was able to reach a level of consensus that will enable this block will be returned to productive use. As such, it’s worth deconstructing how that happened.

Hebrew Home site at 1125 Spring Road Northwest. Image by Google maps.

After many failed redevelopment efforts, progress!

There have been multiple failed attempts to redevelop the Hebrew Home site since 2010. The effort restarted in spring 2016 using the city’s new OurRFP process, which requires early civic engagement prior to the development of the request for proposals. This process ensures that developers are specifically responding to criteria prioritized by the community.

After speaking with community members about the project, it became clear that many had become fatigued and frustrated after nothing changed on site despite years of civic engagement.

Then, at a May 2017 public meeting, seven developers offered their proposals, and two local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANC 4C in Petworth/16th Street Heights and ANC 1A in Columbia Heights), were asked to weigh in by July 2017.

Another view of Hebrew Home. Image by the author.

Armed with options, residents began organizing

Almost all of the developers envisioned apartments or condos within the Hebrew Home building, but differed by what they proposed for the rest of the site. Following the May meeting, active residents coalesced around a few different proposals, each representing divergent visions for the Robeson School portion of the site.

Many residents living in the immediate proximity of the site expressed their preference for two of the proposals, both of which redeveloped Hebrew Home as an affordable, senior-only multifamily apartment building and built market-rate lower-density single-family rowhouses on the rest of the site.

Within that group, residents favored rowhouses due to concerns that a larger building on the Robeson School site would be inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood and would bring too many new residents to the area, further exacerbating parking issues.

On the other end, many residents (some organized by local affordable housing advocacy groups) were pushing for a proposal that built a larger building on the Robeson School site, and contained 224 housing units — the highest total amount proposed, and also the highest number of affordable units (177 income-restricted units).

Within the second group, residents favored the denser proposal because it provided significantly more affordable housing.

Paul Robeson School site at 3700 10th Street Northwest. Image by Google maps.

Compromise and consensus

For several months, the ANCs held meetings, conducted surveys, and talked with local residents and other community stakeholders to further understand concerns and what they wanted to happen on site. The ANCs then developed resolutions that outlined additional community criteria for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) to consider in its selection of a development team.

In the end, the ANCs recommended the proposal from Victory Housing and Brinshore Development, which best met the criteria outlined. It features 88 units of affordable senior rental homes in the Hebrew Home, as well as eight homeowner units and a new 91-unit multifamily building on the Robeson School site.

While this proposal contained fewer affordable units than the option affordable housing advocates preferred, it included more than the lower-density rowhouse-focused options others hoped for. It has the highest percentage of affordable units of any development (80 percent affordable, 148 affordable units overall), and a high number of affordable family-sized units (29 three-bedroom units), which are in particularly short supply in DC.

The extensive community engagement paid off.

At the July 2017 ANC 4C meeting, several residents who had originally supported the lower density proposals came out to support the ANCs’ choice of a middle-density option. Many said the resolution was not what they individually wanted, but they felt it represented a consensus position that they could support. The ANC4C resolution passed unanimously.

With a development team now on board and the community behind a consensus vision for the site, detailed design work comes next. A series of community meetings this month will allow residents to provide input on architecture, public space improvements, parking, and other potential community benefits.

Bird's eye view of the Hebrew Home (building on left) and Paul Robeson School (building on right) site. Image by Google maps.

A good tool in the right circumstances

By giving the community a chance to imagine their own vision for the site, this long-abandoned property will finally become productive. Now 187 new individuals and families will have homes in a core city neighborhood, with easy access to transit and retail options, including a grocery store.

This redevelopment plan was selected thanks to the dedication of engaged Petworth neighbors, but also thanks to DC’s unique OurRFP process.

The key to this development is that the District government owns these properties. On other properties, where land is privately-owned, the government sets the zoning and then developers often work to maximize their profit within that zoning. But as landowner, the District can be far more selective and intentional about what’s built on site.

Alley view of Hebrew Home. Image by the author.

In a representative democracy, that power is both a blessing and a curse. If the community refuses to accept the proposed redevelopments, owning an abandoned property can be a detriment to the city (loss of tax revenue and costs to maintain) and the community around it, and the government would be better off simply selling the land. But if the community is willing to accept the change that comes with new development, then owning the property enables the government to give the community broad power in deciding what’s built.

OurRFP is the tool DC uses to give that broad power to the community. Thus far, this is the third of four sites where the District is using the OurRFP process for redevelopment. In this case, it worked well. But the sample size is small. If it works well elsewhere, the OurRFP could be a model for more properties around the city.

If you live in the area and would like to weigh in on architecture, public space improvements, parking, and other potential community benefits, the first meeting will be held this Saturday, December 2, from noon to 2 pm at Raymond Recreation Center (3725 10th St NW). Another will be held later in December.