Google Street View looking onto 1600 N. Capitol NW, from the intersection.

Residents have been waiting for over a decade to see a vacant lot at the corner of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue turn into a mixed-use building. Now, its owner is asking for a fifth extension in 11 years, which could push construction back to 2020. What’s the hold-up?

The seven-story building from the 2007 application, designed by Bonstra Haresign, would include 65 to 85 units of housing and 5,000 feet of retail space.

The property is owned by DC gas station magnate Eyob “Joe” Mamo, who got approval for what’s called Planned Unit Development in 2007. A PUD gives a property owner more flexibility on zoning in exchange for review by the DC Zoning Commission and community benefits commensurate with the zoning relief granted.

Rendering of the Building as Proposed in the 2007 PUD. Image by Bonstra | Haresign Architects used with permission.

Community benefits for this project include money for local schools to buy things like band instruments and tutoring, funds to start a local business improvement district, and financial support for the local civic association.

In more recent years, DC planners and advocates have been pushing for community benefits to focus more on permanent features of a project, like permanently affordable housing or plaza spaces, rather than just one-time payments to local organizations.

The project faces delays

The PUD approval required construction to begin by 2009, but it was delayed that year and again in 2011 and 2013 due to lack of financing in a bad market. Mamo asked for and received another extension in 2016 because, the request says, he had difficulty obtaining permits.

The current approval expires in June 15 of this year, but Mamo has asked for another two-year extension. The request says he needs more time to complete paperwork and environmental studies. If granted, construction may begin as late as June 15, 2020.

Mamo also wants to swap four residential units in the ground floor for about 4,000 square feet of retail space. The Zoning Commission approved other minor modifications to the PUD in 2013 and 2016.

The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 5E agreed to support Mamo’s latest request on April 9, 2018. However, many in the community are frustrated at the prospect of more delays.

“As a next-door neighbor to the lot, I'd describe it as a massive missed opportunity,” GGWash contributor Nick Sementelli says. “North Capitol has been lagging behind and this lot could provide the kind of anchor-tenant to jump-start more rehabilitation. A first-floor grocery store or even pharmacy would fill a long-time neighborhood need. Well-resourced by transit, it has the potential to be an incredible resource for neighborhoods in need of some more retail.”

“I share the concerns of many residents about granting another extension, and am eager to hearing how the developer intends to swiftly move this project forward,” local ANC representative Hannah Powell said. “This site has been vacant and neglected for far too long, directly contributing to the pervasive vagrancy, public intoxication, and crime at this intersection.”

Mamo used old rules allowing unlimited extensions

Recently, DC’s zoning rules changed to limit developers from delaying PUD projects too long. Previous regulations did not limit the number of times an applicant could request an extension, says Edward Giefer, Associate Director of DC Office of Planning. Mamo got two-year delays under this rule [1958 Zoning Regs/PUD section 2408] in 2009, 2011, and 2013.

Starting in September 2016, there is a limit of two total extensions: one two-year extension, followed by a one-year extension. Mamo’s 2016 extension came under the new rule, so this time around, he should be held to a final one-year extension. However, Mamo has asked Zoning to include a waiver to that limit, according to Giefer. The Zoning Commission will consider the waiver and extension request on June 11.

“PUD extensions are not at all uncommon. … Five extensions is a lot, though,” ANC 2A01 Commissioner Patrick Kennedy says. “I think the most I've seen is three among neighborhood projects. [The Zoning Commission] will usually grant one extension as a matter of course, and gets increasingly skeptical beyond that… and sometimes will issue an ultimatum about a given extension being the last.”

Bloomingdale has grown significantly in the past two decades and there’s evidence to suggest the neighborhood needs more housing. Census data shows home prices more than tripled there between 2000 and 2016. Household incomes have risen 163% and area residents are more educated than before. The portion of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree has more than tripled in those 16 years.

The extensions grandfather in no affordable housing

Mamo likely wants to keep a 10-year-old approval alive because to start over would mean a lengthy new zoning process, hearings, big payments to attorneys, and negotiations with the ANC over community benefits when a benefits package was already locked in.

There could be another reason, too: In 2007, DC yet had no Inclusionary Zoning law, which requires a 8-10% of units in any new building to be set aside as permanent affordable housing. The 2007 project had no IZ units, and as long as the current PUD gets extended, neither does whatever gets built.

The new rules, limiting extensions to three years, will ensure that if zoning laws change, projects approved under the old laws can’t keep floating out there for many years.

Residents and local reps are frustrated with delays

At a May 15 meeting, Mamo’s representative told the ANC he wants a year to secure permits and environmental paperwork — one after the other. A visibly frustrated ANC 5E06 Commissioner Katherine McClelland said they can both be accomplished at the same time in a one-year extension, and her fellow ANC members agreed.

So did the Bloomingdale Civic Association the following week. It unanimously passed two measures codifying much of the ANC's discussion and agreed to support a one-year extension and design modifications.

ANC Commissioner Bertha Holliday successfully lobbied for a provision requesting an additional level for public parking. The parking would go in an additional basement level and wouldn’t sacrifice housing units, but it would add cost to the project and drive more vehicle trips. If extra benefits are possible, perhaps they should be something like affordable housing.

The commission is not obligated to adopt any compromise offered by the BCA or ANC 5E, though it should “give great weight to the affected ANC’s recommendations.”

The Zoning Commission is meeting on June 11 to decide whether to grant Mamo the two-year extension and modifications that he seeks.

This post has been updated to reflect that the development is slated for North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue, not Rhode Island Avenue.

Gordon Chaffin is a journalist and multimedia producer with expertise in public policy and economics. Born and raised in Michigan, Gordon is an advocate for more housing, rail trails, public transit, and streets designed for every mode of transportation — especially bikes. He lives in a shipping container just big enough to fit his running gear.