Our growing region needs new homes and retail space. Three proposed projects, in DC's Adams Morgan and Penn Branch areas, as well as Takoma Park, Maryland, won key approvals this week that will help bring this to our neighborhoods.
It wasn't always easy, though. A modest, low-density shopping center replacing a parking lot became an epic fight and sparked a recall campaign, while a larger apartment building on a street full of similarly large apartment buildings has triggered strong political attacks on a sitting councilmember.
The projects are moving forward to bring benefits to their communities, however, in part thanks to neighborhood Yes In My Backyard activists, Greater Greater Washington volunteers, allied policy organizations, and many others.
Takoma Park says yes to redeveloping a parking lot
In Takoma Park, after a long and contentious hearing during which, according to one resident, an opponent shouted at a ten-year-old who'd testified in support, the City Council approved the Takoma Junction development which contributors David Daddio and Tony Camilli describe as “a modest, two-story mixed-use office space above small format retail, a green roof, a public plaza, and underground parking.” It will replace a city-owned parking lot.
That didn't stop some neighbors from waging a protracted battle over this one building as a proxy on gentrification in a city with a long history of liberal activism. In Takoma Park, perhaps more than anywhere else in the region, the battle to define the progressive view of growth — in favor of new housing to meet people's needs and desegregate exclusive areas, or just blanket resistance to anything involving for-profit enterprise — was on display.
The City Council voted 5-2 for the project at 1:15 am on Thursday morning, but it might not be totally over: some residents have started mounting a recall effort against councilmembers who supported it.
GGWash contributor Tony Camilli said, “A great moment I witnessed was when Alex Baca came and spoke to the council on behalf of the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG). Alex spoke eloquently about CSG supporting the development, but also how failing to include housing or more density is a missed opportunity. Some opponents of the development were disrespectful to Alex and laughed during parts of her remarks, at which time I and others tried to shush them down. What I also saw was at least one local resident yell at and verbally attack the council and City staff, and he happens to be the guy leading the recall effort of any elected official that voted yes.”
Penn Branch: Yes to this development, no to a broader downzoning
The DC Zoning Commission approved a custom zone for the Penn Branch shopping center along Pennsylvania Avenue SE in DC's Ward 7, east of the Anacostia River. The developer, Jair Lynch, had reached a compromise with neighbors around the project and its zoning rules. The developer didn't pursue a Planned Unit Development, the usual way to customize zoning for a specific project and factor in community input, likely because virtually every PUD across the city is drawing a lawsuit.
The Penn Branch zone wasn't in dispute as neighbors were pleased with the result, but some organizations and activists in neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park, at the other end of the city, tried to ask for a backdoor downzoning by “immediately” applying the new zone to other, similar areas citywide. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D, Greater Greater Washington volunteers, and the Coalition for Smarter Growth testified against the idea. On Tuesday, the Zoning Commission approved the new zone but only mapped it to this one site.
“We get a lot of suggestions,” said Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, “but it didn't start up here” with the commission. Commissioners made clear that they wouldn't consider remapping any areas without much more process, and almost certainly wouldn't apply this zone without the support of the property owner(s). They sharply quizzed people such as Alma Gates, an ANC 3D commissioner testifying for the Committee of 100, who was asking to immediately apply the zone more broadly.
Further wanting to emphasize that this was not a downzoning of an existing MU-4 zone but upzoning the specific Penn Branch location, the Office of Planning changed the name to MU-3B, a variant of the lower-density MU-3 zone, instead of characterizing it as a more restrictive version of the MU-4 zone.
Yes to Meridian Center on 16th Street
There was more pitched rhetoric swirling around Adams Morgan in the last week as a DC Board of Zoning Adjustment vote neared Wednesday on new housing on 16th Street. The Meridian Center, a nonprofit which educates and connects global leaders, wanted to raise some new funds by building atop what's now a scrubby green hill with two trees. (The trees will stay.)
This has been a neighborhood controversy for years, with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C, in particular, vehemently and angrily opposing it at every turn. However, DC's Historic Preservation Review Board gave the okay, and the developer, Westbrook Development Partners, negotiated three legal Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with neighbors, addressing 120 specific neighbor requests and providing a $75,000 bond for the trees.
The BZA held a hearing on two required “special exceptions” in June and was scheduled to rule this week. Days before, ANC commissioner Amanda Fox Perry suddenly called publicly on Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau to oppose the project and blasted her in multiple emails, writing, “Councilwoman Nadeau refuses to do her homework and advocate for her constituents, choosing instead to side with the developer.”
Nadeau, however, sent Fox Perry a detailed letter explaining how the Office of Planning and District Department of Transportation had evaluated the project, determining it complied with the Comprehensive Plan, and the neighbors had negotiated the MOUs (through a committee including Fox Perry). Nadeau wrote, “Meridian has subsequently committed to hiring a person dedicated to upholding the MOUs. In my many years of public service, that’s not something I’ve ever seen, and speaks to the dedication of the organization to uphold its commitments to the community.”
Finally, Nadeau pointed out that the DC Council does not formally have any role in reviewing or approving BZA special exceptions or other zoning cases. Unlike in most jurisdictions, under the terms of the Home Rule Act, the independent, hybrid federal-local BZA and Zoning Commission make all zoning decisions. The DC Council can set high-level policy through the Comprehensive Plan, but does not participate in individual cases.
That didn't stop Nadeau's predecessor, Jim Graham, or other councilmembers from sending letters to zoning boards when constituents complained. But often, some councilmembers sent poorly thought-through letters that repeated opponent talking points without really understanding the big picture. After all, if the council is not taking a vote, its members will not necessarily have been briefed on every detail of a controversy. Nadeau's approach of leaving zoning to the zoning board is a smart move.
On Wednesday the BZA granted the two special exceptions, and so this project will now be able to move forward.
We need to keep organizing
While all of these may be individual buildings in individual communities, it's important for the GGWash community to keep examining each proposal and, when it's worthwhile, showing up to support it. Without continual YIMBY organizing, neighborhoods with more wealth and privilege will continue to be able to opt out of providing the homes and stores our growing region needs.
Being a YIMBY doesn't have to mean organizing for every new building proposal everywhere. Some projects are just bad! But it does mean being willing to stand up knee-jerk, often unreasonable reactions to new development, especially when they keep occurring in more privileged areas.
Allowing new growth in Takoma Park and Adams Morgan and stopping a downzoning effort west of Rock Creek Park took three small steps in a good direction. Want to help push for the next one? Sign up for our action alert list!