A routine ANC meeting became the center of attention in the Brookland neighborhood last week as neighbors discussed how pending changes to the Comprehensive Plan would impact development plans on the Howard East Campus. The specific discussion was focused on a proposed change to the site in DC’s Future Land Use Map (FLUM). Unfortunately, some misunderstandings about what the new map would and wouldn’t do have led to widespread confusion in the community.
Maps from DC Office of Planning showing the proposed FLUM change from Institutional to mixed-use Institutional/Moderate Density
The amendment in question would change the site’s designation from just Institutional to a mixed-use of Institutional and Residential-Moderate Density. It was first proposed in the fall of 2019, and has been part of the broader citywide conversation about the Comprehensive Plan over the last couple of years, which has included thousands of public comments, a formal round of ANC feedback and a marathon public hearing last spring. It is expected to receive final markup and vote from the DC Council next month.
But some Brookland-area neighbors only recently became aware of the proposal, and have begun mobilizing against the FLUM amendment in recent weeks. Organized under the name of Howard East Neighbors, they circulated a petition to that effect and attended ANC 5B’s March meeting hoping to influence a vote on a similar resolution. (The resolution was tabled at that meeting, but will be addressed in an upcoming special meeting on Thursday, April 1st).
The Howard East Neighbors are ostensibly concerned that the map changes constitute a “re-zoning approval” that would automatically allow by-right development and “prevent public input, along with the appropriate environmental, traffic, and community impact studies.”
Unfortunately, these claims are not accurate and have led to widespread community confusion.
What is the Howard East Campus and what is planned for it?
The former home of the Howard Divinity School, Howard East Campus is a 23-acre site in the Brookland neighborhood. Like many institutional landowners in Ward 5, Howard has found itself somewhat land-rich but cash-poor in recent years and sees development of a portion of the East Campus as a way to maximize the value of the land to support its mission. A study it commissioned in 2016 suggested the university would like to pursue a mix of academic uses, housing and open space as part of a redevelopment.
No formal plans have been filed, though some early concept proposals of how the site could be segmented have circulated as part of the community engagement process.
Rough initial concepts from an early Howard presentation.
What is the FLUM? How is it different from the Zoning Map?
The single most important thing to understand is that the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) and the zoning map are two distinct documents. You can read a much more in-depth explanation here, but the short version is that the FLUM gives general guidance to what kind of uses the city is expecting for wider areas in coming years (about a 20-year future look), while the zoning map legally enables (or, in some ways, restricts) what can happen right now on each and every lot.
Guidelines for the FLUM Map from the DC Office of Planning.
A change to the FLUM makes no automatic change to the related properties’ zones. In the case of Howard East, the proposed FLUM change would adjust the land-use designation of the campus from Institutional to an Institutional-Moderate Density mix, but the zone would remain R-1-B (a low-density zone intended for 2-3 story detached houses on large lots).
Howard would still need to formally apply to change the zoning designation of the site, a process that involves public discussion and community engagement in front of the Zoning Commission. Importantly, any zoning change on the Howard East site will need to follow that process, whether or not the FLUM change is approved.
So what’s the point of the FLUM amendment then?
While the FLUM doesn’t strictly determine the zoning designation of a given property, it can still significantly restrict what is allowed to be built. The relationship between the FLUM and zoning maps has been a key element of recent lawsuits over projects in the city, but the short version for Howard East is that it’s currently somewhat ambiguous whether the existing “Institutional” land use designation would be consistent or inconsistent with the moderate density development the University seems inclined to propose for at least part of the site.
In past cases, that kind of ambiguity between the FLUM and zoning maps has led to contentious lawsuits that create long delays in resolving the future of a site and have generally led to property owners declining to pursue development options that involve them negotiating with the community at all.
The FLUM amendments are a part of a broader series of edits meant, in part, to help remove that ambiguity so zoning changes and development projects can be adjudicated in a timely way in the city’s intended, regular planning process rather than through the federally-appointed DC Courts.
So how DO you change a zone?
There are two main ways to change the allowable uses and density of a site:
1. A Zoning Map Amendment – A landowner can petition the Zoning Commission to change their property’s zone, thus allowing different uses or sizes of buildings as a matter of right. These amendments are filed and noticed like any other ZC case and ANC+public testimony is heard at the hearing. The Commission will consider the application against the city’s goals as listed in the comprehensive plan and weigh benefits against community impacts/concerns.
2. A Planned Unit Development (PUD) – allows a landowner to apply for some bonus height and density on a property (generally up to 20%-30% denser than their current zone allows, but only up to the density allowed by the FLUM) in exchange for a package of benefits for the community. Those benefits can include things like affordable housing, streetscape redesign, and financial contributions to community organizations among others. Like a map amendment, the proposal is also reviewed by the Zoning Commission, which similarly weighs the tradeoffs.
Both methods can be also combined. This is very common, as PUDs that apply for a map amendment as a part of the process measure the density bonus against the approved new zone, rather than the old.
So why the opposition?
The opposition to the FLUM changes in Brookland are informed by, and seem to be tied to, larger opposition to the Comprehensive Plan in the city. These opponents have framed the pending FLUM amendments as the difference between community-involved development processes on these sites and by-right processes that cut neighbors out.
Without the FLUM changes, they say, property owners will have to use the PUD process, which legally guarantees a role for community groups to negotiate. If the new FLUM is approved, however, they claim property owners will then be free to pursue map amendments instead, which a sympathetic Zoning Commission will quickly approve while ignoring community concerns, thus allowing subsequent development in the new zone to be done by-right.
The choice is false in general, but particularly so for the Howard East site for a number of reasons:
- Howard can already apply for a map amendment under the current FLUM.
The FLUM change will help clarify the potential ambiguity of the Howard East site’s current Institutional land-use designation, but it may not actually be necessary; stopping the FLUM change is not particular insurance against a map amendment.
In the nearby Chancellors Row case, the Zoning Commission found that “the Institutional land use category envisions multiple-unit housing as well as low and moderate density housing such as row houses,” (ZC 07-27). Also nearby, a lawsuit over development on the similarly Institutionally-designated St. Joseph’s Seminary property was recently resolved with the court approving of the ZC’s justification for moderate density on that site.
Moreover, if the Howard site is significantly different from these two, and a map amendment for a moderate density zone wouldn’t work under the current FLUM designation for some reason, it’s hard to see how a PUD would work given that it has essentially the same relationship to the FLUM.
- It’s not even clear Howard would prefer a map amendment
We don’t actually have any particular evidence to suggest which option might be more preferable to the university. Generally, PUDs are designed to be more attractive because they offer additional bonus density (and thus value) in exchange for those formally negotiated community benefits. And recent changes extending the District’s Inclusionary Zoning program to map amendments will certainly change the financial calculation that previously may have made that path more appealing. So Howard may very well still be interested in a PUD even under a revised FLUM.
- Community engagement will be part of either process
The PUD provides a more formal template for engagement, but communities have successfully used map amendments to achieve similar goals, even beyond the standard opportunity for ANC and public testimony at a map amendment hearing. The recent example of the redeveloped Hebrew Home is a great example. ANC-led involvement in that case secured benefits including a renovated park, community space, and streetscape renovations.
Even if the claim is that the formal path of the PUD is a much stronger version of community engagement, framing a map amendment as a by-right option with no input at all is disingenuous.
Instead it seems like the real worry is that the kinds of public input these neighbors anticipate giving won’t be persuasive to the Zoning Commission. That’s a fair concern to have, but it is far different from alleging the community won’t even have a chance to be heard.
Of course, if the Zoning Commission itself is the ultimate problem for opponents in the end, it’s unclear why a PUD would make much difference, given that it would be reviewed by the exact same board. If the fear is that the ZC will overrule some members of the community in favor of Howard’s interests, there’s no reason that couldn’t happen just the same if they review it as a PUD.
So what are we really talking about?
Added together, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the clamor about PUDs vs. map amendments is something of a red herring. Process complaints are usually just stand-ins for arguments about outcomes, and this seems to be no exception.
Neighbors who oppose the FLUM change because it would explicitly (rather than just implicitly) make moderate-density an option on the site in the future should just say so! They don’t need a convoluted argument about paperwork to make their case.
Howard has indicated its goal in redeveloping the site is a mix of academic uses, open space and value-generating housing. Based on even the existing FLUM designation and precedent of similar cases, some version of that vision is highly likely to be built. Neighbors looking for a radically different plan of only a marginal amount of housing or a privately subsidized park are setting themselves up for disappointment — and a PUD won’t change that.
If they were asking my advice, I’d suggest the most productive path forward is probably to organize around a valid goal (realistically they can probably choose between minimizing total units, maximizing affordable units, or maximizing open space), and then present themselves as good-faith negotiating partners. Neighborhood entities seeking “community control,” whether ANCs, civic associations, or any other local groups, should enter that process prepared to give, take, and discuss—or else they will end up empty-handed.
Fighting the FLUM change looks a lot more like a strategy to preserve legal leverage that can be weaponized later in the process. Again, recent precedent suggests that strategy too is unlikely to succeed, but if the goal is to cause Howard some financial pain before this is over (which they might try to recoup by maxing out more revenue-producing housing on the site), it could be effective.