What exactly are we trying to preserve Eckington’s industrial land for anyway?

Last week community leaders in Eckington made the case for restoring the Comprehensive Plan’s Future Land Use Map Amendments that would allow housing on the industrial land near the metros and along the trail in their neighborhood.

As they laid out, these amendments would seem to be a home run. In addition to its transit accessibility, the large area in question could accommodate a significant chunk of the city’s housing goals (including two large District-owned lots that are primed for affordable and deeply affordable housing). And unlike other neighborhoods that have organized against similar map amendments, these were supported by the neighbors and ANC alike.

Proposed FLUM Amendments 2419.2 and 2419.3 would add residential and commercial uses designation to the industrial land in Eckington.

But according to DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, whose decision to remove these amendments from his draft version of the plan has sparked lots of conversation and debate, the issue is not anything about these specific parcels, but rather a concern with our city’s limited supply of Production, Distribution and Repair (PDR) land overall.

As he expressed to the Washington Business Journal, his concern is a classic collective action problem:

“No one wants a concrete plant or an auto repair shop near their house, but we need them…Are we all going to have to go out to the suburbs to get our cars fixed? At some point, we’re going to wake up and say, ‘Geez, there’s no land left for the warehouse or the concrete plant.’”

Mendelson’s comments suggest we’re facing a dramatic supply squeeze for unpopular but essential facilities in DC. If we shrink the limited industrial land available, he worries, we’ll ultimately leave these necessary businesses with nowhere else to go in the city.

It’s not an irrational concern, but it doesn’t appear to hold up to closer scrutiny.

When the city completed the Ward 5 Works study analyzing industrial land in the city in 2014, they found that a large percentage of PDR land was being used for non-PDR uses. In the map below, numerous retail, civic and even residential lots are sited in the relevant areas.

Map of current uses of PDR-designated land in the 2014 Ward 5 Works study

To assess the Eckington area in question more closely, and see if anything has changed since 2014, I’ve put together a similar analysis of current uses. The main takeaway is the same: these parcels are hardly being maximized for PDR-only uses. In fact, the vast majority of the land appears to be used for facilities that could equally locate themselves in commercially-designated areas, be easily combined with housing, or are simply providing storage for vehicles that would face little cost relocating.

Distribution of land in the FLUM amendment area categorized by present-day land use.

Non-PDR required uses – 27%

The topline takeaway is that a full quarter of the land (300,000 sq ft) is being used for facilities that have no requirement to be in PDR lots anyway, and have far more land across the city available to them if they chose to move in the future. This includes retail (a UHaul moving and storage facility), office space (a DC Library administrative building), some art studios and event spaces, and a school.

The north face of the DC Library Lemuel Penn building. The new mixed-use ONE501 building can be seen in the background. Image by the author.

The only edge case in this category is the Chair’s primary example of auto-repair shops, of which there are three here. Setting aside Mendelson’s contention that driving to the suburbs for car repairs is unthinkable (I would hazard a guess that tens of thousands of District residents who service their cars at large suburban dealerships find this entirely normal), auto repair shops don’t appear to be limited to PDR-zones. A cursory search reveals dozens of shops scattered throughout the city in regular commercial zones. If there’s a land crunch for these businesses, it’s not uniquely a PDR problem.

Mt. Pleasant Auto Repair Shop which is located in an area designated commercial on the FLUM

Light industrial – 8.2%

Another ~90,000 sq ft is currently being used for genuine production, but not in a way that would preclude sharing space with residential or commercial. The most prominent example is the ghost kitchen under construction on 5th St NE. Such facilities are easily compatible with housing, and can even be major assets. For a great example, you only have to look half a mile down the trail at the Eckington Yards project where Union Kitchen is acting as an anchor tenant in the mixed-use project’s commercial first floor.

The remaining 65% is split into two distinct categories:

Vehicle storage – 54.6%

The majority of the space is currently being used as vehicle storage for three entities. USPS has an apparently empty warehouse plus a parking lot hosting some postal vans. DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education stores their fleet of special education buses in another. And then Fort Myer uses a single, massive 450,000 sq ft lot running along the train tracks predominantly to store their fleet of dump trucks and some other construction vehicles.

The USPS warehouse with “For Lease Industrial Space” sign. The postal vehicle parking lot is on the North side of the lot. Image by the author.

In all three cases, it’s not clear that having vehicles occupying prime Metro-accessible land is an efficient allocation of space given that their primary purpose is to connect people and resources in completely different locations anyway. These vehicles would almost certainly be of equivalent or near equivalent value to their owners in slightly further away locations (even outside of the District). And the relocation costs would be small. All told, the District should not be losing too much sleep if these users decide to relocate their fleets to cheaper land elsewhere.

Heavy industrial – 9.5%

Finally, we get to the concrete plant Chair Mendelson evoked in his example (though in this case it’s technically an asphalt plant operated by Fort Myer).

Fort Myer’s asphalt plant.

Arguably, a similar case about relocation can be made for these heavy industrial uses. Unlike commercial and residential buildings, whose value is directly proportional to how close and connected they are to the full network effect of the city, industrial uses are far more specialty and situational, often involving vehicle transport anyway. A warehouse in a more rural area means slightly longer trips for its deliveries (maybe). A restaurant in a rural area means a radically shrunk (if impossibly low) number of customers. Housing in a rural area means significantly less access to jobs, amenities and city resources.

The argument for housing these kinds of heavy industrial facilities inside the city anyway is that they generate economic activity and jobs that benefit the city as a whole (though this benefit should be weighed against the damage they do to immediately adjacent communities). But there are other job-creating industries that are also essential to city life that we aren’t in a rush to find space for. We’re perfectly comfortable “importing” most food from outside the city because it’s far more efficient for the producers and customers alike. Is there any reason asphalt couldn’t be the same?

Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear the jobs equation is an up-or-down binary. The District’s job market is part of a larger regional whole. Only about 30% of DC’s workers actually live in DC, the rest are commuting in from outside jurisdictions already. Is an industrial facility within DC likelier to employ District residents? Maybe slightly? Would the commercial-like light-industrial business that would possibly replace it under a residential/industrial designation provide a similar number of jobs? Probably.

But even if we discount those arguments, and accept that there is a unique value to having heavy industrial facilities within the city, we’re still only talking about <10% of this entire area.

Again, based on the Ward 5 Works study, that’s not unique to this section. The image below shows another version of the earlier map, this time isolating the non-governmental/non-transit PDR-use lots. Far from the supply-crunch scenario the Chair is concerned about, the reality looks a lot different, with “true” PDR requiring far less land than is currently designated.

Map of non-governmental, non-transit PDR-uses from the 2014 Ward 5 Works study.

Given these ratios, the risk of allowing some mixed-use housing/industrial onto a metro-and-trail-accessible portion of this land looks a lot lower, particularly compared to the obvious benefits. The Council should restore the Office of Planning’s amendments to do so with confidence at its next markup of the Comprehensive Plan.

What the FLUM is up with the Howard East Campus?

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.

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 weighs the value of the benefits as part of the process.

Both methods can be also combined. This is very common, as most PUDs have applied for a map amendment as a part of the process.

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Petition: No More Deaths — Fix Michigan Avenue

The recent death of Mr. Armando Martinez-Ramos at Michigan Avenue and 10th St NE is a tragic reminder of the gap between the District’s current streets and our Vision Zero goals.

The specifics of the crash are still being investigated, and when it concludes, the District Department of Transportation should move quickly to implement any and all street design improvements that would have helped prevent this tragedy.

But fixing one intersection on this dangerous street is not enough. If we are going to truly prevent the next death, we need a solution that addresses the entirety of Michigan Avenue, which is plagued by dangerous speeding, difficult crossings, and little infrastructure for vulnerable users.

DDOT themselves identified these very problems — and recommended improvements — in two separate studies in 2016, but frustratingly those plans have largely not been implemented.

We can’t keep watching neighbors killed and seriously injured while plans that could protect them sit collecting dust. We’re asking DDOT to respond to this tragedy by implementing real fixes to the whole of Michigan Avenue.

Sign the petition by adding your name here

Edgewood/Eckington/Stronghold Library Community Meeting Record

On Wednesday, February 24th, Ward 5 for All held a community meeting to discuss the proposed new library to fill the service gap for the Stronghold, Edgewood and Eckington neighborhoods in Ward 5. DC Public Library assistant director of communications and community engagement, Martha Saccocio was on hand to present and answer questions.

You can watch a partial* recording of the meeting and read the chat here:

*Unfortunately, due to user error, the first half of the meeting was not recorded. The recording picks up at the start of the Q&A and covers all of the community discussion.

The unrecorded portion was general background on the Library’s Next Libris report, and a short review of potential location ideas outlined in this presentation deck.

Letter Requesting North Capitol Redesign Concept Study in DC FY22 Budget

Mayor Muriel Bowser
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20004
Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20004
Councilmember Charles Allen
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20004
Councilmember Mary Cheh
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20004
Interim Director Everett Lott
District Department of Transportation
55 M Street, SE, Suite 400 Washington, DC 20003
Director Andrew Trueblood
Office of Planning
1100 4th Street, SW, Suite 650 East
Washington, DC 20024

February 18, 2021

Mayor Bowser, Councilmember McDuffie, Councilmember Allen, Councilmember Cheh, Interim Director Lott, and Director Trueblood:

We, the undersigned Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, community associations, churches, business and individuals, are writing to ask you to fund a concept study for the redesign of North Capitol Street between Massachusetts and Michigan Avenues in the FY 2022 budget. The current design of this corridor falls far short of its historic status and enormous potential and fails to meet the Mayor’s commitment to Vision Zero. North Capitol Street is unsafe, it divides adjacent communities, and it is hostile to the economic and cultural vitality of the mid-city. 

In the coming decade, the North Capitol Street corridor will be crucial to the city’s growth and sustained affordability. The adjacent neighborhoods of NoMa, Bloomingdale, Stronghold, Eckington, and Mount Vernon Triangle are thriving, and thanks to your leadership, private and public development will add thousands of market rate and affordable housing units as well as new retail to Northwest One, the McMillan Reservation, and other locations along the North Capitol corridor. We believe that the District should begin planning now for a North Capitol Street that will provide a safe way for these new residents to get to and from their homes as well as create an accessible, appealing commercial corridor to attract visitors to the existing and coming small businesses.

A concept study is needed to gather input from those most affected by this dangerous and divisive corridor and assess the feasibility of major improvements to the streetscape. Among the questions this study should answer are: 

  • How should the District redesign North Capitol Street to discourage speeding and other forms of dangerous and aggressive driving behavior?
  • How should the District improve the safety, comfort, and accessibility of east-west connections across North Capitol Street for pedestrians and people on bicycles?
  • How can current bus lines and supporting infrastructure be modified to improve the speed, frequency, and on-time bus service for residents and visitors?
  • Should the District add transit priority lanes to the corridor to improve bus service?
  • Should the design of the streetscape better prioritize the needs of local businesses and the safety of those who patronize them? 
  • Should the District fill in underpasses that encourage speeding and cut off adjacent communities? 
  • How can the city leverage private investment to address infrastructure deficiencies in a fiscally responsible manner? 

We understand that this year’s budget will prioritize the city’s recovery from the pandemic, associated economic consequences, and the critical needs of residents who have been hit hardest. Nonetheless, we believe that a relatively small investment in planning for the future of this corridor will pay massive dividends in the coming years as our city recovers. We simply cannot wait to begin the process of better connecting our communities by improving the safety and vitality of North Capitol Street. 

Response to this letter may be directed to ANC Commissioner Alex Lopez (SMD 6E02) at 6E02@anc.dc.gov.


Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6E
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C
NoMa Business Improvement District
North Capitol Main Street
NoMa/H Street Civic Association
Eckington Civic Association
LeDroit Park Civic Association
Sibley Plaza Townhouses Residents’ Association
Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA)
Ward 5 for All
Pub and the People
Republic Cantina
Jeffery A Shapiro, Owner, K&B Sodas
Karim & Associates Financial Services

A wishlist for where the DC Public Library should build its Ward 5 expansion

new report from the DC Public Library charts a course for future expansion of the library system, including a proposed new facility in the Edgewood/Eckington/Stronghold area. Here’s an early look at some potential locations for such a library, and how that might impact surrounding areas.

New decade, new vision

In the last decade, the DC Public Library system engaged in a half-billion dollar capital campaign to expand and modernize its facilities, a campaign that is being capped off by the reopening of the flagship Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library this year. Now, library system officials are looking ahead to the next decade for how they can build upon their success.

The new report, Next Libris, outlines priorities for continued renewal and refreshing of existing facilities, as well as priority areas for building additional libraries. Those locations were identified by evaluating both where residents face a geographical gap in service, as well as where existing libraries are too small to service the community. They were then divided into three tiers based on whether they address both an operational issue and service gap (Tier 1) or just one of those criteria (Tiers 2 and 3 respectively). The recommendation is to proceed with expansion sequentially, building the Tier 1 facilities in 1-3 years, Tier 2 in 4-6 and Tier 3 in 7-10.

Next Libris report by DC Public Library.

As a crucial bonus, the report shares DCPL’s preference that, where possible, these new libraries be built as part of mixed-use developments which would include housing — including affordable housing — and potentially commercial space as well. This would replicate the successful model of the West End Library opened in 2017 as part of a multi-use building. Combining housing with libraries represents a real win-win, helping the city address two major needs with each project while giving the new facilities dedicated customer bases who are likely to be high-frequency users.

One of the Tier 1 gaps identified is the combined Ward 5 neighborhoods of Edgewood, Eckington and Stronghold. A significant distance from existing libraries, DCPL data confirms that there are a disproportionate number of residents in these communities who do not currently use the system at all. And many of those that do visit the crowded Shaw library, so officials see an additional benefit of relieving some of the pressure on that high-traffic location.

A map from the Next Libris report shows existing library locations and service gaps. Next Libris report by DC Public Library.

So far no specific locations are being proposed, but as a very excited Edgewood resident, here are some potential locations I think the city should look into. This list is hardly predictive; I have no particular insight into the likelihood of any of these locations at all; rather, it’s an initial overview of some places that might come into the conversation.

First, here are the factors I considered when evaluating these options:

  • Size: As the library has made clear, bigger is better. Communal public space is increasingly hard to find. Combined with the increasing breadth of services and resources the library provides — and the unique needs of different age groups — a larger footprint can provide disproportionately large value.
  • Capacity for housing: The library’s vision to combine housing with these locations is truly a game-changing move to help us make another dent in our housing and affordable housing needs. These two things go together so well it’s a wonder it took us this long to prioritize it. Capacity here means both the aforementioned footprint and the existing zoning. Some zoning can be amended, but it’s easier if that step is unnecessary.
  • Public or privately owned land: With the right long-term lease, the library could be a great addition to any number of private developments coming to the area, though it does reduce some of the impact of adding net-new housing (on top of what’s already planned), particularly because housing developments on District-owned land are subject to higher affordability minimums.
  • Accessibility: Maximizing usage of the library starts with making sure it’s convenient and safe to get to — particularly for families, who are a key customer demographic. These neighborhoods face a number of transportation barriers already, from deadly arterial streets to the impassable train tracks to a lack of protected bike lanes. Finding a site that is best located to help residents from across the entire service gap visit is a priority.

Here are a few potential locations that check a number of those boxes:

The Lemuel Penn Center

1709 3rd Street NE, 52,231 sq ft

Currently serving as the temporary site of DCPL’s Operations Center while they search for a long-term home, the Penn Center is sufficiently large that a new building on the site could potentially offer room for Operations, a neighborhood library, and housing (though they would presumably need to find a new temporary home during construction).

Sited directly on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, proximate to the NoMa Metro stop and the P6 MetroBus route, and adjacent to the new Tanner Park and thousands of residents in the mid-rise buildings of East Eckington, the location would benefit from significant network effects. Though currently zoned for production and technical employment use (PDR-2), the proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map (FLUM) pending before the Council would allow for residential use as well.

At the Southern end of the service gap area, this location would be most convenient for Eckington residents, though the trail adjacency makes it fairly accessible for Edgewood neighbors as well.

Fifth Street Terminal

2115 5th Street NE, 63,102 sq ft

Only slightly up-trail from the Penn Center, the Fifth Street Terminal lot is a city-owned property currently serving as a parking lot for the District’s Special Education bus fleet. Accessibility wise, the location is about a ten minute walk along the Metropolitan Branch Trail to the Rhode Island-Brentwood Metro station. Also the same as the Penn Center, the zoning is currently PDR-2 with a proposed amendment to add in residential.

Engine 12 Fire Station

2225 5th Street NE, 30,574 sq ft (including parking lot)

One block north of the bus lot, the Engine 12 Fire Station is interesting not just on its own, but as part of a comprehensive re-development in the works. Last year, developer Jair Lynch (in coordination with the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church which owns a number of the relevant properties) submitted a zoning map amendment for the group of lots abutting the fire station on the south side of Rhode Island Ave NE between 5th St NE and the railroad tracks. The Office of Planning followed suit this month with their own map amendment for the station itself. The library’s early inclusion in the project (whether on the Engine 12 site itself or elsewhere in the development as a long-term tenant) could serve as something of a flagship component the rest of the plan could be built around.

This location would represent one of the more central options, again along the trail, roughly equidistant from Eckington and Edgewood, but with the added benefit of direct adjacency to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Station and the G8 and P6 MetroBus routes.

Bryant Street/Rhode Island Center Development

630 Rhode Island Ave NE

Bryant Street development by MRP Realty used with permission.

Directly across the street from the fire station, the first phase of the Bryant Street development is already underway replacing the shopping center that once housed Big Lots and Forman Mills. Six more phases remain, however, with tens of thousands of square feet of retail to be leased out. With no public land involved, the Library would likely look to sign a very long-term lease guaranteeing their use of the space for the lifetime of the building.

This location would bring all the same benefits of the South Rhode Island one with the additional bonus of even more direct access to the Metro (the pedestrian bridge across the tracks empties out onto the site) and even more immediate adjacency to the cluster of public and affordable housing at the Edgewood Terrace site.

Other options

This is by no means a comprehensive list; there are a number of other planned or potential development projects in this area that might make good fits. By allocating funding to a new library in the budget, the city can offer some certainty about the project that may surface a number of interested partners.

Replace or supplement?

The choice of location is not just important in how a new library will best serve new communities, but also for how well it will continue to serve existing ones.

One crucial detail of the Next Libris report is that it recommends closing the small Northwest One Library in conjunction with opening the Edgewood/Eckington/Stronghold library (as well as re-opening the nearby MLK location and expecting decreased pressure on the similarly nearby Shaw library). That’s in line with a general plan the library has to upgrade these low-square-footage facilities (most of which were replacements for even smaller, limited-service kiosks) in order to meet the growing need for meeting and study rooms, program space, and access to technology and collections.

Next Libris report by DC Public Library.

Because these small locations predominantly serve low-income communities, replacing them is a key part of the Library’s commitment to equity in their system. That’s true of the Northwest One facility as well, which is located within the redeveloping mixed-income housing complex of the same name and is immediately adjacent to Sursum Corda (also currently being redeveloped into a mixed-income community).

But for the Eckington/Edgewood library to serve this community, its location needs to be sufficiently accessible to local residents. A transit and trail-adjacent location in Eckington may work, but one further north is unlikely to satisfy the needs currently met by Northwest One.

Not just straight-line proximity, accessibility is also measured by the comfort and safety of the path between the old and new locations. Unfortunately in this case, that’s particularly difficult as the borders between the Northwest One area and the expansion neighborhoods — New York Avenue, Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street — are some of the most treacherous streets in the city, acting as both physical and psychological barriers. Even a relatively close location may functionally see fewer visits from residents on the other side of these streets. That’s certainly what the Library’s data already suggests when it shows low utilization of the Northwest One location by residents in Eckington, Edgewood, and Stronghold.

Still, there are three factors in favor of the relocation. The first is the relatively close proximity of the Northwest One area to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which functions as something of a cheat code to cross Florida Ave and New York Ave. North Capitol would remain a problem — but improvements to pedestrian crossings and the construction of protected bike lanes on K street NE/NW could help.

The second is that North Capitol Street is relatively well-served by the 80 and P6 bus lines, both of which function as safe and relatively affordable ways to travel between Eckington and near-Northwest. (Transit lanes on North Capitol Street could make that access more efficient and reliable during rush hour.)

The third is that Northwest One is fairly close to both the Shaw and MLK library locations. With the re-opening of the latter in particular, residents who currently use Northwest One may be able to replace their service at those facilities instead. Library customer data may be able to help determine the percentage of customers for whom that’s true.

That said, there’s another option as well, which would be not to close the Northwest One location at all. The Library’s recommendation for replacement is undoubtedly related to budget considerations. With staff costs one of their greatest expenses, shifting that investment to a full-service library certainly provides better bang-for-the-buck. But if the Mayor and the DC Council felt like a new library would not sufficiently serve the previous community well enough, there’s no reason that they could not increase DCPL’s operational budget in a sufficient amount to cover the cost of both.

Ultimately, the budget process is the next step for this project either way. Right now all of these plans are entirely theoretical; elected officials will need to allocate the required capital and operational budget to make this plan a reality. As FY22 budget season approaches, now is the time to reach out to the Mayor and your council member if you are interested in seeing that happen.

New Library Envisioned for Eckington/Edgewood

A DC Public Library report released last week recommended building a new facility somewhere in the Eckington/Edgewood neighborhoods — an area they identify as a Tier 1 gap in the network.

Adding a library here would be a major boon for our communities. More than just books, the library’s resources, programming, and physical space provide substantial opportunities for students, families, seniors, job-seekers, and more.

Even better, the library’s report outlined two additional goals to maximize the impact of this project:

1) To include affordable housing at the site
2) To pick a location that emphasizes accessibility, particularly given the number of dangerous major roads in the area that act as barriers.

These two additions would supercharge the benefits of this facility, and make this new library a triple win.

This report is just a vision to start; it’s now up to the Mayor and the Council to include funding for this expansion in the budget.

Sign our petition here to encourage them to fund this proposal and bring a new library to our community!

DC preservation officials: You don’t want a historic district? Too bad.

This post was originally published at Greater Greater Washington

At their confirmation hearing last month, four Historic Preservation Review Board Commissioners confirmed that community opposition to a historic nomination does not play a role in their decision, and that they only evaluate applications based on whether or not a nominated building or district is historic.

That stands in stark contrast to other city agencies that are mandated to incorporate community feedback. The fact that historic preservation is excluded from the same standards gives a green light for abuse of the system.

A recently-exposed loophole in the system

Neighborhood debates around historic designation in Bloomingdale and Kingman Park this year have revealed this unresolved tension in the District’s historic preservation guidelines about the role of community input. While neighborhood opinion is listed as “essential” and prioritized at all steps of the application process, legal language about the centrality of the written historic criteria in the final decision instead suggests a less critical role.

The Historic Preservation Review Board’s (HPRB) recent decision to designate Kingman Park over the objections of many local residents sent a strong signal about how current commissioners seem to weigh this tension. At their re-confirmation hearing last month, four of the board’s nine commissioners, including the chair, affirmed that interpretation by formally testifying that they believe community input should have no role in determining whether to designate a landmark or district.

Prompted by Chairman Phil Mendelson’s question about the role community input should play in the designation process, Commissioners Marnique Heath, Brian Crane, Andrew Aurbach, and Gretchen Pfaehler all declaratively agreed that community opposition should not affect designation decisions.

Chairman Mendelson: “What should be the role of community input? So if a majority of the district says yes or no, should that be determinative?”

Chairwoman Heath: “No. Unless the community’s feedback to us is telling us why they think it doesn’t meet the criteria.”

While it’s nice to get some resolution to this critical question, it may come as a surprise to the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staffers who have spent years telling neighbors the exact opposite.

Here’s what State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney said about an unpopular application to designate Chevy Chase in 2008:

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that [Chevy Chase] has a good chance of meeting the designation criteria. The sense I get is that most people are not contesting that, they agree it’s a wonderful suburb. What they are contesting is whether it’s something they want to deal with in their daily lives. And that is an issue for us.

And again about a failed historic district application in Barney Circle from 2010:

“As was clear in,for instance, the situation in Barney circle, if there’s not enough community support for an application, then it really doesn’t move through the system”

This messaging was unchanged up through at least last fall, when HPO’s Kim Williams told a meeting of neighbors in Bloomingdale that the one thing that could stop the designation process was a strong show of community opposition. That type of guidance spurred the Bloomingdale Civic Association to conduct a comprehensive survey of neighborhood opinion, at the cost of $2,000 of the organization’s own funds.

What does this mean for the future of historic preservation in DC?

This clear rejection of community input has strong ramifications for neighborhoods across the city. Under the prior paradigm, the number of applications and historic districts was, in part, managed by the explicit and implicit hard work of making a persuasive case to bring neighbors on board.

In Chevy Chase and Barney Circle, well-organized coalitions failed when met with community opposition. Those applicants followed the HPO-recommended, months-long community engagement process, made the case to their neighbors, and then withdrew when they did not have enough support. But now it seems that being responsive to the opinions of their neighbors was their big mistake. If they had just persisted past the opposition, apparently their applications would have faced no penalty.

Combined with the District’s broad designation criterion, under which a lot seems to qualify, the path is clear: if you want a historic district, do the research (which is no small feat, but as was the case with Kingman Park, HPO will help you with it if it’s not sufficient the first time), file the application, and sit back.

When I presented this loophole to Chairman Phil Mendelson while testifying at the HPRB commissioners’ confirmation hearing, he expressed skepticism — outlining the disincentives he believes would keep abuse in check:

“So if I were to file an application to make a historic district out of my street and I don’t talk to my neighbors and they get angry at me, my life’s going to be pretty miserable. And maybe I can win on the application, on the other hand, maybe my next-door neighbor will sue me and sue the Historic Preservation Review Board and sue the mayor’s agent and all the council members start weighing in and saying what’s going on. There’s a lot that can happen with the turbulence that’s not so good.”

As a matter of governance, relying on ex post facto outrage and litigation in place of legislative action to produce good policy outcomes seems like a dangerous tactic. But we don’t even need to imagine a hypothetical to see the flaws in this system. In Kingman Park we have an example of applicants (the Kingman Park Civic Association) with an already contentious relationship with their neighbors, made only worse by an incredibly divisive historic designation debate. That divisiveness prolonged the process but ultimately had little effect on the outcome.

An even more obvious workaround to those disincentives is not to be a neighbor at all. DC regulations do not require that applicants live in the nominated district; historic preservation organizations can nominate any building or district in the city on their own.

Whether neighbors or not, it’s clear social norms aren’t preventing motivated individuals and organizations from taking advantage of the law as written. So Mendelson is right about one thing — we need councilmembers like himself to ask what’s going on, and get behind serious legislative reforms to this broken process, reforms like the ones many of us in the GGWash community have suggested.

To vote or not to vote

Throughout the hearing, Mendelson kept returning to a rhetorical question that he felt captured this debate: if the Washington Monument were nominated, should residents be polled on whether to approve the designation?

This is a straw man exercise for a number of reasons, most obviously because nobody lives in the Washington Monument. The problem isn’t the designation of obviously historic individual landmarks. No one is trying to lower the ceiling of designation criteria; we’re trying to add a floor.

Because the reality is that, contrary to Mendelson’s characterization, our current process is already democratic, it’s just not very representative. Residents with strong opinions are heard— so long as they are in favor of historic designation. It’s only people who disagree who currently get shut out.

Should the whole city vote on designating the Washington Monument? Of course not. Should a couple thousand neighbors have a say before an unelected board designates their homes? That seems like a question at least worth asking.

Mendelson’s concern is that a direct popular vote may be an over-correction that could sometimes negate the city’s historic preservation goals. That’s fair; a future in which a few strident opponents could stop almost any preservation nomination would be as undemocratic as the status quo.

The ultimate answer is probably somewhere in the middle. At the least we should expect the same standard other agencies like DDOT and DC Water are held to when they’re considering projects that will affect the lives of residents.

HPRB should have to weigh the public benefits of preserving certain areas with any costs and concerns and then justify their decision. (And applications to nominate districts affecting thousands of residents’ homes should have to clear a higher bar of scrutiny than individual landmark nominations). That would be a fairer version of democratic governance than we have now.

Without reform, the path we’re on will just continue to add more and more neighborhoods to our city’s already sizable stock of historic buildings without any consideration of the spillover impact that might have on the city’s other goals of adding housing, improving environmental sustainability, combating unaffordability or others.

Stepping back to balance all of these goals in a comprehensive way is the real solution here, but closing this runaway train loophole seems like a good immediate first step.

The Costs of Historic Districts: More Than Just Property Values

This past week, Bloomingdale resident and real estate agent JC Blount and Bloomingdale Civic Association board member and ANC representative Dr. Bertha Holliday published an analysis purporting to show that designating Bloomingdale a historic district will not lead to a rise in housing prices in the neighborhood.

I’m very appreciative that Dr. Holliday and Ms. Blount are engaged in this analysis. I agree that trying to answer the question of how designation will impact our neighborhood’s already pressing affordability crisis is central to this debate. Unfortunately, I disagree that this particular analysis and data set are sufficient to answer this major question, or that it’s the right question to ask in the first place.

Chart from the Holliday-Blount analysis

The first issue is that the sample size considered here is exceedingly small. The LeDroit data set contains only 14 sales. At that small of a number, a couple of outliers one way or another can greatly impact the results.

Second, the analysis does not attempt to control for some of the obvious variables that could lead to said outliers — variables like condition of the property, amenities, lot size, relative location on the block (corner lot vs. mid-row), etc.

But most importantly, this analysis is looking at the wrong time period. If ultimately we’re trying to measure the impact of designation, we need to look at the changes that took place at the time of designation. In this case, LeDroit earned its designation in 1974, so I don’t think prices from the last six months are particularly applicable to answering that question.

More broadly though, I think it’s important to address the genesis of this analysis in the first place. The authors make clear that they feel like opponents of historic designation such as myself are misleading neighbors by claiming HD will “cause the cost of houses to soar.” (A similar concern was expressed last month by former BCA president Pat Mitchell when she  described my initial post and our flyer as fearmongering akin to a zombie apocalypse.)

Both of these critiques seem overly concerned with an argument I’m not particularly making (property values) and somewhat silent on the one I’m highly focused on (repair and renovation costs).

The reality is that trying to find an academic consensus on the impact of historic designation on property values is notoriously difficult This search of scholarly literature, for example, brings up 3,500 results.  A large number of those studies do find an upward pressure on prices, while others don’t. I think it’s safe to say that the housing market is a complicated dynamic and none of us know for certain what will happen if designation goes through. To that end, I’m also perfectly comfortable conceding that it is unlikely the impact of this singular change alone will lead to “soaring” prices or that “lots of people will lose their homes.” The reality is the answer to that argument is not central to the case against historic designation.

Because while we don’t know exactly what will happen with home prices, we do know with 100% certainty that more neighbors will face more costs (both monetary and in terms of time) when trying to repair or renovate their homes. Depending on the scope of work, that may be a few hundred dollars more or it may be tens of thousands of dollars more. As long as the rules limit options and require additional layers of approval, there will be some increased hardship on some people.

That’s obviously true of all regulations, though, and I’m not attempting to argue for laissez-faire homeowner rights. We don’t let homeowners use lead paint because we’ve collectively decided children’s health is more important. We require buildings conform to certain energy efficiency standards to limit our collective impact on our environment. And I’m sure builders could make houses cheaper if they didn’t have to follow proper fire code standards, but we rightly value the safety of the whole neighborhood more.

My point is that the question is not whether there will be a burden, but whether the benefit is worth that burden. To me, ensuring that the houses on my block look a certain way just doesn’t rise to the same level of something like the health and safety of our citizens and environment. In this case, I’d rather prioritize helping keep the costs of home-ownership as affordable as possible for everyone in Bloomingdale, particularly our low-income neighbors.

I think reasonable people can disagree on that, but I think we should be honest that’s the debate we’re having.

BCA Survey Results Show Majority Oppose Historic Designation

At last month’s Bloomingdale Civic Association meeting, BCA President Teri Janine Quinn revealed the results from the organization’s survey weighing community opinion about the pending historic district application for the neighborhood. With 516 votes counted, the respondents were opposed to designation 282 to 234*, a 55-45 percent margin.

The survey was conducted over two weeks in January via a postcard mailed to each of 3,107 property owners in the neighborhood (as determined by DC tax records). It presented recipients with two response options:

  • I would like to pursue historic designation of Bloomingdale
  • I do not support historic designation for Bloomingdale
This is the survey sent out to Bloomingdale residents. Image by Bloomingdale Civic Association.

On the backside, the postcard informed neighbors that an application had been filed and that the results of the survey would be used to inform the BCA’s vote on it, and directed them to the BCA and Historic Preservation Office websites for more information.

The BCA paid for the production and mailing of the survey, though recipients were required to affix their own postage to send it back.

*An additional 48 votes were received, but postmarked after the voting deadline. BCA members voted to exclude those votes from the total (prior to hearing any survey results) by a vote of 21 to 10.