The battle for housing to animate the downtown has turned into a continuing story.
When we tuned in not long ago, three heroes on the five-man D.C. Zoning Commission had refused to gut the housing requirements of the Downtown Development District. Adhering to the objectives of the city's comprehensive plan, the valiant three opposed a measure that would allow developers to contribute money for off-site affordable housing rather than mix residential uses with office and retail uses in the DDD. Instead, the three approved a compromise that would permit 30 percent of the housing requirement in the DDD to be transferred to off-site affordable housing and are considering a proposal to accept contributions to housing trust funds as an alternative.
In the next installment of this drama, 10 members of the D.C. Council brought unprecedented political pressure on the zoning commission by introducing a resolution siding with the developers. They seem prepared to sacrifice the long-term benefit of the nation's capital out of sympathy for the plight of developers caught in a temporary economic downturn. The irony of this is highlighted by the fact that many suburban developers are shifting from office to residential construction due to the downturn.
Then onto center stage came WETA. In a zoning case heard two weeks ago, WETA indicated it wanted to purchase 94,000 square feet of condominium office space in the DDD. The developer, The Oliver Carr Co., claimed the space would fall under the "arts uses" designation and asked the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment to waive DDD on-site housing requirement. Instead, Carr proposed providing a $2 million contribution to construction of affordable housing elsewhere. It's quite a stretch to label space for 260 WETA employees "arts space," yet the city supported The Carr Co.'s stance.
The Carr Co. contends that "it is economically infeasible ... to provide the substantial arts use on the site and provide on-site housing as well." The hypothetical analysis of project returns that accompanied this statement omitted the returns on the WETA sale, which clearly drives the project's economics, and provided no indication that on-site housing is not feasible.
The Carr Co. property is at a key location along Seventh Street and would link the successful Pennsylvania Avenue housing to the south and the Shaw residential neighborhood to the north. A group of citizen activists, planners and developer representatives have been working on a compromise plan that would provide maximum commercial development and a significant on-site housing requirement while allowing approximately 30 percent of affordable housing to built elsewhere in the city.
How this drama will end is still up in the air -- the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustments meets Wednesday to consider the situation. But when the curtain finally comes down, the best scenario would have the zoning adjustment board upholding zoning commission requirements of the DDD, the D.C. Council controlling its impulse to interfere in zoning and a mayor protecting the public interest. Of course, the zoning commission heroes will probably get no curtain calls for their performance, but they deserve them.
Patricia Nicoson is a past president of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Planning Association.