DC Mayor Challenges Residents and Agencies to Remove Barriers Preventing More Housing

DC buildings constructionIt all started in 1894, when the famous architect Thomas Franklin Schneider designed and constructed the Cairo.  At 164 feet tall, the Cairo was the first residential skyscraper in the District of Columbia (the “District”), causing an uproar among the District’s residents.  The concern was the safety of the structure of such buildings and the ability to fight flames in the event of a fire.  In response, the District’s Board of Commissioners passed a regulation limiting the height of all future residential buildings.  By 1899, Congress passed a law, amended in 1910, commonly known as the Height Act, limiting the height of District buildings to 130 feet.

While the fear that skyscrapers in the District could cause the whole city to burn down may have been rational in the late 19th century and early 20th century, today, many believe the Height Act is holding the development potential of the District back.  Mayor Bowser appears to agree that the Height Act is outdated as she has alluded to a possible change in the near future. Read more ›

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Draft Snow Drift Issuance

We would like to circulate to our clients this draft document from DCRA intended to clarify the District’s interpretation of various regulations relating to snow drift. DCRA, developers, and neighbors have been struggling with how to interpret snow drift requirements. This clarification attempts to resolve these issues in favor of developers. Feel free to reach out to us or share your comments with us or DCRA directly.

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Top Four Value-Adds for Hotels in the District of Columbia

The District hotel market is hot.  Statista.com states that 9.58 million people in the U.S. visited Washington, DC overnight within a period of 12 months and that, in 2014, Union Station was the fourth most-visited tourist attraction in the world, with 32.9 million visitors.  Here are four areas where developers, asset managers or private equity funds can look within the hospitality industry and seek to deploy a high risk-return strategy by renovating and repositioning existing hotel assets: Read more ›

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In DC, “H” Is Not For a Hairy Deal But, Rather, For Dealing with Historic Districts

It does not matter whether or not you are looking for a “hairy” deal – in DC, you will most likely find a deal that is “historic”.  More likely than not you will encounter (or already have encountered) the complexities of the DC’s Historic Districts.

In April 2006, Mayor Anthony Williams said that “preserving buildings isn’t just about retaining architecture.  It’s about preserving our history, our culture, our way of life and our spirit of community.”

We have identified three issues created for DC real estate deals by the Historic Districts and related multi-faceted review procedures.  We refer to them as “the three H’s”:  Hard to Avoid; Hyper-Technical; and High-Quality Products.

Hard to Avoid:          According to the Office of Planning’s data on historic preservation, there are more than fifty Historic Districts in DC, including the monumental civil complexes like the National Mall.  There are over thirty local neighborhood and residential Historic Districts.  According to the chart below, DC has a higher percentage of historically-designated areas than other major American cities.  Consequently, most developers at some point will have to navigate the rules and regulations imposed on historic properties.

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Important Dates to be Aware of

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The Court of Discontent is a Whale of a Problem

A blue whale grows more than thirty pounds a day and doubles in size in its first six months of life.  Every developer wants to land the whale of a deal.  Many big deals in the District of Columbia require complicated entitlements before the Board of Zoning Adjustment or the Zoning Commission.  Unfortunately, the District’s zoning world has fallen prey to a growing number of challenges before the DC Court of Appeals, and the court is only feeding the problem.

What we are seeing is not only an increase in zoning cases that are being appealed, but also greater scrutiny from the Court of Appeals over decisions made by the Board of Zoning Adjustment or the Zoning Commission.  Simply put, the Court of Appeals is demonstrating a willingness to vacate and remand zoning decisions.  This has happened twice in April 2018 alone, including for the redevelopment of the St. Thomas’ Episcopal Parish building in DuPont Circle and a PUD in Barry Farm.

The sheer number of appellate cases is startling.  Since January 2016, a period of a little more than two years, there have been fifty-three appeals of decisions made by the Board of Zoning Adjustment or the Zoning Commission.  Compare this to only seventy-one appeals in the preceding four years between January 2012 and December 2015. Read more ›

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Alley Dwellings: The Next Frontier or A Zoning Headache?

As the recent census data show, more people are moving to the District each year and sticking around.  While huge cranes dot the skyline in many areas of the city, there may be an unexpected answer to the District’s housing conundrum: alley dwellings.  Throughout the District, the development of alley lots is being embraced as a way to enliven formerly under-utilized spaces and provide a source for more-affordable housing.

Such was not always the case.  When Pierre L’Enfant was commissioned to design the City of Washington, he never planned on there being alley communities.  However, as an unexpected result of wide alleys and open plots of land, builders created lower income housing described as “mini-ghettoes” by James Borchert in his 1980 publication Alley Life in Washington.  Later in 1934, the Alley Dwelling Authority condemned many unsanitary conditions in alleys and, later, the 1958 Zoning Regulations completely restricted habitable structures on alleys.

Now in 2018, new opportunities are being seen in alleys for housing, retail and even place-making.  While the size and make up of alley networks vary from Ward to Ward, on the whole alleys present a novel opportunity for the District.  Here are three “outside the box” reasons to tout the benefits of alley development:

First, safety.  The word “alley” itself may draw up images of long, dark, narrow passages between rows of homes but, in reality, alleys are as varied in size and composition as the rest of our streets.  Nevertheless, alleys are typically less utilized and less monitored than main thoroughfares.  By providing what urban theorist Jane Jacobs calls in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities “eyes on the street,” the mere presence of alley residents would discourage loiterers or those who intend to commit property crimes or theft in the alley.  So, those who live on alley properties could play an important role in improving safety for the entire block. Read more ›

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Into the Belly of the Beast

land use attorney at DC council hearing

On the night of March 20th, 2018, I unwittingly walked into hostile territory – the DC Council chamber during the epic 13-hour public hearing on the proposed amendments to the Framework Element of the District’s Comprehensive Plan.

Perhaps the Washington Post headline said it best: “Dry DC Planning Document Fuels Hot Debate”.

While I was joined by many leaders of the development community, as highlighted in the Bisnow article dated March 20th, I think that all of us were surprised at the angry tenor of the opposition to the amendments.  Guy Durant, of the Durant case fame, went so far as to call us “devil-opers” with the emphasis on the “devil”.  And there were no punches pulled on the members of the land use bar who were called all sorts of names, none of which were nice.

The opposition used the hearing as an opportunity to air their dirty laundry on any and all issues relating (even tangentially) to land use and development.  Their concerns ranged from displacement of residents to DC Water fees.  They clearly wanted a soap box and found it. Read more ›

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Office of Zoning, Office of Planning on the Hot Seat

On February 28th, 2018, the DC Council conducted oversight hearings for the DC Office of Zoning (“OZ”) and the DC Office of Planning (“OP”).  Oversight hearings provide the DC Council and members of the public an opportunity to ask OZ and OP officials questions about their performance over the past year.

Sara Bardin, Director of OZ, presented that there was an 8% increase in Board of Zoning Adjustment (“BZA”) and Zoning Commission (“ZC”) cases over the last year and discussed upcoming updates that will allow automatic “sun/shade studies” to be conducted on the OZ website (which is still in its testing phase).  DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson engaged Director Bardin, as well as ZC Chair Anthony Hood and BZA Chair Fred Hill in a question-and-answer session.

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EventsDC Seeking Development Partner For RFK Market Hall

EventsDC, the official convention and sports authority for the District of Columbia, recently released a Request For Expressions of Interest (“RFEI”) for the development of a 65,000 square foot Market Hall on the RFK site.  EventsDC seeks a development partner for this initial phase of the comprehensive redevelopment of the RFK campus, located next to Kingman Park in the revitalizing Hill East neighborhood.  Market Hall is expected to offer market, concession, and restaurant space for neighborhood residents and visitors from around the region.

Market Hall will be one component of the initial phase of redevelopment over the next 2 – 5 years, redevelopment which will also include:

  • Three multi-purpose recreation and community playing fields, totaling about 5 acres, available to the public and useable in the evening;
  • A 350,000 square-foot sports and recreation complex, housing a variety of sport programs for families, youths, and amateurs, to be developed, with a partner, as both a destination and a neighborhood amenity;
  • Three pedestrian bridges connecting the main site to Kingman and Heritage Islands; and
  • A memorial to Robert F. Kennedy, to be built as a replacement to the stadium.

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Real Estate, Zoning & Land Use

Cozen O’Connor has represented residential, commercial, retail, and industrial builders in the development and redevelopment of building lots and millions of square feet of real estate. Our team handles every aspect of the zoning, land use, and development approvals process, from obtaining building permits and variances to negotiating stormwater management and traffic plans.

Head of the DC Zoning Group & Blog Editor