Top Five Key Factors to Look at When Buying Property to Develop in Washington, DC

for sale sign outside rowhomeThanks to the recent development boom, the District certainly has become hip.  It follows suit that many multi-family, condo and mixed-use developers are looking in the District for good buys to develop or to hold.

These developers call us all the time to ask about properties.  We look forward to helping more, but to help short-circuit the process, here are five basic things you should know about the DC market before purchasing, investing or developing real estate.  We absolutely would advise that, before putting money down on a deal, you should: 1) take a quick look at the zone 2) confirm if the property is located in an historic district 3) confirm if the property may be covered by CFA 4) confirm if the property has the potential for higher zoning and 5) see how transit can help your bottom line.

  1. ZONE: Always, always check the zone in which a property is located.  Certain zones, such as the low-density “Residential” Zones – R-1 through RF – only permit one- or two-unit buildings as a matter of right.  Much of the District is located in the RF zone, and many people call us to ask whether they can convert a townhouse to a 3-unit building in that zone.  Unfortunately, we have to tell them that is not permitted (but could be done with zoning approval).  Also, a property’s zone will have other important development standards limiting height, lot occupancy, yards, density, etc.  So, checking the zone is critical.
  2. HISTORIC DISTRICT: Almost 80% of the District is located within some historic district.  Projects in historic districts will have to obtain additional approvals from the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (“HPRB”).  This can have an impact on the size of a potential vertical addition because we have found that HPRB will often try to reduce the visibility of a new story by requiring it be set back from the front.
  3. COMMISSION OF FINE ARTS: Some properties located close to federal buildings or roadways require additional review by the Commission of Fine Arts (“CFA”).  The CFA is a federal agency that advises the President, the Congress and the federal and District of Columbia governments on matters of design and aesthetics.  Also, buildings in Georgetown must be reviewed by the Old Georgetown Board, which is part of the CFA.
  4. FUTURE LAND USE MAP: The District has a Comprehensive Plan that directs planning and zoning in the District.  Part of the Comprehensive Plan is a “Future Land Use Map” that makes property-specific recommendations for future zoning.  The only way a property can be re-zoned to a higher density zone is if it is recommended for a higher density in the Future Land Use Map.
  5. TRANSIT: The number of required parking spaces could be cut in half if a property is located close to a Metro station, certain bus lines or the new streetcar.  So, being aware of transit proximity is key.
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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