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.

Read more ›

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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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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. Read more ›

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deCOding CO-LIVING in DC

plan of apartment with bedroom for rentCommunity housing, boarding houses, and communal living arrangements have been around since the 1840s, as indicated by a brochure by the Academy of American Poets when it identified the boarding houses where Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe rested their heads.  Even though such concepts long have been a part of society, co-living facilities are receiving new scrutiny in an unregulated gray area of DC zoning regulations, as more developers become interested in meeting this segment of the market.

You may be asking yourself, “What is co-living, exactly?”  Co-living is a modern form of housing where residents intentionally share living space and, ostensibly, choose to live around a shared set of interests.  Those interests in many cases revolve around guiding principles like: openness and collaboration; social networking; and the sharing economy.  The amenities and locations can be great – many co-living dwellings feature shared kitchen space and living rooms – and, often, the monthly rental price is much lower than for a standalone, one-bedroom unit.   With the resurgence of this product, then, rather than scouring Craigslist for a roommate to share the rental costs while, hopefully, avoiding the scammer, party animal, or slob, co-living can be a much preferred alternative.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the millennial generation (and others) have embraced this ancient concept and given it new life.

Many tag co-living as “dorms for grown-ups,” but it is not just 20-somethings who stand to benefit from co-living arrangements.  Innovative co-living housing designs are being proposed for all age groups, including the aging boomer population that wants to maintain a social lifestyle throughout its retirement years.  Further, co-living arrangements offer new opportunities for low-income households, as well as households with disabled members. Read more ›

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The Caveman’s Club vs. The Modern Neighbor

rowhomes in washington dcProtecting one’s property is an innate impulse that dates back to the beginnings of man.  The cavemen defended their caves with clubs and rocks.  It remains unclear whether cavemen also went to community meetings and objected to an increase in density at the neighboring cave.  The question is: how similar is an Advisory Neighborhood Commission (“ANC”) meeting or Party Status in Opposition in the District to the Caveman’s Club?

Here, in DC in the 21st Century, property owners do not need a club because they are emboldened by the ANCs and other legislative ways to oppose development.  The District’s ANCs were created by the DC Council in 1976 to give neighbors an important voice in the District’s zoning process.  Under DC Code Section 1-309.10, ANC recommendations are entitled to “great weight” from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (“BZA”) and/or Zoning Commission (“ZC”).  Knowing this, neighbors are showing up to community meetings and zoning hearings, and they not holding back – with or without physical clubs.

Many neighbor concerns are valid, but there are certainly some “bad” neighbors out there.  In our practice, we have seen objections that stretch the limits of the imagination.  “How will I continue my nude swimming routine if my neighbor builds this addition?”  “This development will reduce the quality of my air!”  “That interior renovation you are doing is going to kill the tree in my back yard!”  “Your development is going to increase my property value and I do not like it.” “Your development is going to decrease my property value and I do not like it.” Read more ›

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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