September 29, 2011 - 9:09 am

Civic association conditions zoning support on vacancy

Mary Church Terrell HouseAt Tuesday night’s meeting of the LeDroit Park Civic Association, the association voted 11-2 to support the Howard University Campus Plan.  Since several issues in the plan remain unresolved and unspecified, your author voted against supporting it.

Among many concerns are the several vacant properties that Howard University owns in the area.  Though Howard has made a commendable effort to refurbish and sell many of these properties in LeDroit Park over the past decade, we are worried that the university, after it moves students out of Slowe and Carver Halls might leave these two dormitories vacant for several years.

The university has been very adept at finding excuses for keeping several of its properties vacant in decades past.

For current vagueness in the plan, university officials say they haven’t determined a use yet or that they haven’t found the financing or that everything is the economy’s fault.

That may be true, but vacant buildings attract trouble.  They become safe-havens for criminals, vagrants, and rodents.  Some vacant properties become truly blighted with windows covered up with plywood or metal covers.  This blight drags down property values and lowers the quality of life.

For most private property owners, vacant properties (class 3) face a steep 5% annual property tax and blighted buildings (class 4) face a 10% annual property tax.  These punitive tax rates are meant to urge owners of vacant and blighted properties to return their properties to good order and productive use.

As a university, however, Howard pays no taxes on its land, so a punitive 5% or 10% tax on $0 is still $0 .  As such, the neighborhood needs a legal mechanism to ensure the university does not vacate Slowe and Carver Halls and then blame the economy as they board up the buildings for several years.

Whether the university keeps the buildings as student dorms or converts them to faculty housing is fine either way, but vacancy and blight threatens the progress the neighborhood has made over the past decade.

To prevent this, your author moved “To amend our support [for the campus plan] to prohibit vacancy of Slowe and Carver Halls for more than one year.”

The motion was property seconded and passed unanimously.

The civic association will submit this language to the Zoning Commission and urge the commission to attach it to the legally enforceable order that ratifies the campus plan.  This will ensure that these two large dormitories do not sit vacant for an unreasonable length of time over the next decade.

Howard University’s campus plan is an ambitious and mostly good plan, but it’s important that point out its shortcomings and to ensure the university does not get away with undue burdens on neighborhoods and the District.

Exemption from property taxes is a privilege, not a right, and residents are wise to ensure this exemption is not abused to the detriment of the public interest.

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April 29, 2011 - 1:21 pm

Howard University campus plan draft

If you missed Tuesday night’s civic association meeting, never fear! We have copies of the Howard University housing presentation, which focuses on the two proposed dorms the university wishes to add on campus along 4th Street NW.

HU Housing Presentation

Additionally, we also have a draft of the executive summary of the campus plan.

HU Campus Plan – Draft Exec. Summary

This is just a draft, mind you, and the university expects to submit its final campus plan proposal to the Zoning Commission by the end of June. We have been assured that we will receive a copy of the full proposal before the university submits it to the Zoning Commission.

Even though the university will submit the proposal by the end of June, we will have to wait until the fall until the Zoning Commission holds hearings and votes on the proposed plan.

We will post more, including the final draft of the full plan, once these documents become available.

April 11, 2011 - 9:35 pm

Explore DC’s zoning code with Google Maps

The DC Office of Zoning recently released a slick interactive zoning map of the District. Not only can you view a neighborhood’s zone boundaries, but you can also view campus plans, historic districts, and overlay zones, too.

Click to view the interactive zoning map.

The map also plots each individual property in the District and notes the square number (block number), and the lot number. When you click on a lot, a dialog opens displaying the owner’s name, a photo of the property as well as any zoning rulings that apply to the property.

The site uses Google Maps as a base platform, but overlays other city data on top. Displaying zoning, property ownership, and zoning ruling data in an easy interface helps demystify these otherwise obscure areas of public policy.

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March 19, 2011 - 2:16 pm

Howard wants to increase campus housing 28%

Last month Howard University’s Board of Trustees agreed to proceed the planning process to build 1,300 beds of student housing in two new dorms on campus. This marks a 28% increase from the current 4,609 beds the university controls.  This is smart move that will aid academic success and reduce commuting pressure through the surrounding neighborhoods.

View Howard University’s future development in a larger map

The university’s goal is to create a “Freshmen Village” on 4th Street just north of LeDroit Park.  Ms. Maybelle Bennett, Howard’s community outreach director, said that enhancing academic performance and graduation rates is the university’s motivation for concentrating housing and services for new students in Freshmen Village.  Since a student’s first year is critical to a student’s success during an undergraduate career, the university wants, as Ms. Bennett adoringly put it, “to bring our babies home.”

The university will add these two new buildings to their forthcoming campus plan proposal that they will submit to the Zoning Commission in the coming months.  Each university in the District is required to submit a campus plan for the commission’s approval every ten years.

We think this is a smart move on the university’s part and will benefit everyone.

National social benefits

Universities serve a unique social mission: they exist to educate America’s youth.  As such, we must remember that a university’s success is in the national social interest.  The university’s goal of improving academic performance is laudable and its reasonable measures should be supported on social grounds.

Traffic and environmental benefits

Furthermore, by bringing more students onto campus, the university reduces the commuting pressure currently placed on students and the surrounding neighborhoods. More students walking from bed to class means fewer students driving from home to campus.

As it stands today, hundreds of students commute from housing in Prince George’s Plaza alone.  Though most of them probably take the Metro, many will undoubtedly drive on occasion, thus adding traffic and pollution to surrounding neighborhoods.  Carpooling in a Prius still has a greater environmental impact than walking, which is mankind’s oldest, cheapest, cleanest, quietest, and most universal form of transport.

Economic development benefits

With 1,300 more people within a short walk of Florida Avenue, the new dorms will increase the economic viability of the commercial spaces along LeDroit Park’s southern edge.  All of the properties along Florida Avenue are zoned for both residential and commercial use, even though most are solely residences at the moment.  In fact a century ago the 400 block of Florida Avenue (across the street from the Post Office) hosted numerous prominent black-owned businesses and doctors’ offices.

What do you think? Are you supportive of the university’s desire to add more housing on campus?

Ms. Bennett will present the plan for Freshmen Village to the LeDroit Park Civic Association. The meeting is open to the public and residents are encouraged to attend. The meeting will be at 7 pm on Tuesday, March 22 in the basement of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church (enter through the back at U and Bohrer Streets).

April 11, 2010 - 7:36 pm

Are There Too Many Restaurants?

Are there too many restaurants, bars, and cafés on U Street and Fourteenth Street? According to the zoning code, the answer is yes.

View U-14th-Florida-9th Arts Overlay in a larger map

The Uptown Arts Overlay District (shaded in red above) covers much of the commercial areas on U Street and Fourteenth Street (and some side streets) and limits eating establishments in the zone to 25% of the linear frontage as measured along Fourteenth and U Streets in the zone (red lines above). The original purpose of the limitation was to prevent the area from becoming “overrun” with restaurants, thus crowding out other non-eating establishments.

DCRA recently finished surveying the zone and found that the area is a mere 12.6 feet short of hitting the 25% limit, meaning that DCRA will not issue new Certificates of Occupancy or Building Permits for restaurants unless they receive zoning variances.  Variances takes months to approve and aren’t guaranteed.  Now opening even a modest café will require much more time and money and may require hiring a lawyer to apply for zoning variances.

The MidCity Business Association is upset and is demanding a zoning text amendment to raise the limit from 25% to 50%.  Their fury directed at DCRA is unwarranted, though, as the agency must enforce zoning laws.

MidCity, though, has a lot of support on its side.  Last year the three ANCs in the overlay, 2B, 2F, and 1B, as well as the Logan Circle Community Association and the U Street Neighborhood Association all supported increasing the limit from 25% to 50%.  Though the changes to the Uptown Arts Overlay were expected to be included as part of the District’s city-wide zoning rewrite, DCRA’s recent decision, combined with the fact that the city-wide zoning rewrite is over a year away, have given new urgency to an immediate text amendment.

Now it is the time to act.  As Greater Greater Washington (GGW) explains, zoning amendments typically originate from either the Zoning Commission or the Office of Planning, but an ANC or ordinary citizen can propose a text amendment, too. The Zoning Commission, if it decides to take up the matter, would hold a hearing and decided whether to approve the amendment.

Limiting the space devoted to eating establishments allows for more space devoted to neighborhood-serving retail such as dry cleaners, grocery stores, furniture stores, and clothing stores.  Even still, restaurants serve residents, too, and the 25% limit is too low.  Seventeenth Street in Dupont, as GGW explains, enjoys a sufficient variety of neighborhood-serving retail stores even though frontage devoted to eating establishments far exceeds 25%.

The Overlay extends as far east as the Howard Theater and even down Ninth Street’s Little EthiopiaIf the 25% rule holds, don’t expect any new restaurants to open up there, either. [see update below]

What do you think?  Should the District allow more eating establishments in the area?

Update: We emailed the Office of the Zoning Administrator for clarification, and we stand corrected: “The 25% restriction only applies to businesses within the subset of 900-1400 blocks of U St NW and the 1300-2200 blocks of 14th St NW; so a potential restaurant on 9th St NW would be able to proceed without seeking BZA relief.”