The Shepherd Park Citizens Association held its March meeting at Shepherd Elementary School on March 13th. The gymnasium was packed as neighbors came from all around came to hear about updates to the Walter Reed development project and the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides development and growth for the future.
Walter Reed Update Presentation
Victoria Davis, a principal at Urban Atlantic, the master developer of The Parks at Walter Reed project, delivered a progress update to the community.
We have covered the latest Walter Reed updates at length in a few recent posts that you may want to read for more detail. In summary, Ms. Davis stated that the company has been doing a lot of preparation work on the site over the past year and is getting ready to begin the demolition of the giant, 70’s-era hospital building at the end of this calendar year. Once this is complete, we will begin to see a new town center mixed-use building rise in its place. In addition, there will be a new set of buildings at the corner of Georgia Avenue NW and Aspen St NW which will contain apartments, condos and retail, with possibly a small grocery included.
Shepherd Park and the Comprehensive Plan
Following the Walter Reed Update, the Shepherd Park Citizens Association (SPCA) Committee on Zoning and Economic Development (ZED) gave a presentation on the upcoming DC Comprehensive Plan update. The presentation was led by neighbor Naima Jefferson, who did an excellent job of breaking down the process and the substance of the VERY complicated Comprehensive Plan update.
The ZED’s Viewpoint
As Mrs. Jefferson explained, D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan is a document that guides future growth and development throughout the city. This covers topics such as land use, economic development, housing, environmental protection, and transportation. Our current Comprehensive Plan was put into place in 2006 and is due for an update this year. The plan is divided into areas and Shepherd Park is included in what is called the “Rock Creek East” area.
To date, the D.C. Office of Planning has submitted what it calls the “Framework Element” to the D.C. Council for review. This is the introductory chapter to the 1000+ page Comprehensive Plan and its purpose is to set the tone and standardize definitions that will be used throughout the rest of the plan. It should be noted, that by submitting the Framework Element directly to the Council, the Office of Planning did not follow process that it had committed to. Originally, the first draft was supposed to go back to the community (ANCs, community groups, etc.) for additional comment before heading to the Council.
ZED volunteers from the community spent many hours drafting amendments to the Comprehensive Plan, most of which were not adopted by the Office of Planning. They also traveled down to the Wilson Building to lobby several councilmembers and the Office of Planning staff.
A Viewpoint from Greater Greater Washington
Greater Greater Washington (GGW) is an organization and blog that advocates for inclusive and diverse communities in the growing Washington, DC region. The group is often associated with the terms “Smart Growth”, “Transit-Oriented Development” and walkable communities. David Whitehead, the Housing Program Organizer for the group, was kind enough to visit the SPCA meeting and share another viewpoint on the ongoing Comprehensive Plan update.
Though Mr. Whitehead’s group generally favors a pro-growth agenda, he shared Mrs. Jefferson’s concerns with the process. He stated, “The process that the Office of Planning used did not match the process that they said they were going to use, and frankly, I don’t know why. They very easily could have [submitted this to the Council] and done the public amendment process in parallel.”
For now, the ball rests in the Council’s hands and hearings are set to begin on the Framework Element this week (March 20th).
Mr. Whitehead then took a stab at offering an “unfiltered” Office of Planning viewpoint and offered some well-grounded speculation to explain why this update is moving so expeditiously:
I think that the Office of Planning got a lot of pressure from the Administration to put out the framework element, particularly around some legal questions regarding the Comp Plan over the last couple of years. There’s been a couple of key court cases regarding the language in the Comprehensive Plan around a certain type of development called Planned Unit Development (PUD).
There have been a couple of legal questions that have arisen because of those court cases…There was a previous legal interpretation of how the maps in the Comp Plan were to be used. The Courts changed that interpretation recently. The ripple effect of that has been that the For-Profit and Non-Profit development community is really avoiding PUDs. Many PUDs across the city that had been applied for have been withdrawn because they are afraid of being sued. There are a lot (17 different projects across the city) that are being sued because of this change, which comprises around 5,000 homes, including 500 affordable homes. There’s a lot of pressure for the Office of Planning to address these legal questions and that is likely part of the reason why the framework came out early.
[Editor’s note: The proposed Georgia and Eastern Avenue retail/apartment project is a PUD, and is, coincidentally, one that is ensnared in a lawsuit brought by two Shepherd Park neighbors.]
After this explanation, Mr. Whitehead continued by saying, “In my opinion, these changes are going to shift most of these PUD cases away from the courts and back to the Zoning Commission, where people will have the right to appeal.” He concluded by lamenting that the Framework Element did not include specific proposals to address affordable housing or displacement.
How Do We Grow From Here?
Though I do not support the SCPA’s position on the Comprehensive Plan, this forum offered a balanced look at the issue. I think that Mr. Whitehead’s participation helped all members ground their comments in facts, although we could have used fewer leading “questions” during the limited Question and Answer session from members of the ZED committee (Seriously, you guys know this stuff, let other people ask some questions.)
The simple fact is that after many decades of decline and stagnation, our city is growing again. Riot-scarred blocks and schools closed due to low enrollment have been replaced with glittering shops and newly renovated school buildings. Current projections forecast the District’s population to reach nearly 1 million residents by the year 2045.
Whether we want to continue that growth and how to manage it are legitimate questions that we, as a people, and our elected leaders, need to answer. As Mr. Whitehead ruminated, we can build “invisible walls” and drown every proposed development project in lawsuits. Or, we can create a clear, sensible and transparent policy that balances the issues of economic growth and affordable housing.
As I left the meeting, I overhead an elderly neighbor saying to her friend, “They’re coming to knock all our homes down and put skyscrapers here.”
I cringed upon hearing that, and I can’t help but to think that the SCPA’s intentionally ambiguous information campaign instilled that fear.
You can read the proposed Framework Element for yourself (it’s only 60 pages) but I haven’t seen any change in the update that is going to negatively impact Shepherd Park or our immediate area. Shepherd Park will continue to be a mostly low density residential area with single family detached and semi-detached housing units with front, back, and side yards. More dense, mixed uses are allowed along the Georgia Avenue Business corridor.
Regardless of how you feel about the update, I encourage you to let your voice be heard. You can submit written testimony to the D.C. Council on the Comprehensive Plan Update by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by Tuesday, April 3.
Girl Scout Cookies!
Finally, the evening ended with a sale of delicious Girl Scout Cookies by the troops from Shepherd Elementary School. Now that our daughter has retired from the Girl Scout cookie racket, I was happy to pick up a box of Trefoils and Savannah Smiles for myself.