By Will Schick | [email protected]
City Council voted to rescind its previous denial of a special use permit for a 180-unit multi-use apartment building during Tuesday’s legislative meeting.
Council voted 4-3 during the March 13 public hearing to deny a permit from developer West Street Acquisitions, LLC to build the project across from the Braddock Road Metro station. As initially proposed, the project would include 180 units of housing – 14 of which would be affordable – as well as space for retail, restaurants and other shopping uses.
The project was originally approved 6-1 by the Planning Commission in December, but during the March hearing, several members of council expressed concerns around the project’s potential impact on the city’s stormwater system and a relative lack of affordable housing.
At the hearing in March, resident John Craig also expressed his concerns about how the large-scale project would impact the stormwater system and exacerbate the flooding issues he has already experienced.
On June 19, 2003, Craig huddled with neighbors on the second floor of his house in Braddock West and watched as his living room flooded with water. He looked on as souvenirs of his past were destroyed by what seemed like a never-ending deluge.
“I lost a lot of personal things. I lost letters from people who had died, who were very dear to me and very old photographs. So, it was painful for me to have this flood go on,” Craig said in an interview.
An electrical engineer with two graduate degrees, and a Ph.D. from George Mason University, Craig said that despite his initial trepidation, he eventually plunged into the water to salvage his items.
After this flood, Craig said, he filed an insurance claim and discounted the event as a one-off incident. But as Craig soon learned, this was only the beginning.
Almost a year to the day later, on June 17, 2004, water poured in through the street and flowed in through his window. Two months later, another flood ravaged his home.
Craig claims that the flooding in his neighborhood is caused by a lack of adequate stormwater infrastructure, an issue he alleges the city has known about for a long time and ignored.
In an email provided to the Times, Yon Lambert, director of Transportation and Environmental Services, stated that the city hired a consultant in 2008 to develop a set of options to address the issue of flooding in Braddock West but determined the cost of fixing the problem was too high.
A project description included in the city’s capital improvement program budget document for FY 2013-2022 supports this claim: “Funding [for the Braddock West project] has been delayed until FY 2019 as city staff continues to explore less costly alternatives to alleviate the flooding issues.”
The same document also states the storm sewers at the intersection of Braddock Road and West Street “were found to be inadequate to relieve the frequent flooding at this critical rail crossing,” in a study that was conducted in fiscal year 2004.
A second study conducted in 2016 concluded that the cost for a storm sewer project in the area would cost approximately $4.2 million.
Lambert stated that city staff determined this number to be insufficient to address the full scope of the costs associated with a project this size. As Lambert points out, while the city understands flooding continues to be a problem in this area, it has determined to prioritize funding for projects in other areas.
“This project is not currently included in the 10-year CIP among the city’s top priority capacity projects. This is due to its limited cost-benefit in comparison to other city projects that alleviate property impacts and flooding for larger numbers of residents,” Lambert said in an email provided to the Times.
Lambert also added that the project could be considered “in the future should conditions change.”
Craig represents one of several residents who spoke out in opposition to the new proposed development at Braddock West because they believe the new project will do little to alleviate flooding in the area, and only exacerbate a long-standing problem.
“The problem here is the safety and well-being of pedestrians and automobile traffic,” Craig said. “And the city is emphasizing building dense housing around the Braddock metro station. And they’re going to be exposing more people to these floods.”
In its Braddock Neighborhood Plan published in 2018, the city acknowledged the flooding issue and stated that any new developments within the area would need to be evaluated to determine if they provide adequate storm sewer capacity.
During the March public hearing, citing concerns about the impact to area-flooding and lack of neighborhood engagement, Councilors Canek Aguirre, John Chapman, Mo Seifeldein and Amy Jackson all voted against the Braddock West development.
At the March meeting, Melanie Mason, a city planner in the city’s stormwater management division, indicated that the new project would not worsen the problems with flooding in the area, but it would also not alleviate them.
At an April 6 council meeting, Aguirre said that he had a change of heart after the vote because he understood that the developer was now doing more to engage with the community. He then asked about the possibility for re-considering the development.
“When I voted against this project, it was not because it was a bad project. It was because they weren’t speaking with the residents that were going to be the most impacted,” Aguirre said in an interview with the Times.
Council docketed a discussion about rescinding the vote for the Tuesday night meeting, which lasted about eight hours and stretched into the early hours of the next morning. The decision on the development was the last item on the docket.
Barbara Beach, a retired attorney who spent 40 years of her career practicing law related to local governments, questioned the legality of council’s decision. As Beach noted, the city code zoning ordinance states that “the subject matter of an application for a map amendment which has been denied by the City Council shall not be considered thereafter by the planning commission or the City Council for a period of one year.”
Beach said that taking action to rescind a vote was by definition an act of re-considering a matter that has already been denied.
“It’s common sense,” Beach said. “If there’s a law that says you can’t consider something for a year, there isn’t a dance around it there.”
Beach, who learned of this agenda item after seeing a post on Facebook, added that her opposition has nothing to do with the development but everything to do with the process.
“My beef here is not substantively with the development. It’s with the procedures that this council uses, which I believe quashes citizen participation,” Beach said.
According to Joanna Anderson, the city attorney, however, the action is lawful because an approval of a motion to rescind will mean the application is no longer “denied.”
“Therefore these provisions of the zoning ordinance are not applicable in this case and do not prevent the City Council from utilizing its rules of procedure,” Anderson said in an email shared with the Times.
John Thorpe Richards, an attorney hired by John Craig, also argued that the action to rescind is illegal.
In a letter addressed to council, Richards wrote that council’s rules of procedure do not supersede its own laws and code.
According to Richards, the “Robert’s Rules of Order specifically provide that ‘the actions of any deliberative body are also subject to applicable rules prescribed by local, state, or national law and would be null and void if in violation of such law.’”
City Manager Mark Jinks, wrote in a memorandum to council that the “legal requirement” for keeping members of the public aware of the plans for this development had already been satisfied at the last council hearing where they denied the request.
Ultimately, City Council voted 5-2 to rescind the motion to deny the developer’s request on Tuesday. Seifeldein and Jackson still voted against the motion, citing concerns about the impact to neighborhood flooding.
“I was very clear this is the beginning of a dialogue,” Aguirre said, explaining the rationale of his vote. “This isn’t just a one-off. So that’s what the expectation is moving forward, that they’ll have a continued dialogue not just with other residents that are in the area, but specifically as well with the Andrew Adkins community.”
Council docketed the item for a public hearing in May, when the developer and staff will return with an updated presentation of the project and the public will have the opportunity to comment.