City Council approves Eisenhower project

City Council approves Eisenhower project
City staff and the Eisenhower project developer disagreed on a technical square footage detail that amounted to a $1 million fee discrepancy.

By Olivia Anderson |

City Council voted at the public hearing on Saturday to move forward with a multi-family housing development at 2111 and 2121 Eisenhower Ave.

A large portion of that meeting was dedicated to a debate between city staff and the developer over a technical detail that amounted to a $1 million fee discrepancy.

The project in question will include 802 units of multi-family housing, 44 of which will be affordable units. It will include a new roadway connection between Mill Road and Elizabeth Lane. There will also be two towers of varying height, conjoined by a six-level garage podium with one floor entirely below-grade.

The development plans come with a $60,000 contribution to Capital Bikeshare, $1,499,186 contribution to the city’s Housing Trust Fund and approximately $5.46 per square foot to the Eisenhower East Implementation Fund.

During the staff presentation, Karl Moritz, the city’s planning director, said that a disagreement arose recently between staff and the applicant regarding how to apply the latter contribution toward the above-ground parking portion of the development.

“I do need to apologize to the applicant for the extreme lateness of bringing this issue to our collective attention,” Moritz said. “… But staff’s view is that the Eisenhower East plan is clear about what the contribution applies to, and even more clear about what is exempt.”

Moritz said that the contribution applies to development with important exemptions. What constitutes development, he said, is what is built above ground.

Mayor Justin Wilson pointed out that a similar situation occurred several times before, where staff has come back with changes later in the process. He advocated for providing more explicit guidance in the future.

“I feel there like there needs to be a table in here that lists everything they pay, and the exact amount that we expect as the project is proposed, and then if it changes when we get later in the process, fine, we can add language that reflects that flexibility, but we should never get to [public] hearing when this stuff is still up in the air,” Wilson said.

During public testimony, applicant attorney Cathy Puskar expressed frustration over receiving such short notice from city staff about the square footage detail, which she said would amount to a $1 million fee increase for the applicant. Puskar called the mishap “unfortunate and egregious.”

“I received a call 23 hours before this hearing, telling me that the high-level staff in Planning & Zoning had a different interpretation of our obligation on the developer contribution than had been discussed during the small area plan, had been agreed to during the small area plan negotiations about community benefit, and has been documented in the conditions before you today,” Puskar said.

Puskar asserted that the condition does not say that the developer pays on square footage above the base, but rather on net residential square footage above the base. Puskar also noted that she had a conversation with staff in April going over the final report in which the item was not raised.

The concern was also not raised during the Planning Commission meeting, which went on to unanimously recommend approval of the project.

“You can imagine my shock of getting a call at 10 o’clock in the morning that they think my client owes them an additional $1 million in order to build this project,” Puskar said. “I cannot agree that a residential square foot and a parking square foot are equal in value. We very carefully negotiated this developer contribution.”

In response, Jeffrey Farner, deputy director of the city’s planning department, said that the conversation revolves around whether or not the definition of residential development includes parking.

Moritz added that the condition specifically reads, “per net square foot of residential development.”

“I think that to come to the conclusion that parking is not included, you would have to say, ‘Is there anything in the small area plan that says ‘net’ means the units and the common spaces but does not mean the parking garage, and there isn’t anything to point to that says that’s the case,” Moritz said.

The discussion ping-ponged back and forth for about two hours regarding the definition of parking in the new Eisenhower East Small Area Plan, where this project will be the first of its kind.

The project at 2111 and 2121 Eisenhower Avenue will include 802 units of multi-family housing,
44 of which will be affordable units.

Councilor Sarah Bagley expressed concern for the timeframe in which the dispute came up.

“I have to admit, as much as I have expressed in my four months in office being impressed by our staff, I share the frustration. This is a $1 million issue,” Bagley said.

Several speakers at public comment also raised concerns regarding the number of affordable housing units. Greg Akerman, a representative for DC Metro Building Trades, emphasized the importance of promoting quality construction jobs throughout the region.

“We are keenly aware of the types of projects that attract high quality contractors … these types of projects oftentimes do not, unless the developer has taken extra steps to adopt labor standards for their workers. With that in mind, it’s especially important that they offset those types of lack of standards with protections for affordable housing,” Ackerman said. “We want to make sure this developer makes a greater commitment to the community, both for affordable housing and for the construction of the project.”

Several options were available to council regarding the project, from approving it, denying it or deferring a decision to a later date.

“Do we want the project? Do we want the affordable housing that has already been put in place with this amount of money? Do we want any of that, or do we want to defer it and say to come back with a whole other thing, which then of course puts everybody behind the 8 ball in terms of how long this project has already taken,” Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said, who supported moving forward with the project as is.

Councilor Canek Aguirre suggested that a two-week deferral may be necessary in order to give staff time to hash out exact numbers, but Puskar said further conversation wouldn’t matter.

“[The report] is either going to say I’m right, or I’m wrong, and what I’m saying to you is that we’ve gone through 15 months of this project,” Puskar said.

“So if it says you’re wrong, what are you going to say?” Aguirre said.

“We’re not going to be able to pay it. We went for 15 months on this project,” Puskar said. “… We’ve already been through the Planning Commission, we have a pro forma, this never came up. It came up 23 hours before this hearing. … Even if I had more time, we are not agreeing to the increase contribution. We cannot pay it.”

Eventually, staff and Puskar worked out a revised condition to allow the project to move forward, without the developer having to pay nearly an extra $1 million. The Eisenhower East Small Area plan requires a contribution to the Eisenhower East Implementation Fund:

“a. Contribute $910,879.71 for Phase #1, and $1,088,856.21 for Phase #2;

b. Contribution rates are subject to an annual escalation clause equivalent to the CPIU for the Washington Metro area. Contribution rates will be recalculated January of each year. The final contribution amount shall be calculated and verified by the Neighborhood Planning and Community Development Division of the Department of Planning and Zoning at the time of Certificate of Occupancy. Payments shall be made proportionally prior to the release of the first certificate of occupancy for each phase.”

The amount specified in the final approved condition does not include the extra $944,094 originally discussed, meaning that the developer will not be paying that additional amount.

Staff and Puskar also addressed the affordable housing topic, drafting language to amend condition 123 in order to maximize the number of units committed affordable.

The amendment reads, “Provide 20 and 24 set-aside rental units in the Phase #1 and Phase #2 respectively, as indicated in Table 1, or in an effort to provide additional housing units, all one bedroom units may be provided so long as the value of the one bedroom units is equivalent to the value of the 13 2 bedroom units provided in Table 1, to be determined at the time of Final Site Plan to the satisfaction of the Director of Housing.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Wilson emphasized that despite the debate, he fully supported the advancement of the project.

“This is an area that we’ve wanted to have this kind of investment in the city. I know we’re spending time talking on one specific aspect of this project and that’s frustrating because sometimes we ignore the fact that there’s a lot of other good things going on here,” Wilson said. “This is a really, really good project for the city and so I want to see this project move forward.”

Ultimately, council voted unanimously to approve the project, 5-0-1, with Councilor John Chapman absent and Alyia Gaskins abstaining due to a campaign contribution from a developer.