Height amendment deferred

Height amendment deferred
Mount Vernon Avenue

The Planning Commission voted to defer action on a controversial zoning amendment at its most recent meeting on June 23. The proposed amendment has garnered significant pushback, especially from residents in the Del Ray neighborhood.

The proposal comes as the city works to meet its affordable housing goals, which are aspirational and not binding. As part of a larger effort to increase affordable housing, the city introduced Zoning Ordinance 7-700 which, among other things, established a process by which developers can apply for up to 25-feet of bonus height in exchange for including affordable housing in their projects.

Currently, this ordinance only applies to zones where buildings are already allowed above 50 feet. The proposed amendment would decrease the height restriction eligibility from above 50-feet to above 45-feet. This small, seemingly innocuous change adds new neighborhoods and corridors in which developers could apply for additional height on their projects; most notably, and controversial, the Mount Vernon Avenue corridor of the Del Ray neighborhood.

At the Planning Commission meeting, a large, vocal group of Del Ray residents spoke in opposition to the amendment. They argued that the proposal would take away from Del Ray’s character and put more stress on the city’s already-burdened infrastructure. Many of the citizens also testified that the commission was hastily pushing the amendment through without consulting residents and fully analyzing the impact of the change.

“This is civic activism at its best,” Yvonne Callahan, vice president of Old Town Civic Association, said in an interview. Callahan has been a proponent of historic preservation in the city for decades and opposes the bonus height amendment. “There’s been very few issues in the city where Del Ray and Old Town teamed up and supported each other. This time I saw it as a little bit different: ‘We’ve been through what you’ve been through and we’re here to help you’ kind of a thing,’” she said.

Jane Baird, a longtime Del Ray resident and homeowner, spoke before the commission.

“I cannot see a better future for Del Ray by adding 70-foot buildings and turning Mount Vernon [Avenue] and some of the side streets into cold, impersonal Route One corridors.”

Kim Gilliam, a resident and business owner in Del Ray, spoke about how few people seemed to know about the proposed changes to their neighborhood.

“I was passing out flyers and ran into a lot of people and not one of them knew about this. It’s the best kept secret in our area,” she said. Del Ray citizens emphasized throughout the meeting that they were concerned the character of their neighborhood would be transformed by tall, multi-use developments.

Many spoke of the community in the neighborhood and how it might change with new neighbors in new buildings. “I can’t walk down the street and not see someone I know. You’re not going to get that with a seven-story building,” Gilliam said.

In a letter to the Planning Commission, Del Ray homeowner Dan Quigley raised concerns about the privacy and quality of his residence.

“This is not what we bought into when we moved in almost 20 years ago. If the [proposal] proceeds we will most likely have to move from our dream home. … No one else should have to go through what we are going through,” he wrote.

Other residents see it differently. Elena Hutchison moved to Del Ray from Potomac Yard for the walkability and access to transit the neighborhood offers. “I want other people to be able to enjoy that and a big part of the way you achieve that is by allowing for some reasonable amounts of density where it makes sense,” she said in an interview. “I feel like a lot of the people who are moving into the neighborhood do share this viewpoint and they are moving [to Del Ray] because of it.”

The Planning Commission meeting, which lasted nearly six hours and continued past midnight, ended in a deferral of action on the matter until the effects of the amendment could be studied further. In supporting the deferral, Commissioner Melissa McMahon recognized that more discussion was needed on the issue.

“I feel it’s very visceral. [This community] wants to hold it in their hands and turn it around and over backwards and talk about this side and that side – and I get it,” McMahon said.

Planning Commission Chair Nate Macek said he was inclined to vote for the amendment, but after hearing the community’s concerns, he saw the need for the deferral and supported it.

“We wouldn’t have the community’s trust if we didn’t answer some of the questions they raised before we could confidently adopt this. That’s why the pause was important to me,” he said in an interview.

However, he emphasized the importance of building more housing to combat the city’s deficit of affordable housing.

“We have a housing crisis in the city, and we are trying to identify ways that we can make the most productive use of the land we have to provide additional housing opportunities,” he said.

Macek also responded to residents’ concerns that existing affordable housing would be torn down and replaced by larger developments that utilize the bonus height ordinance, but do not offer enough affordable housing to replace the units that were lost.

“I think it would be very unlikely that we would see this policy alone create an economic incentive to re-develop an existing structure” he said. “It would be very unlikely you would see it be used in some of the cases that we heard about at our hearing the other night. But that is what we want some more information from [city] staff on.”

Macek described the bonus height amendment as one of many tools the city can use to increase the housing supply.

“We need to chip away at our housing needs one unit at a time,” he said.