Housing Complex

An Inauspicious Start for Columbia Heights Apartment Project

The potential future site of a 60-foot-tall apartment building.

The future site of an apartment building?

Last Thursday, residents of the blocks surrounding Carlos Rosario International Charter School on 11th Street between Girard and Harvard got wind of a potential new addition to the neighborhood: a Planned Unit Development (PUD) with two 60-foot-tall apartment buildings on what is now a parking lot, as well as an addition to the school. According to a notice of intent to file a zoning application, the towers would include affordable and senior housing, and require a zoning amendment to get around the area’s occupancy and height restrictions.

Almost immediately, a group of neighbors circulated a letter to area residents raising questions about the project’s impact on traffic, crime, property values, and “character.” Then, the issue hit Prince of Petworth and neighborhood listservs, giving rise to long, impassioned comment threads—much of which exhibit a sense of discomfort with the idea of building more affordable housing in the area. According to an email from the neighborhood group, Councilmember Jim Graham has "concerns about the presentation of the proposal." But little more information was forthcoming, officials from the Carlos Rosario School were unavailable, and Housing Complex’s calls to the lawyers listed on the notice were met with a “no comment.”

Then, this afternoon, the lawyers from Holland and Knight released this statement of contrition, which will be emailed to area residents:

We have heard from a number of you concerning the recent Notice of Intent which was distributed concerning a proposed planned unit development.  As a result of the response, we are not proceeding further.  We do want the opportunity to sit down and meet with you, either individually or in groups, to discuss your concerns with the school and its property so that areas of mutual interest may be addressed. We recognize that we should have engaged in substantive discussions with the neighborhood stakeholders before our lawyers sent out the legal notice.

According to community members, there was no notification or outreach to the community or local government before the notice was filed. Rosemary Akinmboni, the single member district ANC commissioner for that block, was unimpressed. “The person who is representing [the school] doesn’t know how to go about it,” she told Housing Complex. Now, Akimnboni said, the developers will not be doing anything until they have presented to ANC 1B—but they’re not yet on the agenda for next month’s meeting, which might mean waiting until June or even July.

So, what do we know? The land is owned by the city, but the school–which runs adult education programs for low-income immigrants–has a long-term lease. The architect is Shinberg.Levinas, which has done a number of projects in the DC area and tends towards the sleek and modern. The developer is listed as Community Capital Corporation, which as far as I can tell is based in South Carolina, a private 501(c)(3) organization that holds the school's lease. They’re going for a zoning category that's 20 feet higher than the surrounding houses—and they might not have anticipated what they were getting into.

  • Ms Karma

    LAWD, Please don't let the color come back to the city. They would block AFFORDABLE housing since they stole it in the first place. Sad state of affairs. Signed a life-long DC RESIDENT!!!

  • 13thstreet

    I helped draft the letter to neighbors that this article mischaracterized. Specifically, the reference to "character" is out of context. Our letter presented this in the context of the neighborhoods charm and character and the fact that the 60 foot tall buildings would require a zoning variance and not fit in with the neighborhood rowhouses. Before people think this is about race or class, keep in mind that our letter expressed support for the school, its accomplishments serving immigrants, affordable and senior housing. We are all committed to the school and a diverse community and your reporting did us a disservice. Don't lead the reader to believe something that this was about something it wasn't. Your readers deserve better.

  • Lydia DePillis

    13thStreet,

    Thankyou for your concerns. I don't believe that my reference to "character" implies something other than what it should. But in the interest of context, here are the relevant passages of the letter, which does--as you say--express support for the school and its accomplishments.

    "Maintaining the neighborhood's charm and character. The traffic, construction, and presence of additional apartment buildings that would require a variance from zoning regulations are unlikely to enhance the neighborhood's charm or property values. This section of Columbia Heights is characterized primarily by classic DC rowhouses with a few small apartment and condo buildings scattered among them; this is not the hustle and bustle of the 14th St. strip with its collection of new high-rise residential buildings. In fact, the letter states that our housing district is designated for residential buildings that are no taller than 40 feet (3 stories) and take up no more than 60 percent of the lot on which they're built; the letter goes on to state that the proposal will ask for a change to those rules that would allow them to build up to 60 feet (presumably 5 stories) and increase the size of the buildings' footprint on that lot. Like you, we have put a lot of resources into increasing the value of our homes and the neighborhood's appeal. It would be a shame to see the value of these investments diminished."

    Additionally, regarding housing for seniors and low-income people, the letter states:

    "Existing under-occupied buildings and high rate of existing services to populations in need. Because of the recent development, we now have a lot of under-occupied buildings in the neighborhood. It is unclear whether demand exists for additional housing in this, the most densely populated portion of the city. In addition, the proposal calls for more senior and affordable housing. While we support affordable and senior housing, Ward 1--and our neighborhood in particular--already provide such services at a disproportionately high rate."

    If I'm missing anything about the spirit of your reservations about the project, please feel free to get in touch.

    All best,

    Lydia
    ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com

  • 13thstreet

    Thanks Lydia for the clarification. It would have been helpful to fully explain the concepts introduced in your article the first time, but perhaps you were space limited. Mentioning "character" without explaining it was potentially misleading, at least to the first commenter on your article. Thank you for the expansion and clarification of our letter and hopefully people will not get the wrong idea about our effort. The school and its attorneys plan to withdraw their proposal, so this is all a moot point for now. Thank you for your coverage of this issue and hopefully people will not take our efforts for anything more than they were.

  • jim

    It's still a shot hole

  • Diggums

    Why does Jim Graham always get a pass with you? He is on the board of CR and is tight with its founders. Do you really think he didn't know about this project?

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