High Stakes at Highland Park: Donatelli Wants to Build More Apartments, But La Casa Might Hold Him Back
Chris Donatelli is stressed out.
He’s been trying to build the second phase of the Highland Park Apartment complex on Irving Street in Columbia Heights ever since he finished the first phase a couple years ago. He learned from that project: The apartments were too big for buyers these days, who want small and cheap. Also, they all ride the metro, and thus didn’t need parking.
So yesterday, he asked the Zoning Commission to let him build 144 units, instead of the originally planned 69—mostly one-bedrooms, priced at about $1,600 per month instead of around $2,000—and no parking spaces, instead of the planned 82 (here's the Office of Planning report on the modification). The amenities package, he and Holland & Knight ace Chip Glasgow pleaded, would be “essentially identical.”
The problem is, they are also contractually obligated to leave space for an 82-bed community-based residential facility to replace La Casa community shelter for men, which is operated by the Coalition for the Homeless and funded by the Department of Human Services. They’ve even designed the shelter, which will front onto the sidewalk, while about half of the current residents have been transitioned into permanent supportive housing before the shelter’s scheduled closing on October 15.
But though everyone at last night’s hearing wanted to see the facility rebuilt—the existing trailers were set up there on a “temporary” basis in 1985—no one seemed to know whether the funding existed to do so.
“I know that they did at one time, and I don’t know for sure that that’s still budgeted as such,” Donatelli told the Commission. “We have been coordinating with [DHS] and providing them with plans. I expect that they have the intention of building it, hopefully in the near future.”
That’s a sticking point in particular for Chairman Anthony Hood, who seemed reluctant to give the project the go-ahead until there was some certainty on when the shelter would move forward as well (Housing Complex has inquired with DHS, and will update when they answer). In addition, new Commissioner Greg Selfridge—who, astonishingly, had to ask what the area median income is for the District—wanted to see a detailed rent schedule for the new units, which will be 20 percent “affordable” under inclusionary zoning.
The Commission was about to defer its decision for another three weeks. But three weeks can be an eternity in tight financing situations—Donatelli’s partner, Larry Clark, looked visibly pained. Glasgow and Donatelli made one last appeal, explaining that they were trying to combine the financing of the first phase with the second phase. Their mortgage is coming due in December, and some assurance that the Commission would sign off is critical for reassuring their lender.
Hood wasn’t having it. But he compromised, and called for a vote next Thursday.
“I too want to make sure that went the vote is called for, it passes,” he told the team. “To tell you the truth, Mr. Donatelli, I don’t think you have the votes. One week’s not gonna hurt you.”
Donatelli and Clark didn’t look so sure.
P.S.: I'm writing more about the history of this shelter and how it's interacted with the changing community for next week's issue. If you've got particular insight or knowledge, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.