In the Perilous World of D.C. Development, a Christmas Gift
Navigating the District’s byzantine regulatory processes is no easy feat: An alphabet soup of codes and boards determines what you’re allowed to build where, costing potentially thousands of dollars if you don’t get it right the first time.
One entrepreneur, Shannon Christmas, is hoping that’s enough to drive renovators and builders to seek expert assistance. Over the last few months, he’s launched—wait for it—a “boutique real estate and land use consulting atelier strategically fashioning bespoke positioning, programming, permitting, and pricing solutions that maximize value-per-square-foot for lifestyle-driven, design-oriented developments worldwide.”
It might sound like marketing gobbledegook, but the approach has apparently worked in New York City, where Christmas has helped clients like the Trump Organization put together their developments, in a world where local Community Boards are even more powerful than Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. But he also knows the ins and outs of D.C.’s zoning code, having worked as a zoning engineer for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs starting in 2009 (right when inclusionary zoning was being implemented). He found the process of permitting in a politically charged environment so dramatic that he’s working on a novel about it in his spare time.
“It's the politics of zoning that you see in D.C. that you don't see in other places,” says Christmas, who has degrees from Harvard and MIT. “Compliance is not actually a requirement at DCRA, which is actually quite shameful. People can go to a director, or email the mayor, and get an approval for something that they ought not have.”
Often renovators of single family homes don’t know things like what lot occupancy is allowed on their land, and Christmas is charging an all-inclusive $1,500 to help them figure it out. But he's also looking to help out on larger projects. Not as an architect, designer, lawyer, contractor, or broker—just as the guy who tells you how floorplans should be put together, and how units ought to be priced for the market. Because sometimes developers don’t get it.
“It's almost as if developers simply throw up buildings and simply hope that they sell,” Christmas says. He cites the slow-selling Wormley Row in Georgetown as an example.
“If you just look at the flow of rooms for entertaining, for some of the higher-end units, you see that they have a kitchen with a breakfast nook that is disconnected from the butler's pantry and disconnected from the dining room, and then to serve the food that you'd be serving to your guests, you'd have to move through the hallways,” he says. “Small things like that are a big deal, especially to high-end buyers.”
With one foot still in the Big Apple, Christmas is also hoping that some of the more innovative architecture going on there will trickle down to D.C., which has always had a more traditionalist bent.
“In D.C., while there was a boom in development, there wasn't so much experimentation with the types of architecture that you were seeing,” Christmas says. Other than Eastbanc’s project with Enrique Norten, “there just hasn't been thus far much interest in engaging those world class architects.”
Of course, in the District’s contentious approvals process, creative architecture is always a bigger risk.