Housing Complex

Why Occupy D.C. Is Wrong About the West End Library Deal

It's the most architecturally exciting project in the District, anyway.

Looks like a Zoning Commission hearing this evening on Eastbanc's plan for the West End Library and Firehouse is going to be more exciting than normal, with folks from Occupy D.C. and other assorted activists on hand to protest "the arbitrary suspension of existing zoning rules in the interest of multinational corporations." As part of its application for more density on the two sites, Eastbanc is requesting a waiver of the "inclusionary zoning" rule that requires developers to set aside 8 percent of their units for people making less than the area median income, which activists are decrying as a shameless giveaway of affordable housing.

Of course, the real story is more complicated. The BizJo explained most of it back in June, when the zoning application was originally submitted. I'll try to condense.

The project is composed of two buildings: What's now the squat West End Library at 24th and L Street NW, and the firehouse at 23rd and M. The former will incorporate a new library into a fancy building with 164 high-end condos. The latter will be a more modest 52 rental units above a new firehouse. Both Eastbanc and the city always wanted to make the firehouse building 100 percent affordable, but there wasn't enough land value left over after building the new public facilities to make that happen.

Originally, the plan had been to fund the gap with a combination of low income housing tax credits, government bonds, and up-front cash to be paid off by additional tax revenue the development would generate over time. But when the proposal came before the D.C. Council for approval, the city's finances had gotten shaky, and that last piece wouldn't fit under the District's debt cap. Now, the city has until April 2012 to figure out how—or whether—it can finance those affordable units above the firehouse (8 percent of which will be affordable anyway, since Eastbanc is planning to abide by inclusionary zoning for that building). If it doesn't, that's the city's fault, not Eastbanc's.

The inclusionary zoning waiver on the library building is a different matter altogether. According to an Eastbanc staffer speaking on background, that was part of the deal all along—there's no bait and switch.

That's not crystal clear from the 2009 land disposition agreement, in which the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development determined that "the affordable housing that may be required under applicable laws and regulations...should be placed on the [firehouse] land rather than on the [library] land." But that's how Eastbanc remembers it, and the people at the city who made the deal aren't around anymore, and the people who are in office now support the waiver request, saying that requiring any affordable housing on the library parcel would make it impossible to deliver the two public facilities without a subsidy.

Even the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which fought to get inclusionary zoning passed in the first place, thinks this deal smells okay, because it comes with a library and a firehouse. "We fear a weakening of affordable housing on public land—like in Southwest Waterfront or Parcel 42," writes policy director Cheryl Cort, who'll be testifying in favor of the project. "The West End Library is different than a site like parcel 42 where there's no other public benefit offered."

If the city can't come up with the money to make the firehouse building totally affordable, Cort would like to see the units that would have been affordable in the higher-end library building, if it had complied with inclusionary zoning, transferred to the firehouse, so at least the same number of people will have access to below-market-rate housing.

Instead of attacking Eastbanc, maybe Occupy D.C. should attack the debt cap, which makes these sorts of public investments in a more equitable city more difficult. Which, since the debt cap is largely a function of the bond markets, would bring things full circle back to Wall Street.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    You'd think Occupy DC would be against auto-dependent exuburban gated communities built on greenfields, rather than opposing infill, smart-growth urban development.

  • Castle

    Way to cheerlead Lydia! (but small voice ahem is it really only odc that is in opposition? realy)

    You the best.

    Reality: don't do it DC. Don't do it.

  • Hillman

    Occupy DC is at this point doing more harm to their cause than good.

    And I say this a someone disgusted by the excesses of unchecked capitalism.

    What was their cause again?

  • http://www.squaredeal.us Jamie

    It's bizarre that we've reached a point where we actually term a small subset of housing "affordable." I wonder if authors ever stop to realize that the only alternative to housing being affordable is that it is UN-affordable, which would make it pointless. *shakes head*

  • Castle

    Jamie,

    Exactly.

    Lydia is a big cheerleader of the real estate developers in DC. Biiig. She's on their side, like, so, totally.

  • LOL

    not really. She is right about the debt cap. But that doesn't get attention like protesting a building. All this shows me is how Occupy DC is the less educated cousin of Occupy Wall st.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    It doesn't really matter if it's affordable housing, luxury housing, retail, or civic use - redevelopment of underutilized urban land is necessary in order to keep pace with population growth, otherwise the result will be more sprawl. If projects like this one meet with opposition, developers will simply shift their activities to the periphery where farms and forests lie ripe for the taking.

  • Dave

    Castle (and others) who are lambasting Lydia for this post:

    First, I note that you didn't take issue with its substance, only that you beleive she is a "cheerleader" for real estate developers in DC and, thus, not to be trusted. Fine. But if you're going to refute her, refute her based on substance. Is the debt cap not a serious issue in this situation? Has it not played a role in the lack of affordable housing at the site?

    Secondly, what would you have the District do? Both of these developments will include significant public amenities--a new library and firehouse. That is a significant amount of space where the developer will not be collecting commercial rents from tenants. And with two developments sitting on plots of land that are the most valuable in the city, placing two non-market rent-paying tenants on two floors of the developments mean that the money needs to be made up elsewhere. This isn't a nonprofit development, and Eastbanc isn't a charity.

    This is a pristine example of ODC letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. These are dense, infill developments that will be providing significant public amenities. There are plenty of other developments in the Distirct where ODC's ire would be more appropriately directed.

  • Wrack

    Dave, you're missing the point. It's much more fun and satisfying to refuse to read any details or take the time to comprehend a complicated situation. It's way more enjoyable to jerk your knee so hard you kick 'em in the head! Woooo! Protessssst! Yeahhhh! Party!!!!

  • gottagetit

    The Occupy people are finished in this town. Why on earth would they try to get involved in a project so important to the neighborhood and one that has been approved by the ANC and every Foggy Bottom civic association?

    I can't wait for the day when the crews arrive to kick these punks out.

  • Bert

    Uh, there are currently a library and a firehouse on a public site anyway, which will be torn down and rebuilt so the developer gets the benefit of the development rights at the site. To talk about all the developer is sacrificing here is a bit of a stretch. It's an understatement to say that the he sort of healthy journalistic skeptisicm about developer representations doesn't really exist in this publication -- but, then again, it's more opinionated blogging than journalism. Developers will always try to get more and commit to less, it's the nature of the game -- I've seen a PUD sponsor claim that compliance with affordable housing requirements was an "amentity" it should get credit for, when it was the law! Critical reporting is all the more called for in "crony capitalism" situations like the West End, or the on-again-off-again Janney School/library development in NW, where developer access to public assets is concerned.

  • Rosina

    Thanks, Bert, I was beginning to think we were talking about another location...

    It's really disturbing that people come on here to cut each other up. I think at the end of the day we all basically want the same thing although some of us have preferences of building sizes and how luxurious the condos are.

    The development ball moves very slowly if you are watching and super fast if you aren't... In other words the people tuned into the Development Channel, have been watching and people fall into the discussion for whatever reason and have their fears and concerns. So, educate, share info. A new voice in the discussion is still a valid person and opinion.

    There's no need to downgrade an entire movement and call them bums because you don't like the fact that they have an opinion that you feel is misinformed. Be happy they are interested enough to get involved and disagree with them. Sheesh!

    I for one am excited that Occupy posted this event, I need to get more involved. EastBanc is a partner in the Hine School development, and I'm honestly feeling like Hine will threaten my peaceful existence about 3 blocks away.

    I guess the Depatment of Homeland and Security would call it the Agressive Shopper and Parking Terrorists threat. I kid, I kid, but really, all the parking lots in the world won't eliminate the traffic on the street and by the street, I mean MY STREET.

    I don't know the answers to West End, hell, I don't know the answers to Hine. BUT a man I met recently had a great plan to develop the Hine School site into a PARK... And I have to say, that sounds MUCH better than what EastBanc/Stanton is planning.

  • http://www.twitter.com/joellawsondc Joel

    GreaterGreaterWashington has now also published an essay in support of the development:
    A new West End Library is a good deal for DC - http://www.ggwash.org/13257

  • Anonymous1984

    "Both of these developments will include significant public amenities--a new library and firehouse."

    Actually, as Bert noted, there are already currently a library and an MPD facility next to it on one block and the firehouse is located a block away.

    As part of a land disposition agreement--that transfers all three parcels of public property along with their development and air rights to EastBanc--the developer is legally obligated to provide the District with a new fire station and a new library.

    Not matter how desperately the developer wants to count them as such, these are not "amenities"--their provision by EastBanc is the "pro quo" requirement for DC's "quid" of an obscenely valuable amount of unencumbered public property.

    Further, under the new IZ/PUD regs, the affordable housing requirement (which the city was allowing the developer to build offsite--another gift) was the only meaningful "amenity" in this project.

    This is nothing more nor less than tax dollars going to underwrite deals for developers. We pay them to develop a project and then they get to keep the proceeds. Gosh, I wonder how many golden crumbs EastBanc will drop into the gubby hands of the community groupies if this deal flies.

  • Dave

    @Anonymous: "Actually, as Bert noted, there are already currently a library and an MPD facility next to it on one block and the firehouse is located a block away."

    Correct--and the city is currently getting no tax dollars from these two large plots of land that are sitting in the middle of one of the priciest areas of DC. All of those social services and programs and initiatives that the ODC folks (and others) want to see funded require the money to come from somewhere; and property, income and commercial taxes are a tremendous source of those funds. The city, of course, recognizes that, hence the RFP issued by the city to redevelop those properties.

    But the project has to be financially viable for the developer as well. So the deal allows for the city to get a brand-spanking-new library and firehouse, and to collect what will end up being a not-insignificant amount of tax revenue from the projects in exchange for the developer's right to construct a project on that property.

    That's why these projects have garnered overwhelming support from the city, the community, advocacy organizations and so on. This really is a situation where the well-meaning intentions of a group like ODC are seriously misguided. They need to back-off and direct their anger elsewhere.

  • Typical DC BS

    @Dave: You hit the description of this development out of the park. Guess the ODC crowd needs to use their high priced education and analyze how cities really work. Or maybe they were sleeping during economics (if they even took that course).

  • http://welag Chris Otten

    Lydia, I like your article and am glad you are covering this issue.

    There are two critical things that stand out:

    1) Missing mention of the true precedent that would be set by the ZC in waiving IZ rules and DMPED allowing the developer to bail out on promised affordable housing.

    2) The basics of the deal seem to be missing important on-the-ground numbers.

    The numbers seemed to be missing when you contend with this highly complicated deal in just one short paragraph (A deal brokered by DPMED whom I think you are right to say they are to blame for setting false expectations and herding this project forward with too many parts still moving).

    For example where you write,

    "The project is composed of two buildings: What's now the squat West End Library at 24th and L Street NW, and the firehouse at 23rd and M. The former will incorporate a new library into a fancy building with 164 high-end condos. The latter will be a more modest 52 rental units above a new firehouse. Both Eastbanc and the city always wanted to make the firehouse building 100 percent affordable, but there wasn't enough land value left over after building the new public facilities to make that happen."

    Lydia, have you by chance been able to track down the actual real value of the public land that is to be conveyed by DPMED to Anthony Lanier and his Eastbanc development partners?

    It would seem that there should certainly be enough public money/credit from the sale of public land and air rights (public library, public police station, and public fire station) to pay for all three components of "the bargain" (a new library, a new fire station, and more than 50 units of affordable housing).

    According to DMPED's appraisal, the land seems to be worth between $150 to $180 sq/foot FAR.

    There has to be some clear, easily explainable formula that evaluates the value of the public land and air rights as demonstrated by this deal. Please help us clarify.

    I saw more information about this issue here, including the original expectations set by the 2009 RFP for this project >>
    http://dc.indymedia.org/newswire/display/152510/index.php

    Thank you for covering this important topic.

    Chris O.

  • Anonymous1984

    "But that's how Eastbanc remembers it, and the people at the city who made the deal aren't around anymore..."

    Along with being an admission that DMPED has no business doing deals with anybody, none of this discussion is anything other than a distraction from the real issue before the Zoning Commission: Does the ZC really want to bless the continuation of a tradition of the city paying three times more than it should for what it is getting in return?

    Although DMPED "negotiated" a crappy deal, the ZC can mitigate that fact with its decision in this case. The burden of proof that it's not ultimately a very fuzzy lollipop lies with EastBanc.

    And if EastBanc doesn't like the final order, it can choose not to build the project.

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