1617 U Street Frequently Asked Questions
I want to take an opportunity to dive into the future of an important public site in Ward 1, the Engine 9 Fire Station and MPD 3rd District Headquarters, often referred to as 1617 U Street. I’ve received questions and comments from residents, and I want to address those here and provide information and background on this project. This page will continue to be updated, as appropriate.
The 1617 U site is an exciting and significant opportunity for a transformative project that can provide new community amenities and ensure that this corner of Ward 1 continues to live up to its promise of racial and economic diversity. The redevelopment of the site, together with the Reeves Center redevelopment, will enrich the neighborhood through significant new housing, including income-restricted affordable housing and expanded public facilities.
What are the goals of this project?
The very broad goals of redevelopment here, according to the Comprehensive Plan, are to:
- Add a significant amount of new housing and affordable housing,
- Create new public facilities, and
- Ensure the continued cultural legacy of the U Street corridor.
What changes were made to the Comprehensive Plan and why?
In 2020, this site was identified in the Mayor’s amendments to the Comprehensive Plan, the District’s primary land use document, as an opportunity for new housing.
When I ran for Council, one of my top priorities was to address the District’s housing crisis and its impact on all D.C. residents. With that in mind, when the Council was considering the Mayor’s Comprehensive Plan amendments, the Council adopted changes I drafted to strengthen language on affordable housing and address resident displacement in the plan for the first time.
I also worked to identify strategic areas in Ward 1 that could accommodate new housing by increasing future allowable density. These targeted amendments to the Future Land Use Map, a part of the Comprehensive Plan, prioritized publicly-owned and faith-based sites and areas of the ward that have not produced significant new housing or new affordable housing within the last two decades. The Future Land Use Map is not a zoning map but does guide zoning decisions and can be amended by the Council, whereas the zoning map can be amended only by an independent Zoning Commission.
I’m proud that Ward 1 has the highest inventory of income-restricted affordable housing west of the Anacostia River, which contributes to its continued diversity. However, that affordable housing and Ward 1’s growth overall has not been distributed evenly. The Engine 9/3rd District site – publicly-owned land in a part of the ward that has not contributed as much – sits exactly at the nexus of these priorities. Unlike elsewhere in Ward 1, there are very few major opportunities west of 16th Street to build significant new affordable housing units. Because of the commitment I made to my constituents and the feedback I heard throughout the Comprehensive Plan review process, I feel strongly that we must fully take advantage of the opportunity presented to us, and not settle for any half-measure. My proposed amendment ultimately passed the Council, 11-1, and the amendment itself garnered substantial, broadly supportive, public comment in the lead-up to the vote.
Where are we in the process?
A lot of planning precedes a project such as this, starting with high level setting of citywide goals for housing production and getting more local and more specific with each step. The moment we are in right now is already the result of numerous and extensive comments and many hours of public meetings on goal setting and planning that came before discussion of this project even began.
Below is a high-level summary of the process of bringing new life to a public site. It does not include the many additional community meetings already held and that will be held. In the current phase of this process, the main venue for public testimony is the Zoning Commission, not the Council.
Outline of Process and Engagement
Office of Planning Outreach and Public Engagement on Comprehensive Plan Amendments
- Summary of input and public meetings from 2017-2020
Council Hearings on Comprehensive Plan
Councilmember Nadeau Engagement on Proposed Amendments to the Comprehensive Plan
DMPED Hearing and Public Engagement on Potential Uses for Site
- Recording of public hearing
- Attached below: DMPED summary of public outreach, attendance at community meetings, and engagement with members of the public between March 2022 and June 2023.
Office of Planning Submission of Zoning Map Amendment to the Zoning Commission
WE ARE HERE --> Zoning Commission Public Input Period and Public Hearing
Decision by Zoning Commission and Issuance of Zoning Order
DMPED Issuance of Request for Proposals (RFP)
Public Library Facilities Community Engagement and Needs Assessment
Public input on Proposed Projects (from the RFP), Giving “Great Weight” to ANC Input
Public Input on Final Project Selection After Modifications Based on Input
Council Public Hearing and Vote on Project Approval Resolutions Introduced by the Mayor
As the Ward 1 Councilmember I will continue to accept public input, as I’ve done in prior steps of this process. However, I must also be careful not to step into the process at inappropriate times. More on this in subsequent sections.
How much affordable housing will be created?
Any development on public land within a half-mile of a Metrorail station or one-quarter mile of a Priority Corridor Network Metrobus Route (1617 U St. meets both standards) must include at least 30% of units affordable for low and very low-income households.
This is the highest affordability requirement for any kind of project in the District. However, 30 percent is the floor, not the ceiling. I support requiring more than that and have long supported more affordability in public projects. With my backing, the building now under construction on the 600 block of Park Road – part of the Park Morton New Communities Initiative – will be 100 percent income-restricted affordable units, up from about 60 percent in the original plans.
Building new housing is expensive, even when District government writes off the cost of land and provides additional public funds, such as from the Housing Production Trust Fund. I’ve consistently championed expanding funding for affordable housing. For example, I led a tax increase on the highest earners (those making more than $250,000 per year) that now funds over $260 million of housing subsidy and supportive services for the lowest-income families, as well as dedicated affordable housing for seniors, LGBTQ+ residents, returning citizens, and domestic violence survivors. Even so, very few projects that have deeply affordable housing – especially larger developments – can do so without additional subsidy from market-rate units. Including market-rate housing in projects helps defray some of the cost, making it possible to build as much affordable housing as possible. Doing so also moderates price increases for all housing by addressing the significant demand for market rate units.
Why does the zoning need to change?
Under current zoning, there’s little that likely can be achieved with the site. Under current zoning a new structure at 1617 U could only be about as tall as the rowhouses on the other side of 17th Street . Keeping MU-4 zoning would likely produce a new police station and fire station, possibly some new retail or a handful of housing units, and that’s about it.
No decisions can be made about the future use of the site until the Zoning Commission makes its determination.
Unlike in many other cities, the D.C. Council does not vote on zoning changes or development proposals. Here, we have the Zoning Commission, which is an independent quasi-judicial body.
Community members can submit testimony to the Zoning Commission, which will hold a hearing on the proposal on November 20, 2023. I support this zoning change, but do not have a vote and will not/should not convene public meetings on what will be the Zoning Commission’s decision – to do so would be an inappropriate competition with the Zoning Commission process, as I explain in more detail below.
The zoning map amendment is supported with resolutions passed by ANC 1B (U Street), which contains the entire site, and the two other surrounding ANCs: ANC 2B (Dupont Circle), which abuts the parcel, and ANC 1C (Adams Morgan), less than a block away.
What about using another process, such as a Planned Unit Development?
In D.C. there are two primary methods to change the allowed density of a parcel: a Zoning amendment, which we’ve been talking about, and a Planned Unit Development, or PUD. The PUD process is preferred in some cases because it is structured around a negotiation of community benefits that is then considered and approved by the Zoning Commission.
I believe this is the wrong approach for 1617 U and for any development of public land. It would require waiting for the District to select a developer for the site, giving up a significant amount of community control and put much of the determination of the future of the site into the hands of a private party and what they might be willing to offer or negotiate. Because PUDs are structured around a negotiation between a developer and nearby residents and ANCs, they have had issues of imbalance in information and negotiating power. Everyday residents are often at a disadvantage and the most well-off and high-information participants tend to come out on top. This is why I got a law passed to increase development expertise support for ANCs.
If the zoning is changed up front, however, the process for public input stays more squarely in the hands of the community and D.C. government. It shifts the venue for community input from an informal and complex negotiation process to direct engagement on proposals and how well they fulfill a clearly defined set of community priorities. As opposed to leaving things to chance, it provides an opportunity to clearly express public desires and requirements for future development, and to select a project that best fills those needs.
Why MU-10 zoning?
The site is currently zoned MU-4, which allows for moderate-density mixed-use development. Buildings can be up to 50 feet tall – about 4 stories – and can be a mix of residential and commercial use. For context, MU-4 is the zone for Mount Pleasant Street and the 11th Street commercial corridor in Columbia Heights.
MU-10 is a mixed-use zone used for neighborhood centers outside of downtown. MU-10 zones and developments built to those standards currently exist next to blocks with rowhouses in the U Street corridor and Dupont Circle area, as well as other areas in the city. The ARTS-4 zone, a special purpose zone with nearly identical development standards as MU-10, covers much of U Street, including an area less than two blocks away from 1617 U.
According to the supporting documents for the zoning map amendment, MU-10 fits well within with the site’s high-density residential designation in the Future Land Use Map. MU-10 is in fact listed as an example of medium density (“The MU-8 and MU-10 Zone Districts are consistent with the Medium Density category, and other zones may also apply.”). MU-10 is the lowest-density zone that is envisioned for a High-Density Residential area, which is how 1617 U is designated.
According to the District’s Zoning Handbook, the MU-10 zone is intended to:
- “Permit medium to high-density mixed-use development with a balance of uses conducive to a higher quality of life and environment for residents, business, employees, and institutions;
- Be applied to areas where a mixture of uses and building densities is intended to carry out elements of the Comprehensive Plan, small area plans, or framework plans, including goals in employment, population transportation, housing, public facilities, and environmental quality;
- Require a level of public space at the ground level; and
- Allow residential and non-residential bulk to be apportioned between two or more lots in the same square.”
There are two other characteristics of MU-10 that are important to highlight related to his project:
- MU-10 is the only mixed-use zone that allows for shifting of massing across a large parcel. If the goal is to shift density toward the U Street side to minimize visual impact on existing rowhouse blocks, then an MU-10 zoning designation is the best way to do that.
- MU-10 is also the only zone of its kind in our zoning code that requires at least 8% of a site to be public open space at ground level. At 1617 U, that translates to over 10,000 square feet of new public space – that’s about the size of the existing fire station! The existing MU-4 zoning does not have any public space requirement.
Why allow tall buildings here?
Tall buildings serve an important role and we should not shy away from them. We live in a space-constrained city where land values are already high and continue to rise, where we are tasked with making affordable housing accessible to old and new residents and creating more livable neighborhoods. It is impossible to address all these goals without pursuing more density.
A unique and fundamental part of Ward 1’s character is the variation in height and scale from one building to the next. It is no coincidence that the areas of Ward 1 that have some of the highest variation in housing types are our most economically and racially diverse.
A new building at 17th and U will look and feel different in scale compared to what’s there now, of course. Design of a new development – from the placement of open public space to materials and where building mass is located – help a project to better integrate into its surroundings. Many of our most treasured neighborhoods could never have been built as we know them today if different-sized buildings were unallowed.
We should not pass up the opportunity to maximize the housing we can build on a public site, particularly in this location. While Ward 1 has the highest concentration of income-restricted affordable housing west of the Anacostia River, that affordability is not evenly distributed across the ward, with areas west of 16th Street having under-produced both market rate and affordable housing in the last few decades.
This is addressed in the Office of Planning’s Racial Equity Analysis:
“The Mid-City Planning Area was long impacted by racial covenants which also, in the vicinity of the subject site, had the perhaps unintended result of fostering one of the more thriving African American communities in the District. What is now the Strivers’ Row historic district was a predominantly Black residential area, developed in part with African American investment, and the 1600 block of U Street was at the western end of what became a predominantly Black business and entertainment corridor. The area was negatively impacted by civil disturbances in the late 1960’s but has regained its health since then. However...the percentage of Black residents in the Mid-City area is slowly declining and the area near the subject site is not an exception. With a relatively static nearby housing supply, particularly west of 16th Street, there has been upward pressure on housing prices which, given the negative difference between incomes of households identifying as Black and those identifying as White, has contributed to a decline in the percentage of the neighborhood’s residents who identify as Black.”
What is the role of public land in developments like this?
You have likely seen criticism of public projects that have sold public land for $1 or some other nominal amount. While some past public land projects have been problematic, when done properly, writing down the cost of land – by far the most expensive part of building housing – is a crucial part of the subsidy that enables significant new affordable housing. Importantly, the plan at 1617 U Street is not to sell or transfer the land but to develop with a ground lease, meaning it remains within public control in perpetuity.
Construction costs have increased significantly, and there have been significant new constraints on financing housing projects, including high interest rates and D.C. reaching its federal bond cap limit for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, a critical source of subsidy (see here for a wonky explanation). We cannot build affordable housing without significant subsidy.
The combined assessed value of the 1617 U site (both parcels) is over $30 million. If we were to lease the site at market value and require the level of affordable housing we do for projects on public land, that $30 million in subsidy would have to come from somewhere else in our budget. To put that in context, that’s about a third of the entire annual budget for our Housing Production Trust Fund.
Should we have social housing or a community land trust at 1617 U St.?
I am very glad there is increased support for greater public sector involvement in solving the housing crisis. In the District, it’s clear that in conversations about social housing, people are proposing something separate and apart from our existing Housing Authority and the traditional public housing that it manages. Beyond that, we don’t yet have a commonly agreed-upon definition for what satisfies enough requirements to be called social housing.
I am proud to be a co-introducer of Councilmember Lewis George’s “Green New Deal for Housing Amendment Act of 2023”. The definition of social housing in that legislation does not include the need for the public sector to construct or manage the housing itself, focusing instead, as I do, on the ownership of the land and the affordability of the housing that is built. The development model we are pursuing, not just at 1617 U but up and down U Street, fits that bill.
I have proposed companion legislation, the “Prioritizing Public Land Purchase Amendment Act of 2023”, which would simplify and accelerate the ability of the District to acquire new public land through an exclusive right of first offer and expanded eminent domain authority. The opportunities presented to us by public lands on U Street are exactly the type of projects I hope that legislation can enable.
Community Land Trusts, which are typically private nonprofits, ensure long-term affordability by retaining ownership of land while ground leasing to residents or for development of new housing. This is exactly what we would be doing at 1617 U, only with the public sector retaining that ownership as opposed to a nonprofit. This is how many social housing programs across the globe are structured, including in Singapore, where over 80 percent of residents live in homes they own, on land owned by the government. Another example is Victoria, Australia where their newly-established housing agency notes that“[the] Ground Lease Model aims to grow social housing, tackle the growing problem of housing affordability and address the lack of secure, longer-term rentals in well-located areas...Without this approach these types of developments would not be possible at this scale.”
What will happen to the fire and police station?
The police station and fire station are planned to remain on the same site after redevelopment.
What else is planned for the site?
Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto and I have requested a library be included in the redevelopment proposal for the site. I funded a public study on this (more on that below).
Once the request for proposals (RFP) process begins, we will learn even more about what’s possible for the site, and the community will be able to weigh in further.
I’ve seen a rendering of what the building will look like. Is it accurate?
No. There is no project rendering because no proposals have been solicited or submitted. What you have seen is someone’s misinformed imagination of what might be allowed at the site.
It may be counterintuitive, but the proposed MU-10 zone is the better way to avoid the kind of mega-building shown in the fictitious rendering.
A zone like MU-7 or MU-8, while seemingly less dense, doesn’t afford the same flexibility of shifting massing around a large site and does not have open space requirements (see “Why MU-10 zoning?” above for more). As a result, we’d be much more likely to need one big block of building, so to speak, to achieve the same goals.
Interestingly, the fictitious rendering appears to be a super-imposed image of the nearby National Caucus and Center on Black Aging’s Samuel J. Simmons building, or NCBA Estates, which is at 14th and Harvard Streets in Columbia Heights.
That is a 10-story building, which, as it turns out, buts right up against moderate density rowhouses, not unlike some buildings in the vicinity of the 1617 U site.
The rendering appears to superimpose the building on top of the two-story police station building, with another two-story penthouse on top of that. Such a building would almost certainly violate the Height Act.
Incidentally, NCBA Estates is home to 175 low-income senior households, and has just broken ground on an expansion with a new building on site (a by-right project) that will add 178 more units for seniors and “grand-families” as well as new community-serving retail and office space. I think most people would agree that we should have more projects like this in Ward 1.
When will we see plans for the site?
DMPED is waiting for clarity on the site’s zoning. Until then, there is insufficient information to prepare an RFP to match the criteria.
When will the community get to weigh in?
As with any large public project, robust engagement is important to assembling a community vision. That engagement will take many different forms over the life cycle of each project.
The question right now is whether the site will be up-zoned to MU-10. By law, that is under the purview of the Zoning Commission and residents can submit testimony in advance of their hearing to be scheduled for later this fall. Hundreds of you already have.
Another form of engagement will come from the public facility community needs assessment which I funded in the 2024 budget. I wanted to make sure that we were able to get a more complete picture of what other uses beyond new housing would be best suited for the community around 1617 U. To do that, I partnered with Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto on an amendment to the budget that funds community engagement and a public facility needs assessment, led by the D.C. Public Library.
There will be even more opportunities for the community to weigh in as part of RFP process. As a recent nearby example, the Reeves Center redevelopment has benefitted greatly from strong community engagement during its RFP, which created space for significant input on design and use, with much credit due to ANC 1B for facilitating that work.
Will you hold a public meeting?
The only current decision point on 1617 U has to do with zoning and it would be inappropriate for a Councilmember to organize a public forum. Section 712 of the Home Rule Act (functionally our state constitution) prohibits the D.C. Council from making decisions on zoning, which is under the jurisdiction of the Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment. For me, or any Councilmember, to organize a public forum on a proposed zoning change would effectively usurp the Zoning Commission’s authority as granted to them under the Home Rule Act.
Attachment 1: Supportive comments on FLUM amendment
Attachment 2: DMPED Community Outreach Log - From Office of Planning Report