What the heck is a 'Large Tract Review?'

Large development projects in the District of Columbia often require some type of zoning relief. This includes relatively minor zoning relief, which goes through the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA). The Buchanan School project is a good example in 6B06. Projects that are looking for more substantial zoning relief go through the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process. We have three recent PUDs: 1401 Penn, Watkins Alley, and Bowie's/Signature. 

But there's a rare process that applies to large commercial projects that are not looking for zoning relief: the large tract review (LTR). LTRs apply to sites of three or more acres or sites with 50,000 square feet of commercial space. The key word to focus on is review. The LTR process is not an approval--no one gets to sign off on the project, as the BZA or Zoning Commission would in other cases. Instead, the LTR requires that the developer engage city agencies and other stakeholders (like the ANC and community). This results in communication and participation, but not approval or denial. 

Who is Involved?

Through the LTR, a range of stakeholders are pulled into the development process, which is managed by the Office of Planning (OP). Once the developer files the LTR application, OP forwards it to a range of DC agencies, including DCRA, DPW, FEMS, etc. There is also a notification process, which includes the affected ANC, civic associations, and property owners within 200 feet of the property. 

What else happens? 

Cities agencies will review and comment on the application. In addition, a series of meetings typically take place. These include meetings between the applicant and OP, as well as meetings between the applicant and city agencies. The applicant is also require to hold at least one meeting with the community. 

How does the process conclude? 

Regulations require that the review be completed within 60 days of filing the application. OP will collect comments from stakeholders and then produce a technical report that summarizes issues raised during the process. OP provides the report to the applicant and other stakeholders, including the ANC. The report doesn't include and approval or denial, but it can raise issues that the applicant can respond to. 

Bottom line

The LTR is an uncommon process. The OP website lists only 14 past LTRs, and only one in Ward 6 (not in Capitol Hill). It's also clear what the LTR is not: it is not an opportunity for anyone, including the ANC, to approve or disapprove a project. What the LTR does do is provide an opportunity for dialog. Unlike a basic by right project--where a developer does not need to do any type of consulation with the community--the LTR requires that the developer seek out and listen to feedback. This means the community has less influence than with a PUD, but it still provides the community a voice. 

Want more information? 

The Office of Planning has a page dedicated to the LTR, including a description of the process (much of this post comes from those sites). You can find examples of LTR technical reports there, too. 


2016 Zoning Update (ZR16) Resources

This month the first overhaul of DC's zoning rules since 1958 went into effect. The update, known as ZR16, aims to take a zoning code written during a different chapter in DC (and US) history and bring it into the modern era. ZR16 isn't a wholesale rewrite, but it does bring some important changes, both in terminology and in zoning rules, that will affect Capitol Hill. Here are some resources to help households understand the code and what it implies for your home and your neighborhood. 


DC Urban Turf has a brief overview, along with a series of more in-depth articles. The Washington City Paper also had a nice, summary review. And here's a slideshow from the Office of Planning that walks through the changes in a bit more detail. 

Zone Names

Some of the changes are mostly superficial, moving DC from zones like "R-4" to new names, like "RF-1" (RF = residential flat). Other common zones in Capitol Hill include MU-4 ("mixed use"), formerly C-2-A and MU-5-A (formerly C-2-B). The DC Office of Zoning has a conversion table here.  (Hill East's special zones now range from H-1 to H-4.) 

Zoning Maps

The old zoning map from the Office of Zoning was a great--if somewhat clunky--resource. This has been supplanted by two new maps. One provides an interactive feature to show how zone names have changed. The other, more useful in the long-run, is an updated zoning map for ZR16. The new map of course includes the new zone names, but it also brings a new and improved interface and easier to access information. 

Major Changes Affecting Capitol Hill

The complete zoning changes are too numerous to review, but here are some highlights that affect Capitol Hill. There are some important changes that primarily serve to simplify the zoning relief process, such as setting a uniform lot coverage standard (60%), which means end-unit rowhouses are no longer held to an different (and arbitrary) standard. I won't go into detail on those types of changes, either. Each of the section titles links to a post by the Office of Planning that walks through the details. 

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU): An "ADU" is a fancy word for separate, livable space that is in addition to the main home on a property. For example, an apartment in a carriage house. ZR16 makes it much easier to add an additional dwelling unit to a lot in most Capitol Hill zones. 

Alley lots: The 1958 zoning rules were severely restricted what could be done on lots that abutted alleys, something Capitol Hill has in abundance. ZR16 radically redefines what owners of alley lots can do. Essentially, any lot larger than 450 square feet is eligible for a single family resident, with minimal setback and expansive lot coverage allowances. 

Corner stores: Corners stores used to dot the Capitol Hill landscape, but now they're rare. (Greater Greater Washington has a nice post on houses that used to be corner stores.) ZR16 won't change things dramatically, but it does modestly relax the restrictions on corner stores. Anyone looking to put in a new corner store will still have to meet an extensive set of restriction on lot location, store size, and what they can sell. 

Parking requirements: For multi-family structures, ZR16 reduces the parking requirements to 1 space for every 3 units, which reduces the requirements in many cases. There are additional reductions if the building is close to a metro station or other mass transit line. 

Detailed resources

The information above provides a general sense of how the zoning regulations have changes, but the details are important. The most in-depth information is available on the Office of Zoning's site with the detailed regulations. These are full-on zoning documents and not for the timid, but they're not as impenetrable as they first seem. Most of the information Capitol Hill Residents need can be found in Subtitle E (the RF zones). 

Community meeting on new proposed E ST development

On Tuesday, August 18th at 6:30, Insight Property Group will hold a broad-based community meeting on their proposed PUD development on E St SE. The project would redevelop two sites that are currently occupied by Bowie's trash service and Signature auto repair, midway down the 1300 block of E St. Insight is also the developer behind the project at the Buchanan School (former IGU) at the end of 13th St.

The meeting will take place at the Hill Center, starting at 6:30. If you'd like to learn more about the plans, voice your opinions and ideas, and engage with the Insight team, please attend! If you can't make it, this will be one of a series of community meetings over the next year, since this project will be in a planning stage for a while to come.

So you want to build a pop-up... (under DC's new zoning regulations)

(updated July 13th with effective dates for the new zoning rules)

The DC Zoning Commission recently voted to change the zoning rules for residential and non-residential structures in the R-4 zone, requiring a special exception to build higher than 35 feet. The focus is on regulating "pop up" development, and previously the R-4 zone allowed builders to go up to 40 feet by right. The update to the zoning regulations also included some other changes related to mezzanines and multi-unit structures. In this post, I'll review the new zoning rules for residential structures and what they mean for Capitol Hill residents.

First, some definitions

Zoning regulations are confusing; let's start with some definitions. Land in DC is divided into zoning districts, such as R-1 (low density residential) and C-M-1 (light industrial). Most Capitol Hill homes sit on R-4 lots (medium density residential), and R-4 is the focus of this zoning update. Zoning districts restrict the height of buildings, among other things, and in the R-4 district building height was previously limited to 40 feet (and three stories). Building up to 40 feet was allowable "by right." By right development describes what a landowner can do more or less automatically (after getting a building permit), without asking for special permission from a zoning board. The new zoning regulations also affect something called a mezzanine, which is essentially a partial floor, one that covers not more than 1/3 the area of the floor immediately below.

The zoning update supports DC's goal of increasing access to affordable housing, under a program called "inclusionary zoning," or IZ. There are different types of IZ requirements, but basically an IZ housing unit is one that is made available only to renters or owners who make less than a certain percentage (of 80%) of area median income (AMI), which is roughly $100,000 per household in DC.

What happened to pop-ups?

The new regulations going into effect reduce the height of by right buildings in the R-4 district to 35 feet. A homeowner can still build up to 40 feet, but to do so they must apply for a "special exception." A special exception is a use allowed under DC zoning rule, but to be approved an applicant needs to meet certain conditions, primarily those regarding the impact on 'air and light' for nearby neighbors. While many homeowners could previous build a pop-up by right, most will now require a more extensive zoning process. This involves applying for a special exception with the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA), and that involves coming before the ANC. In ANC 6B, that starts with the Planning and Zoning Committee.

Now the ANC and BZA will review most pop-ups on a case by case basis. According to the new zoning regulations, and applicant seeking a special exception for building higher than 35 feet will have to meet certain conditions:

  • The overall building height or upper addition "will not have a substantially adverse effect on the use or enjoyment of any abutting or adjacent dwelling or property," including...
  • The light and air shall not be unduly affected,
  • Privacy of use and enjoyment shall not be unduly compromised,
  • The addition cannot block or impede a chimney,
  • The addition cannot interfere with a solar energy system,
  • And the building height, when viewed from the street or alley, shall not "substantially visually intrude upon the character, scale, and pattern of houses" along the street frontage.
  • Also, the additional 5 feet (requested through the special exception), should not have a substantially adverse effect on the "defining architectural features of the building." 
  • Applicants seeking a special exception need to graphically present their case, including the relationship between their building and the adjacent buildings, including views from public ways.

Essentially the special exception process will allow for much more substantial review of home additions above 35 feet in the R-4 zone, which is most of Capitol Hill. Applicants need to be prepared to make the case that their proposed pop-up will not have a substantially adverse effect on their neighbors and the "look" of their street.

Changes to mezzanines

Prior to the new regulations, a homeowner could build a partial 4th floor, called a mezzanine, which would not count as a “story” and thus would not be relevant to the three story maximum regulation in the R-4 zone. The revised zoning regulations now explicitly remove his exemption for R-4 buildings. If you have a home on an R-4 lot and want to build a mezzanine, that partial story will count against your three story maximum. This new restriction applies only to principal structures and not accessory structures, such as a carriage house.

Conversion of a row house to a multi-unit (apartment) building

Under the new zoning regulations, an owner can convert a residential structure that existed prior to May 12, 1958, to an apartment house by right, as long as:

  • The building does not exceed 35 feet
  • There is 900sf of land per dwelling unit
  • There can be no more than 4 units per lot

There are a few additional rules and possible exemptions.

  • No more than one (of the maximum 4) dwelling units can be located in an accessory building.
  • If you build 4 units, the 4th is subject to inclusionary zoning at the 80% AMI level.
  • When converting the building to multi-unit, at most 30% of the existing floor area can be demolished.
  • Any rear addition cannot extent further than 10 feet past the furthest rear wall of any principal structure on the adjacent properties.
  • You cannot build a vertical addition that blocks or adversely affects either chimneys or solar panels on adjacent properties.
  • Finally, there are some relatively minor and technical rules that govern roof top architectural elements and that limit further expansion on any added structures without BZA approval.

In short, homeowners or developers can still convert an existing single-family row house into a multi-unit small apartment or condo building by right, but they will need to adhere to a specific set of restrictions.  There are also a new set of provisions that mirror these but apply to converting a non­-residential structure to a multi-unit residential structure.

Additional exemptions related to multi-unit conversions

In addition to the above rules, the new zoning regulations allow owners to request certain exemptions (zoning relief) related to multi-unit buildings. For example, a building owner can request a special exception to build more than 4 units in an existing R-4 structure, but if BZA grants this exception every other (i.e., 6th, 8th, etc.) unit must be IZ.

Summary of new zoning rules

The new zoning regulations, which will go into effect soon, have important implications for homeowners in Capitol Hill. Here’s a summary:

  • Row house additions can only go to 35 feet by right; building to 40 feet requires a special exception.
  • The special exception process for exceeding 35 feet is extensive and requires meeting multiple, specific conditions.
  • Houses can still only be three stories tall.
  • Mezzanines (partial stories) now count as a story.
  • Homeowners can convert a row house to up to a 4 unit building, as long as there is 900sf of land for each unit; the 4th unit must be IZ (80% AMI).
  • Homeowners can get a special exception from the 900sf requirement for residential use.
  • Homeowners can get a special exception to exceed the 4 unit maximum; ever other unit (after 4) must be IZ.  

When are the new rules effective?

The answer is, unfortunately, a bit complicated. When the Zoning Commission posted its order on these rules, it made the new rules essentially retroactive. The table below is from the ZC order. It describes a set of exceptions to the new rules, and you can see that for most additions, the project needed to have a filed and accepted permit before February 1, 2015 to avoid the new regulations. However, if the project completed or filed a BZA or HPRB process before the effective date of the zoning amendments, then that project is exempted. Here's a helpful FAQ from DCRA.

The Buchanan School Redevelopment BZA Case

On Tuesday, June 2nd, the ANC 6B Planning and Zoning Committee will hear Insight Property Group's application to the DC Board of Zoning Adjustment, which manages most small- to medium-scale zoning cases in DC. Here's a brief overview of the case and the types of "relief" that Insight is requesting. Recall that "relief" means an exception from what is allowed automatically (or "by right") under DC zoning code. BZA cases are typically standard exceptions, which are built into the zoning code. That doesn't mean they're granted under all cases, but it means there's an accepted process.

First, some site orientation. Insight is planning to redevelop the entire Buchanan School site, but this BZA case only affect the houses on the western half of the property, as shown by the blue outline in the image below. The flats in the original school buildings and the larger row houses along D St. aren't covered here. 

Proposed site plan for the Buchanan School project. The BZA case covers the units outlined in blue.

Proposed site plan for the Buchanan School project. The BZA case covers the units outlined in blue.

Insight group is seeking four areas of relief, which will allow them to build this project on land that will remain zoned R4. The four areas are:

  1. A special exception for lot widths of 16' on 19 townhome lots
  2. A variance for minimum lot area on 9 lots
  3. A variance for lot occupancy (69%) on the northwest-most lot
  4. A variance to allow two townhomes on a single lot (the houses running along 13th St)

Insight is asking for one special exception and three variances. A special exception is a relatively modest type of relief, and the burden of proof is commensurately lower. (See DC's guide here.) A variance is a stronger departure from the zoning code, and the burden of proof is higher. Areas 1-3 are things the ANC see relatively often, especially #3 (which is typically a special exception). These three, if approved, allow Insight to build the homes along D St. as proposed.

The fourth area is less common, and getting approval here would allow Insight to construct the homes along 13th St and the mews (the interior houses on the east side of the new alley) by placing two homes on a single lot. DC code allows this with zoning relief, and we see many homeowners do this to put a live-in carriage house on their property, often using a covered walkway to connect the two structures. Here insight will build two houses on one lot but then sell each house under a separate deed.

Insight held a community meeting to walk through the BZA application on Thursday, May 28th at the Hill Center. At the ANC meeting Tuesday, Insight will need to explain why they believe they should be granted these four types of relief, and the Planning and Zoning Committee will decide what to recommend to the full ANC. After the ANC review, the BZA (board) will review the case and ultimately determine whether to approve the application.

If you'd like to observe or participate in the process, come to the P&Z meeting on June 2nd at 7pm at the St. Coletta School near the Armory on Independence Ave.

Previous posts on the Buchanan School redevelopment:
Introduction to the Buchanan School plans

First Look at the Buchanan School Development

Update: See the Insight Property Group Powerpoint Presentation

On Tuesday evening at the Hill Center the Insight Property Group presented the initial plans for their proposed redevelopment of the Buchanan School site (known to many in the neighborhood as IGU). The site sits on the western end of the block bordered by E, D, 13th (Peter Bug Way), and 14th streets southeast, across from the Watkins Field.

Buchanan School p roject site in Hill East

Buchanan School project site in Hill East

The team is proposing a residential-only project, which will include a range of housing sizes and configurations. The plan is to retain the historic 1895 Buchanan School buildings, demolish the more recent additions on the north side of the site, and construct new row houses around the perimeter of the site along 13th and D St and along the interior of the site.

Proposed site plan for the Buchanan School redevelopment

Proposed site plan for the Buchanan School redevelopment

The original school buildings will be converted into 40 condominiums, ranging in size from studios, to 1, 2, and 3 bedroom units. For the condo portion of the project the developer will provide 14-16 parking spaces, meeting the parking requirements under DC zoning rules. Ground level units will include patios and window wells. 

Preliminary design for the Buchanan School buildings

Preliminary design for the Buchanan School buildings

The row home portion of the project has two components. On the northeast corner of the site the developer plans to construct nine townhomes "by right" (with no zoning relief). These homes will be 3+ bedroom units with roof terraces, backyards, and parking spaces. The homes will have the option of having elevators, as well.

On the remainder of the site the project will include 32 three-story townhomes, ranging from 16 to 20 feet wide. The houses will be 3+ bedrooms and all will have parking spaces and roof terraces. The designs are still preliminary, but the goal is to varying the townhome styles to better fit into the Capitol Hill style of homes.

The 32 townhomes on the western end of the Buchanan School site.

The 32 townhomes on the western end of the Buchanan School site.

The western townhomes viewed from 13th and D St SE

The western townhomes viewed from 13th and D St SE

Between the western townhomes and the school buildings will be a mews, which combined with walking paths will run the length of the block north to south and serve as a connector between E St and D St that is open to the public.

View of the mews from the north.

View of the mews from the north.

View of the mews from the south

View of the mews from the south

Between the two rows of townhomes on the western side of the site will be an alley, which will provide vehicle access off of 13th St and community space, similar to many small alleys across Capitol Hill.

Alley view between the two rows of townhomes on the western side of the site.

Alley view between the two rows of townhomes on the western side of the site.

The developer will need zoning relief for the 32 proposed townhomes on the western side of the site. They will be applying through the Board of Zoning adjustments to allow two townhomes on one lot, higher lot coverage, 16' wide lots, and nine lots smaller than 1,800 square feet. Applying for the needed zoning relief means the developer will come before ANC6B, likely over the summer.

The proposed project schedule has initial demolition beginning in May, with construction starting January 2016. The anticipated project completion date is March 2018.

Project images provided by Insight Property Group.

Come learn about the Buchanan School (IGU) Plans

The large building known to most in our neighborhood as the International Graduate University has a storied past, although since I have lived on the Hill it has more or less lived a quiet, somewhat reclusive (and thankfully well-kept) existence. In the coming years, that's likely to change.

The Insight Property Group is planning a major redevelopment of the site, which will involve building a combination of flats and row homes on this large piece of residentially-zoned (R-4) land.  They're referring to the project as the Buchanan School, which is the name of the original DC public school that occupied the building until it closed in 1992.

Unlike other recently-announced projects, such as Watkins Alley, this will not be a PUD, since the developers are not asking for substantial zoning changes. But in term of scale this will likely be comparable to Watkins Alley, and it will be a major change for my block of Capitol Hill.

Insight will present their plans to the public at a community meeting on Tuesday, April 21st at 7pm at the Hill Center. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the project, ask questions, and find out how to keep up to date as things move forward.

See the Updated Designs for 1401 Penn on April 15th

Last month CAS Riegler announced their planned PUD project at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave SE and held a community meeting to introduce the project to the community. The project will be a mixed-use building with approximately 150 apartment and multiple commercial spaces across from the Potomac Avenue Metro Station. At last month's meeting the developers showed the massing (height and scale) and orientation of the building, but there weren't any exterior design details. 

1401 Penn Project Preliminary Design

1401 Penn Project Preliminary Design

CAS Riegler is reaching out to the community again, this time with a full set of design plans. Come to the Hill Center at 7pm on Wednesday, April 15th to see the updated designs, which will include more detailed site layouts and renderings of how the building will look from various points around the block (to help adjacent neighbors visualize the building from their vantage point). The developer will also be talking more about the traffic issues on 14th street that neighbors raised at the first meeting.

Preliminary Design for 1401 Penn SE

On March 12 CAS Riegler presented the preliminary design for their project 1401 Pennsylvania Ave SE, the current New York Pizza site. The project is a planned unit development (PUD) that will include approximately 150 apartment units atop multiple ground level retail spaces. The building will run up 14th St., along Pennsylvania Ave, and then partway into the middle of the block toward Ive Place. There will be an underground parking garage, and CAS Riegler is not planning to ask for parking relief.

Site design for 1401 Penn SE

Site design for 1401 Penn SE

To facilitate access to underground parking and allow for deliveries, CAS Riegler plans to widen the alley off 14th St to 20 feet, leading to the parking access in the rear of the building. At the March 12th meeting neighbors raised concerns about traffic flow along 14th, and the development team said they will work with neighbors to think about way to address current and potential traffic issues. The team said they are also following the the ongoing redesign of the Penn/Potomac intersection to understand how 1401 Penn could complement those plans.

The project is at an early stage, and there aren't any exterior designs to look at yet. CAS Riegler has done multiple buildings throughout the district; you can see examples on their website. At the March 12th presentation, the development team indicated that they are looking to construct a high quality building that is visually consistent with Capitol Hill.

The view of 1401 Penn SE from 14th & Ives

The view of 1401 Penn SE from 14th & Ives

The building is planned for seven stories, roughly similar in height to Jenkins Row. Based on preliminary sun studies the CAS Riegler team presented the building will cast minimal shadows on other properties along and south of Pennsylvania, since most of the shadows will fall across Pennsylvania Ave. Nevertheless, 1401 Penn will be the tallest building on the block, and the development team is working to manage the way the building interacts and blends with the neighboring homes.

If you have questions or feedback, please feel free to email me or reach out to CAS Riegler through their dedicated project page.

Community Meeting for Watkins Alley PUD Project

Following close on the heels of last week's community meeting on the 1401 Penn Ave SE development, on Monday, March 23rd at 7pm OPal is holding an outreach meeting at the Hill Center about their planned project on the 1300 block of E St SE. The project, which OPal is calling Watkins Alley, is Planned Unit Development (PUD) project, because the site is currently zoned for light industrial use.

OPal's preliminary plans for the site, which they released in January, include a combination of rowhomes, flats, and lofts. At the upcoming meeting OPal will review their current plans, walk through the rough project timeline, and invite feedback from the community. As with the 1401 Penn PUD, this project will include a benefits and amenities package for the neighborhood, and this meeting is a good opportunity to begin that conversation.

Preliminary site design (January 2015) for Watkins Alley.

Preliminary site design (January 2015) for Watkins Alley.

What: Community meeting for Watkins Alley PUD
When: Monday, March 23rd, 2015
Where: Hill Center, 921 Penn Ave SE, Sousa Hall (#209)