April 18, 2014 | by Mark Lee
D.C. zoning board’s curious battle over city transit policy
Shaw, zoning board, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The District government knows it can’t have it both ways. City agency adjudicators at the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, however, appear not to have gotten the memo.

Or perhaps there is more to their intransigence than is readily apparent.

One thing is certain: poor attendance delaying board decisions coupled with an astonishing lack of concern for the huge costs of decision-making deferral and a startling lack of appreciation for the expense factors in the business of building are indefensible in a city no longer willing to countenance pitiful government administration.

At issue are policies simultaneously encouraging car-less households and development in public-transit-intensive areas while fulfilling housing needs at affordable cost.

Caught in the crossfire is the local development team of Brook Rose and Gregg Busch. The duo, partners in both business and life, have encountered inexplicable opposition to their languishing proposal to provide housing in one of the most in-demand areas of a city enjoying strong and sustained population growth.

On Tuesday, after an already 10-month-long process, BZA board members again postponed a decision on an application by Rosebusch LLC for a zoning variance allowing renovation of three historic rowhouses with integrated construction of 37 micro-unit apartments spanning 1456-1460 Church Street, N.W., in the Logan Circle neighborhood.

The developers are seeking an exemption to provide four parking spaces instead of the 19 required in exchange for an appropriate and allowable offsetting mitigation measure. As proposed, the micro-unit tenants would not be allowed residential permits for on-street parking.

In other words, they wouldn’t own automobiles. The encouragement of which has specifically been adopted as city policy – alongside what many consider deliberate discouragements to possess one.

Never mind that it is acknowledged as impractical to provide so many parking spaces underneath the tiny infill lot. Even if feasible, the prohibitive expense would add a cost burden to each housing unit and subsequent rental pricing – for an amenity many, if not most, would neither need nor use.

It’s simply a deal breaker.

All this despite the project being backed by the Office of Planning, the Historic Preservation Review Board, the Department of Transportation and the neighborhood advisory commission. Not unusual in local regulatory situations, opposition is limited to a small number of Gladys Kravitz types in an adjacent condo building. Of note, the ringleader is the boyfriend of a BZA board member, with both men sharing a unit in the building. (The boyfriend has recused himself from voting on the matter.)

That’s where the story gets interesting, and may explain why some board members have expressed an unwillingness to grant the same parking relief recently approved for several projects, including one nearby.

The oft-unusual universal support of relevant agencies and entities recommending approval combined with prior BZA blessing of others with no compelling variable distinction and without credible or coherent board proffer in this instance, is troubling. It would seem that developers might be well advised to light votive candles hoping that a regulatory board with immense power not include someone with a personal connection in a public matter involving their project.

Ironically, the city intends to downwardly revise parking requirements for housing developments in transit-bountiful locations. Transparent is the dysfunction of a government incapable of consistently implementing public policies designed to benefit local residents and achieve larger goals. Likewise any inability to enforce the proposed conditions, expressed as a concern. Claiming lofty objectives requires the competency to manage the details.

The controversy doesn’t involve the modest apartment sizing – a market-driven trend proving popular with a variety of diverse demographics less interested in large housing spaces and more concerned with convenience and adversely affected by affordability.

More compact and less costly housing are desired by many single adults, younger residents and older “empty nesters” with modern lifestyles. They seek proximity to vibrant streetscapes brimming with socialization options – fundamentally altering the way some residents perceive and utilize their living spaces.

It’s only a mixed-message-sending D.C. government that appears confused about what it wants.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

3 Comments
  • You article appears to be contrary to what I observed on the Rosebusch case before the BZA. The BZA last Tuesday did not delay a decision; they had already decided the case the week before. The Board of Zoning voted the previous week to grant the Applicants relief for a special exception to height. However, the Applicant did not get approval for the parking relief. I was impressed with the Board’s reasoning in discussing the parking issue and its effect on the community. To get approval an applicant must get a majority vote of the Board and in the Rosebusch case, the Applicant failed to get a majority vote. So there was not a delay of the BZA to act, they just did not agree with the Applicant. On this most-recent Tuesday, the BZA agreed to give the Rosebusch people another opportunity to submit additional evidence to change the Board’s decision. As one who frequently watches the BZA hearings, your article is contrary to what I have observed of the Board of Zoning.

  • Mark Lee (column author and Washington Blade contributing columnist)

    ^ @R: It’s a bit more complicated than that. At the prior week April 8 meeting – following repeated delays in a decision spanning months – the Board vote on the Rosebusch LLC application was bifurcated between the height variance request and the parking variance request. The vote on the height variance was sufficient for approval but the vote on the parking variance was 2-1 in the developer’s favor but insufficient for approval by a 5-member panel (with one member having recused himself, as noted in my piece). However, one Board member was not present, requiring either acquisition of a written proxy vote or a final voice vote at a subsequent meeting. The Board members present decided to postpone a final decision on the parking variance to their next session on April 15 for that reason. At the April 15 meeting the again non-present Board member had filed a proxy vote opposing the parking variance, resulting in a 2-2 vote and disapproval. The Board suddenly (and somewhat comically) realized, however, that it had committed a significant procedural error some time ago in the entire hearing process by not having filled the Board position of the member who had recused himself with an alternate. Consequently, the Board voted unanimously to re-hear the case with a full Board complement – scheduling a hearing for May 20, representing yet another five-week delay.

  • Mark,
    The developers themselves left their scheduled December 18 hearing and asked the Board to reschedule to a later date—but I guess because that fact doesn’t fit your narrative about the Board’s “astonishing lack of concern for the huge costs of decision-making deferral” you chose to leave it out. Trust me, the Gladys Kravitz types would love to have this all resolved quickly. It’s been the neighbors, and not the developers, that have had to watch these properties go from lived in residences to rapidly dilapidating vacant structures that have become terrific attractions for the homeless and some pretty giant rats. If this is how the developers like to treat their neighbors, then we do not really need them around. At least Gladys Kravitz had a view out her front window to the Stevens’ nice, well-cared for family home; us, we have had to live with this demolition by neglect for a while now.

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