Can the Shelter Be Built?

The historic Friendship Baptist Church was purchased in 2003 by Square 643 LLC, a limited liability corporation controlled by Capitol Hill real estate developer Steve Tanner. Tanner now proposes to place the entire property within a condominium vehicle. This will allow him to sell sections of the property without the necessity of formally subdividing it.

Under the terms of the condominium the property is divided between the historic church and its adjoining frontage, which Tanner intends to keep, and a parcel he intends to sell to 700 Delaware LLC, the developers of the proposed Southwest homeless shelter. They plan to build a structure massed in a similar fashion to that of an earlier project proposed by Tanner on the same site.

A Little History 

In 2005 the Zoning Commission granted Tanner’s request to have his property up-zoned to R-5-C as part of a planned unit development (PUD). The plan preserved the church while allowing the developer to wrap it within an L-shaped apartment building. Its northern section would have been four stories, rising to seven stories on the east side. The Zoning Commission renewed Tanner’s PUD twice. 

After the PUD expired in 2012 Tanner’s property reverted to its original R-4 zoning. The R-4 designation permits the construction of detached or semi-detached row houses, churches, and public schools. It restricts the height of any structure to generally three stories for houses, 45 feet for public recreation centers, and 60 feet for churches and schools. Row houses may only occupy 60 percent of their lots. There is a requirement for a 20-foot rear yard. 

Clearly the R-4 designation does not permit the construction of a seven-story building. The developers of the shelter will need to get the zoning changed. Modifications to zoning designations as detailed in the DC Zoning Map are the province of the DC Zoning Commission, an independent body of federal and District appointees. 

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Plan

Any action by the Zoning Commission in relation to the 700 Delaware site is guided by the city’s Comprehensive Plan (Comp Plan). The Comp Plan, last updated in 2011, designates Tanner’s parcel as a site for “Medium Density Residential.” This designation is used to define neighborhoods or areas where mid-rise (4-7 stories) apartment buildings are the predominant use. According to the plan, “Medium Density Residential designation also may apply to taller residential buildings surrounded by large areas of permanent open space.” R-5-B and R-5-C zoning are consistent with the designation.

This would suggest that the density and massing envisioned under the city’s shelter plan for the 700 Delaware Avenue site are consistent with the guidance offered by the Comp Plan. However, because the property is within Southwest, the commission must also take into account the Southwest Small Area Plan (SSAP).

The DC Council enacted SSAP in 2015. Any zoning relief or change in designation must fall in line with its provisions. While the SSAP generally advises preserving existing low-density housing along G Street SW, it is silent on the parcel at 700 Delaware Ave. Aside from SSAP and the Comp Plan, new zoning regulations become effective later in 2016. These rules preserve low-density residential neighborhoods and discourage multi-household developments within their boundaries. The provisions are unlikely to impact the city’s plans.

An Adjustment Must Be Made

So the construction of a seven-story building on the Delaware Avenue site will require a change in its zoning to allow for the shelter’s height and massing, which exceed what is allowed under the R-4 designation. “In order to build the proposed structure, the city will have to get its plan approved by the Zoning Commission,” states Gary Peterson, chair of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society Zoning Committee. That will require at the very least an adjustment to the Zoning Map to change the site’s designation to R-5-C or another zoning designation that provides matter of right for density. 

The city has stated that the shelter will require a PUD and also review by the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), given the development’s proximity to a landmarked church. It expects to file a PUD application on May 4. An HPRB hearing on the matter is scheduled for May 25 and a hearing before the Board of Zoning Adjustment on June 7. Responsibility for negotiating these regulatory hurdles is the responsibility of 700 Delaware under the terms of its agreement with the city.