Though Washington, D.C., has seen significant growth in multifamily development in the past decade, neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes could also benefit from increased density. In addition, the District itself could benefit from the creation of more affordable housing close to transit and employers. That is one reason why ULI convened a nationwide team of experts to devise strategies for bringing affordable housing to one of the Washington’s toniest planning districts, Rock Creek West (RCW).

A ULI Advisory Services panel chaired by Philip Payne of Charlotte, North Carolina–based Ginkgo Residential presented its findings on July 12 at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson High School. John Falcicchio, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s chief of staff and interim deputy mayor for planning and economic development, introduced the panel. Bowser has set a goal of adding 36,000 new homes in the District by 2025, one-third of those affordable, Falcicchio noted. “These new affordable residences must be equitably distributed across the city’s wards,” he said. RCW’s share would be 2,500.

The 13-square-mile (34 sq km) RCW planning district, most of which is in the city’s Ward 3, is predominantly zoned residential, with a housing stock that is primarily owner-occupied single-family homes. About 80 percent of the population is white, in a city in which white households have a net worth more than 81 times greater on average than their African American counterparts. The panel recommended a three-pronged approach to meeting the 2025 goal: streamline and improve the development process, gain community support, and create more housing.

The study area was focused west of Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington, D.C.

One way to increase housing production in a density-averse area would be to promote development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), the panel said. ADUs—smaller, independent residential units located on the same lot as a standalone single-family home—have been permitted under D.C. zoning since 2016. Cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon, have offered incentives for such development, panelists pointed out. “If accessory apartments could be added to just 14 percent of the 17,700 single-family homes in Rock Creek West, that alone would meet the goal of 2,500 new units,” said panelist Brian Rajan Nagendra of Philadelphia-based Abacus Impact.

Another way to increase affordable housing supply in the target area would be to add what panelists called “gentle density.” RCW is crossed by major commercial corridors, including Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues, and has five stations on the Metro subway system’s Red Line, in addition to bus service.

Zoning should be modified within a half mile (0.8 km) of these subway stations and within a quarter mile (0.4 km) of bus lines, the panel recommended. The greatest density of housing and retail services already is situated along these corridors, and resistance to development relates to retaining the low density of residential areas, panelists noted. Increased unit density drives down the average unit construction cost, allowing rents to be more affordable, and enhances the area’s walkability.

The panel said a useful tool for facilitating densification is form-based code, which uses building form and mass as an organizing principle, rather than Euclidian zoning, which is based on building types such as office, residential, and retail.

Click to zoom. Form-based planning diagram produced by the District of Columbia. (District of Columbia Office of Planning)

“It can be easier and more palatable to talk about adding density to the residential areas when a form-based approach is employed so as not to undermine the character of the community,” said panelist David Greensfelder, managing principal at Greensfelder Real Estate Strategy in Albany, California.

Repurposing retail space provides additional opportunities for adding housing and density. Stakeholders told the panel that some Ward 3 retail nodes, particularly Cleveland Park and Woodley Park, are in decline. Throughout the country, the retail sector is evolving, meaning longtime community fixtures may no longer be viable as sales move to alternatives such as online shopping. Redeveloping single-use retail structures to serve as mixed-use buildings could not only provide additional housing in RCW, but also create incremental retail demand, the panel said. This maximizing of cobenefits—increasing housing while creating a stronger demand base for retail businesses—is a key tenet of ULI’s approach to resilience.

Retail along Connecticut Avenue, NW, within the Cleveland Park neighborhood. (David Greensfelder/ULI)

The city should consider providing developers with voluntary density bonuses to improve housing affordability as a matter-of-right, the panelists said. Density bonuses constitute an indispensable housing affordability tool where land is scarce, generate additional revenues, reduce congestion, and provide other benefits, they explained. Another idea to consider would be placing new housing on publicly owned properties—above public libraries, for example—employing public/private development partnerships and requiring affordable housing components, the panel said.

Higher density makes economic sense where land costs are high, as does reduced parking, noted panelist Chris Riley, a lawyer and former Austin City Council member. “Parking requirements add huge costs and unfairly distribute the cost of car storage across the population,” he said. Buffalo and Hartford, Connecticut, have eliminated parking requirements citywide, Riley noted. “With the right pricing, parking will actually be easier to find, and the proceeds can support a lot of community needs,” he said.

These and other approaches should be organized under “small area plans,” the panel recommended. The city should work with communities to create these plans, providing a process for community input and buy-in to allow densification, then create by-right zoning that aligns with each small area plan. There should be no ambiguity about what is allowed under by-right zoning so development can proceed without risk of litigation, panelists said.

Good candidates for small area plans within RCW include commercial activity centers such as Tenleytown, Glover Park, Cleveland Park, Woodley Park, Friendship Heights, and Chevy Chase Circle, the panel said. For example, Friendship Heights offers significant opportunities for densification and increased commercial activity, including underused parking at the Mazza Gallerie shopping center and the Lord & Taylor department store, a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority commuter garage, a Pepco (electric utility) substation, and an office building scheduled to be vacated by a local Fox TV station when it moves to a new headquarters in Bethesda.

This is a study of the ease to build new housing along Wisconsin Avenue, NW, near Friendship Heights. (Brad Leibin/ULI)

Panelists agreed that a major barrier to achieving the mayor’s affordable housing goal in RCW is public opposition, including litigation and the “weaponization” of historic preservation. The panel said the city should require parties filing lawsuits to have standing and demonstrable interest; create a legal defense fund to counter the economic power of residents filing lawsuits against affordable housing; consider establishing a requirement that residents post a legal bond before filing a land use lawsuit; and review the city’s historic preservation code, processes, and practices.

Critical to the success of all these recommendations is enhanced public acceptance of increased affordable housing, especially in affluent neighborhoods, panelists said. While lauding the mayor’s active promotion and defense of locating emergency family shelters across the District, the panel criticized a historic lack of messaging, support, and detailed action steps to support past housing initiatives.

The panel recommended that a sweeping education and public relations campaign be established to engage, inform, and market the administration’s Comprehensive Plan and specific housing goals. To communicate the mayor’s vision and create political will to achieve citywide housing goals, the panel suggested a range of actions, including:

  • educate the community and promote programs via social media campaigns, a speakers’ bureau, and community engagement, including events such as quarterly book clubs;
  • actively work to destigmatize rental housing in general and workforce and affordable housing specifically;
  • actively support, advocate for, and celebrate new projects that add housing supply; and
  • increase engagement with the faith community, which shares the value of providing housing for all and can benefit from redevelopment of underused land.

ULI Advisory Services will host discussions of some of their recent panels at the Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C., from September 18 through 21. ULI members can find this and hundreds of other Advisory Services panel reports and presentations on Knowledge Finder.