Ward 3 homeless shelter wins zoning board’s approval

Community group weighing appeal of decision

The proposed family shelter would sit adjacent to the 2nd District Police Headquarters at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW. (Rendering courtesy of D.C. government)

The city’s planned Ward 3 emergency family shelter won unanimous D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment approval last Wednesday, with members rejecting opponents’ concerns about the proposed height and other impacts.

The District intends to construct a six-story, 50-unit facility next to the 2nd District Police Headquarters building at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW. The project required substantial relief from zoning restrictions for that property, including permission to build at 69 feet tall instead of 40, and also needed to include a new parking deck to replace the police department’s surface parking.

Despite some community support, many nearby residents organized in strong opposition to the plans through the Neighbors for Responsive Government group, which may appeal the zoning board’s decision. A leading concern has been the shelter’s height, given its proposed location near single-family homes. During a seven-hour hearing last month, the group argued that the shelter’s project team failed to meet the D.C. requirement to demonstrate that no reasonable alternative to its proposal could meet zoning regulations.

“The board should not be rushed into a destructive decision that will have adverse impacts on a neighborhood for decades,” the community group wrote in a follow-up submission March 31.

Board members generally deferred to the D.C. Office of Planning’s recommended support for the project. Zoning board chair Frederick Hill said his approval stemmed from “understanding why the programmatic needs of the shelter meant it had to be built the way it was, and understanding the selection process and why this shelter needs to be in the place that it is in order to serve the needs of the city.”

The Office of Planning’s report echoed testimony from other city agencies, concluding that the shelter’s programmatic needs dictated a specific size and layout. Homelessness experts concluded that the ideal design would include 10 units per floor — balancing capacity needs against a desired family-friendly scale along each hallway — and that 50 units were needed to make wrap-around services cost-effective. District agencies agreed that this left the best option as five stories of housing units above ground-floor administrative and communal space.

Meanwhile, because the 3320 Idaho site was adopted into law by the D.C. Council, the project team had only one feasible location that worked around existing uses on the property: the police station and a community garden behind it, the report states. It also said the proposed height wasn’t a concern because large apartment buildings are located nearby and because the shelter would be set back from the nearest single-family homes.

“I do find that the applicant has gone through the process of explaining the rationale for the relief requested,” board member Carlton Hart said, adding, “This is a city, and you do have neighbors that are close to one another.”

The Neighbors for Responsive Government group argues, though, that residents deserve an expectation that certain development is not allowed in their neighborhoods — regardless of the government’s interest in constructing it.

The group’s attorney David Brown told The Current that “its inclination is to challenge the decision,” though it would need to be based on arguments presented in the zoning board’s written order. Brown expects that order to be published within the next 60 days.

During their oral comments, zoning board members appeared to offer “far greater latitude in excusing zoning violations when the applicant is the City than when the applicant is a private developer,” Brown wrote in an email. “But no final decision has been made and won’t be until the written decision is evaluated.”

The project stems from a citywide effort to replace the D.C. General homeless shelter with a network of smaller, modern facilities. Mayor Muriel Bowser originally chose privately owned vacant land for as Ward 3’s shelter site, but the D.C. Council replaced it with the police station site so the city could own the new building instead of leasing it. The council’s decision had caught many residents near the police station off-guard, but opponents have yet to find traction in their legal arguments.

City officials say a new parking deck at the 2nd District Police Headquarters will relieve existing parking pressures while also serving the new shelter. (Brian Kapur/Current file photo)

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C (Cleveland Park, Massachusetts Avenue Heights, Woodley Park) had voted 5-4 to oppose the shelter’s proposed height, while supporting some other aspects of the project. ANC 3C also opposed the city’s plans to convert nearby tennis courts into temporary parking while the police station parking deck is under construction, a proposal that would also require an access road through the community garden.

The D.C. Department of General Services recently proposed alternatives that would reserve nearby on-street parking for police officers. ANC 3C chair Nancy MacWood said that while parking pressures in that area are acute, she sees the potential for a viable solution “that doesn’t put too much burden on one group of parkers.”

A Department of General Services spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about the parking options or other details about the shelter’s approval.

City officials have already indicated that they intend to disregard feedback from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which recommended a reduction in the height of the Ward 3 shelter. This leaves building permits as the only step before construction. Officials said at the March 1 hearing that they hope to break ground in November and open the new shelter in 2019.