Thursday, October 9, 2008

New Projects Coming to Our Neighborhood - Utopia Project

Utopia Project

Many of you have heard about the proposed mixed use development project at 14th & U Streets, NW, also known as the Utopia Project. Understanding this complex project requires some background knowledge about the parcels that make up the site, as well as knowledge of the approval process, the requirements of the historic and zoning code, and the concerns of the businesses and residents that currently inhabit the surrounding neighborhood. I offer the following information for those of you who are interested in learning more about the issues associated with this project. This is a lot of information! And, I hope you find the following information useful, especially since there seems to be a lot of 'misinformation' being circulated about the project.

"One important criteria for new development is that it be compatible with the existing neighborhood and not adversely affect the neighboring properties or pose detrimental effects to the health, safety, convenience or general welfare of those living, working or visiting in the area."

A Brief History of the Corner at 14th & U Streets, NW

The history of this corner is quite fascinating, as it was once the heart of "Black Broadway" (a term attributed to singer Pearl Bailey), a cultural center of the African American community through the 1960's. Many great talents, such as Duke Ellington (who grew up in the neighborhood), Ella Fitzgerald, Lois Armstrong and Cab Calloway, performed at venues along 14th and U Streets. The intersection of 14th and U Streets was the epicenter of the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Lurther King, Jr. Many of the historic buildings were burnt beyond repair. In the aftermath of the riots, the neighborhood declined dramatically, becoming blighted and best known for drugs and prostitution. Some of my neighbors, who were here during that time, remember swarms of hundreds of addicts flocking to the area for drugs. The stubborn presence of drugs in the neighborhood is not completely gone, however the long time and ongoing partnership between residents, businesses, our police force have helped to reverse the reputation of this area.

During the 1980's, the development of The Reeves Center for city offices at the northwest corner of 14th & U helped to bring redevelopment back to U Street. The building is named after Frank D. Reeves, DC's first black committeeman for the Democratic Party and was designed by architect Paul Devarouax who, as a soldier on duty dispatched to the riots, had witnessed the destruction of the neighborhood. Several years after the Reeves Center was completed, the construction of the metro system to the area began - with mixed results - the original contractor had to be replaced and the project far exceeded its completion schedule, jeopardizing the businesses that tried to hold on while the roads and sidewalks were torn up.

The 1990's saw some construction at the corner of 14th and U - the rehabilitation of historic townhouses in the 1400 block of U Street (now home to Utopia, Coppi's, Simply Home restaurants) and construction of one story red brick buildings (with fast-food restaurants and a clothing store). The El Paraiso Restaurant and Ruff and Ready followed. The one-story commercial buildings (with the original driveway between them) that filled in between El Paraiso and Ruff and Ready were bulldozed by their owner around 1992, and the parking lot at 1912-1914 14th Street was created.

Despite difficult years, the neighborhood has undergone a marked change with unique, diverse businesses setting up in the neighborhood and many new residential units built, under construction and planned for the near future.

The Site Today and the Approval Process

The site for the proposed Utopia project at 14th & U is a patchwork of individual parcels, owned by various entities. There are existing businesses in both historically contributing and non-contributing buildings and a parking lot on the various parcels. Currently, there are existing setbacks and rear yards. Development of this scale requires the assemblage of all of the lots, or agreements with the owners for long term land leases. The lots that make up the combined parcel are zoned differently: CR to the north and C-3-A to the south. Furthermore, the lots fall within the Greater U Street Historic District and, as such, carry conditions and protections according to the Historic Preservation Code.

One important criteria for new development is that it be compatible with the existing neighborhood and not adversely affect neighboring properties or pose detrimental effects to the health, safety, convenience or general welfare of persons living , working, or visiting in the area. There are several layers to the approval process including (1) historic preservation review (the Historic Preservation Review Board looks at the size and massing in the context of the historic neighborhood and later the appearance/materials), (2) zoning variance approval in the event that the project requires conditions that are not allowed by right, and (3) DCRA permit approval. Sometimes, other agencies such as DDOT are brought into the project, if required. These approvals are gained separately, with each agency acting within the realm of its authority. For instance, HPRB cannot consider zoning or transportation issues. Therefore, if the applicant seeks HPRB approval and comes before the ANC for the same, the ANC can only act on the historic preservation issues brought before it. Later, when the applicant requests zoning variance approval from the ANC, the commission must examine the specific requests, which are separate from historic preservation concerns. With zoning variance requests, the burden of proof is on the applicant to satisfy the 'three part test.' Basically, the applicant has to prove that there is an exceptional condition or situation, a practical difficulty and that the relief can be granted without substantial detriment to the public good or zone plan. The requests are weighed against the impact that the variance would have on the surrounding community with regard to public safety and other quality of life issues.

Advocating for Constituents

The Single Member District Commissioner's role is to represent his/her constituents in this process. In my SMD (2B09), we have always been proactive, working toward cooperation and balance. Meeting with constituents, potential developers, commercial establishments, city agencies, and councilmembers is all part of the process to achieve a win-win solution. Being as informed as possible and advocating for my constituents has led to many successful negotiations and relationships. And, for many years, we have been able to act to both preserve and improve the unique character and livability of our neighborhood. For the Utopia project, we have pulled together stakeholders to help advance this development. Legitimate concerns from constituents and business stakeholders about the continued functionality of the alley systems, which accommodate a wide range common needs, the impact of the large scale development on the surrounding two to four story buildings, and other quality of life issues have been communicated to the developer and architect. Some changes to the plans have been made, based on these suggestions and some based on intervention of our councilmember. The DCCA, DCC and the HPRB have also weighed in on particular aspects of the building's conceptual design. Each group has their distinctive role in shaping the project. The ANCs role is to be the voice for constituents, especially those most effected by the project, and to work toward a balanced solution within the framework of the DC Code. The ANC asked the developer for an alternative parking garage entry plan, a transportation study, and to amend various versions of the plan to take into account existing life on the block. The transportation study supports the garage entry solution put forth by the community, the local businesses, the ANC2B, DCCA and Councilmember Evans. As ANC2B09 Commissioner, I look forward to continuing to work with the developer, the community and the relevant DC agencies through the 'next steps' of this exciting project.