Home Business A Washington, D.C. neighborhood hates a high-rise conversion that hasn’t even been started yet

A Washington, D.C. neighborhood hates a high-rise conversion that hasn’t even been started yet

A Washington, D.C. neighborhood hates a high-rise conversion that hasn’t even been started yet


There’s a problem on U Street, in the neighborhood also known as Shaw, and it has to do with almost two acres of land that’s home to a police station, a firehouse, and a parking garage. Local officials want to rezone and redevelop 1617 U Street, partly for housing, some of which they say will be affordable. But the prospect of the $30 million parcel becoming a high-rise struck a nerve. 

The neighborhood isn’t happy, as the Washington Post has previously reported. Fortune spoke to Edward Hanlon, a prominent bankruptcy attorney who’s lived in the neighborhood since 1995, about a five minute walk away from the site, and is often involved in community dealings. He put it simply, “they want to build a massive building,” he said. “It’s too big, it’s too high, it’s too dense.” 

But here’s the thing, it’s not yet set in stone what the property would become, who would build it, and when it would be complete because there isn’t an established proposal or a developer. What officials, led by Mayor Muriel Bowser, are proposing is to rezone the area for mixed-use development (which basically blends residential and commercial zoning) for medium-to-high density, to build more housing (some affordable), a new library, and to revamp the public safety facilities. The application to rezone was submitted roughly a year ago, but not much has been done since, aside from hours of hearings, debates, and online campaigns within the community about what’ll happen to their neighborhood, home prices, rents, property taxes, and the police station, if a 100-foot building sprang up. 

The zoning change would pave the way for a tower that could be lucrative for developers, that’s aligned with the mayor’s housing goals, while potentially providing much-needed affordable housing. But it could negatively impact residents, some of whom have been there for decades. But at the present moment, the only question is whether whatever is built can be 10-or-so stories tall. Still, opposition to the mere potential of a high-rise building being erected shows how hard it can be to construct housing in metropolitan areas. 

Hanlon, for one, is concerned over the use of the land because it should be used for civic purposes, in his view, “not given away to developers.” And with the present zoning, he suggests they can still add a few floors of affordable housing, transforming it to the equivalent of a four-or five-story building that’s compatible with the surrounding area, mostly rowhouses. 

Bridget Hunnicutt, another resident who’s lived in the neighborhood for two decades and whose home faces the police station, doesn’t want its zoning changed either. “I’m not saying you don’t build something,” she told the Washington Post. “But I don’t think you need a 10-story building when it’s surrounded by rowhouses.”

Hanlon seems to think it’s a money grab, given the combined assessed value of the site is over $30 million and is owned by the district. “I mean this argument about affordable housing is phony,” he said. “It’s just an excuse to give away valuable public land to connected developers.”

The average home value in D.C. is $602,035, and roughly 75% more expensive than the national average of $342,981. And the median rent for all bedrooms and property types in the district is $2,495, so 25% higher than the national median. When you build more housing, the basic argument is that rents and home prices generally come down, or stay where they are. At the beginning of her second term, Mayor Bowser set a goal to create 36,000 new housing units and 12,000 affordable units by 2025. That’s a year from now, and according to her dashboard tracking progress, she’s 92% of the way on new units, and 77% of the way on affordable ones. Rezoning and building at 1617 U Street would help in achieving that goal. 

Still, Hanlon’s not convinced. “The mantra of affordable housing has got to be one of the most cynical and misused concepts here in D.C.,” he said. If the mayor really wanted affordable housing, he said, her office would convert vacant office buildings into housing. But as Fortune has previously reported, it often doesn’t make sense financially to do so, despite the fact that many metropolitan areas desperately need more housing. 

With the suspected proposal, if the zoning change was approved, and development underway, Hanlon seems to think it’ll be luxury apartments they build (aside from allocated affordable housing that’s promised). If that’s the case, he can’t imagine them keeping a police station where “shooters, accused murderers, accused rapists, thieves,” are going in and out beneath the apartments. “You really think people paying thousands of dollars a month in rent for their luxury apartment want all that on the first floor next to the lobby? The answer is no.” The police station might cease to exist, if it were demolished for this development, he said. 

And apart from that singular fear, he’s apprehensive about the introduction of luxury, or market-rate apartments, into their neighborhood and what it could mean for existing residents who have lived there all their lives—and the neighborhood has already changed and looks different than what it once was. “What has changed? It’s gentrification. It’s the building of these big apartment buildings, which are overwhelmingly occupied by young white professionals,” Hanlon said. 

Another resident, Gregory Adams, who has lived across the police station for 40 years, formed a group of Black neighbors against the zoning change; he told the Washington Post that he’s worried market-rate apartments would raise rents, home prices, and property taxes in his neighborhood. And even though 30% of the apartments would be allocated as affordable housing, it doesn’t change much for him. “It’s like offering crumbs,” Adams said. “I’m concerned about displacement. I know that’s never the plan, but it’s often the result.”

The proposed development isn’t absolute, but housing policy analysts and urban economists have long argued that American cities need to be denser; the country is short of anywhere from one million to six million homes. And density is needed in metropolitan areas with better jobs and higher salaries because we’re at a point where you can have a good, high-paying career and live in a city like Los Angeles where you can’t afford to own a home because of how out of touch with reality home prices and rents have become. Washington, D.C. isn’t so different; its home prices and rents are substantially more costly than the national averages, homelessness recently rose for the first time in five years, and the district is missing more than 130,000 homes

“This neighborhood is currently unaffordable,” D.C. YIMBYs (a pro-development nonprofit that stands for yes-in-my-backyard) wrote, referring to U Street, or Shaw. “Apartments would bring valuable new homes to market and help keep spiraling costs under control.” 

This isn’t simply a problem in D.C.—it’s one that extends across the country, and is extremely prevalent in so-called desirable neighborhoods. Consider Atherton, where both billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and basketball star Steph Curry have opposed multifamily zoning and development (for different reasons and varying circumstances, of course); or, in Denver, where residents voted against the redevelopment of a vacant golf course into housing, some of which would’ve been affordable. 

Still, the community is upset, even if at this moment in time, it’s only at the mere suggestion of development in their neighborhood. That is, until it’s either rezoned or left alone. More than 1,000 residents have signed a petition against the potential redevelopment; almost 300 letters have been sent to the zoning commission opposing the change, Halon said. “You don’t get that type of reaction unless people are really, really upset,” he said.


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