Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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A handful of design modifications proposed by the Department of General Services for its planned homeless shelter on Idaho Avenue NW in Ward 3 have prompted ire from some locals, who claim the changes weren’t filtered through the neighborhood’s residents or the zoning board responsible for approving those modifications.

On July 23, Cozen O’Connor, a law firm representing DGS, submitted a letter to the Office of the Zoning Administrator detailing 15 planned changes to the Ward 3 shelter site and asking for approval of the plans. The changes include modifications like slightly reducing the height of the building, removing a front entry area, shrinking the gross square footage of the property and its playground, and creating a patio deck for both children and adults. They sent a follow-up letter on August 6.

Through its communications to the zoning administrator, Matt LeGrant, DGS maintained that its alterations were “minor” enough that LeGrant himself could approve the changes without a formal review before the Board of Zoning Adjustment, an independent body that approves land use and grants exceptions to zoning regulations. “The proposed changes to the [original] BZA-approved plans … are minor in nature and reduce the building’s overall height and massing, are compliant with the BZA’s Order, and do not trigger the need for additional reviewer zoning relief,” the letter said. 

By early August, LeGrant had approved those changes.  

But Ward 3 residents who live in the shelter’s neighborhood are pushing back on the assertion that those changes shouldn’t require BZA approval, and are arguing that neighbors weren’t made aware of the proposed changes until the “11th hour,” says Angela Bradbery, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from ANC 3C06. (Commissioners are residents elected to advocate for their neighborhood’s interests, particularly in zoning and development matters.)

The most offensive of the proposed changes, Bradbery says, is the side deck, which would face a single-family home and have a maximum capacity of 62 people. 

“Had we known that a patio was planned, the ANC and residents almost certainly would have had something to say to the BZA about it,” Bradbery says. “One basis for the BZA’s approval of the shelter [permits] was that the shelter would have no adverse impact on the neighborhood. Such a sizable outdoor gathering place raises issues about noise.” 

Bradbery says the ANC learned “by accident” of the proposed changes this spring, and that when it finally did, it asked LeGrant to have the BZA review it. “If those parties or any aggrieved person believes that the Zoning Administrator exceeded his authority, they may appeal the decision approving the modification to the BZA,” Sara Bardin, Director of the Office of Zoning, says. A spokesperson for DCRA, where the zoning administrator’s office is housed, did not respond to City Paper’s request for comment.

“We will finally close D.C. General and provide safe, dignified short term family housing for the residents who need us the most. That is something we as a city should all be proud of. Any adaptations made in the building process are congruent to the designs originally shared with the Advisory Team and have met necessary zoning requirements,” a spokesperson for DGS said in an emailed statement.

The building, a six-story, 50-unit emergency shelter at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW, is part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to close and demolish the city’s largest family homeless shelter, D.C. General, by the end of this year. Each ward across the city will see a shelter open between this fall and 2020 (with the exception of Ward 2, where there is an existing women-only shelter). But like the shelter site in Ward 5, the Ward 3 shelter has seen significant legal and political opposition from neighbors.

To involve community stakeholders, the Bowser administration created an advisory group specific to each shelter that’s comprised of neighbors, advisory neighborhood commissioners, building and health officials, and others. But some ANCs have complained that their involvement in planning has been in name only. 

“If DGS needs to make design changes, then it should be transparent about them, consult the advisory team––what’s it for, if not for things like this?––let residents weigh in and go to BZA and seek approval for them, so the community has a chance to participate,” Bradbery says. 

Last September, a group of about two dozen neighbors filed a challenge in the D.C. Court of Appeals over plans to begin construction last fall. The arguments they made then echo similar concerns raised now––that the local ANC was not included in decisions made about where the shelter will sit, or what it will look like. The group, which calls itself Neighbors for Responsive Government, also submitted a letter to LeGrant this month arguing that the proposed changes “require Board approval.”

And in March, a group of Ward 5 residents also lodged a legal complaint against the development of its neighborhood’s shelter, arguing that the city picked an inappropriate location for it (it sits in an old police building on the 1700 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE), and that local officials crammed plans for the shelter through D.C.’s zoning process without giving neighbors a chance to vocalize their concerns adequately. 

At the time, some of those Ward 5 residents referred to their dealings with zoning and building officials as “a total erosion of the democratic process in D.C.”

In Ward 3, Bradbery says that lack of transparency, as well as additional questions about the shelter’s design, prompted her ANC to file a series of FOIA requests early this summer for more detailed information about DGS’ plans. 

Advocates for the homeless, as well as members of the D.C. Council, have also expressed concerns about DGS’ willingness to provide essential documents about the deconstruction of D.C. General and development of its replacement shelters. Partly in response to this feedback, the agency began publishing bi-monthly reports of demolition progress at D.C. General this summer.

“We all want this shelter to be successful, and for it to work, the city needs community support. But the way DGS is handling this is abysmal,” Bradbery says. “Refusing to provide information and providing misleading information will engender long-term ill will among residents, which will set us up for ongoing confrontations once the shelter is open. That’s exactly what we don’t need.”