City Paper is not for tourists
For a tiny street lined predominantly with colorful, two-story townhouses, Richardson Place NW has over the past several months experienced outsize drama.
Last year, a new kind of housing arrived on the Truxton Circle block. Perturbed by how this project could change their way of life, residents organized and collectively cried foul.
Now those residents are cautiously celebrating a recent decision by D.C. zoning officials. They object to an upscale co-living project by local developer Oaktree and New York-based startup Common, a company that manages eight co-living developments in NYC and San Francisco.
Common’s debut D.C. project, on Richardson Place, is a three-story structure featuring 24 furnished bedrooms that measure between 120 and 140 square feet each, with private bathrooms. Memberships for the property, described by Common as in “charming Shaw,” start at $1,700 a month. (“Shaw feels like home in the nation’s nerve center,” Common’s website says.) Tenants also get weekly cleaning, shared kitchen and bathroom supplies, and access to other Common locations. Utilities are included, and the startup says it currently has more than 120 members nationally.
On May 17, Oaktree and Common suffered a major setback when the Board of Zoning Adjustment upheld the Richardson Place Neighborhood Association’s appeal of building permits for the team’s project.
BZA officials expressed concern that the project isn’t allowed under the existing zoning code.
Additionally, some residents remain uncomfortable with how these developments could affect neighborhood character and density. Zoning officials even debated what a “dwelling” and a “family” constitute under D.C. law during the BZA’s deliberations about the Richardson Place project, which is one of few co-living spaces that have emerged in the District as entrepreneurial property firms target its millennial-rich real estate market.
Despite the unfavorable zoning ruling, Common continues to advertise its D.C. units online. What’s more, tenants have been co-living at the new property since earlier this year, when Common launched leases, because the BZA’s recent decision occurred after the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs had issued the developer certificates of occupancy.
The local neighborhood commission and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie supported the neighbors’ appeal.
“In reality, what [the landlord is] doing is operating a commercial property in a residentially zoned area without trying to get any variances or have any community input,” says Katherine McClelland, one of the commissioners. She has resided across the street from the site with her husband for over a year, and adds that she’s not opposed to co-living in principle: “If a complex like this was on Florida or Rhode Island [Avenue NW], there wouldn’t be an issue.”
Proponents say co-living spaces satisfy a hunger for more social alternatives to traditional group homes and also help meet some of the robust demand for housing in the District. In the case of Common’s property, the land upon which the structure sits used to be an empty, mosquito-prone lot. Oaktree renovated a structure that the previous owner had built, converting it to its present form.
Against this backdrop, the zoning board granted the neighborhood association’s appeal three to one, with one seat vacant. BZA Vice Chair Carlton Hart, the lone dissenter, said the project met the applicable standard for “families”—of no more than six people in total—“living independently” from each other for a properly permitted “two-family dwelling” or “flat.”
Oaktree categorized the property, which is comprised of two adjacent addresses, as two flats with two 6-bedroom units in each.
Got that? “It seems as though this, what’s being proposed, is somewhat in the middle of a lot of different things, which is why I think folks are kind of struggling with it,” Hart said at the meeting.
Anthony Hood, who serves as chair of the D.C. Zoning Commission and was filling a BZA spot when the decision came down, convinced the other board members to greenlight the neighbors’ appeal. He said the project could “change the character of the neighborhood,” and that allowing it to operate would exceed the zoning normally permitted in the immediate area.
“I want to make sure that [DCRA’s] Zoning Administrator is not, first of all, changing the zone plan,” Hood noted. “And I think proceeding with this … I think he does that here.”
Oaktree and Common maintain that they have followed District regulations and are acting within their rights. Although Oaktree partner Peter Stuart declined to comment on the record, citing respect for the zoning process at play, Common CEO Brad Hargreaves says in a statement that “we are committed to being great neighbors on Richardson Place and are excited to welcome our first residents to the D.C. community.” He adds that his company, established in 2015 with backing from venture capital firms, and Oaktree, are “confident in [their] legal position.”
What the board’s decision means in practical—and precedential—terms is still unclear. “I have no issues with the people who are living there, but I’d feel badly if they have to move out without fair notice,” McClelland says.
The D.C. Attorney General’s office must submit a written, draft order of the ruling to the BZA, which in turn has to sign it and send it to the parties in the case. Statutes stipulate that the board’s orders only take effect 10 days after these steps have been finalized. This could take half a year to unfold. A representative for the BZA says in an email that “recently, drafts from [the Attorney General’s office] take an average of 3 to 6 months to complete because of other outstanding draft orders.”
Moreover, the team behind the co-living development could challenge the board’s ruling in the D.C. Court of Appeals—the highest court for the District—as has happened in other disputed zoning cases. Due process means the feud on Richardson Place could persist for a few years to come. After new zoning regulations took effect last September, the District is getting ready to update its long-term plan for development.
“It’s not like I think that this is clear cut,” Hart said in May. “But this type of living arrangement, maybe that is something that needs to be more clearly understood or discussed in the zoning regulations so that it is clear for the public what is being allowed or not allowed in certain areas.”