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Planned homeless shelter in Northwest survives legal challenge by neighbors

A new ruling by the D.C. appeals court enables construction to begin

A rendering of the shelter, to be built at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW
D.C. government/Ayers Saint Gross

The D.C. Court of Appeals on Thursday rejected a lawsuit against a planned family homeless shelter in Upper Northwest that neighbors of the project brought last year. The decision is a boon to the District’s efforts to close the long-dilapidated D.C. General shelter and replace it with several smaller facilities across the city, including one in Ward 3, the wealthy municipal division where the project is located.

A three-judge panel found that the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) did not err when the board approved the official plans for the 50-unit shelter in August 2017. The next month, roughly two dozen Upper Northwest residents and an affiliated group called “Neighbors for Responsive Government” challenged the BZA’s action: the granting of a “special exception” and of “area variances” needed for the project to be built in a “residential apartment” zone and on a lot that already has an existing “primary structure” on it—the Metropolitan Police Department’s Second District headquarters. The project is located at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW.

Writing for the panel, Associate Judge Stephen H. Glickman explained that the BZA “had substantial evidentiary support for its findings” that the Ward 3 shelter would not have an adverse impact on the surrounding community. “We therefore cannot overturn them,” he wrote. In an earlier brief to the court, the neighbors had argued that “shoe-horning 50 families with children of all ages onto a small footprint...will add significant noise to this quiet neighborhood and will alter its low-density character.”

The judges also ruled that the BZA “has discretion to take the public benefit into account in assessing whether the requirements for a variance are met” for projects involving nonprofit or government entities. “We see no legal error in the Board’s decision to apply the ‘flexible’ public interest standard in this case,” Glickman wrote.

With the ruling, D.C. officials are poised to begin construction on the shelter and expect to break ground on it in November. The opening is planned for “late 2019 or early 2020,” says Sean Barry, a spokesman for the office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. Reporters for BuzzFeed News and Washington City Paper first spotlighted the court’s ruling.

In a statement, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says the administration is “pleased” that the court “affirmed the location and zoning application” for the project. “We are able to continue the momentum from the openings happening this fall in Wards 4, 7, and 8 and ensure we fulfill our commitment to these vulnerable families experiencing homelessness,” explains Bowser, referring to other D.C. General replacement shelters that have opened or will soon this year.

The neighbors, meanwhile, are “disappointed in the outcome” of the case, David W. Brown, their attorney, tells Curbed DC in an email. Brown adds that “it is too early in the process of evaluation” to say what next steps, if any, the neighbors might take. (He also represents the neighbors of the Ward 5 shelter site, in Northeast, who filed a zoning challenge against that project last March. The case is still pending in the D.C. Court of Appeals.)

The zoning appeal was not the first legal action that Ward 3 residents lodged at the planned shelter. In 2016, a group of them advanced a civil lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court that alleged that officials had not given the advisory neighborhood commission for the area the required notice to weigh in on the project. A judge dismissed the case in 2017.

Filled with pricey single-family homes and desirable amenities, Ward 3 is the most affluent of D.C.’s eight wards. Less than one percent of the District’s recently developed affordable housing is located there, according to a 2018 analysis by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

In 2001, D.C. General closed as a hospital and began serving as a family homeless shelter. At its peak, it had capacity for more than 250 homeless families. Officials stopped placing families there last May and have helped move the remaining families to longer-term units. As of Oct. 5, only 33 families were still living at D.C General, with the District’s Department of Human Services reporting to lawmakers that it expected to empty the shelter by Oct. 31.