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A battle emerges over a storage facility planned in Southeast

Residents and a real estate company box over the future of a site in Fairlawn

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A New York-based storage company is appealing a recent D.C. zoning order that Southeast residents hoped would stop a large storage facility from going up on open land in Fairlawn.

In early July, Pal DC Storage LLC, an affiliate of real estate investment firm Palatine Capital Partners, filed a lawsuit over the zoning order with the D.C. Court of Appeals. Approved by the D.C. Zoning Commission in May, the order had changed the zoning for the site at issue—a 20,000-square-foot lot near Anacostia Park—from commercial to residential.

The approval was a partial victory for the residents who had applied for the zoning change last September. It means that the CubeSmart facility Pal DC Storage is currently building at 1401 22nd St. SE does not conform with the new residential zoning. In effect, the company cannot substantially alter or expand the planned storage facility, and would not be able to rebuild it if a fire or natural event destroys more than 50 percent of the eventual structure.

Spearheaded by neighborhood commissioners and other community leaders, the residents say they want the land to provide housing instead of commercial uses. They worry that the facility would increase truck traffic and destroy Fairlawn’s low-density residential character, given that the building would attract customers from other areas and be several stories tall.

The storage company has argued that it is providing a needed service in D.C. and bringing a productive use to an empty lot. The company has also pointed out that its plans comported with the site’s original zoning before officials granted the change that the residents sought.

“We respectfully disagree with the Zoning Commission’s procedure for considering whether to change the zoning of our site and are confident that upon consideration the Court will agree,” a spokesperson for the company says in a statement to Curbed DC. The company, though, has yet to file a brief with the court laying out its specific arguments, and the case could take months to resolve.

The D.C. Attorney General’s office, which is defending the Zoning Commission in the case, did not immediately provide a formal response to a request for comment about the appeal. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A officially asked for the residential rezoning in 2017.

The residents had maneuvered to stall the development with the zoning change. But Pal DC Storage can still legally construct the facility because the company had received a building permit from the city before the new residential zoning took effect.

Last week, the residents staged a protest outside the site. In the rain, they chanted “stop-work order!” and “shut it down!” next to a chain link fence. They said they were concerned about environmental hazards after emergency responders visited the site in July to inspect a leak. The city told ABC7 that the leak was from a tank storing recovered ground water and was not hazardous.

Community members wrote in opposition to the storage facility in numerous letters to the Zoning Commission spanning 2017 and 2018.

“It will destroy the character of our residential neighborhood, increase safety concerns for our pedestrians and cyclers in the neighborhood,” argued Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Trayon White, who represents Fairlawn, in February. “And [it] will cause an added safety hazard to our children en-route to and from Orr Elementary School and Anacostia Park.”

Some residents have sided with the storage company, saying the facility would be useful and conveniently located. They also say the rezoning makes the area seem anti-business.

“This is not the reputation that we want to establish,” resident Eunice Moonie-Johnson wrote to the Zoning Commission in March. “What we don’t want is to intimidate businesses who have followed the rules and processes to build or relocate to our community.”

Pal DC Storage has said the restrictive rezoning could discourage investment in Southeast.

“There is an extremely limited supply of vacant industrial land in the District of Columbia, so the property presents an excellent opportunity for a planned self-storage facility,” said Alex Hurst, the founder and managing partner of Palatine Capital Partners, at a zoning hearing in March. He added that the zoning change would financially harm his firm and its investors.

Through the LLC, Palatine Capital Partners bought the property for $4.3 million last August. In legal papers, the company’s attorney has claimed that the change—known as a “map amendment”—could reduce the “gross asset value” of the property by “at least 38 percent.”

“In the commercial real estate world, a loss of this percentage is substantial and catastrophic,” the attorney stated in a pre-hearing memo.

The Zoning Commission, however, did not buy the company’s arguments. “Map amendments are often sought in response to a potential development, either to allow or stop it, but neither intent is relevant to its merits,” the commission wrote in its May order. “The only intent of which the Commission is concerned, is the intent of the Comprehensive Plan”—the District’s framework for future growth.

The D.C. Council is currently considering proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan that have stirred significant controversy. Lawmakers are set to vote on them this fall.