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D.C. court green-lights Union Market project featuring ‘DeafSpace’ design principles

With lawsuit rejected, major joint development by Gallaudet University and JBG Smith is set to advance

Rendering of Gallaudet University and JBG Smith’s Sixth Street NE project
Gallaudet University/JBG Smith/Hall McKnight

A new mixed-use development aiming to redefine the Sixth Street NE corridor in Union Market has cleared the D.C. Court of Appeals. Last Thursday, the court upheld the stage-one planned unit development (PUD) approved in 2017 by the D.C. Zoning Commission for the massive Sixth Street Development at 500 Morse St. NE.

Union Market Neighbors, a resident group organized in part by community activist Chris Otten, had filed suit against the project, claiming that it would harm those living nearby and help spur displacement. But a three-judge panel ultimately found the group’s arguments “unpersuasive.”

“The proposal would not displace any residents, but instead would substantially expand the housing supply in the neighborhood, serving the objective of locating housing near Metrorail stations,” Judge John Fisher wrote in the court’s decision.

Gallaudet University and Chevy Chase, Maryland-based developer JBG Smith are developing the project together. It is poised to feature up to 1.6 million square feet as well as “DeafSpace” design principles tailored for the deaf and hard of hearing. These principles emphasize visual communication and include such designs as diffused lighting and wider than normal sidewalks.

Located a few blocks east of the NoMa–Gallaudet U Metro station, the pioneering project could incorporate more than 1,800 residential units, of which 10 percent would count toward the city’s inclusionary zoning program for affordable housing. The plans also boast over 135,000 square feet of retail space on Sixth Street NE between Florida Avenue and Penn Street.

The project is split across four parcels: two on either side of Sixth Street NE. The development team has engaged Belfast, Northern Ireland-based architectural firm Hall McKnight with respect to one of the parcels, which includes a new “gateway” park.

Site map of the development project
Gallaudet University/JBG Smith, via D.C. Zoning Commission

In keeping with DeafSpace guidelines, the designs contain ten-foot-wide sidewalks that facilitate visual communication, as well as streetscape improvements like benches and trees. Additional public elements include a new plaza near the Union Market building and a “woonerf”—a Dutch concept where pedestrians, cyclists, and cars share the street. (One is currently present at the Wharf development in Southwest.)

The court’s ruling is the latest in a string of setbacks for Union Market Neighbors. In early 2018, the group dropped its lawsuits against the Armature Works and Market Terminal developments in NoMa and Union Market. And last December, the court sided against the activists in regards to Foulger-Pratt’s Press House development at 301 N St. NE.

Over the past few years, zoning appeals have proved to be an effective tool for residents to stall developments approved through the PUD process, which permits developers to exceed by-right zoning in exchange for community benefits. Facing potentially lengthy delays, developers have opted to downsize some developments to comply with by-right zoning rules. This was the case with MRP Realty’s Rhode Island Center development in 2017.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and some members of the D.C. Council have said they hope to limit such appeals, as part of an update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan—the District’s overarching framework for growth. The Council seeks to amend the plan this year, after planning officials in the Bowser administration submitted proposed amendments to it in 2018.

Cross-section of the project’s planned streetscape
Gallaudet University/JBG Smith, via D.C. Zoning Commission

Now, Gallaudet and JBG Smith can advance designs for the second stage of the PUD process, according to Bryan Moll, an executive vice president at the development firm. Stage one, which was the subject of the legal challenge, included details like the overall project size, building heights, and massing.

“We are very excited to move forward,” Moll says. JBG expects the stage-two PUD to take eight to 10 months to complete—perhaps splitting the project into multiple phases. During these next steps, the team will engage additional architects and seek design approvals involving the project’s four parcels.

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