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High-tech red flags

City buys time to safeguard neighborhood zoning regs

(Published Nov. 6, 2000)


Staff Writer

For years, the warehouses along the railroad tracks between Union Station and Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington have been an eyesore for commuters on Metroís Red Line, their most useful purpose seemingly as a canvas for graffiti artist "Cool" Disco Dan and his cohorts.

Recently, though, some high-tech companies have been seeing opportunity where others have seen little more than blight.

Computer companies have begun to buy some of those warehouses and convert them into high-tech data centers. And because the warehouses are located along the railroads, they provide easy access to the fiber optic conduits and electrical supply lines that run along the tracks.

But the sudden interest in locating these so-called "data hotels" in the District raised some red flags at the D.C. Office of Planning. City planners asked the cityís zoning office to enact temporary regulations that would require any new electronic equipment facility to undergo a special review process.

Their concern, they say, is that an over-concentration of data centers would hamper economic revitalization efforts in some neighborhoods by creating "dead spots" of buildings occupied by nothing but computer equipment and very few employees.

"We started panicking when people started coming to us with plans for tech hotels with 12-foot fences surrounding them topped with barbed wire," said Ellen McCarthy, deputy director for development review at the Office of Planning. "That was not exactly what we had in mind for certain areas of our town."

The planning office is also working with representatives from the industry to craft permanent regulations that would set specific rules for where and in what form these data centers can exist in the District.

"The ideal envelope for a data center is something that would resemble a warehouse," said Richard McBride, managing director at Insignia/ESG Inc., a commercial real estate brokerage firm. He said warehouses offer open floor plans, heavy-duty floors and high ceilings that are all necessary for large scale electronic switching equipment.

A host of large telecommunications companies have already committed to leases in the area, including XM Satellite Radio on Eckington Place NE, MCI Worldcom at Fourth and T streets NE, and Teleglobe and 360 Networks in the old Woodward and Lothrop warehouse on M Street NE.

After the temporary regulations requiring data centers to undergo a special zoning review kicked in the last week of October, telecommunications provider Level 3 reportedly got cold feet about its proposed new location at 90 K St. NE.

McCarthy said the city met with Level 3 executives and assured them the extra approval would not be an undue burden. She said basically the temporary regulations only require that proposed data centers not have an adverse effect on the surrounding neighborhoods.

McCarthy said the planning office asked for the temporary regulations in order to ensure that the neighborhood aesthetics and revitalization efforts are preserved.

Since the temporary regulations took effect, six companies have applied for a special exception review, four for projects along the Metro tracks between Union Station and Rhode Island Avenue. Those are scheduled to be heard Dec. 18 by the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

McBride said he is concerned any additional regulations imposed on high-tech companies could discourage them from moving in from the suburbs.

"Most of us who are involved are very concerned that the District is going to blow a golden opportunity to bring high-tech development into the city," he said.

McCarthy said thatís the reason her office has been working with the industry to craft zoning regulations acceptable to all parties. She said one of the likely provisions would be to allow data centers to be built along the Metro tracks as a matter of right, without need for a special zoning exception. But there would likely be restrictions on how close they could be built to a Metro stop.

The planning office held the first of three forums on the permanent regulations Nov. 2. Two more forums are planned Nov. 6 and 8. McCarthy said she hopes to hammer out regulations that would determine concentration, Metro proximity, parking and ground floor use issues as well as others.

She said she hopes to submit the permanent regulations to the BZA by Nov. 16 so they can be considered and approved before the temporary regulations expire in about three months.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator