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Freemasons Run a Dupont Circle Gauntlet Trying to Win Over Opponents at Contentious Meeting; Charges of Racism, Sexism by Masons Abound

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the November 2018 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz

The gloves came off at recent meetings between residents of Dupont Circle and developers and a former DC Councilmember, John Ray, who is working on behalf of the project for the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple located at 1733 16th Street, NW. Charges of racism, sexism, and disregard for homeowners’ 15th Street properties directly behind the historic structure punctuated the often-heated exchanges between the parties.

Despite the increasing opposition, the Masons have made clear that they are moving ahead with their plans to build a revenue-generating apartment building with up to 150 single-family units in their vacant lot behind the John Russell Pope-designed temple. As we reported last month, the new apartment building, the contractor being the local firm Perseus Development, will front along 15th Street between Riggs Place north to the corner of S Street.

The proposed development has met with skepticism from the time the Masons presented it over a year ago when a representative met first with ANC 2B04 Commissioner Nick DelleDonne and again shortly after that with a committee of his. It was almost a given that design for any building would meet resistance from neighbors who are accustomed to seeing only well-maintained greenspace behind the temple.

Then, also in 2017, the Masons asked the city for a $22 million tax abatement to help pay for it all. The Masons say there are some $82 million in repairs and renovations needed for the temple. The apartment building on the back lot will mean that they will have a major source of new revenue thanks to a steady rental income for many years to come.

What’s more, the money will allow continued operations at the temple, which relies solely on dues paid by the organization’s dwindling membership, said Perseus Executive Vice President, Adam Peters, at the November 5th meeting of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA). Further, he stated that the building would be built with or without the tax abatement, a shift from Perseus’ previous suggestions that, without the abatement, they might have to reconsider.

From the beginning, the abatement request –formally opposed by the Dupont Circle ANC 2B in a 2017 resolution — has met with scorn and skepticism in the Dupont Circle community and among city officials. DC Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt, for example, has rejected the Mason’s argument that they need the extra money the abatement would provide. He says the organization has money for the renovations and will enjoy a hefty revenue stream from owning a luxury rental apartment building in one of DC’s most sought after neighborhoods.

But the rancor hit a new pitch at the DCCA meeting where Ray, who serves as counsel to the Masons on the abatement request, insisted that the organization’s members “want to be part of the community.”

“Where are the Masons tonight? DCCA member Iris Green asked in response. “Why aren’t the Masons here talking to the neighbors? Why only send a hired gun?”

Ray countered, saying, “I am also a Mason.”

Ray said the temple, which serves as Supreme Council to the national organization, has since it was built a little over 100 years ago, has been a community resource. He said its library was the first public library in DC and is still open today and features a collection of rare books. He says the Masons have long held Saturday reading programs for neighborhood children, provided weekend parking spaces to the neighboring Jewish Community Center, and have plans to build a neighborhood playground.

“It’s not in your plans filed with the city,” a DCCA member shot back, in reference to the assertion about a playground.

“We have tried to reach out to the community and get their views and we will continue to do that,” Ray said.

But DCCA members pressed on, asking repeatedly why DC taxpayers should support the Masons’ temple renovation and revenue-generating apartment building.

“I live in a building that’s older than the temple. Am I eligible for a tax abatement?” said one resident.

“I have trouble with my tax dollars supporting a male-only Christian organization,” another DCCA member said.

And then the room boiled over.

“Whose kids are invited to your Saturday morning reading program?” Green, who is African-American, asked. “It wasn’t my kids.

“The Masons are a racist organization,” she continued. “They don’t deserve any more favors from the city.”

Ray, who is also African-American, angrily rejected what he said was an attempt to brandish unwarranted charges of racism. He suggested that if racism was to be considered in regards to the city’s historic structures, then monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson might be taken down in light of the fact that both men were slave owners.

The Mason’s webpage states:

“The Scottish Rite is a fraternity whose members are drawn from Freemasons. Membership in the Scottish Rite is based upon personal integrity and good character, without reference to race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or national origin.”

ANC 2B04 Commissioner DelleDonne informed the meeting that Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, as chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, he controls release of the pending bill authorizing the tax abatement, and has signaled that he is not willing to do so before the end of the year — effectively allowing the bill to expire.

The proposed development is in DelleDonne’s single-member district. He has organized several recent community meetings to discuss the project, which has met with similar scorn voiced at the DCCA event. Those meetings have raised criticism of new density added to the neighborhood, potential traffic problems, and skyrocketing property values that will force out owners who would not be able to afford increased property taxes.

DCCA members, some of whom are represented by DelleDonne (he lost his re-election bid on Nov. 6), have roundly rejected the current design for the apartment building. Although Perseus’ Adams Peters says the city’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) guided their architect, the DCCA members vowed to fight a design that, for many, seems out of character with the neighborhood of mostly red brick row houses.

Another concern was damage to homes surrounding the proposed construction site, though Perseus’ representative assured the crowd that his firm, by law, must pay for any damage to surrounding private property that the building might cause. He said Perseus prides itself on going the distance with engineering and other studies to make sure that surrounding structures will not incur damage.

“The Masonic Temple has covered its back,” asserted homeowner Aydin Tozeren, in response to the developers’ and Ray’s ready answers. He lives on the block of S Street where the apartment building’s north-facing wing will be constructed.

“This is obvious as they smoothly ride through the [approval] process,” Tozeren continued. “Except for one thing: community outrage. They are not ready for that.”

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §§ 107 & 108 (“fair use”).