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Tabard Inn Gets Reprieve From Preservation Board Which Wants Modifications; BZA Later Rejects Application for Hotel Use

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

The proposed restoration and rear expansion of five historic, long vacant four- and five-story town mansions in the middle of the 1700 block of N Street, NW was yet another of several hearings since 2006 at the May meeting of the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). Once again, Board members examined and discussed revised plans and drawings and considered the project’s potential impact on the adjacent Tabard Inn, itself occupying three interconnected historic former town houses with its popular restaurant and bar opening into a welcoming rear garden. On the other side of the Tabard looms the 10-story, mid-century modernist structure housing the Topaz Hotel.

The handsome façades and interiors of the five structures proposed for renovation — which are known as the “N Street Follies” project — would be fully restored, inside and out, according to the extensive and remarkably informative staff report on the renovation application, which includes a concise summary of architects Stan Andrulis and Anton Janezich’s detailed presentation on behalf of the five properties’ owner, Morton Bender, characterized by many as historic Dupont Circle’s poster boy for bad developer behavior.

A lightening rod for historic preservation activists, residential tenants fighting to maintain affordable housing stock, and no-growth urban planning advocates, Bender’s boarded-up properties have stood vacant since he purchased them in the late 1980s and subsequently evicted their tenants, roiling the neighborhood with fears and rumors of demolition — deliberate or by neglect — and galvanized the first of many organized protests.

A series of increasingly scaled-down redevelopment proposals from Bender over the past several years have not lessened this opposition. Rather, as preservation activists’ nostalgia has hardened for the return of both real and imagined participatory pleasures to the public of the late 19th and early 20th century “Gilded Age” of Dupont Circle mansions and stately town homes – built, ironically, for the robber barons and political and financial elites of that era — protests have grown in magnitude and scope, with the fascinating sidebar of a ferocious continuing assault on Bender’s proposal from a prospective commercial boutique hotel rival, namely, the Tabard Inn.

Historic Dupont Circle activists have elevated the Tabard to the status of an important neighborhood public amenity, one exemplifying a lost public gardens alley presence. In reality, the Tabard’s alley presence is that of a high wall blocking any view of its so-called back yard garden — which serves its private hotel guests and bar and restaurant patrons when the weather permits. Its two, large trash dumpsters and a smaller grease collector container join the other motley trash and refuse containers on this strictly utilitarian alley bordered by embassy rear walls, fenced-off surface parking lots, and several miscellaneous small out-buildings. If a gracious series of public garden mews and period carriage houses ever existed in this blind, dead-end alley, they are long gone and unrecorded — except for the memory of old-timers reminiscing about the Gralyn Hotel, which had a garden serving area in the rear for its paying customers, that is.

The Tabard Inn’s primary objections to Bender’s latest boutique hotel proposal, which includes constructing a five-story rear structure separated by a garden court from the historic mansions and not visible from N Street, is that it would diminish its dining room’s natural light in the early to late afternoon, and its assertion that the proposed addition is too big for the historic neighborhood and presents an uninviting wall to its alley neighbors.

In these, and other objections, the Tabard was represented by attorney Kinley Bray of Arent Fox and Emily Eig of EHT Traceries. Ellen McCarthy, prominent former planning and economic development official in Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration and now Arent Fox’s Director of Planning and Land Use, offered the Board a highly personal narrative of opposition to Bender’s latest proposal. The Dupont Circle Conservancy joined the opposition, having passed a resolution stating that “protecting the integrity of the Tabard Inn courtyard as a historic landmark in the area is important to the Dupont Circle Historic District. We . . . request that the applicant step the east side of the building down in a way that preserves the current level of light on the [tent-like”] parachute courtyard and dining room of the Tabard.”

The indefatigable Kay Eckles, speaking for the Residential Action Coalition (RAC), effectively and concisely expressed her opposition to the entire Bender proposal, as did Robin Diener, President of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, who added in her written statement for the record that Bender’s hotel project “would impair the business prospects of the Tabard, darkening the outdoor dining area and the adjacent alley.”

A balanced approach was presented by Mike Silverstein, immediate past chairman of the Dupont Circle ANC. His testimony on behalf of the ANC opened with the observation that the Bender “proposal as set forth by ‘N Street Follies’ represents a major step forward in addressing the concerns of the neighborhood, and for the first time, we can see the outlines of a settlement.” He added, however, that ”there are two areas where we believe the proposal must be revised”: first, that the applicant “scale back his plans for that space directly next to the [Tabard’s] garden to allow enough light and air so that he does not harm his neighbor” and, secondly, that the 58 parking spaces being requested by the applicant be reduced to 31 as recommended by the District’s regulatory agencies that have reviewed the matter.

Historic Preservation Office staff reviewer Steve Callcott’s report, which recommended approval of Bender’s revised conceptual design, noted that there are many recent precedents for HPRB approval of such projects in this southern part of the Dupont Circle Historic District. Callcott offered such examples as 1752-54 N Street, directly across from the Bender properties (an eight-story building behind four-story row houses), the St. Matthew’s project at 1717 Rhode Island Avenue, (an eight-story building behind four-story townhouses), 1818 N Street (a seven-story addition behind four-story row house façades), 1828-34 Jefferson Place (a six-story addition to the rear of three-story row houses), 2000 Massachusetts Avenue (a five-story addition to the side and within the former garden of the Blaine Mansion), and 1820-22 Jefferson Place (a five-story addition to the rear of three-story row houses). Callcott also recommended approval of the applicant’s demotion request, which consisted primarily of the removal of one structure’s rear ell, deemed to be non-character defining, much of which being a late addition and not requiring referral to the Mayor’s Agent.

In a quick and somewhat confusedly articulated conclusion, the Board approved the N Street Follies demolition request and directed Bender’s architects to return to the Board with a revised proposal that provided greater deference to the Tabard Inn’s concerns and a more modulated rear elevation to the project’s proposed five-story addition and its impact on the alley.

Board of Zoning Adjustment’s Ruling May Doom Project

Ten days following the HPRB’s May 27th hearing, the District’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) held a public meeting and considered N Street Follies’ motion for a special exception to allow for a hotel use, which is permitted in the Special Purpose (SP-1) zone in which the properties are located. The developer, Morton Bender. withdrew his multiple zoning variance relief request filed prior to October 2009.

In a fascinatingly informative summary of the extensive BZA hearing record and its attendant voluminous filings, BZA Chair Meridith Moldenhauer, Vice Chair Shane Dettman and Zoning Commission-designated member of the BZA Michael Turnbull articulated their reason for supporting the Board’s unanimous vote of denial of the application – specifically, that the project was still too large and out of character for the Dupont Circle Historic District and its accompanying zoning overlay with its stated objective of limiting large developments and that the project did not respect the historicity and business of the Tabard Inn, its neighbor.

In noting support for the project from the District’s Office of Planning and qualified support from the Dupont Circle ANC and the Dupont Circle Conservancy, the BZA asserted that their “inconsistencies” and “contradictions” were troubling. Interestingly, no mention was made of HPRB’s May 27th ruling and the Historic Preservation Office’s staff report recommending approval of this revised project proposal, despite the chair giving a seemingly exhaustive summary of the arguments of the opponents — the Tabard Inn and its many community supporters. BZA members also remained concerned about parking and traffic issues in the alley and on the surrounding streets.

The BZA further declined to grant the applicant specific design (or other) instructions for a return to the Board for further consideration of the present design proposal. Should the applicant choose to file a revised and redesigned project, however, it did offer guidance; for example, suggesting the nearby high-rise hotel’s approach to height in the massing of the rear yard addition, which would move the impact of the project’s massing from either of the immediately adjacent property — the focus again being the threat of any adverse impact on the Tabard; the breaking up of the penthouse into several smaller penthouse pavilions; and the use of specific design parameters of the Dupont Circle Historic District rather than the applicant’s “abstract” design approach. BZA Member Nicole Sorg, however, warned of the pitfalls involved in prescribing design guidelines to the applicant, who according to BZA regulations, must wait one year before any new filing.