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1711 Florida Avenue Development Plan Continues to Dominate Meetings With Reed-Cooke and Strivers Row Neighbors

By Anthony L. Harvey

Accompanying images can be viewed in the August 2011 issue PDF

In a fascinatingly complex July public meeting the District’s five-member Zoning Commission voted unanimously to defer a decision until its September 26th meeting on the question of granting a public hearing to the 1711 Florida Avenue LLC’s application for the approval of an 80-foot high, seven-story mixed use residential/commercial planned unit development (PUD) project, one that would incorporate the structure and much of the existing parking levels of the old Verizon truck storage facility located at that address on the corner of Champlain Street and Florida Avenue, NW. The structure is currently being used as a parking garage, with entrances on Champlain and rented office space and a dog care facility on the Florida Avenue side.

This proposed PUD would require significant variances and special exceptions to the zoning regulations for the building and the project site and an almost complete abrogation of the Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay. It has thus energized the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association (RCNA), adjoining citizen associations, and the newly formed Square 150, a banding together of an apparent majority of residents in the two- and three-story row house community known as Strivers Row Historic District directly across Florida Avenue from the proposed new building in strenuous opposition; some neighborhood residents, however, do support the redevelopment of the site if within the height and massing restrictions of the existing zoning overlay. (See our earlier report, “Adams Morgan’s Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Confronted With a Third, Controversial Planned Unit Development Project Plan,” July 2011, PDF page 11.

A well-attended July 14th RCNA meeting found its participants joining in Square 150’s unanimity of opposition to the project’s proposal to exclude this large property from the zoning overlay, the developer asserting that its inclusion on the overlay’s southwestern edge was somehow inappropriate or marginal to the Overlay. The proposed project site, in fact, lies within one of the two large groups of squares and lots specifically and carefully originally chosen by the community as the land components comprising the zoning overlay.

Further, it appears that the community has yet to be well-served in the consideration of this proposal by the District’s Office of Planning (OP), the agency that provides professional advice and counsel to the Zoning Commission on the appropriateness of such applications for significant relief from regulations and statutory provisions, especially that of the District’s Comprehensive Plan, pertaining to these construction projects.

The Zoning Commission’s July 25th action tabling the 1711 Florida Avenue proposal reflected the Commission’s judgment on the inadequacy of OP’s formal presentation, particularly the paucity of community amenities and public benefits being proffered by the applicants and the difficulty of dealing with the linguistic complexity of the term of art phrased as “not inconsistent with” the District’s Comprehensive Plan and related rules and regulations. While the phrase may not be disingenuous, it is certainly not clarifying. Zoning Commission member Michael Turnbull immediately expressed serious concerns at the prospect of overriding the zoning overlay, reminding his fellow commissioners that the overlay had been put into the zoning regulations at the behest of the community and was a reflection of what the community wanted their neighborhood to be like.

Commissioner Turnbull also pointed out that the two percent additional affordable housing benefit, proposed to be added to the statutory requirement of eight percent, represented a very small amenity in light of the requested large zoning relief of 80 feet in height over the overlay’s allowable 40 feet. He asked what had been the community’s and that of its Advisory Neighborhood Commission’s reaction. OP’s Steve Cochran, coincidentally having been active in the RCNA when the overlay was adopted, answered that he had just been assigned to the 1711 Florida Avenue matter and would be attending his first community meeting on August 1st when the Adams Morgan ANC’s Planning, Transportation, and Zoning Committee would be holding its monthly session.

Other commissioners also expressed concerns about the limited benefits package stipulated in the application, especially the two percent addition to affordable housing and the proposal to fund a study of prospective improvements to the nearby Marie Reed School’s athletic playing field. Commissioner Peter May added his concern over the project’s impact on future land use maps, and with the roof of the proposed building’s multiple penthouse structures. Commissioner Greg Selfridge joined Turnbull in his concerns regarding the requested overriding of the zoning overlay, but praised the proposed project as an improvement over what presently sits on the site. Selfridge was also scornful of the applicant including an “improvement study” of the Marie Reed playing field as a benefit. “Propose an actual improvement,” asserted Selfrdige. Commission Vice Chairman Konrad Schlater echoed Selfridge in praising the project as an improvement, but joined his fellow commissioners in finding the proposed benefits and amenities very limited in light of the significant zoning relief being requested. “They do not meet the balance between the two that the Zoning Commission must find,” he concluded.

The significance of the building’s architectural design as a prospective amenity was also debated. Commission Chair Anthony Hood joined with his fellow four commissioners in voting to table the applicant’s proposal for further consideration on September 26. Before leaving this matter, an unusual — to this reporter — request was made by the Commission that OP’s Steve Cochran convey the Adams Morgan ANC’s initial reaction to the 1711 Florida Avenue proposal for the Commission’s use at the September 26 public meeting, the sole purpose of which will be to consider the question of holding a public hearing on the matter; at that time the community would be anticipated to participate and to file testimony.

Back in the Neighborhood . . .

 And, within a week of the Zoning Commission’s hearing, two community meetings were held in Reed-Cooke.

The first of these found approximately two-dozen members of the Square 150 community group gathering in front of the old Verizon parking garage in the late morning heat and humidity of July 31st to hear an engaging presentation about the project from the developers, who insisted on the compatibility of their project with the goals of the Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay and the surrounding built environment. Joining in the presentation was the project’s lead architect, William Bonstra of Bonstra Hairsign Architects.

With boards of drawings, architectural renderings, and illustrative photographs, Bonstra walked the group through the project’s scheme of an 80-foot high mixed residential and commercial building in a style characterized by several attendees as simply that of contemporary apartment buildings on 14th and U Streets and that of new construction in the area around the P Street Whole Foods grocery store and not reflective of the materials and architectural style of the two- and three-story houses around it.

Bonstra countered by asserting the responsiveness of the building’s design to the adjacent Security Storage structure and to its immediate neighbors in Strivers Row and Dupont Circle. He further noted the intention of the building design to be responsive to the unusual directional fracturing of the 1700 block of Florida Avenue. He continued with a description of the verticality of the repeating piers of window bay projections into public space of the building’s Florida Avenue front façade. He further noted that the narrower width of Champlain Street will only allow for shallow balconies on that façade.

The mass of the proposed building was driven, the developers further asserted, by admonitions from District officials to build to the property line and, from Office of Planning to include in the project street-level retail that contributed to a market-like environment in the larger neighborhood.

When asked what additional valuation to the project the developers were attributing the proposed PUD zoning relief, they responded, “it’s not huge”; whereupon developer Ernie Marcus immediately launched a discussion of prospective benefits and amenities that might flow from such a project as theirs.

Square 150 activist Patrick Landers reminded the developers that 25 households in Square 150 had voted unanimously to oppose any new development that exceeded the restrictions of the zoning overlay. And while several residents in attendance spoke in favor of such further economic development of this site, all seemed to favor using materials and coloration more sympathetic to that of the existing built environment; that any such residential construction include more larger apartments to attract families that might move in and stay and educate their children in the neighborhood; that the project de-emphasize commercial activities which would bring more traffic and parking congestion; and that the developer consider specific amenities such as a cooperative redevelopment of the Marie-Reed athletic playing field, which lies directly across Champlain Street from the project site.

At the conclusion of the two-hour on-site session, both sides agreed to continue meeting — openly and often.

When, on the following evening of August 1st the Adams Morgan ANC’s Planning, Zoning, and Transportation (PZT) Committee had its monthly meeting at the Third District Police headquarters on V Street in the heart of Strivers Row, this project was the main event of a nearly five-hour meeting. In a jam-packed, standing room only session, the developers and architect Bonstra gave an abbreviated version of their previous Sunday morning presentation to the Square 150 members.

Attendees had time while sitting or standing through earlier items on the Committee’s equally jam-packed agenda to review copies of a well-produced, color illustrated eight-page handout summarizing the developers’ case; also handed out was a two-page broadsheet from project opponents displaying extracts from DC Municipal Regulations pertaining to the District’s statutory Comprehensive Plan, with the Plan’s powerful assertions, respectively, in protection of the historic character of Reed-Cooke, Adams Morgan, and Mid-City specifically, and of city-wide land use policies generally, grouped in these four named categories.

The broadside’s first extract includes the Comprehensive Plan’s stipulation to “protect existing housing within the Reed-Cooke neighborhood, maintaining heights and densities at appropriate levels” and continues by specifically noting that “a zoning overlay was created for the Reed-Cooke area in 1989 to protect existing housing and ensure compatible infill development on a number of large properties.”

Six of the Adams Morgan eight ANC commissioners were present for this important presentation, including the three members of the PZT committee: Commissioners Wilson Reynolds, who chairs both the committee and the full ANC, Kathie Boettrich, and Steve Lanning, together with Commissions Marty Davis, Gabriela Mossi, and the ANC’s newest member, Adian Miller. Several gave brief reactions before Reynolds called for discussion from the assembled community.

Lanning spoke first, assuring the community that he “took to heart the Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay;” Davis added that he, too, was especially interested in the provision of the zoning overlay; Mossi observed that the proposal was “a great opportunity for developing that corner;” and Boettrich asserted that she wanted to hear from both those directly affected by the project and from the community generally.

Comments from the audience were lively and heated. An older gentleman spoke of living in Strivers Row for 30 years, raising his family, paying his taxes, and observing all laws and regulations. He expressed mystification and outrage that a developer wants to come into his neighborhood and ask that the laws and regulations not be observed, notwithstanding that the developer surely knew the regulations when he bought the property.

A nearby resident on Ontario Road was one of several who spoke in favor, generally, of the project but asked that the project provide room for more families and noted his objection to the paucity of public benefits being proffered. Another resident asked that the height of the three rooftop penthouse structures be added to the building’s stated height. Several residents in the 1700 block of V Street — all with small children — spoke in strenuous opposition to the project’s size and the small apartments being planned.

Residents in Beekman Place and on Crescent Place asked about, and objected to, the project’s height and density — and, one added, why retail? Another longtime resident living in the 1700 block of U Street asked of the developers why they had come into the community with examples of asserted comparable buildings in other neighborhoods, which she maintained were not, in effect, asking the Strivers Row neighborhood to imaginatively conform to the size of other structures and to their different styles. Another Strivers Row resident who had participated in the previous day’s Square 150 session — as did others at the PZT committee meeting — observed that even though he remained opposed to the project, he thanked — not entirely in jest — the developers for having brought the community together.

Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association activist Billy Simpson, who noted his being well-known as supporting development in the community, asked, rhetorically, and after recounting his plowing through DC statutes and regulations dealing with land use and the preservation of neighborhood communities, how — with a straight face — the developers could propose such a PUD. In well-articulated statement, Simpson asserted that he was outraged by such a proposal. Landers added support by stating the Square 150 group’s respect for the legacy of the neighborhood’s zoning overlay.

All parties expressed a willingness to meet further regarding the project, and the ANC announced that its PZT committee will be holding an “informational briefing” at 7 p.m. on August 22nd at the Third District’s V Street headquarters.