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Long-Awaited PUD Application Filed for Controversial Luxury Hotel Tower on Champlain Street in Adams Morgan

By Anthony L. Harvey

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

With a flurry of late July and early August filings and broadcast announcements, Friedman Capital, its many partners, and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, filed their long-awaited application for a planned unit development (PUD) hotel project at the corner of Euclid and Champlain Streets in the Reed-Cooke neighborhood of Adams Morgan.

 The project would encompass the existing church building and a low building on its present surface parking lot at the rear connecting with a hotel tower to be built on the adjacent City Paper building site partway down Champlain Street. Initially, the project was to be for a 68-foot high condominium apartment house but evolved into the current proposal is for a hotel tower well over 100 feet in height hotel.. 

In its bulk — 43 pages and eight appendices plus 65 pages of plans, drawings, color photographs and architectural renderings — together with the lavish production of the document, the application initially conveys an impressive and clarifying presentation with extensive documentation.

Upon studying the application, however, the reverse seems to be a more descriptive conclusion: While the height, massing, and density of the hotel tower has seemingly not fundamentally changed from the developers’ June and November 2008 concept presentations before the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), the exterior design, complete with concrete or stone balconies on the east façade facing Champlain Street, while the green, ivy-colored walls of trellises with intervening precast panels on the west façade facing the alley between Champlain and 18th Streets differs dramatically from the stark, minimally designed glass tower approved in concept by the HPRB following in 2008.

The new address proposed for the hotel, 1780 Columbia Road — an address that would land you in the triangular space known as Unity Park — is contradicted by the address in the application and in the developers notice of intention to file a PUD. The address change may reflect an assertion made by one of the project’s prominent historic preservation advocates that the developers could claim a 100-foot height eligibility by ignoring the park –- which, ironically, the Church deeded to the city many years ago for a neighborhood public green space — and claim a District Height Act eligibility of 100 feet based on the width of Columbia Road.

The earlier, 2008 application being considered by the HPRB used 1770 Euclid — the church’s actual address — as the prospective hotel address, and with the project’s 2010 unprecedented success through the efforts of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham in gaining the project a $46 million dollar property tax abatement from the District of Columbia on the last day of the 2009-10 City Council session, as an Ian Schrager Limited Washington/Marriott International partnership; it is now being labeled the Adams Morgan Historic Hotel.

Developers Brian Friedman and Matt Wexler, as reported from a meeting in early July 2011 with Maureen Gallagher and Billy Simpson of the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association (RCNA), are dropping the high-end, Five-Star luxury brand of Schrager’s “Limited Washington,” this reported by Gallagher at RCNA’s July 14th monthly meeting. It is now to be simply a “boutique” hotel with an ever changing number of rooms, from 150 to 174 to, as reported six-page executive summary in early August, an upwardly revised range of 174 to 227 rooms. Yet, the lengthy Market Feasibility appendix to the PUD application filed in late July still describes the hotel project as a “boutique property branded as an Edition hotel, the upscale concept developed jointly by a partnership between Ian Schrager and Marriott International.”

As for the height of the hotel, it is still obliquely cloaked in the mysteries of zoning. In 2008 the height was stated to be 90 feet, using the grade at the front of the 68-foot high First Church building as the measuring point for the hotel tower, ignoring the approximately 12 feet of additional height from the slope of Champlain Street and the 18.6-foot penthouse roof structures and projected roof deck bar and lounge. The application now calls for 92 feet in height from the Columbia Road address, with the 12 feet for the Champlain slope, and the now no more than 15.6 feet for a roof deck bar and lounge and several penthouse structures being similarly ignored.

Architectural renderings for the current project are imaginative, and present a smaller bulk for the much taller hotel tower behind the church Building. Also shown is what appears to be the Cortland as a towering apartment building across Champlain, described in the PUD application as an eight-story, 90-foot high structure. The Cortland is, in fact, a six-story, 75-foot high building at 1760 Euclid Street; it has a low, mostly underground, service basement space which rises to grade as one proceeds down the descending slope of Champlain Street. And the height of the Cortland, like that of other tall apartment buildings in Adams Morgan cited by the developers, is not directly relevant to the height being requested for the hotel tower, which is being built on lots that are in the Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay with its 40-feet (or 50 feet with affordable housing) height restriction; these other examples cited by the developer are not in the Zoning Overlay and typically have much higher height restrictions.

The historic landmarking designation for the church building is equally shrouded in obliquity. The applicants assert that the restoration of the building proposed by the hotel partnership is necessary to such a historic designation, an assertion that is disingenuous at best. For a structure with a dramatically declining congregation, the building is remarkably intact and functional. Its mechanicals are in dismal condition –with heating and air conditioning not operating on the most immediate past occasions of community uses of the structure. The washing and cleaning of the brick, mortar, and roof being proposed by the applicant would indeed brighten the building’s appearance. All that is needed for a Federal historic landmark designation is an affirmative application by the First Church of Christ, Scientist. The Federal landmark designation, which cannot be made over the owner’s objection, is necessary to the Federal tax credits being sought by the developer, which, together with the value of the PUD and the $46 million property tax abatement, apparently make the project meet the income and profit requirements of the developers.  

And the significant zoning relief being requested for this PUD, which includes relief from restricted uses — for example, hotels, restaurants, and liquor licenses are prohibited in the Reed-Cooke Zoning overlay, to say nothing of height and density restrictions — is being met with what many see as a limited proffer of public benefits and community amenities. These applicant-proposed benefits and amenities include the provision of a 4,000 square-foot community headquarters for a group known as the Adams Morgan Youth Leadership Academy with meeting space for other community groups; the historic preservation of the church building; a LEED-certified green building; immediate sales and occupancy taxes and eventual property taxes, once the $46 million in property tax abatements are realized by the developer; and hotel, retail, and hospitality service jobs when the hotel complex opens.

The hotel complex will consist of the historically re-adapted church building, a hotel tower where the City Paper Building now stands, and a connecting building on the present surface parking lot between the two structures. It includes bars, restaurants, a 10,000 square-foot ballroom and event space, and 2,500 square feet of additional meeting rooms. The hotel tower will include the community space, the spa and health club, a clothing boutique, as well as additional food and beverage facilities.

This proposed 119.6 foot-high structure will have a further impact on the Adams Morgan infrastructure with the magnitude of its entire hotel tower: five levels of underground parking; two levels to accommodate the spa and health club, one of which is below grade; the hotel lobby and mezzanine; the swimming pool level; eight levels of hotel rooms; and the rooftop level encompassing the penthouse structures and the bar and lounge areas.

Traffic congestion and increased parking problems on the narrow Reed-Cooke streets is a concern. Champlain, for example, is only 28 feet wide — a typical neighborhood width, not the 50 feet as stated by the developers. Opponents of the project see it as making a mockery of the Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay, the Comprehensive Plan, and the specific land use elements of that plan. Proponents see the proposal as being a “done deal” and as characteristic of all DC hotel projects, regardless of whether or not such projects are in hotel zones or in restricted or matter-of-right zoning districts. Others simply demur.

The prospective hotel developers continue to promise a website to further inform the community, with the inclusion on that website of a comprehensive calendar that will list community meetings and presentations, along with hearing and public meetings by the Zoning Commission and the Historic Preservation Review Board. The Adams Morgan ANC website will also include its meetings and those of its Planning, Zoning, and Transportation (PZT) Committee on this and the other PUDs pending in the community.

Editor’s Note:For background, see the “Adams Morgan Luxury Hotel Rstaurants, Bars, Events Space” section of our May 2011 lead story, “Major West End Re-Development Project Designs Unveiled; Luxury Boutique Hotel for Adams Morgan Continues to Divide” (PDF page 1). See, also, prior reports: “Recent Church Re-Use and Raze Hearings Reveal Growing Public Disillusion with DC’s Historic Preservation Laws,” InTowner, December 2008, PDF page 1. Also, reporting on an earlier proposal, see “Historic Adams Morgan Church Demolition Rumor Put to Rest; Adaptive Re-Use Design Shown,” InTowner, November 2005, PDF page 1. All reports are available in the Current & Back Issues Archive at www.intowner.com.