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Reed-Cooke Neighbors and Other Adams Morgan Residents Pack Meeting to Hear From Hotel Developer and Ask Questions

By Anthony L. Harvey

The October 13, 2011 monthly meeting agenda of the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association (RCNA) was dominated by consideration of the proposed Adams Morgan Historic Hotel, as the developers call it. (The InTowner has reported extensively on this project, most recently in the August issue PDF at page 1; see, “Long-Awaited PUD Application Filed for Controversial Luxury Hotel Tower on Champlain Street in Adams Morgan,” available in the Current & Back Issues Archive.)

Held in the handsomely refurbished sanctuary of the King Emmanuel Baptist Church at Kalorama and Ontario Roads, the 7 p.m. scheduled start was slow to get underway because of a torrential rain, but within a half-hour the more than 80, mostly drenched attendees who had straggled in filled the sanctuary and the church’s small lobby.

The meeting began with opening remarks from RCNA President Maureen Gallagher, which included an account of her outrage over an email which had been circulated by developers Brian Friedman and Matt Wexler to those on their emailing list, which they dubbed as their “supporters,” denouncing RCNA’s leadership as obstructionists because of Gallagher’s and a second RCNA activist appearing, they claimed, at other neighborhood association meetings and offering RCNA’s endorsement of the hotel project with a companion request that other those associations consider RCNA’s appeal for a modification of the project’s height and density and its lack of architectural compatibility with the Reed-Cooke and Adams Morgan-built environment. RCNA’s willingness to be flexible in responding to the developers’ proposal, which is well-documented, has been a constant since the 2008 project design was first presented.

The developers then gave a special presentation to the more than 80 persons in attendance describing their Planned Unit Development (PUD) proposal encompassing a consolidated site comprised of the First Church of Christ, Scientist structure; the church’s surface parking lot; and the City Paper’s building. Following was an extensive and lively question and answer session.

The highlight of the presentation was a computer projection of a dynamic, three-dimensional digital depiction of a model of the proposed hotel in the displayed context of the immediately surrounding streets and structures of Reed-Cooke and Adams Morgan. As attendees asked for selected views, especially from their residences, of the new project and of the project’s impact on these views, the informative strength of such a presentation was powerfully demonstrated — and in a flexible, responsive and cheerful manner by the developers’ architects.

The low point of the presentation, on the other hand, was a projected PowerPoint outline in which community benefits were listed. In response to this reporter’s question asking why the developers were listing as their PUD-offered community amenities the very statutory requirements which already stipulate what the developer must do in order to qualify for the project’s $46 million property tax abatement, developer Wexler’s response to the absence of PUD-required community amenities was a sudden exhortation to those in attendance to propose such community amenities. This was followed by Friedman’s assertion that he had just learned of architectural and building materials concerns from a community resident and that he would be devising responses to such concerns; he also proposed a top floor set-back of 13 feet, with the loss of such hotel “modules”  being offset with additional density elsewhere.

PUD projects, as a condition for their approval, must include a package of what is known as community amenities in exchange for increases in zoning and density that otherwise would not be granted. These are to be in addition to the requirements that the City Council’s tax abatement authorization specified such items as a 4,000 square-foot community center facility at no cost to the community; first-source and numerous other job, job training, and neighborhood, Ward 1, and DC-wide job recruitment; and the use of DC-certified CBE contractors and sub-contractors.

So far, the developers have not included any significant PUD amenities in their application other than the planned historic preservation of the church building for which they will receive a 20 percent federal tax credit and a customary waiver –- since DC has no parallel state historic preservation tax credit –- of the project’s property recordation fee.

Questions and answers continued into the scheduled adjournment time, with a resolution request suddenly being offered by Arianne Bennett, owner of the Amsterdam Falafelshop and vice president of the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District (BID), with a call for a vote on such resolution from Pat Patrick, BID board member and president of the Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association immediately following; both were deemed out of order –- rulings which was not appealed — and the meeting was shortly thereafter adjourned.

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A Burst of New RCNA Members

The Treasurer’s report, which preceded the main program, reflected an unusual increase in the Association’s bank account balance due to an extraordinary increase in new members together with several renewals of existing memberships. At least 13 of the 32 new members that had been recruited by Nigel Okunubi, Director of the Adams Morgan Youth Leadership Academy (AMAYLA) two weeks before the October 13th meeting were in attendance among the more than 80 present; these 32 new membership dues were paid with a stack of crisp $50 bills — plus a 20 and a 10 -– hand-delivered to a long-time RCNA activist member, followed by photocopied membership applications received in the mail by the RCNA treasurer the next day — all in identical business envelopes with identical computer-printed address labels. Other new members joined, one-by-one, within this same time frame, and several long-time members renewed their memberships with timely payments of the $15 renewal fee. This phenomenon, which had a noticeable impact on the number of persons attending, seemed related to the erroneous notion that there would be opportunities to vote on measures and other matters at the meeting; none such, however, were on the agenda.

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The RCNA October meeting on the hotel project followed on the heels of the Kalorama Citizens Association’s (KCA’s) September meeting where the hotel project was addressed with a bill of particulars similar to that already adopted by RCNA. KCA’s resolution concluded with an even more emphatic concern over the precedent and impact of such a project, stating that “approval of a project of this scale will set a precedent for other very tall, very dense projects, be they hotels or other uses, that will greatly detract from the human scale of Adams Morgan, and further contravene the goals of the [District’s statutorily enacted] Comprehensive Plan.” (A complete copy of the KCA resolution is reproduced below.)

Further, a newly formed Lanier Heights Citizens Association, which held an organizational meeting in September and its business meeting on October 12th, voted almost unanimously, 12 voting members affirming and one member abstaining, to endorse the hotel project as presented by the developers. Both single agenda item meetings were hosted by the association’s president, Al Jirikowic in the lobby of the apartment building at 2800 Ontario Road and featured introductory remarks by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, the project’s strong supporter and also the sponsor of the City Council’s enacted $46 million property tax abatement.

The Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) is hosting a public forum on the hotel project at the Goodwill Baptist Church, 1862 Kalorama Road, from 7 to 10 p.m. on October 17th. Requirements for speaking and for the submission of statements are detailed in the October issue’s Around Our Community column at PDF page 4 or on the Community News website section.

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Kalorama Citizens Association Resolution Expressing Concerns to the Office of Planning with regard to the Planned Unit Development Application for Construction of a Hotel at Euclid and Champlain Streets

Whereas, developers have proposed to build a 104’ tall hotel, the “Adams Morgan Historic Hotel” at Euclid and Champlain Streets, N.W., on lots currently occupied by the Church of Christ, Scientist, and the City Paper/WPFW Radio building, and

Whereas, as soon as mid-October, the DC Office of Planning, which actively invites public participation, will present a report on this application to the DC Zoning Commission at a so-called “set-down hearing” at which the Zoning Commission will decide if this project has adequate merit to go forward to a full-blown Zoning Commission hearing, and

Whereas, KCA wishes to provide community input to that report, and

Whereas, the proposed hotel will contain up to 227 guest rooms and a 174-car underground garage; with pedestrian and vehicular entrance to the hotel on Champlain Street, N.W.; and

Whereas, the proposed site of the hotel lies within the boundaries of a zoning area known as the “Reed-Cooke Overlay,” which seeks to protect the residential nature of the neighborhood and which limits new building heights to 40 feet and prohibits within its boundaries bars and hotels, while encouraging “small-scale business development that will not adversely affect the residential community” of Reed Cooke; and

Whereas, the developers of the proposed hotel project on July 29, 2011, filed with the DC Zoning Commission a “Planned Unit Development” (PUD) application to seek relief from Reed-Cooke Overlay restrictions; the current R-5B zoning of the Church; the current RC/C2B zoning of the other parcels and relief from rear and side yard requirements in order to construct a hotel that would exceed those restrictions; and  

Whereas, DC has established a “Comprehensive Plan for the Capital City” to guide future land use, building construction, and other development, which states in city Policy Mid-City-2.4.5: “Protect existing housing within the Reed Cooke neighborhood, maintaining heights and densities at appropriate levels and energizing small-scale business development that does not adversely affect the residential community;” and, for the larger Adams Morgan area, in city Policy Mid-City-2.4.1: “Protect the historic character of the Adams Morgan community through historic landmark and district designations, and by ensuring that new construction is consistent with the prevailing heights and densities in the neighborhood;” and

Whereas, the members of KCA would like to see the Christian Science Church building preserved as part of a more moderately sized project than has been proposed,

Now, then, be it resolved that the members of the KCA wish to notify the Office of Planning that:

1. The hotel project as currently proposed seeks 2½ times the height allowed by the Reed-Cooke Overlay and, if approved such approval would run counter to the guidance for neighborhood development as laid out in the city’s Comprehensive Plan;

 2. The height, density, and mass of the project as proposed, as well as the range of commercial activities it plans to host, is at odds with the residential nature of the Reed-Cooke neighborhood and will have negative impacts on the quality of life for residents of Champlain, Euclid and other nearby narrow neighborhood streets, including traffic congestion, residential parking demand and late-night events that will cause disturbance;

 3. The height and overall scale of the hotel as currently proposed will visually overwhelm the historic row-houses along the east side of 18th Street, in the adjacent Washington Heights Historic District, as well as the row-houses and smaller apartment buildings along Champlain and Euclid Streets;

4. Approval of a project of this scale will set a precedent for other very tall, very dense projects, be they hotels or other uses, that will greatly detract from the human scale of Adams Morgan, and further contravene the goals of the Comprehensive Plan as expressed above.