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Adams Morgan ANC Rejects New Hotel Plan Following Earlier Consideration by its Planning, Zoning & Transportation (PZT) Committee

By Anthony L. Harvey

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

After several hours of contentious discussion by approximately 50 proponents and opponents of the proposed Adams Morgan Historic Hotel — designed to incorporate the First Church of Christ, Scientist in an adaptive re-use historic preservation project — the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) narrowly defeated by a tie vote of 4 to 4 at its March 7th monthly meeting a motion by ANC Chair Wilson Reynolds to “go on record [to the Historic Preservation Review Board] as fully supporting all appropriate action to place the First Church of Christ, Scientist under complete District and Federal historic [landmark] protection without prejudice to approval or denial of the proposed hotel structure.”

The text of Reynolds’ failed resolution further asserted that the ANC found the applicants’ hotel design concept to be in “greater harmony with the church building and represents real progress from previous designs.” It further resolved that “the proposed materials, doors, windows, and roof shape of the proposed design of the hotel are sufficiently different as to provide a suitable contrast from the presentation and character of the First Church of Christ, Scientist.”

The resolution took no position, however, on the proposed hotel structure’s “height, density, lot occupancy or any other zoning issues”; for several commissioners, this was the resolution’s fatal flaw.

[Ed. Note: For background, see “Long-Awaited PUD Application Filed for Controversial Luxury Hotel Tower on Champlain Street in Adams Morgan,” The InTowner, August 2011, page 1.]

Commissioner Olivier Kamanda, for example, noted that many at the meeting raised over and over the issue of the proposed hotel being too high, too dense, and simply too massive for the Reed-Cooke neighborhood. Very few — almost none, in fact — talked about the bricks, doors, windows, and roof shapes being proposed for the new structure. Why then, Kamanda asked, were the commissioners being asked to endorse these smaller technical issues relating to a new structure’s acceptability and compatibility with an existing historic structure — the church building — while at the same time being asked to offer no comment on much larger issues such as height, density, and massing.

Commissioner Steve Lanning saw no reason for the ANC to comment on any of these matters, observing that the HPRB would be making its decision based on its own professional expertise and that of its Historic Preservation Office advisors. In this he was joined by Commissioner Marty Davis, with Commissioner Gabriela Mossi providing the fourth and tying vote to defeat the resolution. Commissioners Stacey Moye, Adian Miller, and Kathie Boettrich joined ANC Chair Reynolds in support of his resolution.

Prior to the ANC votes, a formal presentation to the commissioners and the community was made by the project developers and their architect and historic preservationist, whereupon, following questions from the commissioners, the floor was opened to questions and expressions of community concerns from all those present who wished to speak — and for over two hours they spoke.

Many raised issues above and beyond those on the evening’s agenda, and draft copies of Chairman Reynolds’ proposed resolution were made available to all attendees. Opinion was fairly evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the hotel project, with supporters stressing their belief that the 227-room hotel with its planned five levels of underground parking in the new structure, together with the hotel facilities in the connecting, rehabilitated church building would bring jobs, daytime retail traffic, and, as a couple of persons mentioned, a “better class” of people to the existing Adams Morgan night life along with “new standards of cleanliness” to the neighborhood.

Several people stated that the hotel would be a vital economic  mechanism to provide for the restoration and preservation of the church building; otherwise, it was asserted, the building would be demolished and the church would sell the site as simply a vacant lot.

Opponents of the project — as presented in its latest iteration — stressed their concern for it being out of scale, and out of character for the Reed Cooke neighborhood. Also criticized was that the hotel building would be more than twice the height allowed under the existing Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay and therefore be totally incompatible with zoning overlay.

Several persons also voiced their outrage that the City Council in December 2010 voted to give the developers a $46 million tax break at a time when the District is struggling to fund vital social service and public safety programs.

Toward the end of the evening the presidents of the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) and the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association (RCNA) spoke. KCA’s president noted its support for the preservation of the Christian Science Church building “as part of a more moderately-sized project than has been proposed” but its strong objection to the project as proposed and for the precedent it would set affecting the relatively low-rise stretches of Columbia Road. RCNA’s president re-affirmed its full support for the project’s goals of increasing job opportunities and economic development and its support for the “preservation of the church building and the concept of the hotel development on this site.” However, the RCNA’s position is that the proposed height of the hotel, “alleged . . . to be a minimum of not less than 90 feet is excessive.” The result would be, in the view of the RCNA, a building that would loom over the neighborhood and not be in keeping with those on 18th Street and the interior streets of the Reed-Cooke neighborhood. Earlier, the Lanier Citizens Association called the gathering’s attention to its unanimous, 12-to-0, vote  endorsing the project at its first and only monthly membership meeting, which was held on October 12, 2011.

February 15th PZT Committee Meeting

The prefatory event to the ANC’s March 7th formal consideration of the Adams Morgan hotel project was a February 15th session of the commission’s Planning, Zoning and Transportation (PZT) Committee, which drew a full house, filling the small space of the Kalorama Park Recreation Center.

Billed in the community as a PZT Committee consideration of the pending historic landmark application for the First Church of Christ, Scientist’s 100-year-old structure at Euclid and Champlain Streets in the heart of Adams Morgan, the committee’s agenda was expanded by its chairman, Wilson Reynolds, to include the question of the acceptability and compatibility of the church and its developers’ new concept design for a 102-foot-tall luxury hotel to be constructed over the church’s rear surface parking lot and the site of the adjacent City Paper building.

Ironically, the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) is once again conducting a public hearing on this matter, even through the Board has no formal legal jurisdiction over either the surface parking lot or the City Paper sites — the two parcels upon which this proposed hotel structure would be built. This lack of legal jurisdiction is caused by the absence of any historic district designation covering these sites, and the lack of a historic landmark designation of the adjacent, connecting site upon which sits the church.

There is, however, a pending application for landmark designation of the church building, which was filed by the Adams Morgan Historic Main Street organization. The church then announced its opposition to the landmark designation — apparently awaiting action for the necessary zoning relief to allow the proposed hotel project, of which it is a party participant, to go forward.

The Zoning Commission, which does have jurisdiction over the relief being sought, has held a public meeting on the matter and announced a decision to allow a so-called “set down” public hearing over the applicant’s request to be given a planned unit development (PUD) approval granting such relief. This relief includes that of allowing the construction of a structure to be built that is two-and-a-half times higher than that which would be allowed under the governing zoning regulations for that site. This existing governing zoning, the Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay, provides an overriding regulatory regime that restricts residential and commercial redevelopment to lowered height and density allowances; prohibits hotels, restaurants, bars, and the off-premises sale of alcoholic beverages;  and promotes residential and neighborhood serving commercial and retail establishments.

Nonetheless, HPRB has scheduled yet another “courtesy” hearing and concept review for this project — the first having been held in 2008 — and the Zoning Commission agreed at a lively public meeting to “set-down” the project for a planned unit development (PUD) public hearing, in spite of having dozens of questions, concerns, and objections to the project as proposed by the applicant.

With this background and the committee’s somewhat chaotic and humorous proceedings, which was filmed by former ANC commissioner, library and community activist, and intrepid videographer Chris Otten and uploaded to YouTube, a Saturday Night Live segment should be in the offing. (Visit http://www.youtube.com/user/dcexpose. In addition, there are four more separate video parts that can be viewed by clicking those links on the displayed YouTube page.)

The meeting began with informal and relatively brief presentations by one of the project’s developers and by Emily Hotaling Eig of EHT Traceries, a DC historic preservation firm. There was an immediate disconnect when Chairman Reynolds asked that standards or criteria for the concepts of “acceptable and compatible” for such historic expansions be explained. Eig, whose articulateness on such matters is well known, instead spoke of specifics regarding the church/hotel proposal, assuring the audience that in her judgment the materials, fenestration, and background framing provided to the church building by the proposed, much taller hotel structure, all served to make such an addition acceptable and compatible. Steve Callcott of the District’s Historic Preservation Office echoed Eig’s judgment, adding that the HPRB had already provided an advisory approval to an earlier version of the project’s massing, height, and density at a fall, 2008 meeting.

Al Jirikowic, president of the recently organized Lanier Citizens Association, board member of the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District (BID), irrepressible proprietor of Chief Ike’s Mambo Room on Columbia Road, and a vocal proponent of the project, provided additional information on the proposed building materials for the hotel tower and the planned treatment of the historic church building’s exterior. A faded brick color would ensure the hotel tower being visually a background color to the church building, the exterior of which, Jirikowic asserted, would be sandblasted and resurfaced, giving it an entirely new appearance. And, further, the building would be dramatically lighted in the evening, providing Adams Morgan with a stunning new building site.

This news was not commented on by the developers nor the historic preservationists, nor any of the audience even though none of it is borne out in the plans, drawings, and renderings in the developers’ latest submissions.

There was, however, reaction to Jirikowic’s subsequent assertion that the church and its proposed hotel addition were now in Lanier Heights; this prompted loud laughter — both good natured and derisive — and perhaps relates to the developers’ current labeling of the church as having an address of 1780 Columbia Road rather than that of its long-time actual and legal address of 1770 Euclid Street, or simply to confusion over on-going redrawing of ANC single member district boundaries.

Crafty zoning considerations for this new address, however, are suspected by some neighborhood activists — Columbia Road being much wider than Euclid Street — although the developers have asserted in the past that the reason for their using the Columbia Road address has to do with Euclid Street having a bad reputation for street crime and drug dealing, an opprobrium that would scare off prospective hotel project investors, it was asserted.

Carlos Lumpuy, prominent long-time Adams Morgan resident, having observed glum faces, offered some further humor, noting that he had learned to square-dance in the Kalorama Rec Center when he was no taller than the center’s water fountain. He also asserted that nearby Woodley Park, a residential district, has two huge hotels, the Omni Shoreham and the Wardman Park Marriott. Surely, he concluded, Adams Morgan could accommodate a “200 room hotel.” Others demurred, reminding the audience that both of those hotels had large parks in front of them and ample surrounding space for access, not narrow streets and alleys as in Reed-Cooke.

Additionally, the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) and Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association (RCNA) presidents reiterated their respective organizations specific concerns and objections — long-standing since 2008 — to the current project, which has only been altered in new proposals with new skins to the façades and a reduction in height from 105 feet to 103 at the tallest point of the hotel down the Champlain Street slope, or by using a zoning technicality which allows the developer to select the front address of a corner project — in this case, that of the Church — and thus be able to claim a two-foot reduction from 92 to 90 feet using the Euclid Street address of the project. The Columbia Road speculation relates to the zoning regulations for a PUD and those of street width restrictions.

After strenuous discussion by the three PZT committee members, Chairman Reynolds’ resolution recommending that the committee endorse and forward to the full ANC a motion conveying to the HPRB an action in support of the historic landmarking of the church and a finding of the proposed concept design for the new hotel structure to be acceptable and compatible with the character of the existing church building failed when a substitute motion to simply pass a resolution stating that the PZT Committee has heard a presentation from the developers of the latest Adams Morgan hotel project proposal, together with its relationship to a pending historic landmark application for the church building, and thus forwards the matter to the full ANC for consideration at its March 7th meeting — which passed on a vote of two-to-one, Commissioners Kathie Boettrich and Steve Lanning in favor, Commissioner Reynolds opposed.