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Contentious Adams Morgan Hotel Project Logjam May Be Broken; Revised Application Before Zoning Commission Reduces Height and Bulk

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the September 2012 issue PDF

The proceedings of the September 6th early evening public session of DC Zoning Commission had a surreal rather than the usual staid flavor, including an applicant’s hallway hospitality table loaded with food and drink and stacks of brightly colored orange tee shirts emblazoned with the logo for the Adams Morgan Historic Hotel, this superimposed on an image of the First Church of Christ, Scientist at 1770 Euclid Street, slated to be the hotel’s official entrance, lobby, and event space.

This first of two scheduled public hearings on this complicated zoning matter became an hours-long session allowing the Commission time to consider the applicant’s request for a last-minute amendment to its Planned United Development (PUD) for the hotel project on this expanded site which includes the Church’s rear surface parking lot and the adjacent City Paper building, both of which connecting properties face Champlain Street and are located within the Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay zone.

The applicant‘s amendment request for a waiver from Zoning Commission regulations — which require all amendments to applications to be filed no later than 20 days prior to a scheduled hearing — included the late submission of revised plans and drawings and a detailed document containing a contract with the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association (RCNA). (These filings were received by the Office of Zoning two days before the September 6th hearing.)

The contract document that was filed reflects, among other issues, the applicant’s reduction in the height of the proposed new hotel building from 82 to 72 feet, as measured from the church building’s address on Euclid; a reduction in the building’s bulk — floor area ratio (FAR) from 4.32 to 3.99; a reduction in the number of underground parking spaces and an enhanced traffic management plan; restrictions on the use of a roof top terrace; and a map amendment to the Overlay which would incorporate the historic church building and a sliver of the parking lot into the Overlay and include language stipulating the reason for the exceptions from the Overlay being granted to the project — this aimed at minimizing any effect on precedent by this action on projects that might be proposed elsewhere in the Overlay or throughout the adjacent neighborhood. The contract also contains a detailed agreement for a comprehensive capital improvement program for the Marie Reed Learning Center’s outdoor playgrounds and athletic playing field as a community benefit for the zoning relief being requested.

Discussion and debate among the four commissioners (a fifth mayoral-appointed seat is vacant) was lively, with the initial vote on accepting the amendment to the application and waiving the 20-day rule failing on a tie vote, Commissioners Anthony J. Hood and Peter G. May in favor, and Commissioners Marcie Cohen and Michael G. Turnbull opposed.

Commissioner Cohen expressed concern for an “insufficient time being given to evaluate this new agreement” — both for the community and for the commissioners. She asserted that other community groups must be given an opportunity to review the new filing, and thus additional time is needed.

Commissioner Turnbull noted the significant amount of detail being given the Commission in such short notice, stating that it was only 24 hours before that he received “five or six email transmissions of little tiny drawings” to view on his computer monitor. Turner was especially outraged at being given tiny black and white elevation drawings which required putting individual drawings together to get any kind of comprehensive outline of the building plans — and to receive this at “the 11th hour is totally unacceptable.”  He called for “a better ground floor plate [as well as] full, ledger-size drawings [and] color renderings to see what the building is really going to look like.”

Commissioner Anthony Hood, who chairs the Commission, expressed angst at the prospect of having to completely re-schedule the matter — which would be the consequence of the Commission not changing its rejection of the request for waiver — but sharing the outrage at the last-minute submission with the absence of complete vetting in the community of the revised application.

Commissioner Peter May, in expressing his concerns, offered the judgment that the amendment to the application represented a “positive development” but that he was “not sure if it was positive enough.” Nonetheless, said May, “it is a step in the right direction.”

Commissioner Cohen, who serves as the Commission’s Vice Chairman, offered a solution to the dilemma by changing her vote with the condition that the amended application be fully vetted with the ANC, the entire community — and especially with all applicants for party status. She also noted her concern that the Commission have ample time to review the amended application, with Turnbull strongly echoing her concerns regarding both the Commission and the community. Cohen’s motion was then adopted on a three to one vote.

Chairman Hood immediately followed this action with a query posed to the applicant’s Holland and Knight attorney Chip Glasgow as to assurances that the applicant would inform the entire community of the new plans and drawings and of the text of the amended application. Vice Chair Cohen added her special concern that the Latino community be provided, if necessary, sufficient translation of the matter and that specific communication be undertaken to allay fears and misunderstandings expressed by Latinos who have written to the Commission. Turnbull reiterated his concerns for being given “little black and white cartoons, muddy drawings, and black and white elevations.” “If you want to sell this project to the community,” continued Turnbull, speaking to the applicant, “you’re going to have to prove to the community that this is going to be a handsome building.” He did express appreciation for being given shadow studies that showed the effects of the hotel on neighboring buildings. Glasgow assured the Commission that the applicant would provide all that was requested.

Chairman Hood also called on the Adams Morgan ANC for its comment on the last-minute submissions and request for a waiver. The ANC is an automatic party to such zoning matters and ANC Chair Wilson Reynolds reported that the ANC had received three sets of new materials in the last 72 hours and had hardly any time to review the materials, adding that the Democratic national convention had been occurring at the same time and that the Commission was unable to secure a meeting quorum for its September 5th meeting the day before. Reynolds did add that there were many parties present at this September 6th meeting ready to go forward. ANC Vice Chair Stacey Moye added, in response to a concern of Commissioner Cohen, that the ANC provided a Latino translator for its community consideration of such matters  as the hotel project. With that, Chairman Hood concluded the session with its resumption scheduled for the September 13th hearing.

Editor’s Note: For background, see “By Split Vote Preservation Board Gives Nod to Adams Morgan High-Rise Hotel Design Concepts Despite Numerous Board Member Objections,” InTowner, June 2012, PDF page 1.