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Adams Morgan Hotel Zoning Hearings Continue; Traffic Impact Revealed as Major Problem

By Anthony L. Harvey

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

It was a fractious, four-hour hearing conducted by a four-member DC Zoning Commission on September 13th — its vacant fifth member, Rob Miller, not yet confirmed by the City Council — and with a late evening session that began and ended with a protracted dispute over the recognition by the Commission of the second of two “parties in opposition,” a group of Champlain Street residents requesting the right to question the proponents of the now proposed 72-foot hotel structure to rise behind the former Christian Science Church fronting on Euclid Street that is to be incorporated into the overall project.

The apparently tireless commissioners plowed through the hearing with a presentation by the applicant for this controversial project, its attorney, architects, and numerous expert witnesses followed by a cross examination conducted by the first of the ”two parties in opposition” — the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) represented by its president Denis James in this second of what will be a series of public hearings by Commission

The architect’s presentation drew commendation from all four commissioners, especially those who had been most vocal in criticizing the project at the Commission’s earlier “Set Down meeting,” where the hotel’s proposed height of 92 feet, the massing of the hotel tower, one which crowded the Champlain Street hotel frontage, the black brick aesthetic being proposed for the building, and the lack of comprehensive and coherent plans, drawings, and renderings of all sides of the proposed luxury hotel in the application packets provided the Commission members.

The removal of two floors accounting for 20 feet, the approximate 10 percent reduction of the building’s massing and its further orientation toward the alley side of the project, the elimination of an underground parking level, the reduction in the number of hotel rooms and parking spaces — 227 to 220 rooms and 140 to 132 parking spaces, the breaking up of the main, north side of the hotel — all four sides are being formally designed — and a glass and steel corner of the hotel building on the Champlain Street side corner facing Columbia Road, and the provision of comprehensible plans and drawings, including shadow drawings and a ground plate, were singled out for commendation by the Commission.

Commissioner Michael Turnbull took special note of the 15-foot height being proposed by the architects for the penthouse elevator over-ride structure, reminding his fellow commissioners that previously the applicants had insisted that the “up to 18 feet, six inches height allowed in the zoning regulations” was too low and that at least 19 feet and a few extra inches were necessary. Turnbull and other members of the Commission also took note of the applicant reaching out to the ANC and other members of the community.

The project’s expert witness, especially the representatives of two transportation engineering and analysis firms, fared far worse. No commissioner expressed any belief in the conclusions of their professional analysis regarding the impact of the proposed hotel on traffic in Adams Morgan — on 18th Street from Kalorama to Columbia Roads; Euclid Street to Ontario Road; and Champlain, and the long, single run of the alley stretching from Columbia to Kalorama.

Rush hour counts on these traffic arteries and their many intersections were conducted by these experts only in the morning between 8 and 9 a.m. and in the late afternoon between 5 and 6 p.m. These roadways and their many intersections were all given passing grades – ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C’ –- though mostly ‘A,’ noted a disbelieving Anthony Hood, the commission’s chairman, who added, wryly, “I think of you guys [the traffic analysts] every time I sit caught in Adams Morgan traffic” and its congested intersections.

Commissioner Peter May retorted that he “had never had an ‘A’ experience at an intersection in Adams Morgan,” and Commissioner Marcie Cohen expressed surprise that the transportation experts made no mention of the heavy load of traffic on Champlain Street, recounting that she walks her dog quite often on Champlain where she finds it always busy with heavy two-way traffic, parking on both sides of the narrow street, and with there being always some kind of bottleneck.

The applicant’s traffic experts had no additional comment, other than their routine and repeated responses that traffic generated by the 220-room, 132-parking space with valet parking luxury hotel ”would have no significant impact on traffic on these streets or at these Adams Morgan intersections.”

In his cross examination, KCA’s Denis James was incredulous that the traffic experts had done no counts or congestion analysis at the weekend peak hours in the neighborhood, for example between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. During these peak hours, noted James, there are 25 to 30 car back-ups throughout this lively and jam-packed Adams Morgan entertainment district. Once again the experts stonewalled, simply repeating that they used the District’s Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) definitions of peak hours for their analysis of traffic loads and levels of congestion at intersections, an assertion they refused to retreat from. James was further aghast that counts had not been taken of existing truck traffic in the alley between Champlain and 18th Street and stretching from Columbia to Kalorama Roads, an alley that the hotel would be using and one that already served, said James, 30 to 40 restaurants and bars, and that, in addition, no analysis had been made of fire and emergency access to the hotel from any of these streets or the alley.

Several startling assertions were made by the applicant’s well-known zoning and land use expert Steven Sher — for example, in answering such questions from James as whether or not the 72-foot, 220-room luxury hotel with its 132 valet parking spaces, etc., could be considered “commercial low density” as stipulated in the District’s future land use map for this site. “Yes,” replied Sher, in his best, authoritative voice.

James also tangled with the applicant’s real estate economics expert over the question of the economic impact on cost feasibility of reducing by an additional floor the height of the proposed hotel versus that of the negative impact of the inclusion of the First Church of Christ, Scientist’s enormously high ceiling and large square-footage sanctuary that is to be incorporated into the hotel project. No clarity was achieved on this issue.

With the architects, James did establish that the height of the building is in actuality 85 feet rather than 72, a figure technically accurate when measuring the hotel’s height from the Euclid Street front of the church — a zoning measurement that does not include the 13-foot slope of Champlain Street where the hotel will be constructed once the City Paper building that presently sits on that site is demolished. The question of light pollution was more enlightening, especially from traffic using the hotel’s porte-cochère automobile entrance facing Champlain; nonetheless, Commissioner Cohen asked for more information from the applicant’s architects on light and sound barriers that could be constructed on the perimeter of the roof deck to protect Champlain Street residents from nighttime noise and bright lights from events occurring around the penthouse structures on the roof.

The Commission concluded its hearing after having established October 10th at 6:30 p.m. for its continuance of these sessions being held in its hearing room at 441 4th Street, NW. The proceedings can be viewed on the Office of Zoning’s easy-to-use on-line archive of previous hearings; one need only select it by the hearing’s October 10th date and Z.C. Case No. 11-17. The Zoning Office’s staff and its electronic data bases are DC award-winning efforts, as aptly and appropriately noted by Chairman Hood.

Editor’s Note: For background, see “Contentious Adams Morgan Hotel Project Logjam May Be Broken; Revised Application Before Zoning Commission Reduces Height,” InTowner, September 2012, PDF page 1.