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Opposition to Former Comet Liquors Building in Adams Morgan Based on Review of Recently Withdrawn Plans; Owner to Submit Revisions

Accompanying images can be viewed in the February 2016 issue pdf

By Anthony L. Harvey

Controversial plans for the redevelopment of the 1815 Columbia Road site presently occupied by a small commercial building formerly housing Sid & Bernice Drazin’s Comet Liquor and Delicatessen have been withdrawn, says developer daughter Lisa Drazin, and will soon be replaced, she asserted to this reporter, by a new and “compelling” redevelopment design; furthermore, a new architect has been selected, with whom there are negotiations underway — this, after the consideration of 60 architectural firms.

Background

Fond memories of the legendary Sid Drazin, proprietor with his wife Bernice for 25 years, of the Comet Liquor building they owned, provided the background for the current controversy in Adams Morgan regarding plans by the Drazin’s developer daughter Lisa to raze the off-and-on vacant one-story store building and replace it with a six-story, mixed-use structure with five residential floors above street level (with full basement) commercial space for retail or restaurant use.

Comet Liquor was the Drazins’ long-time friendly and convivial Adams Morgan business environment, a liquor store with a coffee counter and a sandwich table which was a before-its-time harbinger for what are now known as “third place” operations — neither home nor office but rather places to eat, drink, converse, argue in coffee house fashion, and now, in addition, to exploit the on-line technological marvels of the internet and its concomitant computer/communication capabilities.

All of this was presided over by the irrepressible, commanding, and indomitable spirit of Sid Drazin, whose knowledge and out-spoken, often provocative opinions were informed by a remarkable set of life experiences, from growing up in relative poverty on the streets of Washington, DC, to death-defying Naval service on a PT refueling boat in the World War II Pacific theater of the Solomon Islands — directly out of Roosevelt High School — and to surviving and prospering as a successful businessman through the years of the 1960s Washington riots and that of the 1970s and 1980s economic and technological upheavals.

Sid Drazin’s impact on the Adams Morgan neighborhood was poignantly captured in an InTowner editor’s note preceding the newspaper’s May 2005 publication of a shortened version of Rabbi Ethan Seidel’s eloquent eulogy following Drazin’s sudden death from an aneurysm in March of that same year. (See, Community Forum, May 2005 issue pdf, page 3.) That note observed that Drazin was an important “part of the ‘glue’ that helped hold the Adams Morgan community together so that it could emerge from less happy times; [continuing, it observed that Sid Drazin] was also well-known to this newspaper from the moment he and his wife Bernice bought the Comet Liquor store on Columbia Road back in 1980. For it was then that they came to know and closely work with both The InTowner’s founder, John J. Schulter, and the Adams Morgan Business Association’s secretary and legislative and regulatory spokesman (and also The InTowner’s Senior Columnist) George Frain.”

Drazin’s widow (and co-owner) Bernice attempted to continue the Comet operation following Sid’s death but after several months threw in the towel and announced a fire sale of the store’s contents and fixtures, including the iconic front façade signage — which now graces Comet Ping Pong on Connecticut Avenue several doors down from Politics and Prose.

A December, 2005, news story in the Washington Post reported that “a hair salon is negotiating with the family to lease the property at Columbia Road.” Nothing came of that but some time later a shoe store occupied the building but apparently did not renew its lease; since that time the space has been vacant.

Planning for a New Approach

Daughter Lisa has been actively seeking a tenant while exploring the historic preservation, zoning, and building code considerations for an adaptive reuse of the site, all the while keeping in safekeeping a restaurant alcohol license acquired from the shuttered 18th Street’s Bobby Lew Saloon.

Although there have been lively conversations in the neighborhood and among the business community on possible developments regarding the site, the first on-the-record remarks from Ms. Drazin were at an October, 2015 fact finding hearing before the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board regarding the earlier acquired Bobby Lew Saloon ABC license for which continuation of its “safekeeping” was being sought. Drazin discussed with Board members her redevelopment intentions, for which concept architectural and engineering plans and drawings had been prepared for her use in dealing with city bureaucracies, especially the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and the Historic Preservation Office (HPO), initially for the securing a vacant property tax exemption and a raze permit for the demolition of the existing one story building.

ABC Board Member Donald Brooks inquired of Ms. Drazin the details of her building plans, questioning first that of the ground floor level and the cellar below, specifically whether the license permitting the sale of alcoholic beverages would be for those spaces, to which she answered in the affirmative.

Next, Brooks asked where the residential levels would be, to which Ms. Drazin responded as set out in the exchange below.

DRAZIN: It would be above, five stories above.
BROOKS: Oh, okay. So you’re going up?
DRAZIN: Yes. It’s the only way we can afford to meet all of the new D.C. codes, and most developers will tell you that.
BROOKS: Okay. And —
DRAZIN: We have to do things like replace the main waterline, which is 125 years old, in front of our building, replace sanitation pipes that are 100 years old and terra cotta. We have to meet green environmental regulations, green housing code regulations, bike storage, perhaps trees on our roof, which is very, very expensive.”

The ABC Board granted a six-month extension of the liquor license’s safekeeping status.

During a telephone interview, Ms. Drazin informed this reporter that she had received a vacant property tax exemption for 1815 Columbia Road and a demolition permit from DCRA authorizing the razing of the structure. Moreover, she further said that she had instructed HPO to delay any further consideration of the prospective redevelopment project for the site since she no longer plans to use the concept plans and drawings she shared earlier with HPO staff and, in fact, intends to submit entirely new plans and drawings with a compelling design — one that is to be developed by a different architect and with whom she is presently negotiating.

KCA and ANC Consideration and Resolutions

At their respective monthly January and February meetings, the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) and the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) each adopted resolutions opposing the initial concept plans on the basis of the scale and massing of the proposed new development and its proposed height and density. The presumption at the time of these meetings was that the plans before the KCA and ANC were slated to be formally considered by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) at an upcoming meeting.

An explanation for Drazin’s absence was asserted by ANC Chair Ted Guthrie and KCA President Denis James to be based on their understanding that she was asserting that hers was a matter of right project and that the 1815 Columbia Road building was not a contributing structure to the Kalorama Triangle Historic District and thus there was no need for her to be present.

Unfortunately, this reporter’s telephone interview with Ms. Drazin was unexpectedly terminated so that it was not possible obtain her response to the questions regarding absences from those recent meetings at which the then known concept plans and drawings were being reviewed; that they were being withdrawn from further HPO consideration was not known at the time.

The KCA adopted a resolution opposing what was then understood to be the development plans based on both the zoning allowance for the C-2-B zone in which 1815 Columbia Road sits and its presence in the Historic District, and finding that the concept plans and drawings stipulated excessive height — 70 feet rather than the allowable 65 — and 9,821 square feet of construction rather than the allowable 7,888.

More importantly, the KCA resolution noted that the present one-story, 15-foot-high building was surrounded by mostly one-story buildings and thus with the architectural plans showing a sixth level of residential labeled “mezzanine” plus the ground floor and basement levels, “a seven story structure would be vastly out of place and scale within the row of one story commercial buildings and one two story building on this block of the Kalorama Triangle Historic District and thus would be grossly incompatible with the Historic District.”

The ANC’s consideration and adopted resolution was more comprehensive, serving to identify provisions in the initial, and now withdrawn, concept plans and drawings deemed to be in violation of the District’s Comprehensive Plan, and zeroing in on very specific provisions in the “District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Guidelines, New Construction in Historic Districts.” The ANC resolution highlights those provisions requiring the respect for scale of new buildings with that of the prevailing scale of neighboring buildings and that “the design of a new building should respect the existing proportions of neighboring buildings [and that of the] rhythm of its neighbors as well as that of the street [and the] massing of neighboring historic buildings.”

The resolution incorporated the full paragraph regarding height; its first sentence states: “While a new building does not necessarily need to be exactly the same height as its neighbors to be compatible, it should be designed to respect existing building heights.” The resolution, to which the HPRB must grant great weight, was adopted 7-0, with one ANC commissioner absent.

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Hearing Postponed

According to historic preservation case officer Anne Brockett, on February 8, 2016 the Historic Preservation Office announced that 1815 Columbia Road NW (HPA Case #16-160), “a concept/six-story addition to a one-story building was not being scheduled this month; it as been deferred at the request of the applicant.”