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Adams Morgan ANC Commissioners Lay Down Gauntlet for Developers Set to Build on SunTrust Plaza; ANC’s Actions Serve as Notic to All Other Developers

Accompanying images can be viewed in the May 2016 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz*

Three detailed resolutions affecting planned development of the triangle-shaped lot at 1800 Columbia Road, NW — now home to a SunTrust Bank branch at the busy intersection with 18th Street — were adopted by the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 1C during a standing-room-only meeting on May 4 at the Mary’s Center on Ontario Road.

The resolutions address zoning, historic preservation, and access to parking at the site, which is now owned by PN Hoffman and Potomac Developers. They plan a six-story mixed-use building consisting of residential and retail space, with retail restricted to street level. In broad effect, however, the ANC commissioners made clear that they intend the resolutions to send a strong message to any developer with eyes on their neighborhood.

Development planning that includes the ANC and interested neighbors, they said, will be a must before any shovel breaks ground in Adams Morgan.

The ANC resolutions for the project at hand cover such regulatory matters as whether the building should be considered to front on Columbia Road or 18th Street; height and mass of the building in regards to historic preservation regulations; and how best to situate access to underground parking for the building.

A sign that the developers take the resolutions and other community concerns seriously was the squadron of PN Hoffman managers and the project architect who also attended the ANC meeting and gave a brief presentation about the proposed building.

Even PN Hoffman founder and Chief Executive Officer, Monty Hoffman, was in the audience — despite being on crutches from a leg injury — and expressed thanks for neighborhood input. He noted that his company has built many projects in the neighborhood, an area of the city he said he enjoys, and wants to have dialog with neighbors as this and possibly other new projects proceed.

Hoffman’s Vice President Shawn Seaman described the proposed building as a mix of variety and unity in terms of overall appearance, materials to be used, and colors that will echo other significant structures in the immediate neighborhood. Perhaps most significantly, he said “the building in height, mass, and setbacks” is in line with the Washington Heights Historic District that is on the Columbia Road side of the development.

“Our building is 70 feet tall, so it’s in the middle of what exists now,” Seaman said, addressing one of the principal concerns about the proposed structure, further commenting that “varying building heights are what make this an interesting corridor.”

Residents attending the meeting expressed mostly approval for the project, though many said they have concerns about the building’s proposed height and mass; that they worry that the building as currently conceived could destroy views in the neighborhood. On the plus side, they noted the need for new housing in the neighborhood, including affordable housing that developers are required to include with each residential project.

The existing plaza situated at the tip of the lot where the two streets meet will be somewhat reduced in size but also renovated and beautified with both seating and vegetation — a plan met with near unanimous praise from the commissioners and neighbors in attendance. The developers have pledged that it will be kept as public space; however, the weekend farmers market presently at the site will have to move, but the developers say they will pay for permits for its relocation to existing public space diagonly across the intersection.

The ANC commissioners noted that email and listserv comments they had received were about evenly split in terms of support or opposition for the development.

Commissioner Billy Simpson said the resolutions constitute a “pre-emptive approach” that forces developers to deal with the Adams Morgan ANC from the start of any new construction projects. “We are concerned about the way developers approach us,” he said. Along with building height issues, he added, the current proposal includes many details not in accordance with the law.

Simpson also stated that the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board must evaluate the project for compliance with its regulations before moving forward. He urged the developers to “come back to us with something more reasonable” before that phase of the project. If they do not, “we will fight you very hard at HPRB and likely prevail.”

Commenting about development pressures in Adams Morgan, Commissioner Wilson Reynolds said, “We are not at the end of this, ladies and gentlemen. We are at the beginning,” observing further that it is important for developers to hear from residents as projects are being planned.

Of historic preservation alone, said Commissioner Mark Buffa, “The resolution is not some thoughtless NIMBY (not in my back yard) opposition or an argument over aesthetics but a real concern that the project is not in compliance.”

On a sepate agenda item disposed of earlier in the meeting, the commissioners voted to approve a draft settlement agreement  which mostly addresses concerns about noise for a rooftop bar liquor license at the Line DC Hotel now under construction at the corner of Euclid and Champlain Streets.

[Editor’s Note: This is the site of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, the edifice that is being incorpotated into this hotel project, about which we reported extensively over several years of proposals, planning, and obtaing approvals and permits when it was being pursued by different developers and bearing differing names. See, “Adams Morgan Hotel Zoning Hearings Continue; Traffic Impact Revealed as Major Problem,” October 2012 issue pdf, page 1.]

*Our new Associate Editor, William G. Schulz, a resident of Dupont Circle since the 1980s, has been a journalist specializing in science and investigative reporting for over 30 years.