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Developers of Hotel Project in Burgeoning “NOMA” See Efforts Stymied by Artists Group

Accompanying images can be viewed in the July 2016 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz*

After paying $7 million in 2015 for a distressed industrial building in an area widely considered to be urban blight, developers Brook Rose and Dennis Lee expected that their plans for an innovative new hotel there would be at least appreciated — if not warmly welcomed — in the rapidly changing “NOMA” (North of Massachusetts Avenue) area. They say they know the brickbats that any developer of urban space inevitably endures, but always they take it on the chin.

To replace a derelict stretch of the city best known for empty lots overgrown with weeds and shady, pay-by-the-hour hotels, Rose and Lee have proposed an “arts hotel.” It’s a new-ish concept in the hospitality industry, they say, that incorporates a boutique hotel with gallery and artists’ studio space — all of which will be free and open to the public. They have partnered with the arts nonprofit Cultural DC to choose and maintain the integrity of arts programs and the artists who will be represented at the hotel.

But change is hard, Rose and Lee acknowledge. It can be difficult for anyone but architects and developers to envision a beautiful new entrance to DC from Route 50 into New York Avenue, including their hotel, if only because of the pull of the familiar. But they had faith, guided by DC’s Comprehensive Plan, the District’s policy document that established the guidelines for development citywide.

What Rose and Lee didn’t see was a freight train of opposition to their hotel project barreling down on them in the form of the 411 Artists Union. That is the name of a loosely affiliated coalition of local artists, many of whom inhabit the developers’ Union Arts building at 411 New York Avenue, NE. The coalition — evoking the need to preserve arts space in DC — has managed, according to the developers, to throw up one roadblock after another for a project that in fact aligns with the artists’ stated goals.

Now, the developers say, their wallets and their patience are running thin. They say have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to meet the artists’ needs and concerns.

As it stands, “the building is not sustainable,” says Rose. “Stopping this project will stop arts in this community.”

From the beginning, the developers have had a broad vision of the arts, including plans to include music studio space in a bid to blend both performing and visual arts experiences. As for sustainability, they say their contract with a hotel operator yet to be selected will stipulate a 20-year commitment to the exact details of the arts hotel concept as presented to the Zoning Commission, Rose says.

But the artists paint a very different picture of Rose and Lee’s plan. They see a literal diminution of artists’ space over which they will have little, if any, control. They object to the idea of artists working in an atmosphere of being on display as they work and they predict a haughty, up-scale hotel space where stereotypically unkempt artists and average folks from the neighborhood could feel out of place.

Mostly, however, the 411 Artists Union — often represented by painter Micheline Klagsbrun and community activist Chris Otten — appear determined to extract an ever-growing list of concessions and demands from the developers, say Rose and Lee.

The artists have argued before the Zoning Commission and elsewhere that they have no place to go and/or that the space they would be allotted in the Rose/Lee development will be too small to meet their needs.

Months ago those artists who said they did not want to, or could not afford to, participate in the arts hotel project had been offered relocation assistance, including free research on available spaces, say Rose and Lee.

The artists’ seemingly rudderless and leaderless, negative public relations campaign has nonetheless succeeded in keeping in limbo a development project with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5D support as well as an enthusiastic reception from DC Zoning Commission members whose official approval is still pending.

The InTowner has spoken with and listened to the artists and activists at DC Zoning Commission hearings and read their testimony in commission case files, but they have repeatedly cancelled appointments to meet in person with this reporter to discuss their views and concerns. Eventually they ceased communications altogether.

“Yes, the current artists will have to relocate,” says Rose, but along with relocation assistance, he says they gave the building’s lessees 15 months to remain with their current rental rates locked in.

When they purchased the building, Lee says, “It was under structural distress. We invested $80,000 to keep the building safe for the current occupants while running the city’s gauntlet of boards and commissions which would need to sign off on the project before any construction could begin.” To bring the building totally up to code, he says, would cost in excess of $5 million.

Klagsbrun has acknowledged at public hearings that the developers have worked with the artists and made many concessions and changes to the building and operational plans that were guided by the artists’ input.

The artists further have admitted during testimony that Rose even spent an afternoon driving one of the Union Arts tenants, around DC to look at new art spaces where she might move; she turned down all offers.

Sympathetic zoning commissioners like Marcy Cohen, who are enthusiastic about, and supportive of, the arts, have said they are flummoxed by the 411 Artists’ Union tactics and behavior. Not only did they fail to seek assistance from the city at a time when that would have been readily offered and available, they now seem to be refusing to reason with the developers to strike any kind of deal.

Instead, as characterized by some observers, the artists have relied on a sort of street theater activism in which they show up at hearings where their comments frequently are not relevant to the issues at hand or, at best, repeat broad-brush philosophical arguments about urban planning and the arts. They insist they have had little recourse because of ploys by the developers such as delayed presentation of plan changes that the artists could review in a timely manner in advance of public hearings.

Rose and Lee say that since purchasing the Union Arts building, they have had more than 21 meetings and spent numerous hours talking and trying to reach agreements with the artist tenants. They have even spent time at the Union Arts building just hanging out and trying to get to know the artists who work there, Lee says.

“Our outreach has been pretty significant,” Lee says; “It’s hard to understand the continued protests.”

*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.

Copyright © 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz.