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SunTrust Plaza Site Developer’s “Honeymoon” with Adams Morgan Community Ends With a Bitter Thud

Accompanying images can be viewed in the October 2016 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz *

In just a few short months, the Adams Morgan ANC 1C’s “welcoming” of a PN Hoffman mixed-use residential project to replace the SunTrust Bank and plaza at 18th Street and Columbia Road has evolved from a cordial exchange between neighborhood and developer — albeit with the promise of hardnosed negotiation on the road to a final building — to today’s climate of outright hostility and simmering distrust between the parties.

[Ed. Note: See our May 2016 report on this project.]

The ANC’s initial meeting last March with PN Hoffman founder and CEO Monty Hoffman and with all the commissioners in attendance, Hoffman expressed how much he had enjoyed working with the community on previous development projects.

Hoffman might now be wondering about his choice of words. That’s because, at the September 21st meeting of the ANC’s Planning, Zoning and Transportation (PZT) Committee, a deep dive into the nitty gritty of the project brought an upwelling of harsh criticism from commissioner members of the committee, neighbors, and community group representative in attendance.

The talk was often right at the line between disagreement and the hurling of personal insults and recriminations. Hoffman’s representatives were clearly caught off guard by their caustic reception.

Just about the only point of agreement between the community and Hoffman last month was that the existing SunTrust Bank building is an eyesore that nobody likes.

Commissioners zeroed in on what they did and did not like about the revisions, often admitting that they were merely voicing personal tastes. They repeated concerns about the overall “mass” of the building, altered sightlines, compliance with historic preservation guidelines in terms of building height, and perhaps most critical, the fate of the plaza — currently a barren brick and concrete triangle at the 18th Street and Columbia Road intersection.

One neighbor who was in attendance scolded the PN Hoffman representatives, stating,  “I don’t think you are giving the community what it wants,” she said, “and that’s the plaza. The [planned re-designed] plaza is nothing more than a glorified sidewalk.”

Another person questioned whether there would be adequate handicap access to the plaza and questioned whether the developers should have used “universal design,” a concept that incorporates access to all people no matter their physical abilities.

The plaza “is our space and we want to hold on to it,” shouted community activist Chris Otten. He and others, namely Dennis James, who is the president of the Kalorama Citizen’s Association (KCA), insisted that the city retains an easement on all or some of the plaza and that the developer has no right to alone decide its fate.

But a clearly annoyed Bao Vuong, Hoffman’s vice president of development, shot back, “PN Hoffman is the contract purchaser [of the building and lot] from SunTrust. There is no easement on the plaza and the Historic Preservation Review Board concurs.”

The developer’s representatives earlier had explained such modifications as a step back of the 18th street façade, lowered building height, smaller balconies, and a green roof, but they could not give a number for the total square footage for the re-designed plaza. Although they promised to come back to the committee with that number, they were accused outright of hiding an essential fact from the community.

James reiterated KCA’s position that the plan exceeds construction guidelines for historic districts and must comport with prevailing heights.

Struggling to hold on to his composure, Vuong replied, “PN Hoffman believes that they are within the guidelines and that’s what the HPRB is for. They will have the final say.”

Ultimately, the PZT committee members voted two to one to reject PN Hoffman’s revised plans for the project on grounds that it is out of step with historic preservation guidelines. But before the vote, Commissioner JonMarc Buffa had one last zinger to deliver to the Hoffman team:

“I understand you are upset that people hate your project. But it’s not a binary choice — a crappy plaza or your structure.”

*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. All rights reserved.