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Developer PN Hoffman’s Adams Morgan Plan Again Hits HPRB Roadblock, Though Possibly Temporary

Accompanying images can be viewed in the November 2016 issue pdf

 By William G. Schulz *

Local real estate developer PN Hoffman failed to receive final approval from the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) at its October 27th hearing for a re-submitted plan design to replace the small, former Sun Trust Bank building and its plaza at 18th Street and Columbia Road, NW.

It was the second time that HPRB did did not give final design approval,  and stated that Hoffman further address the issue of the building’s height and massing.

PN Hoffman executives at the October 27th HPRB hearing once again faced off with Adams Morgan ANC commissioners,  Kalorama Citizen’s Association (KCA) representatives, and various residents in the neighborhood, much of which is included in the Washington Heights historic district. The DC Office of Planning and Economic Development’s Historic Preservation Office HPO) has recommended that HPRB approve the project, but Hoffman needs to win HPRB approval in order to move forward with the project.

Shawn Seaman, Hoffman’s vice president, expressed frustration with the ANC commissioners, saying that with each plan revision the company has been presented with a new list of demands in order to win the HPRB’s blessing. He suggested that rather than good-faith bargaining, ANC commissioners are perhaps committed only to stopping a project for which many them have expressed dislike.

A particular point of disagreement with the ANC and others in the community is the existing plaza that sits in front of the bank building. The KCA and other neighborhood activists have now claimed that an easement governs the site. They say it was given to the city in the 1970s as part of a settlement agreement with what was then Perpetual Savings Bank which had been caught denying mortgages to people who lived in predominantly African-American neighborhoods — commonly referred to as “redlining.” (Following the bank’s financial collapse in January of 1992, it was closed by the federal government and its assets sold to the Crestar Financial Corp. which continued maintaining the plaza.)

There is no plaque or other historical marker at the site and the HPRB noted several times that the possibility of an easement was not it’s purview and thus not a productive topic for consideration; nevertheless, the hearing stretched past three hours.

Seaman was blunt: “The plaza is not an historical mandate; the entire site has been used in the past,” he said. “SunTrust owns the entire site [until Hoffman takes control], including the plaza, and we are not aware of any easement.”

Seaman implored HPRB to set aside the objections of activists and the ANC, which he characterized as a vocal minority in a sea of support and approval from most neighbors. He said that it would be wrong for any of the commissioners to use his company’s plans as a bellwether for future development along 18th Street and Columbia Road. “Our plan should be evaluated on its own merits,” he said.

After a lengthy review of PN Hoffman’s revisions for the mixed-use condo building with setbacks, punched windows instead of bays, lowering of overall height, and more, ANC Commissioner JonMarc Buffa, who has expressed sharp criticism of the project at every step of the way, took the mic. He defended the ANC’s actions in the case, saying it was wrong of Hoffman or anyone to question their true motives given the amount of time and effort the commissioners have dedicated to reviewing the project.

Buffa said that in his view the developer has not addressed any of the neighborhood concerns about height and mass of the proposed structure and that, aside from any discussion of the plaza, his objections center mostly on those points. “This building does not comply with the historic character of this district,” he added.

After the hearing, community activist Chris Otten — often a vocal opponent at HPRB and Zoning Commission hearings to almost any development project on the table across the city — said he had filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking any non-public documents related to the SunTrust site. Otten has made serious charges of official corruption related to the project, though he provides no evidence whatsoever for his statements. His FOIA requests are aimed at finding a “smoking gun” that might back up his allegations.

A majority of HPRB members have indicated that they are ready to approve PN Hoffman’s project, but out of an abundance of precaution, they are asking the developer to try again. The firm could get another shot at HPRB approval later this month or sometime in December.

*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.