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Masonic Temple Development Opponents Pin Final Hope on Empty Land Argument Before the HPRB

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the April 2019 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz

 Dupont East residents who have been hoping to derail plans for a new rental apartment building project behind the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in the 1700 block of 16th Street, NW had their hopes dashed at a recent meeting of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA).

Don Alexander Hawkins, a local architect and architectural historian who was invited to speak at the April 1st DCCA meeting, said the Masons, who own the two undeveloped lots on 15th Street behind the temple where the proposed apartment building is to be built, have done their homework to get what they want. As the project stands, it is a “by right” zoning project, meaning there is nothing in their proposal that would prompt a zoning review or require any hearing or decision by the DC Office of Zoning or the Zoning Commission.

Probably the Masons most significant move, however, has been to switch the official address of the temple from 16th Street to S Street on the building’s north side. This allows subdivision of the back lot so that the proposed apartment building can fill nearly the entire width of the lot — from S Street on the north to Riggs Place on the south.

Hawkins, who was asked to review the project by DCCA, said he can “find no reason” why the Masons cannot make this change and keep the project within the bounds of by-right zoning. He says moving the address of even an historic structure like the Scottish Rite temple is a common maneuver by developers, and is perfectly legal.

As previously reported by The InTowner, the Masons have hired a local developer, Perseus Transwestern Development Co., to build a luxury apartment building on the lot behind the temple with the idea that proceeds from the high rents tenants will pay will help fund the Masons other activities as well as pay for maintenance and upkeep of the century-old temple, an historic landmark designed by celebrated American architect John Russell Pope.

The Masons have also asked for a tax abatement to the tune of some $22 million on the apartment project — a hotly contested proposal that even the DC Office of Tax and Revenue says is unnecessary.

Steve Callcott, Dupont Circle resident and Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer for the District of Columbia, also told the DCCA crowd that the building proposed by the Masons and Perseus did not present any significant historic preservation issues. Neighbors who have raised issues like sightlines from 15th and S Streets to the temple being blocked, planned underground units in the new apartment building being set too deep, and “last green space” arguments simply don’t carry enough water. The city’s Historic Preservation Office has recommended the project for approval by the Historic Preservation Review Board. A first review by HPRB has resulted in a request for some façade design modifications, but that is by no means unusual or unexpected in an historic neighborhood like Dupont Circle.

Meanwhile, the newly formed Dupont East Civic Action Association (DECAA) has filed an application to increase the boundary of the landmark designation for the Masonic Temple to include the temple gardens and the open space behind the temple — the lot where the apartment building is planned to be built.

On local Google group, HearUsNow, DECAA states, “The beauty of this magnificent building at 1733 16th Street would be irrevocably scarred by construction of the tacky 5 story apartment building which Perseus Realty wants to build on this historic site. Perseus Realty plans to dig up this historic site to construct a cheap-looking building 5 stories high (4 stories plus rooftop penthouses), rooftop ‘club house,’ 2 levels of subterranean cellar apartments, two levels of underground parking up to 40 feet below ground for over 105 more vehicles all squeezed up against the rear of the Masonic Temple.”

The DC Historic Preservation Office has processed the application and a hearing by HPRB will now be set for late May, according to DECAA.

In a related matter, Dupont Circle ANC 2B Chair Daniel Warwick once again finds himself in the hot seat with fellow commissioners. ANC 2B09 Commissioner Ed Hanlon says Warwick has refused a March 20th request to hand over correspondence he and/or ANC 2B04 Commissioner Aaron Landry have “sent or received to anyone” regarding the Masons development project since January 19th.

Warwick refused the March 20th request for records from Hanlon, writing, “I am not of the belief that correspondence is what matters in applications ‐‐ rather I believe the application and discussion at the ANC meeting and with constituents is what helps me determine my perspective and vote. Should you still desire these items, you may file a request pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act which the Office of ANC and the Office of the Chief Technology Officer will compile and provide.”

Hanlon, on April 8th, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with both the DC council’s Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the city’s Office of Chief Technology Officer to obtain that correspondence.

“I regret having to file this request under the Freedom of Information Act. But, Daniel Warwick’s refusal to voluntarily release the records left me no choice. The records sought relate directly to matters of great public concern in this ANC involving the Masonic Temple project, the landmark application which has been filed with HPRB and the Masons continuing desire for a $22 million tax abatement,” Hanlon writes on HearUsNow, noting that there is a statutory deadline of 15 business days for an answer to a FOIA request.

Hanlon has also threatened to take the matter to DC Attorney General Karl Racine. It would be the second time in Warwick’s ANC 2B tenure that a fellow commissioner has sought a legal opinion regarding his actions — the first, as we reported having been in September of 2017.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.