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HPRB Decision to Re-Visit Masonic Temple Case May Open New Front in Fight to Save Undeveloped Green Spaces Throughout DC

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

By William G. Schulz

The “Ruins of Dupont Circle,” situated at the back end of the once tranquil garden and green space at 18th and Church Streets, NW where once stood the elegant, late 19th century St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church before it was destroyed by an arson fire (arsonist never caught) in the late 1960s, is no more. Now, in its place is the parish’s newly opened replacement, the design of which, according to many passersby who shared their opinions with The InTowner, is simply ugly and totally out of character with its immediate  and mostly late 19th century  neighboring row houses and town homes.

At a series of recent Dupont Circle community meetings to consider similar residential building projects, neither officials from the city’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO), who approved the design of the St. Thomas’ project for the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), nor the architect, would publicly defend the building when assailed by critics.

Those were telling moments. A beloved, seemingly public –- though, actually, private (and by a large sign posted as such) — park was, in the view of so many residents, “sacrificed.”

Now, fears are rising that recent history is about to repeat itself and the city will lose another cherished corner of light and greenery.

Fierce opposition to development of land on 15th Street, NW behind the Scottish Rite Temple in the 1700 block of 16th Street is hardening, but this is a battle against what seems to be the clear-cut rights of the property’s owners and the careful plans of its developer partners.

The Masons, as The InTowner has been reporting, plan to build a revenue-generating apartment building there on land that is now part manicured lawn and garden as well as paved parking pad and a carriage house. It is open space that provides unimpeded views of the temple, a national historic landmark owing in part to the grandeur of its architecture as viewed from not just 16th Street but from 15th and S Streets as well.

Neighbors of the temple, particularly those who live along S Street, are fighting especially hard against the project, making very reasonable arguments — and some not so reasonable — for it not to happen. The project does not require any zoning changes or review.

They may well be correct that their property values will be negatively affected, primarily as a result of the complete elimination the sun-dappled lawn and garden, a prized and tranquil view in a dense urban setting like Dupont East.

Among the neighbors’ organized attempts to stop the project, has been a Dupont East Citizens Association (DECAA) application to have the entire area behind the Masonic Temple declared an historic landmark. HPO, in its advisory capacity to HPRB, released its report on April 30th recommending against extending the landmark.

While the HPO recommendation might be a blow for the neighbors opposed to the new building, ANC 2B09 Commissioner Ed Hanlon says it has nonetheless forced the city to literally outline the boundaries of the existing landmark — and that could spell trouble for developer Perseus Transwestern.

That’s because the HPO report showing the landmark’s boundaries on its second page could upend Perseus’ subdivision of the property, which they say is necessary to build the apartment building as currently designed. And it is designed, in large measure, to contain as many apartments as possible that will generate as much income as possible in perpetuity for the Masons.

Perseus subdivides the property starting just less than a yard east from the back of the Temple. While neighbors and others opposed to the project might not have liked that, the subdivision nonetheless has always seemed to be on firm legal ground. The apparent assumption was that the developer would be building outside the landmark’s boundaries.

But one look at the true boundaries in the HPO report shows that this is definitely not the case. The landmark’s boundaries extend three-quarters of the way into the back lot in the eastern direction. A huge portion of the building and its proposed garden would be inside the Temple landmark area.

Hanlon says that the new information, considered in the context of historic preservation law, could mean that the developer will have to show that the new building will “retain and enhance” the existing landmark. And they might not be able to build at all within the landmark if the eastern boundary is interpreted as an effort to preserve sightlines from the back of the temple.

When ANC 2B’s zoning committee met on May 1st, it declined to recommend that the full ANC back the DECAA application to HPRB for landmark status of the Mason’s entire property, bounded by 16th Street on the west, S Street on the north, 15th Street on the east, and Riggs Place on the south.  But if Hanlon is correct, that might not matter.

Landmark boundaries aside, however, the argument for preserving green space ought not to be ignored, either. Near the end of the ANC’s zoning committee meeting, Robin Diener, former Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) president, spoke up, cautioning that a new development like the Mason’s apartment building is “by right — until it’s not.” Further, as she told both the commissioners and the crowd in attendance, once a building is built the neighborhood has lost that green space forever; greens pace and sunlight are surely rights, too, she added.

“We need to find a better way to do these things,” Diener continued, and suggesting that the ANC could ask for a delay of the May 23rd HPRB hearing, for example. If the ANC had acted much earlier it could have sought to obtain from the city a land swap for the Masons. In that scenario, Diener said, the Masons could swap their land for city owned property of equal value and build their revenue generator. There would be zero costs for all parties and a small corner of city green space could be preserved.

Diener mentioned how she and others fought for a similar deal for the St. Thomas’ green space at 18th and Church Streets; that brought a hush to the room — not a common occurrence at ANC 2B meetings.

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