A long-running saga over a proposed hotel on N Street, NW has once again boiled over, as developer Morton Bender will go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a ruling on the latest version of plans. Dupont Circle neighbors and some surrounding businesses have been fighting elements of this proposal for years. In this case, the zoning laws seem to clearly come down against the plan as currently designed.
Bender owns six townhouses on the north side of N between 17th and 18th, through a company entitled N Street Follies, LLC. That block is the point where large downtown office development meets the historic row house neighborhood east of Dupont Circle. There’s a new, large glass office building on the 18th Street corner and a few other modern structures like the Topaz Hotel, but most of the original buildings are intact, and house a combination of residential, office, and hotel uses. The Tabard Inn, which encompasses three townhouses, is next door.
Three of the buildings have five floors while the other three have four. The architect plans to keep the original buildings, which historic regulations require, but to construct a fifth floor addition on the shorter buildings, along with a mechanical penthouse, set back enough as to be invisible from the street. There’s also a gap today between two of the buildings, which they propose filling in with a glass wall to create an enclosed entrance foyer.
The rear of the buildings look like most other old townhouses, with projecting bays and a rear yard area used currently for parking. To preserve most of these rear facades, the architects have designed an interior courtyard immediately behind the historic buildings. Then, a new 5-story addition between the courtyard and the alley will house additional rooms, built out to the property line in the rear and on both sides.
Below the new addition would be a 98-space mechanical parking garage, using automated lifts. The development team say that all visitors will arrive on N Street, where valets would drive cars around to the rear and into the mechanical garage.
3rd floor existing (left) and 4th floor proposed (right). Click on an image to enlarge. Also see the 1st floor proposed (not shown). Note: I used different floors only because these were the only drawings I could obtain; the developer refused to provide better diagrams.
This is a clever design that maximizes the visibility of the historic buildings in the front and rear while also fitting many hotel rooms into the space. However, it would also severely impact the adjacent Tabard Inn and other property owners. None of the other buildings on the block extend out to the property line. Zoning doesn’t permit it.
However, there’s an odd loophole in the rules. In an SP-1 zone, which includes this area, hotels are not permitted by right but require a special exception. If a hotel receives a special exception, it also is allowed to build all the way to the property line, instead of having a rear setback. Therefore, they are allowed to propose a hotel that takes up much more of the property than the owner would otherwise be allowed to use.
The added footprint has real consequences. Next door, the Tabard has terraces in the rear which are part of their restaurant. According to the sun studies in the applicant’s submission, the addition would place the Tabard terrace in shadow during most of the afternoon. And at the ANC 2B meeting where they presented the plan, the architect didn’t do his client any favors by only showing diagrams of the sun at 11 am, noon, and 1 pm, in what seemed to be a meager attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the audience and the ANC.
There’s no absolute right to have sunlight. We live in a city, and having other buildings nearby is part of that. However, there is an explicit right according to the zoning rules in this case. The property is part of the Dupont Circle Overlay, whose purposes, according to the Zoning Regulations, include to “preserve areas planned as open gardens and backyards and protect the light, air, and privacy that they provide.” For hotels in the SP zone which includes N Street, regardless of overlay, the regulations require that:
The height, bulk, and design of the hotel or inn shall be in harmony with existing uses and structures on neighboring property; ... The Board may require special treatment in the way of design, building setbacks, screening, landscaping, sign controls, and other features as it deems necessary to protect neighboring property.
It seems pretty clear, in this case, that if the BZA wants to grant a special exception to allow a hotel, it must ensure that the exception doesn’t unduly impact the Tabard or other properties. And it clearly would. The Office of Planning’s report recommends approval, saying that the building is “set back along the northeast corner, allowing additional light and air to the existing use to the east.” Unless they’ve changed the plans since it was presented to the ANC, Dupont Conservancy, and when I reviewed the submissions at the Office of Zoning last week, that’s not true. There is an angle in the northeast corner, but that’s not a setback, just the irregular shape of the property and alley because of Massachusetts Avenue on the north side of the square. I believe OP made a mistake in recommending approval in this case.
98 spaces is also far too much parking, equal to one space per room. By comparison, the Tabard has 40 rooms and only three parking spaces. The Topaz hotel next door (which has a curb cut on N Street) has 25 spaces for 99 rooms and, Tabard officials said, they have enough space for the cars of Tabard guests who drive.
The very small alley only opens onto 17th Street, which is one way southbound while N is one-way eastbound. Driving from N to the alley would require looping around the Peruvian Embassy; coming back to N Street from the alley would require going all the way around to Rhode Island and Connecticut Avenues. In fact, according to Tabard officials who spoke at last month’s ANC 2B meeting, earlier proposals for this hotel included traffic studies arguing that a curb cut was necessary because of the deficiencies of the alley. DDOT opposes the application because of these problems.
In general, denser development that doesn’t create unsustainable vehicular traffic is reasonable. Having a 98-room hotel with minimal parking would be fine for this square. Some surrounding neighbors have also objected because of the fear of construction impacts. While it’s important for the developer to ensure that construction doesn’t damage buildings, it’s not reasonable to forbid construction, especially near downtown, just because it’ll make some noise in the interim.
The Bender properties don’t extend as far back as the Tabard, and it would be totally reasonable for them to add to the existing footprint. It’s not even unreasonable to occupy the entire block, as long as there are appropriate setbacks on the upper floors. But to allow one property owner to build a solid, 5-story ring all the way around the property that disrupts adjacent uses fairly clearly violates the spirit and letter of the zoning regulations.