SunTrust Plaza today. Image by John Leszczynski licensed under Creative Commons.

A DC judge temporarily blocked a developer from moving forward with plans to erect a 54-unit condo building on the SunTrust Bank plaza in Adams Morgan. On Friday, DC Superior Court Judge Todd Edelman issued a preliminary injunction that blocks developer PN Hoffman from beginning construction on the project, located at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road.

The plaza is the subject of a lawsuit in which neighborhood groups say the owner dedicated it for public use in an open letter to the community in the 1970s. They argue that it effectively created a permanent easement that bars constructing a building on the space so the public can enjoy it.

Opponents argue the proposed building, 6 stories plus a penthouse, would take away public space and wouldn’t fit with the area’s character. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 1C, repeatedly voted to oppose the project, but after PN Hoffman shrank the size of the project from 7 floors to 6, the Historic Preservation Review Board ultimately approved it.

This could have been different, David Alpert argues. The ANC resolution asked first for a shorter building, and second for a larger plaza. Had community members instead been open to a taller building, he says, perhaps there could have been a way for PN Hoffman to build as much housing as it needed while also preserving more plaza space. That was never part of the discussion, though.

What happens next

Edelman’s ruling is significant because it prohibits PN Hoffman from starting work. A preliminary injunction preserves the status quo while the parties litigate the lawsuit. That means it could last until there’s a trial, or until the parties settle. PN Hoffman also could appeal the injunction.

It’s important to note that winning an injunction is a long way from winning the lawsuit. It’s entirely possible that the neighborhood groups could still lose. Edelman could rule, for example, that an open letter doesn’t legally create an easement preventing a building from being built here, unless it’s recorded on the property’s title.

Dan Simons, SunTrust first vice president, said he searched records and found nothing stating an easement existed on the property, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reported. A lawyer for SunTrust, Michael Ross, asked Edelman to order the neighborhood groups to post a $20 million bond that would cover losses resulting from delays due to litigation.

Paul Zukerberg, the neighborhood groups’ lawyer, said the groups don’t have $20 million to cover such a bond. “Asking $20 million is a way to try to prevent us from being able to assert our rights,” he said.

Edelman said he’ll decide this week whether to order a bond. Meanwhile, the litigation will move forward, with SunTrust arguing in a new filing last week that even if an easement once existed, it ended when the property changed ownership because it wasn’t disclosed. But there’s always a chance the neighborhood groups could drop the lawsuit or the two sides could settle.

Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly listed the number of floors in the proposed project as 10. It's actually 6, down from 7 originally.

Jon Steingart is a Ward 1 resident who earned his law degree at the University of the District of Columbia and his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland. A licensed attorney, he works as a journalist covering litigation and policy in the field of labor and employment law.