Existing mid-rise apartments in ANC 1C, next door to the proposed mid-rise apartments that ANC 1C alleges would violate the neighborhood's character. Image by parkview dc licensed under Creative Commons.

Plans for a surprisingly contentious mid-rise apartment building near Meridian Hill Park on 16th Street NW hit yet another snag last week, as local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners voted unanimously in support of downzoning the site. That could mean even fewer homes in a neighborhood — and city — starved for places to live.

This downzoning petition is just the latest chapter in a long-running fight over the building. It was filed by Keep Meridian Hill Green (KMHG), a local advocacy group comprised of member who have been trying to stop this project for years. The nine-story apartment complex would replace a private parking lot and provide 110 new homes, underground parking, and office space.

Adams Morgan ANC 1C commissioners heard input from several attendees, including members of KMHG, and offered their own thoughts at a standing room-only meeting on September 5 before voting 6-0 to support the petition.

Some neighbors have been chipping away at the project for years

A larger version of this housing development was first proposed more than three years ago as a joint venture between Westbrook Partners and the site's current owner, the Meridian International Center, which occupies a historic mansion adjacent to the site. Neighbors negotiated with the developers to reduce the building's size, and successfully eliminated 30 housing units.

In July 2017, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) approved the smaller revised project, but the ANC still wasn’t happy, as it had requested that the building lose yet another story. The HPRB denied its request, arguing that a smaller building would be “incompatible with the Meridian Hill Historic District” given other older mid-rise buildings nearby.

Then just a few weeks ago,the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) unanimously approved adjusting the building's site to the “medium density” level necessary to permit the project. Now the Adams Morgan ANC and KMHG are attacking the validity of that zoning determination.

Opponents are trying downzoning next

At last week's meeting, KMHG representative Kimberly Krhounek explained that the group’s opposition stems from DC’s Comprehensive Plan and its Future Land Use Map (FLUM). The FLUM acts as a guide for future land use for the city, both in terms of type (e.g. residential or commercial) and density (how tall the buildings are). It has also been at the center of a lot of development debates and lawsuits recently.

In this case, the KMHG disputes the BZA's “medium” density designation for the area. It argues that the proposed project is incompatible with the FLUM because it shows the area as “moderate” density, which typically contains two- to four-story buildings. Krhounek claimed that the FLUM represents the DC Council's will for development, and that unless the Council amends the Comprehensive Plan with respect to this lot, then the BZA’s zoning is just wrong.

Notably, Ward 1's Councilmember Brianne Nadeau has publicly disagreed with KMHG's interpretation of how zoning works alongside the Comprehensive Plan. Nonetheless, Krhounek says that KMHG has obtained over 300 signatures in favor of its downzoning petition, and many of those signees were at the meeting.

Won’t someone think of the trees (and the parking)?

Another member of KMHG expressed concern at the meeting that the project would eliminate trees that help air quality and stormwater management. A resident on Belmont Street complained that the project (which includes 72 parking spaces) could make it harder to find street parking. Another resident alleged that the Office of Planning failed to study the project's potential impacts on emergency vehicle response time and construction noise.

Multiple people spoke of a boom in citywide development over the last 10 years that, in their view, has not met community needs for affordable housing. They expressed strong skepticism that these mid-rise apartments would have any benefit on housing affordability in Adams Morgan. One commenter characterized this type of project as “trickle-down” development that would overcrowd the neighborhood without supplying enough affordable housing.

A neighborhood organizer highlighted the concessions neighbors obtained from the developer through memoranda of understanding (MOUs), including reductions in the building's height, but expressed disappointment that the Office of Planning did not take them as a cue to further reduce the project's size. Another resident near the site declared that she preferred that nothing be built there at all.

As a resident of the neighborhood, I spoke in favor of the apartment building and against the ANC's motion to support its downzoning. I expressed support for welcoming new neighbors who would also be customers for local businesses, and noted that it is “greener” to house more people in transit-connected neighborhoods like Adams Morgan.

Another resident reminded the room of the overriding threat of climate change and warned that if Adams Morgan rejects new residents, growth would shift to far-flung suburbs — increasing pollution and congestion in the city anyway.

Local ANC commissioners are firmly opposed

After listening to public input, the commissioners offered reasoning for their unanimous support of the downzoning petition advanced by Commissioner Amanda Fox Perry (the project is located in her district 1C08). Commissioner Wilson Reynolds (1C07) worried about the “Manhattanization of Adams Morgan” and how this project could induce more traffic, visitors, and trash than he believes the neighborhood and its infrastructure could support.

Others shared fears of losing views and eroding the historic character of the neighborhood (notwithstanding that the comparable mid-rise apartment building next door to the site, the Envoy, was built in 1916, whereas the low-rise gated community on the other side of the site, Beekman Place, was built in the 1970s). Commissioner A. Tianna Scozzaro (1C04) expressed frustration with new construction because she lives next door to a building that has been vacant for 15 years.

Commissioner Ted Guthrie (1C03) drew a connection between the proposed apartment building and Southwest DC, which he characterized as an “unfriendly area where people drive in without talking to their neighbors.” Commissioner Amir Irani (1C01) acknowledged the fundamental role of supply and demand in housing affordability, but then claimed that building more housing “doesn't make housing more affordable, it just makes more.”

Overall, the commission’s feelings were clear: there are plenty of buildable lots in DC, and this lot cannot be expected to solve the density and affordable housing challenges facing the city. They are opposed to the project.

What’s next for the embattled building?

After the ANC’s unanimous vote to support downzoning of the lot, Commissioner Hector Heuzo (1C02) asserted that members regard themselves as a “vibrant and inclusive community” that “cannot be blamed for being anti-development,” given all of the development in Adams Morgan. (Though some might dispute that point).

The neighborhood now awaits the Office of Planning’s response to this downzoning petition. If the petition is given a hearing, the Zoning Commission will hear arguments for and against. If the downzoning is approved, it will be back to the drawing board for this project.

Jeb Stenhouse is a clean energy economist who wants to help everyone enjoy livable, walkable public places, and to reach them by as many clean transportation options as possible.  He studied in Montpellier, France and still marvels at the quality of life in its car-free downtown (and the 15 pounds he lost roaming its charming streets).  Between adventures, Jeb lives with his husband in Adams Morgan.