At 16th and S streets NW in Dupont Circle is a prominent Masonic building, known officially as the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry temple. The Masons want to redevelop the patch of grass and parking lot behind the building, and they’ve gotten approval from the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B and the Historic Preservation Review Board to do so.
Spats over new things elicit reactionary comments—the project is too big, the parcel is too historic, the views are too incredible, and the green space is too precious to possibly accommodate the construction of apartments in which people will live—all the time. But more apartments in Dupont are apparently so objectionable, to a small band of vociferous opponents, that they warrant an application to expand the temple’s landmark designation and other last-ditch attempts to stop this project from going forward.
The landmark application tried to declare the empty space around the temple, which wasn’t even empty in the past, as historically significant. It was poorly written and misguided, and as a result it was slapped down in a Historic Preservation Office staff report. (The Historic Preservation Review Board will vote on whether to approve the application on May 23.)
This is both exceptionally absurd and predictably typical of development fights. So we’ve listed here nine of the most humorous tactics that have come from people who don’t want this project to go forward, and have the time and luxury to throw seemingly endless resources at stopping it.
But all this is much bigger than small-scale tales of neighborhood infighting. In total, it’s a case study in what happens when you try to build more housing in affluent neighborhoods. And, as petty as it is, we should be taking the anti-Masonic dedication seriously in light of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recent order, which directs District agencies to figure out how to achieve a goal declared in her inaugural address: Building 36,000 units of housing by 2025.
If we continue to entertain these follies in circumstances like this one—in which 150 units proposed in a luxury neighborhood, where there’s no risk of displacement, face this kind of absurd opposition—there is no reality in which we will meet DC’s critical need for more housing, including more affordable housing.
1. “God’s light”
The proposed project has 150 new units. Some of these units will be partially underground, at English basement and cellar levels. The units in question will have windows, and will, additionally, benefit from the modern technology that is built-to-code ventilation systems.
Nonetheless, as Paul Schwartzman reported in the Washington Post in November 2018, at a community meeting a resident “countered, sharply,” “What about God’s light?” with regard to whether basement apartments should be constructed at all.
(This writer, who lives in a basement apartment, can personally vouch that God’s light still manages to infiltrate even the deepest legally allowed units.)
2. DIY art
Signs abound around 15th and S, proclaiming, “SAY NO to Luxury Apts on Masonic Temple grounds.” Even more impressive are the anti-development flyers: One claims the project is a “glass-concrete dinosaur”; another claims that the “subterranean lux cellar apartments destroys last open green space in Dupont East.”
We're glad you're our neighbor unless you want to live in a proposed apartment building pic.twitter.com/pRTRg1PEEj— Daniel Warwick (@danielmwarwick) November 6, 2018
There's a meeting on Thursday pic.twitter.com/jcdt2lHO32— Daniel Warwick (@danielmwarwick) May 15, 2019
3. A whole new anti-housing neighborhood association
The neighborhood’s existing association, the Dupont Circle Citizens’ Association, has filed its share of development lawsuits. But a new group appears to have formed specifically to file the landmark application (in which the DC Historic Preservation League declined to participate).
At the inaugural meeting of @DelledonneN’s “Dupont East Civic Action Association,” the group behind efforts to block housing behind the temple on 16th and S St NW. Nick introduced me to the group and asked if I'd make a tweet.— Aaron Landry (@s4xton) May 11, 2019
Me: “Sure, I'll make a tweet.” pic.twitter.com/wxGH48wyag
4. Speculative digital real estate
This building only has a proposed square footage of 96,000, but it’s taken up infinite space on the DupontForum listserv, where self-identified project opponents—at least one of whom is an ANC commissioner—alternate between lengthy missives about the project’s ills and personal attacks on their neighbors.
To defend an inaccessible grass patch, Commissioner Ed Hanlon, who lives nearby, claimed this, about us:
Greater Greater Washington, the advocates of “Smart Growth” and the wealthy real estate developer, Perseus, keep pushing to build a huge apartment building on the last open green space in all of East Dupont. They want to pave over forever this beautiful place. Once gone, God will make us no more such open green space. … And a new idea, 2 floors of subterranean cellars for human beings to live in and raise children in, make this project uniquely objectionable and yet hugely profitable. Imagine going down 25 steps into the ground just to get to your apartment door.”
(We have no affiliation with Perseus.)
5. The land swap
Some residents have suggested that the city should instead give some land to the Masons—perhaps the DPR parking lot at 14th and S streets NW—which the Masons could build on instead of their own property, thereby preserving Duponters’ views.
Neither ANC 2B, ANC 2F (where the parcel is located), the city, nor the Masons want this “land swap,” which means it won’t happen, it’s far-fetched, and exploring it is not a good use of anyone’s time. Nonetheless, at an ANC 2B zoning, preservation, and development committee hearing on May 1, an attendee pitched the land swap as a practical and appropriate resolution to her and her compatriots’ dislike of the temple redevelopment.
6. Claiming a conspiracy in where the landmark boundary is
The Masons own the land in question, and the proposed building conforms to existing zoning and preservation requirements. Given the level of oversight granted to the Historic Preservation Review Board of projects in historic districts, nothing in such districts is literally by-right.
But if the land isn’t also a landmark, the Masons definitely have the right to build something there, subject only to HPRB’s judgment about whether it is “compatible.” Though it asked for some design changes, HPRB ultimately gave its thumbs-up in November 2018, at least four months before DECAA tried its landmark application gambit.
In its staff report, the Preservation Office repeatedly calls the claims in the March 8 landmark application “conjectural.” Still, it made a good-faith effort to ascertain the historic nature of the now, but not always, empty space that DECAA wants to preserve. Since the temple’s landmark status is so old, there are no formal boundaries, as would be defined today. That first staff report said the landmark covered about ⅔ of the site; then, after further research, the preservation office said in a second staff report that the boundaries were closer to the temple wall, and do not include the new proposed building.
In an email-blast press release with the subject line, “Preservation Office Shamelessly Reverses Itself,” Nick DelleDonne, the self-appointed leader of DECAA, quotes himself:
“We smell a rat,” said DelleDonne. “Developer Perseus has claimed that the development ‘is a matter of right’ and it looks like HPO is trying to Gerry rig its report to make it so, shamelessly backtracking on a published report only two weeks ago.”
7. FOIAing Daniel Warwick’s emails
ANC 2B chair Daniel Warwick doesn’t have much of a choice not to send emails about what’s going on with relation to the commission that he oversees. Nonetheless, his fellow commissioner, Ed Hanlon, has filed numerous FOIA requests for his emails about the Masonic Temple project. It’s rare that one files a FOIA request with the intention of bestowing accolades; they’re often used to obtain records for publishing, to keep public officials accountable. Warwick is a GGWash contributor and a member of our advocacy committee, so we’re biased, but FOIAing his emails for mention of a project that is legally allowed to be built is not an effective, community-minded use of time and energy.
Hanlon has every right to do this, as both a commissioner and a private citizen. Whether that’s a good use of his time, and whether that has anything to do with this project—which, once again, has already been approved—should be something that his constituents consider when he’s up for reelection in 2020.
8. This building isn’t even that big
It might sound like we’re talking about a massive super-tower. Even by DC standards, it’s not that tall: about four stories above ground, plus the two below. That’s less dense than most of the new buildings on 14th Street and many existing apartment buildings in Dupont Circle. It’s only 150 apartments.
9. This is taking enormous amounts of residents’ time
By the time the application to expand the boundaries of the landmark designation had been filed in March 2019, the project had already gotten the support of ANC 2B and approval from HPRB.
Since 2017, this project has appeared on ANC 2B's regular agenda at least three times and ANC 2B's zoning, preservation, and development committee at least twice. ANC 2B is holding a special meeting about the project, outside of its regular agenda, tomorrow night. It has been reviewed by HPO staff at least three times, and will have, by the end of May, gone before HPRB twice. There have been numerous community meetings, outside of the ANC meetings, in 2017 and 2018, about the project.
The March landmark application has triggered the latest round of public meetings. Under the law, HPO and HPRB have to address these concerns, even if they find them totally unwarranted. This delayed the project further. While the ANC and its committees don’t need to respond, they have chosen to.
There are legitimate reasons to oppose development, particularly in neighborhoods where people might be at risk of displacement. And there are legitimate reasons to dislike aspects of this particular project. (We at GGWash do not support the tax break that the Masons have requested, and think it’s ridiculous that there are 110 parking spaces proposed for a new development in a neighborhood with great access to transit.)
But the behavior recounted above, which comes from a small cohort of people who are only the barest percentage of a neighborhood of over 14,000 residents, mocks those valid concerns. And it’s a preview of what we can expect to see in response to the mere suggestion of building in luxury neighborhoods. With the federal government telling DC it’s violating the Fair Housing Act by keeping wealthy western neighborhoods exclusive, continued opposition like this could push DC to break federal law.
Come talk about this
ANC 2B is holding a special meeting outside of its typical monthly agenda about this project on Thursday, May 16 at 7 pm, at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Rome Building, 1619 Massachusetts Avenue NW. (You will need to show ID to enter the building.)
Since ANC commissioners serve the interests of the entire District, not solely their single-member district or commission, we encourage even those of you who don’t live in Dupont to attend if you support building more housing in the city—particularly in its wealthiest, most exclusive enclaves.