A small group of Dupont Circle residents are continuing to wage war against an apartment building proposed for the parking lot and patch of lawn next to the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry Temple at 16th and S streets NW. Such community opposition to new development, especially in relatively wealthy neighborhoods, has real, material impacts on housing affordability at a regional scale. In DC, we are well on our way to defining our own brand of a “politics of no” that protects privileged interests at the expense of a functioning public process.
The Masons own the land in question, and are ostensibly redeveloping it with the intent to pay for repairs to their temple. What they’ve proposed to build is within existing zoning and preservation restrictions, and was approved by ANC 2B and the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) in November 2018. To delay this project, those affiliated with Dupont East Civic Action Association filed an application to expand the landmark boundaries on March 8, 2019, which they no doubt knew would require another Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff report and another HPRB hearing.
Those affiliated with Dupont East Civic Action Association and Keep Dupont Green have also insisted that a “land swap” with a city-owned parcel in nearby ANC 2F would be a reasonable alternative, even though there is no interest from the affected ANCs.
On May 23, HPRB heard, and denied, an application to expand the boundaries of the landmark designation of the Temple—not a surprise, since HPO’s staff reports highlighted significant flaws in the application’s logic. The Dupont East Civic Action Association has almost no presence online or elsewhere and appears to have been created specifically to file it.
Now, Keep Dupont Green—formed last year to insist that the fenced-off green space behind the Masonic temple stay the way it is—set up a GoFundMe to cover the “high and imminent” “administrative and court challenges” of continuing to oppose the apartments. So far it has raised $3,301 of its $75,000 goal.
Dupont Circle has long been the site of civic dustups
The persistence of the opposition isn’t surprising. Over the past few years, Dupont residents fought over whether the Safeway on 17th Street NW should sell alcohol. A proposed protected bikeway on the west side was moved from 21st Street as planned to 20th Street after hours of public kerfuffling. There is already pushback on a proposed protected bikeway on 17th Street NW. The derision hurled at the Masons’ project recalls a similar controversy over the St. Thomas planned unit development, which—stoked by a lawsuit—roiled for years.
This fracas isn’t organic. It’s deliberately sown on public platforms like DupontForum and through public channels like ANC meetings and HPRB filings, by a cadre of people so small that there’s no way their opinions could be construed as representative of the sentiments of most Dupont residents.
Some of the concerns sound reasonable at first blush. With regard to what is the most publicly beneficial use of the Mason’s land, green space is certainly up there. It would be lovely, yes, if the eastern side of Dupont had more parks. But the more time one spends with Dupont-area drama, the more its perpetrators’ behavior looks not like sincere concern about the condition of the neighborhood and the well-being of people who live there, but rather like picking fights for the fun of it.
The consensus, for many years running, has been that NIMBYism is borne out of a desire to protect one’s property values. This desire is innate because property is where many Americans hold most of their wealth. More development might mean that someone’s house is worth more on paper, because a “greedy developer” might view it as worthy of speculation. However, people often act in more fungible interests, like that of “neighborhood character,” not just in the interest of increasing the value of their home, since they might not cash out in the short- or medium-term.
William Fischel’s “homevoter hypothesis” encapsulates this: People vote for elected officials who they are confident will preserve the value of their home, which is predicated on both the property’s worth and the quality of public services provided. What we’ve called NIMBYism kicks into gear when people feel like their home values and quality of life are threatened.
But what’s swirling around the Masonic temple feels like an evolved version of the garden-variety reaction to change. No one’s rowhouse on the 1500 block of S Street—where estimated home values hover around $1.3 million—will tank when the Mason’s project is built. New development does bring the nuisances of construction (temporarily) and the exhausting and irritating presence that is other people (permanently). But a hundred-something new neighbors—even rich ones—in a wealthy, stable part of the city is a net good for DC and the region.
The DC region, in one year (2017-2018), added 60,700 jobs. At roughly the same time, only 29,000 housing units were under construction, on top of only 13,000 added the year prior. That’s not enough to reasonably house the people that live here, and DC proper has generally avoided building new buildings in its well-off areas. If we can’t expect to build housing in Dupont, the kinds of people who will rent “luxury condos” there will merely bid up rents and the price of houses for sale elsewhere. People do not simply vanish.
A super-virus of entitlement
In its critics’ telling, the Masons’ proposal is by turns too luxurious, too expensive, too market-rate, or too unholy, inferior, and unsafe for habitation. Rationality is not the ground on which to stake our claims if we are attempting to present an alternative to this mindset. The only way to counter it is with patience, organizing, and dedicated action over time to change who our decision makers are, and the regulatory environment in which they operate.
What we should be animated by is how our public processes are held captive by a tiny cohort with the time, money, and social capital to expend on fighting something they dislike personally. We should be angered by the fact that those who speak up at public meetings are more likely to be longtime white, male, homeowners who disproportionately oppose new development. And we should be angrier still that there is little recourse to hold obstructionists accountable for their actions: They know that ANCs and city offices must continue to treat their complaints as legitimate and move them through due process.
Dupont is, compared to much of DC, is very wealthy, very white, and packed with things that people will financially stress themselves to access: good schools, lots of amenities within walking distance, and tons of transit. It is more expensive than it was 30 years ago, but its residents are culturally and socially privileged, and a small handful of them are expending that privilege to commandeer civic spheres for their personal benefit.
Washington City Paper’s recount of ANC 2B commissioner Ed Hanlon’s unrelenting and unwarranted six-year battle against his neighbor’s attempts to build a deck clearly illustrates the manifestation of this mindset:
None of the main characters named in these lawsuits were willing to speak with LL on the record, and Hanlon ignored repeated attempts to contact him. In court documents, lawyers call out Hanlon’s tactic of “papering” a case with rambling motions and relentless appeals. And in court, D.C. Superior Court Judge Fern Flanagan Saddler said he and his attorney were being “dilatory” and “dragged this case out intentionally” (though another judge disagreed with her).
There are neighborhoods in this city where the deleterious effects of development—specifically, displacement—is a real and legitimate fear. Dupont is not one of them. NIMBYism-plus is emerging in enough places that it was skewered by McSweeney’s, while our even more dysfunctional West Coast counterparts have “Silicon Valley’s minor Trumpists.” This leaves no room for a community engagement process that could hypothetically restore some power to historically disenfranchised residents. Its outsized presence preemptively renders any potentially valid complaints as illegitimate.
This super-strain of NIMBYism is driven, perhaps, by a desire to inflict pain on developers by opposing their projects. It could the dying yawp of the older faction in a game of generational warfare. Or it could simply be the result of people with a great deal of time on their hands reacting with maximum possible petulance to a perceived invasion of their sandbox.