Split in public opinion for two Connecticut Avenue apartment projects

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the mixed-use project that Saul Centers plans to build. This version has been corrected.


A rendering of Park Van Ness, a mixed-use project planned for Connecticut Avenue.

They are just a mile apart on Connecticut Avenue, proposed by two family-owned companies with long resumes in real estate development, but they could not be faring more differently.

Recently, representatives of Saul Centers, a publicly traded Bethesda firm, have unveiled plans to build 271 luxury apartments as part of a mixed-use project at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Yuma Street NW. The project, dubbed Park Van Ness, is designed by architect Torti Gallas and would replace a dated shopping and office center.

When the company explained its plans at an April 16 Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting, it was met warmly, according to Sally W. Gresham, whose district includes the project. “I think all the commissioners seem to be positive about it,” Gresham said.

At the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Military Road NW, a mile north, Calvin Cafritz Enterprises plans 263 apartments, but the welcome has been anything but pleasant. Although the Cafritz family received zoning approval for the project 23 years ago, when the company began applying for permits last year, it took many neighbors of the area by surprise.

Since then, opponents of the Cafritz project began a neighborhood coalition, requested coverage from reporters, started an online petition, filed a public documents request with the District government and began appealing permits the District has already issued for soil boring, foundation work and sheeting and shoring.

A building permit also may be issued shortly, but that has not dissuaded opponents.

“The agencies have not exactly been the most receptive with this, but we have managed to make some progress. We know that this is a tough battle,” said Peter Gosselin, who lives near the site.

The two apartments projects are similar in many ways. So why the different receptions?

History may shed some clues.

The Cafritz property has sat quietly as a grassy empty lot with single-family homes nearby.

The existing Saul property, Van Ness Square, has long served as one of the only places for neighborhood conveniences, with an Office Depot, Pier 1 Imports, bank branch, frame store and pet store.

Thomas H. McCormick, president and chief operating officer of B.F. Saul Co. & Affiliates, a private firm also founded by the Saul family, said he expects the frame store to return and will be looking for “tenants that will contribute to the activity and livability of the streetscape, both in the daytime and evening hours.”

“More people than ever prefer the flexibility to commute on mass transit while also having attractive retail and restaurant amenities in close walking proximity,” McCormick said in an e-mail. Construction on the new building could begin at the end of this year and be complete by 2016, he said.

Gresham said the prospect of more activity resonated with her. She and her neighbors have formed their own group, Van Ness Vision, which she said was aimed at “bringing the Van Ness area to the forefront, to become more like a Dupont [Circle] or a Chevy Chase or a Cleveland Park, where we have more retail, more pedestrians, more usage, more restaurants, just a more vibrant area,” she said. (The group was founded in tandem with the advocacy group Coalition for Smarter Growth.)

That vibrancy — more people, more noise, more cars — is reading like a list of complaints when it comes to the Cafritz property, with residents protesting that possible traffic and environmental impacts should have been more properly vetted.

Design may be another factor, as neighbors to the Cafritz project, 5333 Connecticut Avenue, have complained about the project’s glass facade. “The Park Van Ness design seems good, but not so much at 5333 Connecticut,” opined David Alpert, founder of the Greater Greater Washington blog.

Communication might be another; it is irregular for a developer to wait as long as Cafritz did to restart work, and some complain they tried to do so quietly. As tension over the Cafritz project continued, District Council member Mary Cheh, whose Ward 3 includes both projects, recently proposed legislation that would require an extra layer of community review for such projects.

“In truth, many developers realize how much more smoothly a project can proceed if they engage the government and the community early in the process, but there is no formal mechanism to do so,” Cheh said, in a release announcing the legislation.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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