In the history of the District, few redevelopment battles have been quite as bitter or as enduring as the one that has been waged over the supermarket in this Northwest Washington neighborhood.
Since 1999, efforts to modernize the store have gone through so many iterations, it’s almost impossible to track.
Some neighbors no longer speak to each other. Other residents are reluctant to speak on the record about their views out of fear of backlash.
“This whole thing is absurd,” said Margaret Lenzner, a longtime area resident who is among those who have raised concerns about the project’s density.
But the neighborhood may be close to getting a replacement for the supermarket some ruefully call “the Giant That Time Forgot.” Longtime businesses such as Sullivan’s Toy store and Hot Yoga are relocating. The city’s Department of Transportation is reviewing options to reroute buses that travel through the area. And at a recent community meeting, Giant officials released a “conceptual construction” timeline for the project, now called Cathedral Commons.
“The Cleveland Park community is going to have a bright new supermarket,” said Jamie Miller, manager of community and public relations for Giant.
If the project moves forward, the neighborhood will get more than a supermarket. Cathedral Commons would include more than 535 parking spaces, a mix of apartments and townhouses, street-level retail and other amenities, such as a green roof, tree-lined walkways, public spaces and perhaps a fountain. The current 18,500-square-foot Giant would be replaced by one three times its size.
Some residents fear the development will turn their neighborhood into another Bethesda — where residents have to circle endlessly to find parking spaces and where delivery trucks rumble along residential avenues.
The project still has hurdles, too. Giant hasn’t secured financing, and three neighborhood groups filed an appeal in 2009 over whether the zoning commission followed the proper procedures in approving the project. The D.C. Court of Appeals had a hearing on the matter in March, but it has yet to issue a decision.
Giant officials say they think all of the issues regarding the zoning commission’s decision have been addressed.
“We hope to start the project soon,” Miller said. But as for a date? “I really wouldn’t want to speculate on the timeline.”
A historic site?
No one thought it would take more than a decade to build a new supermarket, but there were signs early on that the effort would not go smoothly. When Giant first unveiled plans to expand the store in the late 1990s, neighbors objected to the design. A citizen group petitioned to have the building designated a historic landmark — since it “typified the urban architectural style of the postwar era.” One Giant executive scoffed at the notion, saying the building was “as historic as my 2-year-old grandson.”
Members of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’s administration eventually brokered a deal to move the project forward. The new market was scheduled to open in the summer of 2003.
But nothing happened.
Instead of a new supermarket, the neighborhood was left with a nearly block-long stretch of empty storefronts along Wisconsin Avenue after two longtime tenants — a G.C. Murphy’s convenience store and a Chinese restaurant — departed.
In 2005, members of the community approached Giant, hoping to jump-start efforts to rebuild the supermarket. A year later, Giant began a series of community meetings on a new plan that included a supermarket and other retail stores and housing.
Neighbors take sides
But as debate about the size and scope of the project dragged on, things got ugly.
Rival neighborhood coalitions formed, and accusations flew. Those who supported the project were seen as shills for Giant; those who opposed it were characterized as small-minded NIMBYs.
“I don’t know that there were any bad guys,” said Philip Montalto, who lives on Idaho Avenue NW and is part of one of the groups involved in the appeal. “At a certain point, the neighbors — well, we started going in different directions driven by different forces.”
In 2009, the conflict spilled over into the elections for the Cleveland Park Citizens Association. Membership boomed as two competing slates — a Reform slate that supported the redevelopment plan, and a Unity slate that had ties to previous leaders who opposed the plan — faced off.
“One thing working on Giant’s side was that people were tired of what some considered to be an almost Third-World supermarket,” said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). “People were quick to blame each other for the delays. I don’t see it that way. I think it was the corporation.”
Giant officials said they were always committed to remaking store at 3336 Wisconsin Ave. NW. But a combination of factors, including a corporate reorganization, prevented them from moving more quickly, they said.
After a series of hearings, the zoning commission approved Giant’s plan in July 2009, and neighborhood groups then filed their appeal.
The Giant “has been neglected for a long time, depriving the neighborhood of a supermarket in walking distance,” said Jeff Davis, who led a coalition of neighbors that supported the development. “That’s the worst part about it. [We] have to drive by our local Giant to get to what we need.”
But others say supporters might regret not asking tougher questions.
Supporters “saw a glimmer of hope that this supermarket could finally happen, and they didn’t want to upset the apple cart,” said Jim Pickman, a member of one of the groups that filed the appeal. “I’m afraid if it gets built as planned, the neighborhood is going to wake up and say, ‘Is this what we supported?’ ”
Some wonder whether it might be too late for a new Giant supermarket. After all, there are at least five supermarkets within less than two miles of the Wisconsin Avenue Giant.
Other residents — such as Martha Baron, who moved to the area in 2006 — just want the matter to be settled.
“This talk has been around for years and years,” said Baron, 74, at a recent community meeting. “I just want a new Giant.”