Cafritz battle with Chevy Chase neighborhood highlights pluses, minuses of ‘smart growth’

Robert McCartney
Columnist October 5, 2013

Bulldozers and chain saws tore up a prime corner lot in the District’s affluent Chevy Chase community last month, signaling a historic defeat for neighbors who have been fighting the developer over the long-vacant site since the 1980s.

Unless local residents succeed in a pair of last-ditch legal appeals, well-known developer Calvin Cafritz Enterprises will build a modern, 261-unit apartment building at 5333 Connecticut Ave. NW, at the intersection with Military Road.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

“Our backs are to the wall. . . . Given the city’s enthusiasm for development at any cost, my personal opinion is we’ll lose both these rounds,” said Peter Gosselin, a leader of a coalition of hundreds of residents pressing for a smaller, less-intrusive building.

The case highlights both pluses and minuses of “smart growth” in residential urban communities. I see valid arguments on both sides, along with important lessons for how ambitious developers and wary neighborhoods should try to work together during inevitable future battles.

Supporters of the Cafritz building say it’s just what a growing city needs. It creates lots of homes along a major bus route and three-quarters of a mile from the Friendship Heights Metro station.

That argument is basically correct. It’s better to add people inside the city rather than in the outer suburbs, where the impact would be worse for traffic.

But I also understand the neighbors’ frustration, on two counts.

First, Cafritz didn’t bother to alert the community early last year when it started seeking permits for the project. That violated an important rule of wise development: Reach out to those affected from the start.

The secrecy ended only in November when a suspicious neighbor, JoAnna Graham, searched the Internet for information about the lot. She found an environmental report suggesting what was afoot.

Within weeks, residents had mobilized to demand more information and concessions from Cafritz.

They worry that the big, new edifice will disrupt the tranquillity they prize in their tree-lined blocks of single-family homes off Connecticut. They’ve posted dozens of yard signs reading, “Build Without Harm. Respect Chevy Chase DC.”

For some older families, the campaign merely continued one begun long ago. The community objected when Cafritz sought to build an apartment building on the site in the late 1980s. A compromise was reached, but Cafritz never went ahead with construction.

Second, I also share the neighbors’ concern about the proposed building’s architectural style, which seems like a jarring departure for the corridor.

Plenty of multistory apartment buildings rise along that stretch of Connecticut Avenue. Almost all are brick, however, while the Cafritz building is mostly glass. It’s also set back from the street by more than is typical.

“It’s going to look like a suburban office park,” said Richard Graham, JoAnna’s husband.

The Cafritz company did not respond to requests for comment. Jane Cafritz, partner with her husband, Calvin, in the development business, said in December that the design would “reflect our contemporary times” just as other buildings in the corridor represent earlier eras.

The Cafritz company shifted its approach once its plans became public and pressure soared. It held meetings and negotiations with the community.

That yielded a deal with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission to make some changes in the design. These included replacing some glass with masonry, lowering the building’s height by two feet and adding 40 parking spaces.

But that wasn’t enough for the neighborhood coalition. Its members picketed the site Sept. 21 with signs reading, “Shame on Cafritz.”

Now, it’s important to understand that the neighborhood never had a realistic chance of blocking this project. It doesn’t even have much leverage to change it.

Almost everybody says Cafritz has the law on its side — even if it has stretched the zoning rules to the limit to get a large building to generate lots of revenue.

As one knowledgeable opponent repeatedly warns others: “You can’t zone against ugly.”

Given that, the community’s continuing, implacable resistance sends an unfortunate message. Developers don’t have much incentive to be transparent or cooperate if they think the other side will never say yes.

“This kind of opposition has poisoned the well” for innovative development, architect Neil Flanagan said. He belongs to Ward3Vision, a group that promotes smart growth, although he was speaking for himself.

“It behooves the neighborhoods to propose ways to change rather than to constantly play a game of reacting to developers,” he said.

The Cafritz project controversy is just a taste of battles to come in a city with a swelling population.

In future showdowns, developers should be upfront about their plans and design buildings to blend in with the neighborhood. Communities need to accept that change is inevitable and can be desirable.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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