Upper Wisconsin Avenue
Activists Prefer Car Lots to High-Rises
Sunday, April 9, 2006
For Carolyn Sherman, the latest front in the ground war for her neighborhood is a used-car lot steps from the Friendship Heights Metro station. She says a proposed 79-foot-tall building with condominiums and ground-floor retail would be more of an eyesore than the old Buick dealership on the site.
"It doesn't fit in," explained Sherman, insisting that a seven-story, boxy edifice would be "destabilizing" to the area she loves. Sherman moved to upper Northwest 13 years ago and enjoys listening to the robins chirp in her back yard, watching children play on the tire swing down the block and walking to an independently owned coffee shop just off Wisconsin Avenue.
Although many neighborhoods in the District clamor for new construction and national retailers along their commercial corridors, Sherman and some of her Ward 3 neighbors have been fighting to limit development in the zone between Tenleytown and Friendship Heights. Featuring a hodgepodge of mattress stores, ethnic eateries and small office buildings, the commercial strip seems to some residents to be out of character with its affluent environs. But members of the Coalition to Stop Tenleytown Overdevelopment and the Friendship Neighborhood Association believe the low-density storefronts suit the neighborhood just fine -- even the 24-hour Steak 'n Egg Kitchen.
"High-rises don't build community," said Jane Waldmann, a coalition member and a Tenleytown historian who wants to preserve the area's historic views. Adds Sherman: "How many people say, 'I love to walk in Van Ness'?"
The activists have compiled an impressive record of victories: At the former Babe's Billiard Cafe site, near the Tenleytown-AU Metro entrance, they objected to a proposed condominium building. The developer, IBG Investors LLC, agreed to trim the structure to six stories but eventually sold the property.
The same group rallied against a nine-story mixed-use building pitched for the current site of the Martens Volvo dealership. "At this moment, we've abandoned the project," said Steuart Martens, president of the company .
And residents recently won a five-year struggle against American Tower Corp., which planned to erect a 756-foot telecommunications tower in the heart of Tenleytown. The neighbors stopped the construction about a third of the way up, and recently the city agreed to pay the company $350,000 to have the tower dismantled.
Turf battles over "infill development" might seem more likely to happen in Fairfax or Montgomery counties, where real estate around transit centers was originally designed for low-density use. Yet the single-family residential neighborhoods of upper Northwest have become bull's-eyes for developers searching for land that is close in, Metro accessible and convenient to the region's employment centers.
Coalition members want new construction to fall within current zoning regulations -- which in most areas is 50 feet. Activists greet proposals that would exceed that limit with an action plan, usually a blitz of phone calls, e-mails and requests to city officials for public information. Sherman said her coalition listserv goes out to more than 200 members.
They call it civic participation. Critics call it intimidation.
In January 2004, for example, Sherman and her neighbors sought a meeting with the mayor to object to a city planning study suggesting denser development around their Red Line Metro stations. They showed up at a mayoral event at Woodrow Wilson Senior High and chanted: "Keep the zoning, keep the view, dump the study or we'll dump you!"
Williams promised to meet with the group, but it didn't happen immediately. So Sherman, who was teaching business writing near the John A. Wilson Building, camped out at the mayor's constituent services office on her lunch hour and coffee breaks every day for more than a week. She got her meeting, and the study was shelved in November.