Friendship Heights Condo Stirs Not-So-Genteel Debate

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 12, 2007

Jim Sefcik thought he was buying a slice of urban nirvana when he paid $700,000 to live in Northwest Washington. Then he went shopping on his stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, with its pet shop, trophy store and boarded-up buildings, and he decided he had moved to a retail wasteland.

But what about the scuba gear shop? Sefcik doesn't know from snorkels.

Ever in search of the latte-happy good life, the health-care administrator has embraced a cause that he is not accustomed to championing: a proposed condominium project that he hopes will lure boutiques and cafes to his patch of Friendship Heights.

But many of his neighbors disagree, and the result is not so much David vs. Goliath (neighborhood vs. developer) as neighbor vs. neighbor in a simmering, sometimes acrimonious struggle over the future of upper Wisconsin Avenue.

The proposed condo project makes Lisa Newman's eyes narrow and her voice quicken as she sits in her front yard, a few blocks from the site. In her estimation, the neighborhood's northern edge is already a retail theme park, with two shopping malls, Mazza Gallerie and Chevy Chase Pavilion. And that's not even counting the Bloomingdale's on the way, which is likely to pump even more shoppers and their cars into her leafy enclave.

"I mean, for God sakes," said Newman, 46, a freelance writer, as she ticked off the projects in the neighborhood. "I didn't move here to be in New York."

Once sleepy and genteel, Friendship Heights is evolving into a cosmopolitan hub. The upper reaches of Wisconsin Avenue on the District border are a gold coast -- home to Neiman Marcus, a Saks Fifth Avenue men's store and Pottery Barn. Just over the Maryland border, Bloomingdale's will join a strip that features Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co. The side streets are lined with handsome homes, some selling for $1 million.

But south of Mazza Gallerie, as Wisconsin heads toward Tenleytown, the vista is less upscale, lined with car dealerships and frame shops, low-rise office buildings and inexpensive eateries. One store, Rodman's Discount Gourmet, embodies the incongruous stew, selling not only bread from Latvia and wine from California but also cassette recorders and wheelchairs.

For the condominium project's supporters, the strip is second-class, a shadow of the more majestic Connecticut Avenue to the west. But to the opponents, the odd mix of shops and architectural styles is quaint, a dash of Main Street within the bustle of a metropolis.

In recent years, several development projects slated for Wisconsin Avenue have stalled or were scaled back after fierce opposition from community leaders and residents from the Coalition to Stop Tenleytown Overdevelopment and the Friendship Neighborhood Association.

Many of the same activists oppose the condominium project, at 5220 Wisconsin Ave., between Harrison and Jenifer streets.

They have organized a letter-writing campaign and picked up 500 signatures in a petition drive and support for their position from D.C. Council members Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and the local advisory neighborhood commission.


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