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.

But now they face a tenacious band of residents who back the project, a group with its own organization, Ward 3 Vision. Its cause has been endorsed by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and the District chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental group that thinks the building, because it is next to a Metro station, will encourage residents to use mass transit.

The two sides disagree on many issues: how tall the building should be, what defines quality shopping -- even who has the right to speak for the neighborhood. The opponents refused an invitation from The Washington Post to appear in a photograph with the project's supporters, saying it would convey the impression that the neighborhood is evenly divided over the issue. (They also declined to be photographed on their own.)

"How many of your members live within one half-mile of this site?" Lucy Eldridge, a leader of the opposition, demanded of a supporter testifying last month before the zoning commission. The developer, Akridge, requested a zoning change to build a larger building. The panel could rule next month.

"I haven't polled them," said Tom Quinn, a leader of Ward 3 Vision. "I do."

Both sides are more than capable of summoning great passion, if not hyperbole, as they defend or denounce a project that would transform a block now largely occupied by a used-car lot, an auto repair garage, a Pepco substation, the rear wall of a bus garage and a Metro entrance.

"They're coming in to rape our [expletive] neighborhood," Carolyn Sherman, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and an opponent, said of developers in general as she toured the site. In a calmer moment, she added: "We're constantly under siege. They have their sights set on overdeveloping Wisconsin Avenue."

On the other side, Reed Fawell, a project supporter, compared the block where the proposed project would be to a "Third World country," albeit one within walking distance of a Williams-Sonoma.

On one level, the debate centers on design. The building would rise to five stories along Wisconsin Avenue, with a setback of two additional stories, and would feature ground-floor shops and 60 to 70 condominiums selling for about $800,000.

Opponents think the building, which would be 79 feet at its peak and occupy the entire lot, is out of scale with the neighborhood. They want a 50-foot-high building, with retail and green space, a proposal that Akridge officials say is economically unfeasible and architecturally unsuitable for the site.

But the debate invariably touches on larger issues, such as traffic and development along Wisconsin Avenue. The Akridge project, opponents say, will set a precedent for future buildings in the neighborhood.

"It's a domino," said Eldridge, an advisory neighborhood commissioner.

Eldridge, the daughter of a former New York City Council member and the stepdaughter of newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, grew up in Manhattan, where 79-foot buildings would barely be noticed in most neighborhoods.

As much as she loves her home town, she said, replicating big-city life in Friendship Heights is impossible. "You can't transform Wisconsin Avenue into Broadway," she said.

The proponents are not convinced. An apartment building will bring more residents and retail to Wisconsin Avenue, they say. "We live in an urban area. We ought to revel in that," Cheh said. "We're not Loudoun."

Sefcik, 37, who moved to the neighborhood from Capitol Hill, described himself as initially "embarrassed" that a condominium project is what inspired him to get involved in neighborhood politics.

"Shouldn't I be more focused on schools?" he asked. He convinced himself that the tax revenue generated by the project would ultimately benefit all sectors of the city.

"Why would someone be opposed to this?" he asked. "It's an obviously busy area where there should be a tall building. If I can get a couple of stores that are better than a boarded-up building or trophy store, that would be great."

Michael Link, 32, a manager at the Politics and Prose bookstore who rents an apartment around the corner from the Akridge site, said the neighborhood is already inundated with high-priced homes.

"If it was more affordable housing, then fantastic," he said. "But if it's more condos, what's the point?"

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