Historic preservationists and downtown activists scored a win against real estate development last week as a D.C. administrative law judge denied demolition permits for a $50 million office project proposed for 975 F St. NW.
The project would have filled most of the north side of a long-decrepit low-rise block that is swiftly being transformed -- a new hotel recently opened across the street, an office building is under construction next door and developers are bandying about plans for the remaining structures.
But the judge, acting as the mayor's agent, ruled that the proposed project did not meet the test of "special merit" required to tear down buildings that contribute to the character of a historic district.
"Right now we're evaluating our options," said Tom Wilbur, an executive with the John Akridge Cos., which planned to develop the property for its owner, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. "Quite frankly, we were very surprised and disappointed to hear our application for demolition permits had been denied."
The decision could be appealed.
The archdiocese and Akridge had proposed tearing down all but the facades of seven 19th-century town houses on the block and building an 11-story office building behind them. The archdiocese has owned the land, which is up the block from St. Patrick's Church, for more than a century. It planned to consolidate its Catholic Charities social services operation on the block, and use rental income from the office building to help cover that expense.
The proposal alarmed activists. Four groups -- the D.C. Preservation League, the Committee of 100 planning advocacy group, Downtown Housing Now and the Downtown Artists Coalition -- objected to the plan.
Such facade-and-new-construction mixes have been built all over downtown Washington in the past two-plus decades. But they've never been a favorite of preservationists, who at most give them grudging half-a-loaf support. The artists objected to the plan because it would remove the last tiny bit of cheap studio space remaining in the rapidly redeveloping neighborhood near MCI Center. The others were concerned about what they saw as bad land use that sapped vitality from downtown.
Under D.C. law, to demolish buildings that contribute to a historic district, the mayor or his agent must make a finding that the proposed project has "special merit." That's defined as "a plan or building having significant benefits to the District of Columbia or to the community by virtue of exemplary architecture, specific features of land planning, or social or other benefits having a high priority for community services."
The archdiocese argued that its proposal had special merit because it would allow Catholic Charities to provide additional social services to D.C. residents. It also argued that saving the town house facades gave the project special merit.
But administrative law judge Rohulamin Quander ruled that since most of the additional social services would be provided off-site, that did not count as special merit. And he also wrote, "The loss to the general public by virtue of the destruction of the historic F Street buildings outweighs the value to the community of the applicant's proposed restoration of the facades of these buildings."
Quander also pointed out that since the archdiocese has owned the buildings for so long, any deterioration that requires restoration is its fault.
"The artists are very happy with this ruling," said Michael Berman, a leader of the Downtown Artists Coalition and one of about 15 people with rented studios on the block. "We feel the city is stepping out to protect not only the historic buildings but also the arts and culture downtown. We really hope it sends a message to all the development happening downtown that you've got to include the arts to make it viable; and residential, too."
Wilbur said his company believed that its project would be approved because it worked closely in the planning stage with the staff of the city's Historic Preservation Review Board to produce the design by architect Colden Florance, who has substantial experience with local preservation projects. The developers also met early on with some of the groups that eventually opposed the project. The preservation board said in March that keeping just the facades was not consistent with preservation laws, but it still approved the design concept.
Said Wilbur, "It's disappointing, but the historic preservation process in the District of Columbia is very unpredictable."
A PERSONAL NOTE: After five years covering the commercial real estate industry and compiling this column, I am switching jobs to become The Washington Post's Real Estate Editor. That's real estate as in houses, not office buildings.
During these years, I have watched the industry pull itself out of the depths of a bust usually described as "the worst since the Great Depression." It's amazing to consider that Northern Virginia, where office buildings once had double-digit vacancy rates, now has 10 million square feet of space under construction, and no sign yet of overbuilding.
I want to thank the many, many people who have explained things to me over and over again, and who have helped me keep up with a fascinating, always changing industry. I can't name individuals -- I just counted more than 1,500 entries in my electronic telephone book -- but I appreciated your patience, your good humor and your unending capacity to gossip about your business.