The way Grace Monaco sees it, the people who work with consumer advocate Ralph Nader are "good people doing good things," but Nader's public interest organization operates an office in her residentially zoned Capitol Hill neighborhood and "laws should apply both to St. Michael and the devil, even if it is St. Michael in this case," she said.
The way Amanda Birrell, who lives at 5th and D Streets SE, sees it, it is appropriate that Ralph Nader's group, "the people's voice on the Hill," she says, be located nearby. "Their presence reminds one that this is not isolated and prestigious Georgetown, but a working and vital area of both our city and the nation," she wrote in a letter to the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment.
The two extreme differences of opinion illustrate the two sides of a battle that has taken place in a Capitol Hill neighborhood during the past few years in a still unresolved fight over whether Public Citizen, a Nader-affiliated organization, should be allowed at 133 C St. SE.
Some of the residents want the office out, noting that it is in a neighborhood zoned for residential use. They say they fear the inundation of trade groups and lobbyists and future parking problems if the Nader people get a toehold.
Other residents look at the Nader group itself rather than the zoning regulations and like what they see. The group has been a good neighbor, "quiet and orderly," they say. Besides, they say, the building is too large for effective residential use anyway."
The battle began almost four years ago. Public Citizen leased the 29-room building, formerly used as a convent, to house its tax reform research group, Congress Watch, and Critical Mass, another Nader group that is concerned with the health and environmental aspects of radiation.
The group was told by a city zoning officer that it could use the building by qualifying as a private club, according to Robert McIntyre, who is with the tax reform group.
Lawrence A. Monaco Jr., a lawyer who lives at 123 C St. SE, didn't agree. He filed an appeal with the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, and was supported by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society.
"We want residences, not office people who come in at 9 and leave at 5," Monaco said. His neighborhood is near the Cannon House Office Building, the Capitol, the Republican National Committee and across from the Library of Congress extension, and would be popular with other trade groups and lobbyists for office space if Public Citizen is allowed, he complained.
The board of zoning adjustment upheld Monaco's challenge, and when Public Citizen appealed the decision, the D.C. Court of Appeals also agreed with Monaco and the board.
Public Citizen didn't give up. The owner of the building at 133 C St. SE, Alejandre Palau, next applied to the board of zoning adjustment, this time for a special exception and variance to allow use of the building, located in a historic area, by a nonprofit organization.
The board rejected the request. But that decision also was appealed. That appeal is pending before the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Though the Monacos have been backed by the restoration society, the local advisory neighborhood commission and some of their neighbors in their effort to get Public Citizen out of the building, court records show that a number of Capitol Hill residents like having the organization in their midst.
"The occupants are quiet and orderly . . . There actually was more commotion years ago when that building housed a nunnery," wrote Arlen J. Large, of 120 1/2 Rumsey Ct. SE, in support of Public Citizen.
Another resident called Public Citizen a "welcome presence on Capitol Hill." Another noted that the group has maintained the building "instead of converting it to look like offices." Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.), who lives at 137 C St. SE, also supports keeping Public Citizen in the neighborhood.
Court records show that Palau, of College Park, Md., bought the building in 1972, planning to use it as his home, but decided that conversion would be too costly.
The building previously was owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, and was used as a convent by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.