John O. Antonelli has a lot of ideas about what he wants to do with three Victorian town houses and some vacant lots behind them that he owns in the 1700 block of N Street NW. But neighbors along that street don't think much of his plans.
Antonelli, stepson of multimillionaire developer and parking tycoon Dominic F. Antonelli Jr., has had the neighborhood stirred up since he disclosed plans to construct an office building behind - but attached to - the houses his partnership owns at 1752, 1754 and 1756 N St. NW.
The people who live and work in the block - a narrow, one-way tree-lined street of law offices, small inns, institutes and other Victorian homes - say traffic congestion there is already intolerable. They fear that further development will damage the special charm and tranquility of the block.
But what really has the block steamed up, according to John A. Keats, an attorney for the law firm of Lamb, Halleck & Keats, is that people feel Antonelli is trying to intimidate them with an ultimatum.
"The premise (from Antonelli) was that either we accept his plan to put up the office building or he'll destroy the houses and build a condominium," said Keats.
With the law firm a few doors down the street from the houses, the firm's partners have more than a passing interest in what happens in the block.
"We like the street, and we don't want to see it destroyed," said David B. Lamb. "There are a lot of lawyers on this block, and you don't threaten lawyers."
Antonelli, through his secretary, said yesterday he would have "no comment" to a reporter's questions about the controversy. But he did meet Thursday with some of the block's preservationists to hear their concerns.
"We were worried he might just come in this weekend and tear the houses down," said Lamb, one of the people who met Antonelli at his office. "He said he had applied for a demolition permit but would not tear anything down without informing us first."
In addition to Antonelli's personal assurance that he would notify them of his demolition plans - which Lamb and others plan to fight in court - the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office yesterday issued a memorandum against granting a demolition permit for the buildings at this time.
The block, according to the memorandum, is included in the Dupont Circle Historic District, which has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. However, the paperwork and review process that accompanies the nomination means that the area will not officially be listed in the register for a month or longer.
Since landmark status for the area is pending the memorandum said Antonelli's demolition permit application should be subject to the same review process used for buildings in districts which are on the national register.
The corporation counsel's office action is the latest in a series of setback for Antonelli's development plans for the property, which is at the center of an area bounded by N and 17th streets NW and by Rhode Island and Connecticut avenues NW.
His application for permission from zoning officials to construct his office building - which initially set off the neighborhood furor - had to be withdrawn earlier this year when it was discovered Antonelli's partnership did not actually own a fourth town house, at 1750 N St. NW, that it had included in its building plans.
More recently, Antonelli has sought permission to operate a parking lot on vacant property he owns behind the houses. He is also trying to secure the closing of an alley running through the vacant lots so he can combine the property for future development.
The alley closing has been held up pending action on some of his other property use requests, and Antonelli's parking lot application is being opposed on several grounds.
In a letter to the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustments, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on the application May 31, D.C. Department of Transportation director Douglas Schneider has recommended the parking lot permit be denied. He said Antonelli has already been illegally using the lot for a parking operation.
Residents and workers in the area complained yesterday that Antonelli has been using the vacant lot, including the public alley space that belongs to the city, for private contract parking lot operation is contributing to further traffic congestion.
Lamb said Antonelli has told him he still hopes to build an office building on the lot that would be attached to the town houses. Failing that, the houses will be demolished.
Emily Eig, an architectural historian and part of an organization Group, said she wished "Mr. Antonelli known as the N Street Preservation could be sensitized" to appreciate "these . . . beautiful, beautiful houses." She said two were designed by T. F. Schneider, who designed the Cairo Hotel.
And former Superior Court Judge Charles Havleck, a low partner of Lamb, yesterday of the neighborhood's determination to save the houses:
"It costs us just 40 cents to go to court - that's subway fare. It will cost him (Antonelli) a lot more."