A D.C. Superior Court judge has delayed until at least Jan. 12 a decision on what can be done with seven century-old buildings in the 1700 block of F Street NW. Owners of the row of buildings want to raze them to make way for a modern commercial structure; preservationists want to save the structures as "one of the last vestiges of the city's social and economic development in the post-Civil War era."
Judge Robert Scott last week extended a temporary restraining order, issued earlier in December, that prohibited demolition of the buildings pending a report on whether the buildings are safe. In his ruling, Scott ordered a new report to be completed by Jan. 12. He said no action can be taken on the buildings before then.
When the restraining order was first issued by Judge James Belson, a panel of structural engineers was already working on a report to determine if the buildings were safe. That report, submitted Dec. 13, said the buildings were unsafe and should be torn down.
However, Judge Scott called the report "tainted" because one member of the panel had been previously consulated by the owners and had already concluded that the buildings were unsafe. In addition, Judge Scott said, another panel member testified that he had been told to base his conclusions on the economic feasibility of restoring the builidings. Judge Scott said that was not a proper interpretation of the Unsafe Buildings Act, and ordered the city to set up a new panel that would outline the cost of making the buildings safe for another year.
Scott said he would schedule another court hearing after the new report is completed.
The owners of the buildings and the developers who want to build on the site have been locked in a legal battle with preservationists, city officials and the Joint Committee on Landmarks, the federal-city agency that designates D.C. landmarks, for almost two months.
On Nov. 8, the Burka family, which has owned the buildings at 1739 through 1751 F St. NW since the 1950s, applied for permits to raze the buildings. Under a lease agreement signed by the Burkas in August with developers Glenn Urquhart and Kevin Donohoe, and introduced as evidence in the court case, the rent will double -- from $7,000 a month for the entire property to $14,000 a month -- two years after the buildings are razed.
Demolition permits were denied, however, after Acting D.C. Corporation Counsel Louis P. Robbins directed that the landmark status of the buildings be determined before the permits were issued.
An application to nominate the buildings to the National Register of Histroic Places was filed Sept. 29 by Don't Tear It Down, a local preservation group, and by the Foggy Bottom-West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission. The buildings, known as Michler Row, are now desigatned a "special street" on the D.C. landmark list. However, that status does not place the builidings under the protection of the D.C. 180-day delay-in-demolition law. A hearing on the landmark proposal is scheduled for Jan. 18.
After the Corporation Counsel's action, the Burka family petitioned the court to order the city to grant the permits. In a counter-move, Don't Tear It Down asked the court for a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from issuing the permits.
Before the initial court hearings, however, the city building inspector, on Nov. 21, ordered the owners to tear down the buildings or make them safe. At the owner's request, the panel of three structural engineers was set up to determine which alternative should be followed.
"We're on the horns of a dilemma." Milton Burke, an attonrey for the owners told the court at the hearing on the temporary restraining order. "We can't get demolition permits for buildings the District is going to order us to tear down."
But David Bonderman, an attorney for Don't Tear It Down, likened the owners to the proverbial child who kills his parents and then begs for mercy because he is an orphan.
"The reason the buildings aren't in good condition is because the owners failed to maintain them -- they haven't fixed the roof for ten years," Bonderman said.
The seven Second Empire-style buildings until recently housed several small shops and businesses including Jenny's, a popular Pan-Asian restaurant.