McLean Gardens, the mainly empty housing complex that was one of the city's largest sources of moderately priced apartments, is being transformed into a Wisconsin Avenue minicity with more than 1,300 condominiums and cooperative units, some costing as much as $122,000.
These days, the lawn mowers and pigeons have been removed from the old McLean Gardens party hall. The room, nearly half the size of a football field, is ready again for lavish parties, its two fireplaces working, its four columns towering from gray carpeting up 30 feet to the ceiling.
These days, the sales office walls are adorned with sepia-toned photographs of Evalyn Walsh McLean, who presided over some of the city's most elegant parties in the Roaring '20s as mistress of the Old McLean estate.
She is shown with a cigarette dangling from one hand, a black hat and veil tilted on her head, a fur jacket covering her shoulders, and jewels -- including the Hope Diamond -- dripping from her neck and wrist.
It all adds up to quite a change in makeup and image for a project whose residents often were portrayed as small Davids battling successfully for nearly a decade against Goliath developers. The project, which now has 723 apartments, was built as housing for World War II government workers. Only about 160 apartments now are occupied.
Sitting on 43 acres of grassy, gently sloping land on some of the city's choicest real estate just north of the Washington Cathedral, developers over the years have devised various plans to change McLean Gardens, only to be thwarted at nearly every turn by tenants who wanted it to remain as moderately priced apartments.
Late last September, however, the 160 families who remained at McLean Gardens to fight the sale of the project to an outside condominium developer, became partners with several developers of their own choosing. They bought the complex, along with its 10 acres of unused land, for $24.5 million.
They next announced plans to convert the complex to comdominiums and cooperatives themselves. The waiting list now has more than 4,000 potential buyers.
Developers involved in the project said it is likely that the final McLean Gardens community will include several small shops and convenience stores. About 600 large, luxury condominiums and town houses will be developed on the used land and will be sold at market rates -- which easily could mean prices of more than $300,000 for the largest units.
Recently, an invitation-only candlelight ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to mark the beginning of sales on the 110 units in the first phase of development. VIPs and others were given a tour of the massively restored and renovated model condominium units, decorated by designers from Bloomingdale's. Shortly thereafter, a residents association official reported that buyers have made deposits on all the units in the first phase of development.
The most expensive condominium now being sold -- a four-bedroom duplex -- costs $122,000, requiring an annual household income of at least $50,000 to pay all charges, including the condomium fee, according to McLean Gardens sales director Donald B. Epner.
The least expensive condominium is a studio flat or an efficiency, priced at $50,000, requiring an annual income of about $20,000.
Sales officials said the most popular model appears to be a one-bedroom condominium that has a loft, and costs $90,000. Prices of units in future phases are likely to be higher because of inflation.
The condominiums are attracting a mixture of World Bank employes, some "empty nesters" whose grown children have left home, young executives, professional couples, at least one congressman, and a few families, Epner said. Currently, refundable deposits are being accepted because the developers are awaiting final approval of its condominium documents from the city government.
In contrast to the new buyers, about one-fourth of the current residents at McLean Gardens are lower-income, earning so little they qualify for federal subsidy programs. Another one-fourth probably have a household income of more than $25,000 a year with the rest somewhere in the middle.
The McLean Gardens Residents Association will get 27.5 percent of the development profits, which it will use to discount the prices of condominiums and cooperatives for current tenants.Conversion of some apartments to cooperatives for the tenants should begin within about 1 1/2 years, according to tenant association chairman Jack Koczela.
About 40 families have indicated they don't want to participate in the cooperative and are being paid $12,000 each to either move from the complex or give up their cooperative rights, Koczela said.
Along with the residents association, the development partners are Arthur Rubloff and Co., a Chicago-based development firm; the Kornblatt Corp., headed by Baltimore developer David Kornblatt, William McCulloch III, a former World Bank lawyer and international developer, and David R. Marshall and Associates, headed by engineering and condominium consultant David R. Marshall Jr.
Patricia Greer, the principal of the two elementary schools that serve McLean Gardens residents, said she is "delighted" with the plans for the complex. Greer said the uncertain fate of McLean Gardens drove many families out over the past few years, and the enrollments at Eaton and Hearst schools declined.
Noting that many affluent families with no children live in the upper Wisconsin Avenue area -- where some houses cost more than $300,000 -- and many that do have children send them to nearby private schools, Greer said she is optimistic that McLean Gardens is offering large condominiums at prices she feels some people with children can afford.
Some residents are unhappy with the development plan worked out by their leaders, however, and hired lawyers and filed statements with the city, asking that the developers not be exempt from the city's current moratorium on condominium conversions.
They say leaders of the board of directors have not answered important questions adequately. One said that the resident association, a strong, cohesive force for so long, now is going through an "identity crisis."
Last Friday, the city housing department approved the exemption from the moratorium for the first phase of development. A housing official said she will meet with the development partners to discuss the issues raised by some residents.
Patricia Cavanaugh, a resident of McLean Gardens for 14 years, is one who wrote to the city, noting that its association is often used as a model by other tenant groups in the city. "It is ironic that most other groups have wound up with better deals than we have," Cavanaugh wrote.
"We are making a lot of money for a developer and other financial partners, with no guarantee of any benefit for ourselves. This is exactly what we spent eight years fighting. I fear that if the city does not investigate this situation, other groups may be led into the same mess."
But McLean Gardens leaders insisted that given time constraints, they negotiated the best deal they could, and that they have been open with resident members. "Our goal of allowing the people who are here to stay is being met," said Koczela.