We'd much rather be unencumbered and do whatever the hell we want to do. But we want to be part of the community, too. When you're a hotel in a residential area, there's no way the two of you can get a divorce." -- Sheraton Washington Hotel vice president and managing director Paul O'Neil.
"I don't think the neighborhood hates the hotel by any means, but there is a public realtions problem. and it isn't going away." -- Community activist frederick r. transill.
At the end of August, assuming the carpets finally are laid and the light bulbs screwed in, the brand-new $80 million Sheraton Washington Hotel will open on a hilltop off Connecticut Avenue, overlooking Woodley Road NW.
Another event, just as significant to the surrounding Woodley Park community, is scheduled to take place next week.
An attorney for Woodley Park and another for the Sheratorn Hotel Corporation are scheduled to sit across a table and sign an agreement. Thus should end four years of negotiations over where vehicles attracted by the new hotel can go, wait, and park.
Paul O'Neil, Sheraton Washington vice president, believes the agreement between hotel and community is unprecedented in the U.S. hotel industry.
It will provide 900 off-street parking spaces, 170 of them in an underground garage. It will force trucks and buses to use the hotel's back entrance off 24th Street -- thus keeping them away from residential Woodley Road where the main entrance is located. And it will require the Sheraton Washington to make sure waiting trucks and buses do not idle their motors and pollute the neigborhood's air, as they have in the past.
"I'm delighted with it," O'Neil said of the agreement.
But even he acknowledges that, in a public relations sense, his work has just begun.
Four years of often-hostile meetings between hotel and neighborhood, spiced with occasional picketing along Connecticut Avenue and frequent save-your-community fund drives around Woodley Park, have left what Bill Carroll, president of the Woodley Park Community Association, calls "an embittered atmosphere."
As Washington's newest luxury hotel prepares to open, so, too, does an extended session of mending fences.
"Quite honestly, we are going to have to make an effort with the community," said Penny Cummings, the hotel's public relations manager. "Some people are going to be angry for the next 20 years. And we know we have to live with these people."
So Cummings has reset the dials on her 1980 public relations schedule to "community" and "immediate."
Last week Cummings gave away 250 shopping bags to nearby Oyster School. For the fall, she has scheduled a swimming meet for neighborhood children in the hotel pool. She is also planning to offer cooking lessons by the hotel chef and a community open house.
"In a sense I'm sticking my neck out, because very little of this is anything we've done in the past," Cummings said. "But we need rapport with the neighborhood.
Neighborhood resident Bill Carroll says that is impossible.
"The damage is irreparable," Carroll, 41, a Department of Defense contracts attorney, said.
"They misled us for 2 1/2 years. Our major concern all along has been to keep their cars off our streets. Theirs has been to make our streets Theirs has been to make our streets their parking lot."
Indeed, parking has been the major community problem since the mid-1960s, when Sheratorn-Park Hotel -- the since razed forerunner of the Sheraton Washington -- began attracting conventions of 1,000 or more people.
For years, it has been commonplace around Woodley Park to see cars with tags from Maryland, Virginia and states even further away parked in every available space including private parking places, driveways and alleys.
Returning home after work or late at night, the neighborhood's approximately 7,400 residents often have to drive around and around before finding a vacant, legal space.
Meanwhile, by all neighborhood accounts, a residential parking permit system introduced two years ago has made little difference. According to Woodley Park residents, police enforcement of parking regulations has been spotty and has not always been effective even when attempted.
"Many times I've seen people with out-of-state plates reach under their windshield wipers, fish out a ticket and tear it up," says Frederick R. Tansill, 66, a lawyer and 40-year Woodley Park resident.
"It's a bit like an invading army, every night at the hotel, and every weekend at the (National) Zoo. We have a neighborhood here that hasn't changed very much at all in the time I've lived here, except in terms of housing prices. We'd like to keep it the way it's been, especially for all the elderly people here."
According to data recentley gathered by the community association, more than 25-percent of the neighborhood is 65 or older -- but another 25 percent is 25 or younger.
"It's a real mixed bag," a church official familiar with the neighborhood says. "Professionals, working class, beautiful people who disco in Georgetown and old ladies who haven't been out of the neighborhood in 20 years."
Ethnic diversity is one thing Woodley does not offer. Only six percent of the neighborhood is black.Another seven percent is Hispanic.
Woodley Park's calling card is convenience.
More than half the homes in the neighborhood are town houses, most of them set well back from narrow streets, many with lush gardens. Bounded by Klingle Road on the north, Calvert Street on the south, Cleveland Avenue on the west and Rock Creek Park on the east, Woodley Park is 14 minutes from 16th and K streets by rush-hour bus, and only a four-minute drive by car from the Kennedy Center.
When Metro's Red Line is extended in early 1982, the neighborhood will be the "best in the city, all things considered," according to a real-estate agent who has sold more than 30 houses there, many for $175,000 and up.
But, for better or worse, the Sheraton Washington and Shoreham hotels -- along with the Wardman Towers Apartments, which adjoin the new hotel -- dominate Woodley Park life. And what's a pain to homeowners is a boom to the business owners.
"I hate to think what would happen to the shops along Connecticut Avenue if we weren't here," the hotel's Paul O'Neil says. One nearby businessman, a liquor store owner, estimates that 95 percent of his trade is hotel-related.
To Bill Carroll, a stalwart defender of the neighborhood, the new hotel's effect on the community remains to be seen -- and the signs are not encouraging.
"They have a tendency to regard citizen groups as a pain in the ass," he said. "They think, "These people have nothing to do but bitch.'
"I know it sounds like paranoia and crankiness, but our new neighbor in Woodley Park is (ITT,) one fo the largest companies in the world, (owning half of the Sheraton Washington). I'm not sure they really care about us."
"I have a sense of uncertainty -- right until the day I see the agreement signed."