When Yvonne Clayton and her husband bought their home at 4821 Blagden Ave. NW in 1949, they were attracted by the Crestwood neighborhood's quiet, tree-lined streets and charming, family-owned residences.
Now the Zion Baptist Church down the street wants to build a 61-unit retirement home next door to the Claytons, and they are fighting the project, with help from many of their neighbors, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and several citizens' groups.
Since the neighborhood -- wedged between Rock Creek Park and 16th Street NW -- is zoned for single-family detached homes, the church needs an exception from the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) to build the retirement home. About 200 persons jammed a BZA hearing on the case last week. While about 20 wore badges identifying them as church members, many others expressed opposition to the plans.
It isn't the first time Crestwood residents have opposed projects that would involve rezoning. In the past 10 years they have successfully fought attempts to set up halfway houses, embassy offices and apartments in the area.
"It's a kind of elitism, and I don't like it," said the Rev. Carlton Veazey, pastor of the 1,700-member Zion Baptist Church, at 4850 Blagden Ave. NW, about a half-block from the proposed retirement home.
"Most of the people who live up there come from a different type of Washington. They have the Dunbar High School syndrome. Most of our people are hard-working people from Southwest. People in Crestwood think that if you didn't graduate from Dunbar, you're lower-class," Veazey said.
Neighborhood residents disagree. "It's not elitism -- it's an attempt by people who purchased their property many years ago to maintain their property values," said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner John C. Eason Jr. Many homes in the area are valued at $200,000 or more, he said. He and others expressed fears that the proposed retirement home would make the area a less desirable place in which to live and set a precedent for more institutional or commercial development in the neighborhood.
Eason said if the BZA approves the retirement home, it would constitute a nonconforming use of the property. Such nonconforming uses are then cited later by the BZA and the zoning commission as reasons for approving additional zoning changes, Eason said.
"This is synonymous with an apartment house," said D.C. Superior Court Judge William S. Thompson, who has lived at 4343 Blagden Ave. NW for 20 years. "Our neighborhood is zoned for single-family houses, and I hope it would remain so."
Thompson added that most persons attending the church don't live in Crestwood, and he felt that the retirement home should be built in an area where church members live.
Veasey said the 30,000-square-foot retirement facility would house about 70 persons. Any persons 65 years of age or older who are ambulatory and capable of caring for themselves could apply to live in the home, although preference would go to church members, Veazey said.
The church board would choose residents, who would pay about $600 a month for room, meals and recreational activities. The church would subsidize members who could not pay the full cost, Veazey said.
The home would be built on a 31,000-square-foot lot at 4817 Blagden Ave. NW. Construction would involve tearing down the large, two-story frame house that was built on the property -- the size of four normal city lots -- in the 1930s.
Veasey said if the BZA approves the retirement home at its April 1 meeting, construction could begin in June and would take about a year. The church has formed a corporation -- Zion Baptist Enterprises Inc. -- to oversee the project, which would cost an estimated $2 million. The corporation plans to borrow the funds, using the church building as collateral.
Veazey said if the BZA turns down the rezoning request for the retirement home, the church might develop something else on the site, "like a Christian education center, which would exacerbate problems in the neighborhood in terms of people coming and going."
The city's planning department recommended that the BZA approve the project, provided some minor changes were made in the design of the building and landscaping. But the board indicated that it would consider both the need for the project and the impact of the neighborhood when it makes its decision April 1. p
"I'd like to see more of these types of homes go up," said BZA member Charles Norris. "But we've got a neighborhood, a community to protect, too."