U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Flannery barred the District of Columbia government yesterday from issuing a permit to demolish the historic Rhodes Tavern until after the Nov. 8 elections, when voters will be asked to decide whether further steps should be taken to save the building.
The decision is the latest round in a six-year battle over the fate of the tavern, which was built between 1799 and 1801.
Once used as a town hall, the tavern is the oldest commercial building in downtown Washington.
Developer Oliver T. Carr had planned to demolish the building to make way for the Metropolitan Square complex of stores and office space between 14th, 15th, F and G streets NW.
Last May, the city's Board of Zoning Adjustment cleared the way for the demolition, but backers of the tavern sued the city to delay the board's decision until after the election, when voters will consider an initiative aimed at saving the building.
"We are delighted with the decision," William A. Dobrovir, the attorney for the Save the Rhodes Tavern Initiative Committee, said yesterday.
"Judge Flannery has vindicated citizens' rights to vote," said Joseph N. Grano, an attorney who has led the battle to preserve the historic tavern.
"We are disappointed in the judge's decision," Steven Bralower, a vice president of the Oliver T. Carr Co., said yesterday. "Of course, we respect the people's right to vote, but we also feel that the owner's rights have not been fully considered. We remain firm in our belief that the project is one of special merit and deserves timely completion. We will review the ruling and determine what appropriate actions we will pursue."
The District government had no comment.
As now worded, the initiative, if successful, would "make it public policy to support the preservation of Washington's first town hall" and would appoint an advisory board to develop ways of keeping the landmark intact.
Carr and the city had argued in court that the question of whether a demolition permit is issued is one that should be decided by the District's administrative agencies, not by the voters.
In addition, Carr said a vote to save the tavern would deprive him of his constitutional rights to own property.
Rejecting these contentions, Flannery said, "The right to vote is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution . . . and grounded in the First Amendment."
The judge said that right is not limited to electing candidates, and he noted that the District's Board of Elections had approved the initiative on the tavern's future as being proper for the electorate to decide.
"A vote to save the Rhodes Tavern would be an empty gesture, devoid of meaning or effect, if the Rhodes Tavern itself were allowed to disappear," the judge wrote.
Flannery said neither the validity nor the constitutionality of the initiative "may properly be resolved by this court at this time."
Those issues may be addressed by the court after the results of the initiative are known, he said.
Addressing the developer's claim that his company will lose $16,000 a day until the election, Flannery said, "Carr has pursued the development of this property for six years; the election is scarcely 10 weeks away." Now that the issue has been placed on the ballot, the judge said, "The right to participate effectively in that [election] process must be protected."