Plans to build a fast-food franchise in one of Washington's oldest buildings, the historic Georgetown Firehouse building near Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW, have drawn vehement opposition from Georgetown business and citizens' groups.
Preparations for renovation are under way on the three-story, red brick building at 3212 M St. NW and its owners, Jay Zowatsky and Curtlan McNeily, say they plan to lease it as a Burger King franchise.
Their application for a building permit to renovate the structure for restaurant use has twice been denied by the Building and Land Regulation Administration of the city's Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Department. The administration rejected one plan in July and a revised version of it on Monday.
The Georgetown Citizens Association, the Business and Professional Association of Georgetown and the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission (2E) are massing opposition to the eatery. It would, they say, create litter problems, exacerbate traffic problems at what is already the city's second busiest intersection and violate the historic character of the area.
"We are trying to upgrade the clientele here in Georgetown. We don't need young kids hanging around eating Burger King burgers until the early morning hours." said Paul Cohen, coowner of J. Paul's restaurant, located next door to the firehouse.
Zowatsky and McNeily, whose company, Washington Private Capital Ltd. (WPC), bought the building in March, said the restaurant will be an asset to the area, creating new jobs and tax revenues. Renovation also will preserve a long-neglected landmark, they said.
The building was erected in 1797 as a bank. In 1870 it became town hall of Georgetown, then a separate city, and was later used as a hotel. It finally housed Engine Co. No. 5 until the fire department abandoned it in 1940. Although it is listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, the building has since stood vacant and decaying with its roof caving in, the walls shedding plaster and years of vegetation overrunning the now-gutted interior. The city sold it at an auction in 1981 for $680,000 to developer William Robinowitz, who sold it to WPC in March.
Construction crews at the site last week were cleaning up after the removal of the building's rotted interior, while plans for the renovation itself remained pending before city agencies.
"There is no rear access for garbage pick up, which means trash will be placed on M Street. This will only add to the existing litter problem," said Sherrie Sandy, director of the Business and Professional Association of Georgetown. "But above all, the traffic problems a fast-food restuarant would create in that location would be unbearable."
Zowatsky said the potential traffic problem "is not our concern. People stopping their cars on M Street to run in for a quick sandwich should be ticketed or urged to move on by the police." The problem "is one of enforcement, not the restuarant's," Zowatsky said.
"We already have two fast-food tie-ups in Georgetown," said Cohen, referring to a Roy Rogers outlet at Wisconsin Avenue and Prospect Street NW and the Little Tavern on Wisconsin and N Street.
"We feel that economically, a lower priced restaurant is needed in Georgetown," Zowatsky said. "In addition to saving the facade that was about to fall, we will be creating 30 to 40 new jobs, which will be a tax base for the city. These jobs will be held primarily by students from the community."
Norman M. Glasgow Jr., attorney for WPC, said the company has invested more than $1 million in what has been an "eyesore" for years. Zowatsky and McNeily's plans have been approved by both the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and the federal-city Joint Committee on Landmarks, Glasgow said.
"We did issue WPC a miscellaneous permit to correct imminent dangers within the firehouse," said Joyce McCray, spokesman for Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. McCray said although the renovation plan "has been approved by Fine Arts and Landmarks, . . . . the go-ahead to start renovations is being reviewed."
The city's consumer and regulatory department denied WPC's first plan because it failed to comply with a requirement that restaurants of a certain size, in square feet, provide parking for customers, according to McCray.
She said building and land regulation officials have met repeatedly with architects for WPC to show them how their plans failed to comply with city building code and zoning regulations. WPC's revised proposals were denied approval Monday because what they planned was still too large to be exempt from providing parking facilities, McCray said.
"WPC must start at point one again because the approvals they have received from the other agencies are no longer relevant upon submitting the new plan," said James Kiles, attorney for the Business and Professional Association of Georgetown.
Zowatsky said the first plan called for use of all three levels of the building, but the revised version includes only the first floor, a modification that WPC believed would bring the proposal into compliance.
"They will do anything within their power to keep from going before the Board of Zoning Adjustments," which they must do if the facility they build is required to have off-street parking, said William Cochran, chairman of the Georgetown ANC (2E).
"If they must go before the board and the decision is they must provide parking facilities, there must be a public hearing," Cochran said, and they will have to have community support, which they don't have."
Glasgow said WPC will revise its proposal and will resubmit it to the Building and Land Regulations Administration for review. If WPC Ltd. complies with all the licensing requirements, however, there will be little that the businesses and citizens groups of Georgetown who oppose contruction of the Burger King can do to stop it, McCray said.