I am puzzled by the article by Timothy J. Dowling, the lawyer from the Community Rights Council, concerning the proposal to build eight town houses on Connecticut Avenue north of Cathedral Avenue [Close to Home, Sept. 12].
Dowling was concerned that the owner of the property, District Intown Properties Inc., might prevail in a court case and be compensated for the "taking" of the rights to develop the land. He spoke of the builder of Cathedral Mansions, Harry Wardman, as though he were a great architect. But Wardman was not an architect at all, but an English carpenter who became a prolific builder and developer. He built row houses in many upper Northwest neighborhoods.
These row houses were well built and are considered fine residences today, but Wardman's architectural style was mundane. The institutional bulk of Cathedral Mansions, which looms over its single-family neighbors, is ample evidence of this.
Henry Hobsen Richardson was a great architect, but one would search in vain for much evidence of the superb residences he built in the District, in part because Wardman and his contemporary developers were not averse to razing them to turn a profit. The Hay-Adams Hotel on Lafayette Square occupies the site of the Hay mansion and the Adams mansion, both torn down by Wardman.
At 16th and K streets NW, another Richardson mansion suffered the same fate to make room for Wardman's hotel development. A remnant of the Hay and Adams homes can be found in Cathedral Heights, where part of a Richardsonian arch has been incorporated in the garage of a detached residence.
It is ironic that, having thwarted the developer's bid to build the town houses, opposing forces now seek to prevent any compensation by evoking the name of a developer who was himself uninterested in historic preservation.
District Intown sought the highest and best use of its land, which is commonplace in any urban area: Parking lots and other interim uses give way to commercial structures when it becomes financially feasible to develop them. Owners of single-family homes fortunate enough to have a lot of sufficient size may, as a matter of right, create a salable building lot by subdividing.
The city's lawyer has said that the owners, having successfully operated the property since 1961, have made a fair return on their investment "and have no right to anticipate an unfettered right to exploit the land's development potential to the fullest."
But anyone who successfully operates multifamily rental property in the District for 40 years should be applauded, not penalized, given that stringent government restrictions limit rent and most other aspects of operation while expenses rise with the market.
Recently, people have begun to exhibit a willingness to move back to the city. It must be comforting to those business owners who may be considering following their lead to know that the city lawyers have a handle on what a fair return on their investment should be.
Under all of this is the land. The prospect of owning even a small piece of ground has drawn millions to these shores and remains a source of this country's stability. The courts have yet to decide on the issue of compensation in this case, and governments are by nature reluctant to part with money if it can be avoided. But all owners of real property should be concerned. If the ruling in this case is against the plaintiff, everyone's property rights will be diminished.
-- Kevin J. Boyle
is a licensed real estate appraiser and broker in the District.