Developer Michael Darby is pushing ahead with plans for a massive retail and office project in Chinatown despite a recent ruling from the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board that the proposal did not do enough to maintain the neighborhood’s historic buildings.
Over recent years , Darby, principal of the District’s Monument Realty, has amassed 14 properties on one of the last blocks in the city that is still home to multiple Chinese American businesses and restaurants. The block is bordered by H Street to the south and Eye Street to the north, between Sixth and Seventh streets NW.
Darby proposed an open-air Asian food market in an alley bisecting the block, 30,000 square feet of retail, including two Chinese restaurants, and a 400,000-square-foot office building.
Some members of the Chinese American business community, including power broker and restaurateur Tony Cheng, have inked deals with Monument for their properties and argue that the proposal gives them a chance to help shape the future of Chinatown.
“A lot of these projects have kept the Chinese out of Chinatown. Our idea is to try to keep them in Chinatown and give them new opportunities,” Darby said.
Darby, a native of Australia, said the alley marketplace would be modeled after an open-air “hutong market,” with street vendors and restaurants selling food to passersby. He said Cheng, a fixture of the Chinatown business community who was indicted in June over an alleged bribery scheme, would also open two or three indoor restaurants as part of the project.
“It’s a very old restaurant with a lot of family involved in it. It’s a Washington staple,” Darby said of Cheng’s business.
But in part because of its size, the plan has divided the neighborhood’s Chinese American community. The historic preservation board turned down Monument’s proposal Oct. 31, saying the project did not do enough to preserve buildings that contributed to the Chinese presence in the city. The decision means Darby will have to seek an exemption from the ruling or amend his proposal to move forward.
At the hearing, Chinese American business owners and residents offered opposing views of whether Monument’s project would advance or denigrate their culture by demolishing some of the buildings in the neighborhood.
Audrey Wong, whose family has owned property on the block for more than 30 years, said the alley attracted crime. Overhauling the block, she said, would allow her and fellow Chinese American business leaders to play a role in transforming the area.
“Chinatown does not want to become stuck,” Wong said. “Just as China itself is now a dynamic, growing world power, D.C.’s Chinatown should be able to change and grow.”
Wong’s comments echoed those voiced at an April meeting at the Chinatown Community Cultural Center, when Chinese American residents vehemently opposed an expansion of the historic district that would have thwarted Monument’s plan.
Rebecca Miller, executive director of the nonprofit D.C. Preservation League, joined other Chinatown residents in opposing Monument’s project. The plan was “not appropriate for this historic setting” and ought to be reconsidered, Miller said.
Members of the preservation board questioned whether the hutong market would succeed in the alley and suggested that if it did not, Darby could construct the office building and replace the market with other retail, Chinese or not.
“I see this as a way to build a large office building here [with a market] that can easily be converted to something else in a few years when it doesn’t work out very well,” board member Graham Davidson said.
Board chair Gretchen Pfaehler said Monument needed to do more to merge its ideas with the existing neighborhood: “I really think it needs to take an additional step because of the heightened importance of the historic district.”
Darby said he plans to appeal to the mayor’s agent for historic preservation, who can offer an exemption to the ruling.
But Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, said the proposal might need to be reworked before it could be approved. Including Chinese American people in a business plan does not equate with preserving buildings that represent their heritage, she said.
“Today it’s Tony Cheng, tomorrow it’s 2 Amys pizza. But it’s not a physical thing, it’s a tenant. And if you say that we are only going to be leasing to people of a certain race, that is also potentially problematic,” Tregoning said.
“He wants to take away the physical manifestation of the history, and he wants to replace it with a merchandising plan.”