A D.C. Superior Court judge on Friday temporarily barred a developer seeking to build condominiums from razing a Northwest Washington plaza that community groups contend was ceded by a bank to the public more than 40 years ago.
In issuing the order, Judge Todd Edelman said that two Adams Morgan community groups have a substantial chance of prevailing in the lawsuit they filed to block PN Hoffman from building on the plaza, part of property owned by SunTrust bank at the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW.
SunTrust, which maintains a branch on the site, has an agreement to sell the property to developer PN Hoffman, which plans to build 54 condos.
As he left court, SunTrust lawyer Michael Ross declined to comment on the judge’s ruling, saying, “We’re still evaluating.”
Paul Zukerberg, the lawyer representing the project’s opponents, described the judge’s ruling as “incredible” because the neighborhood activists were able to “stop in their tracks” a bank and developer.
Amy Clark, a spokeswoman for PN Hoffman, said the developer declined to comment.
The plaza was designed as a de facto public square in the 1970s. Its then-owner, Perpetual Federal Savings and Loan bank, offered it as a way to assuage a community that was opposed to the bank opening because of its discriminatory lending practices.
Before and after SunTrust took over the site in 1992, the plaza has hosted a weekly farmers market and occasional public events.
For older residents familiar with the site’s history, it has also become a symbol of the neighborhood’s history of progressive politics.
But many Adams Morgan residents view the plaza as an eyesore, and the neighborhood’s email group has been rife with pleas for a developer to transform it into something other than a grazing ground for pigeons.
After PN Hoffman unveiled its plans for the site, the two neighborhood groups, Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development and the Kalorama Citizens Association, filed suit claiming that Perpetual had granted the plaza to the community in the form of a public easement.
But SunTrust has argued that the plaza is private property and that no such easement exists.
As evidence for their case, the community groups cited a 1976 letter written by Perpetual’s president, Thomas J. Owen, in which he asserted that the three-story building the bank was designing would be placed “far back” on the site “to allow ample room for vendors and other open air activities.”
In his ruling, Edelman cited that letter as well as testimony from two former Adams Morgan community leaders who were present during negotiations in the 1970s as evidence that Perpetual had ceded the plaza to the public.
“I’m not here saying that the plaza is better than condos or condos are better than a plaza,” the judge said.
“Reasonable people can disagree over the use.”
But he said that allowing the project to proceed without a trial could allow for the destruction of the plaza before a legal resolution.
Ross told the judge that the temporary injunction “could blow up the deal” between SunTrust and PN Hoffman.
He asked that the community groups put up a $20 million bond, which they would forfeit if the bank is victorious at the trial.
Zukerberg countered that the groups “don’t have $20 million and if they did, they might buy the property themselves.”
The judge said he would get back to the two sides about a bond next week.