For the latest in adventurous urban living, look no further than the proposed development in the District’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, where a builder plans to offer tenants the rare opportunity to reside underground.
More than six feet under, to be exact.
Most of the 125 to 150 apartments slated for the lot behind the Masonic temple on 16th Street NW would be aboveground, with scenic views of surrounding rowhouses and the soaring, century-old shrine created by the same architect who designed the Jefferson Memorial.
But the building’s 20 underground abodes would face an external wall, lit by whatever natural light happens to reach down from above.
“It’s like living in a Metro tunnel,” Victor Wexler, a retired history professor who lives nearby, told the developer who presented plans at a recent community meeting. “Is it fair? Is it human?”
“If someone would choose to live there, that’s their choice,” replied Adam Peters, the developer. He said his team would install sufficient artificial light to make the below-ground units comfortable and attractive.
“How about God’s light?” Wexler countered, sharply.
The cellar units are only one aspect of the project that is roiling neighbors, pitting residents of one of the District’s most prestigious enclaves against a venerable fraternal organization looking to benefit from the city’s red-hot real estate market.
The land owner, the Scottish Rite, in partnership with developer Perseus TDC, is not seeking waivers to build higher than the four stories allowed by the District’s zoning regulations, in part to avoid the kind of lawsuits brought by anti-gentrification activists that have caused costly delays for other projects in the city.
Instead of going higher, Perseus TDC wants to build lower, proposing to construct a floor below what is often referred to as English-basement apartments.
With its revenue down because of declining membership, the Scottish Rite’s Supreme Council is counting on the development — along with a $22 million property-tax abatement it is seeking from the D.C. Council — to help fund what it says are $80 million in needed repairs to its landmark building at 16th and S streets NW.
But residents in Dupont Circle are mounting resistance, pledging to turn out in force Thursday when the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board assesses the developer’s plans. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission earlier this month passed a resolution requesting relatively minor modifications.
The crux of residents’ objections is that the building’s modern brick-and-glass design clashes with the neighborhood’s historic aesthetic. And its size — four aboveground stories, a penthouse level and 109 parking spaces — would overwhelm their rowhouses, they say.
The building would occupy a last piece of vacant land in Dupont Circle, a parcel that lies behind the Masonic temple and fronts 15th Street between R and S streets. The property was cleared more than 30 years ago when the Masons bought a couple dozen rowhouses and tore them down.
That the green space is owned by the Masons does little to dull a sense of outrage among neighbors, including those still angry about the past demolition.
“I’m attached to the light and air — it should be a park,” said Iris Green, a lawyer who has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years and who opposed the razing of the houses in the 1980s. “I oppose putting 200 people in a space that once held 50. That’s a monstrosity. It overpowers the neighborhood. It doesn’t match what’s here.”
Green’s sentiment is not universal. When several dozen neighborhood residents recently protested in front of the temple, Larry Sprowls, a retired IT manager, formed a one-man counterprotest. He contended that the opponents are seeking to obstruct new housing that the city desperately needs. The area already includes a number of high-rise apartment buildings.
“I can’t stand the self-righteous, entitled behavior of people in this neighborhood,” said Sprowls, who brought along a homemade sign that read, “No NIMBYS” and “Build it!” He walked alongside project opponents who brought their own signs, one of which read, “Stop the destruction.”
“They act like they own something that doesn’t belong to them,” Sprowls said. “If they want to make it a park, buy it.”
Among architects, John Russell Pope is famous for having designed a slew of iconic Washington sites, including the National Archives, the National Gallery of Art, DAR Constitution Hall and the Jefferson Memorial.
Decades before those creations, Pope was known for conceiving of the Scottish Rite temple, a classical-style colossus just over a mile north of the White House, with two carved limestone sphinxes outside its front doors and a 100-foot-high dome.
Inspired by the tomb of King Mausolus in what is now Turkey, the temple is the national headquarters for the Scottish Rite’s Southern Jurisdiction, the members of which have included President George Washington.
Like many fraternal organizations, the Scottish Rite has seen its worldwide ranks decrease over the past three decades, from 400,000 to 146,000, said John L. Ray, a former D.C. Council member and the temple’s attorney.
It was because of a decline in revenue, as well as a need for renovations, that Ray said he suggested four years ago that the temple develop the vacant parcel behind the shrine to generate income.
His idea was not original. In recent years, as their memberships have declined and land has grown more valuable, a number of Washington congregations have formed partnerships with developers to build on unoccupied parcels.
The Scottish Rite rejected a first developer’s proposal for an 11-story building on the parcel because officials feared that it could “overshadow” the temple, Ray said. Their next partner, Perseus TDC, proposed the smaller project.
At the temple’s request, D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) introduced legislation in 2017 for the $22 million tax abatement. The temple lies in Ward 2. McDuffie said his support for the bill was contingent on an endorsement from the District’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
Last fall, the CFO, after assessing the Scottish Rite’s finances, concluded that the abatement “is not necessary” to fund the temple’s renovation. McDuffie said he expects the legislation to die.
“No one supports it,” McDuffie said. “I don’t support it, either.”
If the council rejects the abatement, Ray said that the temple “will have to find an alternative to finance the project.”
With a rooftop pool and sumptuous garden, the apartments would consist mainly of market-rate rentals. As required by the District for new construction, there would also be about a dozen “affordable” units, evenly distributed throughout the complex.
Below the English-basement units, the ceilings and floors of the cellar apartments would be 5 and 15 feet beneath the ground, respectively. Each of those units would have floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on patios.
Timothy Wilson, a spokesman for the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said his agency is aware of one building in the District that features similar apartments, at Wisconsin Avenue and Calvert Street NW. “It is rare,” he said.
Peters said rents have not been set for the building, but he said that the cellar abodes “could conceivably” be priced at 20 percent below market rates. He said that the development team would work with artists to create murals and lighting for the cellar patios.
“There are a lot of amazing artists who could do something very attractive,” he said, adding that the discounted rents would make the neighborhood affordable to renters who otherwise would be priced out. “It would be something funky and different.”
Michael Carr, 48, is an environmental consultant whose back porch looks out on the temple’s vacant land. He described himself as an “urbanist” who generally supports new construction, particularly in already dense neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle.
He says his objection to the temple’s project is driven by the proposal for a “giant” underground parking garage. Cars would enter and exit the garage off 15th Street, creating the potential for accidents because drivers will have to cross a busy bike lane, Carr said.
The existence of parking will turn the building into “pied-a-terres for millionaires,” Carr predicted. “I want more people in the neighborhood,” he said. “But I want them to be people from the neighborhood, not people using this as their weekend pad.”
Next door, 101 year-old Catherine Campbell sat in her three-story rowhouse — the same one she grew up in after her parents bought it in 1931 — and recalled the changes she has witnessed.
Victrolas, record players, televisions, headphones, iPhones.
Her city. Her neighborhood.
“I do declare!” she said, seated on a couch, her windows facing the empty lot where the new apartments would rise. “Most people don’t want it, but that’s change. Change is part of the deal.”