On most days, the concrete plaza at the busy intersection in Northwest Washington is a barren, soulless dead zone, a monument to the eminently forgettable architecture of the 1970s.
Cue the developer who has arrived with the answer du jour: Luxury Apartments! Retail! Transformation!
Most neighborhoods would uncork a collective bottle of chardonnay.
But this asphalt triangle is at the center of the District’s capital of contrarian quirk — the neighborhood of Adams Morgan — where one resident’s vision of progress is another’s sequel to “Apocalypse Now.”
Rest assured, there are select points of agreement in this roiling debate, one of which is that the plaza — interrupted by five irrefutably uncomfortable benches at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW — is about as charming as an elevator shaft.
The same could be said of the concave-shaped building that houses the plaza’s sole occupant, SunTrust Bank, which, alongside the neighborhood’s early 20th-century rowhouses, appears to have arrived from outer space.
“That is one of the ugliest buildings in all of Washington, D.C.,” said Al Jirikovic, 64, a longtime Adams Morgan bar owner, sipping coffee and gazing at the three-story bank from a table outside the Starbucks across the street.
His bearded smile turned into a grimace. “The open space is horrible,” he said.
But rip it up for another gush of one- and two-bedroom pads?
Not so fast.
Even to its many critics, the plaza is Adams Morgan’s gateway, and a reminder of its history as a cradle of protest and “flower power” (In 1967, Jimi Hendrix played in a theater that occupied the space). The plaza is at the hub of the neighborhood’s commercial area and serves as a focal point for the annual Adams Morgan Day festival, which takes place Sunday.
There also is the not-so-insignificant matter of a small farmers market on the plaza, where on Saturdays for four decades shoppers have counted on finding a quality cucumber, among other things.
That the plaza is private property — despite its history as an unofficial public square — does nothing to dull the neighborhood’s sense of entitlement.
“Sometimes places can hold the spirit of a neighborhood — they’re like sacred sites,” said Bryan Weaver, an Adams Morgan resident who is all too aware of the plaza’s aesthetic challenges.
“It’s awful but it doesn’t change what it is,” he said. “It’s our version of Mayberry.”
Only this Mayberry is being remade for affluent professionals gorging on Adams Morgan’s ever-expanding supply of lattes, “artisanal stillwater” and quartz countertops, as one new condominium building advertises.
Of course, the neighborhood has its ragtag offerings — billiards for a dollar a game at one joint; bongs and blow-up dolls at another; cheap beer and greasy pizza seemingly everywhere.
But that condo with the quartz? It replaced a gas station. On the condo’s ground floor, there’s a Philz coffee house, from which a man emerged the other day sipping what he said was a $10 cup of Jamaican brew. Where a Latino-owned grocery once presided on Columbia Road, a four-star bistro serves $33 whole roasted black sea bass and $18 bacon cheeseburgers.
A couple of blocks east, construction crews are turning the century-old First Church of Christ, Scientist into a boutique hotel, its eight stories dwarfing the conical spires atop the three- and four-story buildings along 18th Street.
These and other projects were completed or were well underway when developer PN Hoffman announced plans to turn the SunTrust plaza into a 58-unit, six-story apartment complex topped by a penthouse.
Cue the dyspepsia.
The sniping on the neighborhood’s Yahoo email group has turned vituperative enough many commenters enter the fray girded for battle.
“Now bring on the name calling again as I expect that you will . . . so be it!” Christine Brooks, a neighborhood resident for more than 20 years, wrote after declaring support for developing the plaza.
“What’s wrong with a new building and some open space?” Brooks asked in an interview. “C’mon now, we can do better than what’s there.”
Denis James, president of the Kalorama Citizens Association, has lived in Adams Morgan since 1971, long enough to remember when the plaza was a rubble-filled lot and activists stopped a BP gas station from locating there.
“BP Our People Want No Gas Station” someone scrawled on a neighboring building to announce the community’s opposition.
There were more protests when Perpetual Federal Savings, a bank with a poor record of making loans to low-income home buyers, bought the site a few years later. Hoping to endear itself to the neighborhood, then largely Latino, the bank agreed to offer improved lending terms and allow outdoor food vendors regular use of the large plaza it envisioned for the site.
“That plaza is a monument to that victory,” James said. “Sure, it’s homely and it hasn’t been maintained, but it’s the idea of the plaza. It memorializes the community’s pushback against outside forces.”
Perpetual stayed until the early 1990s, when the bank failed and was taken over by another bank, which merged with SunTrust later that decade.
Dismissing PN Hoffman’s proposed building as too massive, James contends that the project violates Perpetual Federal’s pledge to maintain a public plaza and said that he and other opponents are exploring whether to hire a lawyer.
“If they don’t want to come to the table in a meaningful way,” James said of PN Hoffman, “we will use whatever means necessary to come up with a reasonable solution.”
Monty Hoffman, the founder of PN Hoffman, said in an interview that he is certain “we’re doing the right thing” by redeveloping the site, a project that requires approval from the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board.
Hoffman said that in more than two decades of development in the District, he has not faced the level of hostility he has encountered on this project.
He has tried to ease anxieties, including in his design a public plaza, although smaller than the existing one (he declined to say how much smaller, but opponents estimate that it’s less than one-eighth the size).
The new plaza would not be large enough to accommodate the farmers market, but Hoffman’s team has held discussions with city officials about relocating it to another corner of Columbia Road.
Although he expressed appreciation for the plaza’s history, he said, “We don’t live in a museum” and described the SunTrust site as “urban planning of 1970.”
“Its time has passed,” he said.
Seymour Auerbach, 87, is the architect who designed the bank and plaza. Shrugging off complaints about the architecture, Auerbach said by phone that a plaza at that intersection — no matter how it’s built — “is a visual anchor to all that is Adams Morgan.”
“I understand they want to build — you can’t criticize them for that,” he said. “But I think it destroys the history. It’s like putting the Empire State Building in the middle of Central Park. You just don’t do it.”
A century ago, there was no plaza.
The parcel was occupied by the Knickerbocker Theater, where Washingtonians went to the movies. On Jan. 28, 1922, after 28 inches of snow fell on the city, the theater’s roof collapsed during a screening of the silent film “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.” Ninety-eight people died.
The Knickerbocker was rebuilt as the Ambassador Theater, where Hendrix played and where Norman Mailer was the meandering master of ceremonies for a rally before the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War.
After the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked rioting in the District, a wrecking ball turned the Ambassador into a parking lot. In 1973, Mike Tabor brought his farmers market to the corner. His customers included Marion Barry, whom he knew from activist circles, and Carl Bernstein, then a Washington Post reporter, who lived nearby.
Tabor’s market was a fixture as the neighborhood declined and then thrived anew, prompting merchants in the mid-1980s to fear the “Georgetownization of Adams Morgan,” as The Post put it.
Now, after 43 years, Tabor worries that a low-cost market like his no longer fits in with the neighborhood’s emerging culture. “The environment has changed,” he said. “Where is the place for community activists? Is it all about money and transforming Washington into expensive neighborhoods?”
Pat Patrick, an Adams Morgan-based real estate agent since the early 1970s, has little patience for those clinging to another time. Millennials are coming, he said, and Adams Morgan is where they want to be.
“If they were around 100 years ago, they would have been against the automobile,” he said of those opposing the plaza’s redevelopment. “They’ll say no to anything. They come from a class of no.”
Val Morgan, the longtime owner of the Idle Time bookshop on 18th Street, dismisses the notion that new condos and expensive restaurants represent progress. As imperfect as it may be, she said, the plaza is a place “to see the sky and feel the air.”
“It has a lot of loony people and homeless people — it’s the people’s plaza,” Morgan said. “You can be out of your brain and play the guitar and no one will bother you.”
Others are frustrated by the choice — a new apartment building on the one hand or uninviting concrete on the other.
“It becomes this ridiculous measuring stick,” Weaver said. “There’s nothing in the middle.”