The man with the ponytail raised his voice as he stood before the commissioners at the D.C. zoning board hearing, ignoring the chairman’s warning that no public testimony was allowed.
“There’s confusion in the audience here,” Chris Otten called out, holding up his cellphone to record his own intrusion.
“I’m not going back to my street days, Mr. Otten, where I’d come over there,” said Chairman Anthony Hood, well-schooled in his theatrics. He ordered a five-minute recess.
“You’re breaking the rules!” Otten shouted. “You’re destroying our city!”
As Washington has turned increasingly affluent, with glass towers rising across the city, restaurants dishing $275 tasting menus and baristas brewing $8 coffees, Otten has dug in as a self-styled contrarian-at-large.
A law school dropout who subsists on food stamps and an $800 monthly stipend from Ralph Nader, Otten, 42, touts himself as a “citizen agent” who uses his knowledge of the municipal code to oppose development projects; one builder agreed to pay $2 million to halt his resistance.
Otten says the settlement money is for low-income residents and small merchants struggling to survive in a city with one of the country’s widest gaps between rich and poor. But developers say Otten is an extortionist who is expert at using little-noticed administrative hearings and court proceedings to slow down projects and drive up costs.
His impact was evident in December, when he helped persuade the D.C. Court of Appeals to order the city to review its approval of a massive redevelopment in Northwest, just one day after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) presided at a groundbreaking for the project.
“His tactics are to disrupt and keep coming and coming,” said developer Dennis Lee, who, because of battles with Otten and his allies, is behind schedule building a New York Avenue hotel. “He’ll relentlessly keep finding any angle because he knows that affects the developer adversely. But the bigger damage is to the city itself.”
Otten, in an interview, said his target is not developers but government officials who “rubber-stamp” projects catering to the affluent without consideration for the environment and the poor. “That’s all that matters to the greed machine,” he said.
He said the $2 million settlement — a rare instance when he and his allies wrung a payment from a builder — is “chump change” compared with tax abatements that the city routinely grants developers. “These little victories do nothing to stem the evisceration of existing D.C. culture,” he said.
Yet luxury development is not the sole target of Otten’s wrath, which can be so intense that developers and civic leaders are reluctant to criticize him publicly. Even fellow activists, who share Otten’s desire to protect neighborhoods, are repelled by his fervor.
Affordable housing is too expensive for the poor, he insists. A plan to create smaller shelters for homeless families is a ruse for the District to reward developers with land deals, he says.
“I know what he’s against,” said Harriet Tregoning, the District’s former planning director. “What’s he for?”
Anti-development activists often are spurred by projects in their proverbial back yards. But Otten is ubiquitous, traveling citywide to organize opposition, enlist lawyers, testify at hearings and file appeals. At times, neighborhood groups appoint him to question witnesses at hearings, as if he’s an attorney, albeit one who’s often unshaven and favors phrases like “Dig it” and “Right on.”
“Are you a lawyer, in fact?” Attorney General Karl A. Racine asked at a recent meeting after Otten criticized the city’s zoning oversight.
“No,” Otten replied. “A civic agent.”
Others are less charitable.
“A hyperbolic polemicist, an obstructionist caricature who deals in caricatures,” Josh Gibson, an Adams Morgan resident, wrote on the neighborhood’s listserv last year.
The son of a retired New York City police captain, Otten earned a math degree at a Jesuit college before working as a stock analyst, a job he said he quit in the late 1990s because he rejected the “Gordon Gekko scene.”
After tutoring poor children for AmeriCorps in Florida, Otten moved to Washington, where he was the Green Party’s 2006 mayoral candidate. He enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia’s law school in 2010, but took a medical leave soon after and never returned. He met Nader while advocating for the District to improve library services in the poorest neighborhoods. They unsuccessfully challenged the city’s plan to allow a developer to rebuild the West End public library and add condos and rental apartments.
“He has been a problem for me and many other people,” said Anthony Lanier, the developer of the West End site and another project opposed by Otten on Capitol Hill. “There’s no compromise for him because he doesn’t have a defined beef, except that he’s opposed to me. He dislikes what I stand for.”
Otten claims no interest in material comfort. He lives in subsidized housing in Adams Morgan and drives a 21-year-old car. A few years ago, he started D.C. for Reasonable Development, a nonprofit advocacy group he helps direct, without pay, from Nader’s P Street headquarters.
He is a mix of zealous advocate and sober-toned policy wonk. Running into council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) one afternoon, after both emerged from a city hall men’s room, Otten engaged him in a debate over whether the city can protect the poor from displacement.
Allen noticed a water bottle with a decal of the District flag sticking out of Otten’s backpack and asked where he had gotten it.
In the restroom, Otten replied.
“That’s my water bottle,” Allen said, reclaiming it.
Otten wore a blond wig to parody Donald Trump while protesting a proposed development in Adams Morgan. To lampoon land-use officials, he created “Twilight Zoning,” a video in which the theme music from the television show plays while cut-outs of commissioners’ faces float by.
He can also be jarringly abrasive. “I make in one year what you make in one month,” he told a council member at one hearing. At another, he described as “racist” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s decision to refuse testimony from people who had not signed up beforehand.
Otten makes no apologies.
“You think justice comes from being nice to decision-makers?” he asked.
His tone was respectful during the meeting he organized with Racine, lawyers and activists. Racine promised a follow-up session but said he would invite only lawyers and policy experts.
Translation: no Otten.
“Ha. He can’t keep me out,” Otten texted a reporter the next day. “I’m a citizen agent.”
The projects Otten opposes include the redevelopment of Union Market in Northeast, the Barry Farm public-housing complex in Southeast and Buzzard Point in Southwest, site of a proposed soccer stadium.
He’s part of a group that successfully appealed the city’s approval of the development of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site in Northwest, contending that zoning officials failed to adequately consider potential displacement of nearby residents.
“He’s got real skill identifying issues that are potentially reversible,” said lawyer Andrea Ferster, representing the McMillan project’s opponents. “What sets him apart from most activists is that he actually engages with the legal process.”
But the ruling alarmed developers. If city approvals “can routinely be overturned by lawsuits, it has a chilling effect on housing production, both market rate and affordable,” said Chris Smith, a developer. “Banks will be reluctant to finance projects if the zoning approval could be voided after the project has started.”
In Adams Morgan, developers Brian Friedman and Matt Wexler said they scaled back plans for an apartment building, including the number of affordable units, to avoid seeking a zoning waiver and being “Ottened” — their shorthand for becoming mired in legal delays. Otten’s aim, Friedman said, is to “blow up” projects “without literally lighting something. That’s his win.”
Otten fought a plan by Friedman and his partners to build a $170 million hotel now nearing completion in Adams Morgan.
At one point, Friedman said, Otten offered to dismantle two anti-hotel websites he had created if the developer paid $20,000. “He said he needed the money to pay the people that had been helping him fight me,” Friedman said. “It was extortion.”
Otten denied the incident occurred: “He lies around the clock.”
As part of the negotiation for the zoning waiver, the hotel developers agreed to contribute more than $1 million in benefits to the neighborhood, including funding for nonprofits.
Otten chastised community leaders for supporting the deal, saying they ignored the project’s broader impact. In 2013, he led a group of residents who appealed the zoning waiver, claiming in court motions that the District had not considered the hotel’s effect on gentrification.
Fearing that the appeal could delay construction by years, the developer offered the group $2 million to drop its challenge. Otten accepted, saying the group’s attorney had advised that nothing more could be done to stop the project.
The settlement’s size stunned developers. “Shakedowns like this will not prevent what gets built,” said Rob Hawkins, a lawyer and former Bowser adviser. “They just make building it more expensive while enriching one person or one small group of people at the expense of the community. This isn’t a Robin Hood tale, it’s just greed.”
To manage the settlement money, Otten’s group formed the Adams Morgan Forget-Me-Not Fund, a tax-exempt nonprofit, to “preserve” affordable housing and small businesses.
In March, the fund granted $126,500 to the Columbia Road Small Business Association, representing merchants near the hotel. Teresa Lopez, an association leader, also serves with Otten on the fund’s board. She did not return calls seeking comment.
Even as he preaches transparency, Otten bristled when asked about the group’s expenditures. He said it had spent $30,000 establishing tenant associations but, based on advice from its attorney, declined to identify them.
Nor would he say who received $30,000 the group paid “key members,” though he acknowledged receiving $7,500 for what he said was more than two years of organizing on its behalf.
“It’s private information,” Otten said of the spending. “It’s none of your business.”