A group of Dupont Circle residents convened a special meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B on May 16 to consider plans for a new 150-unit apartment building. A number of people who do not live in the single-member districts that make up the ANC attended to observe the outcome after a small delegation of residents established the Dupont East Civic Action Association to oppose the project.
What initially appeared to be a typical neighborhood versus developer spat has morphed into a rigid battle over government transparency.
It began with the announcement that an apartment complex would be constructed on a grass and concrete lot behind the House of the Temple, which is located at 1733 16th Street NW and is owned by the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. In 2017, the Masons began talks with a developer, Perseus TDC, with the aim of generating income from their land. After the Masons issued a press release announcing the development of an apartment complex on their property, a small group of nearby residents formed the Dupont East Civic Action Association (DECAA). Former ANC2B commissioner Nick DelleDonne, a member and spokesperson of DECAA, was one of the people who mobilized neighbors to defend what they say is one of the few remaining green spaces in the immediate area. The fenced-off lot behind the temple includes a lawn, several trees, a squat white building and a parking area.
A major point of contention for DECAA is the aesthetics of the proposed building, which will stretch for two blocks along 15th Street NW and feature four stories above ground, with additional penthouse space, and two residential stories below ground, as well as underground parking. As a contemporary apartment complex, it will likely distinguish itself from the historic 16th Street homes. “It’s too big for the site, it doesn’t fit into the historical context, and it blocks the view of the temple,” said DelleDonne, who called the structure “obnoxious.”
He isn’t alone in his opinion. More than 50 residents appeared at the May 16 ANC 2B meeting in support of DECAA, with a smaller minority speaking in support of the new development. A fixture of the debate was the proposed subterranean housing, two levels of “English basement duplexes” with “areaways” between the units and the wall to allow natural light to reach the units.
ANC 2B Commissioner Ed Hanlon stated that “this will not be affordable housing.” Because the Scottish Rite is building “by right,” they are not requesting any special zoning exceptions in exchange for incorporating more affordable housing and Perseus TDC does not need any approval from local government, though approval of the Historic Preservation Review Board is required, since the site sits in two historic districts. Like all new residential development in the city, 8 percent of all units included in the final design will be set aside for low-income residents who participate in the “Inclusionary Zoning” lottery. Representatives from Perseus did not produce any projected rent prices, but concurred with Hanlon that the units throughout the building would rent for roughly their market value, which is currently $2,318 for a one-bedroom, according to the website RentCafe. While they would not be affordable housing units, the subterranean units would be the cheapest option available. DECAA and other anti-development activists referred to the idea as “gross” and “inhumane,” whereas pro-development meeting attendees pointed out that in the competitive D.C. housing market, someone will be happy to rent there.
DECAA’s plan is to block development that would redefine the territory. The immediate grounds surrounding the Masonic Temple are designated as a historic landmark, which cannot be redeveloped. The group submitted an application to the Historic Preservation Office to increase the landmark boundary to include the vacant lot, the carriage house, and the patch of land. DelleDonne’s logic was that all of the aesthetic elements the planned housing would interrupt made it a good candidate for an amendment to the original landmark boundary. The Historic Preservation Office in turn sent DECAA updated documentation of the Masonic Temple and surrounding properties that showed the landmark boundary line was set approximately 100 feet east of the Temple, encompassing the proposed development site. DelleDonne and DECAA thought they were in the clear and that development would halt.
Eleven days later, however, the Historic Preservation Office sent a revised copy to DECAA, with a strikingly different map. The boundary line had been placed farther inward at the back apse of the temple, making those 100 feet of property undesignated land and not landmarked. This means they are suitable for development. DECAA received no explanation for the correction. DelleDonne is now spearheading an effort to expand the landmark boundary. The Historic Preservation Office rejected DECAA’s proposal, citing a lack of historical significance to the extended grounds Perseus plans to build upon. “They were determined to fix this so that it is not a problem [for the developers]. And that’s the wrong way to do this,” DelleDonne said. DECAA then turned to ANC2B to vote on the issue as part of the commission’s role in advising the Historic Preservation Review Board.
DECAA had proposed two amendments for the ANC to consider, both focused on redefining and extending the landmark designation associated with the Masonic Temple far enough to prohibit building on the adjacent lot. Both amendments were voted down at the May 16 special meeting.
The Historic Preservation Office similarly denied DECAA’s request to extend the landmark designation on May 23 and included any future requests to extend the boundary in that decision. The ANC also approved the latest iteration of the Scottish Rite development plan in the same meeting. DECAA’s only clear path forward is the option to appeal the ANC votes to the Housing Preservation Review Board.
The civic association’s ultimate goal is to have the Historic Preservation Review Board refer the case — especially regarding the two conflicting HPO documents —to the Mayor’s Agent, a special government official who oversees historic preservation disputes. DelleDonne insists this is no longer just about developing part of an old neighborhood, and that it is now an issue of accountability. “We’re saying: you can’t erase a report. You’ve got two of them from the same office. That is a contradiction that cannot be resolved.” He believes the issuance of the second report was an intentional move to enable further development on the Masonic Temple grounds. “It’s just simple: that is not fair. It raises suspicions about the trustworthiness of the government.”