Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tenley Wars III: The Council Strikes Back

Protracted. Excruciating. Unnecessary. These are but a few words used to describe the ongoing battle being waged by local community groups opposed to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (ODMPED) and developer LCOR Inc.'s plans for a new Tenleytown-Friendship Heights Neighborhood Library and residential development. And yet the twisting story further intensifies since DC City Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Kwame Brown have stepped into the fray.

At issue is the construction of a new Tenley Library to replace its predecessor (closed 4 years ago), updates and additions to the over-enrolled and threadbare Janney Elementary school, and, in return for these improvements, permission for the developer to build a residential complex on the site. A win-win scenario about which no one seems happy. The newest chapter involves LCOR's latest proposal to extend the residential component onto the school's green space (an ingredient mysteriously pushed by the Deputy Mayor and seemingly favorable to no one), a move that spurred Janney's School Improvement Team (SIT) to revoke its conditional support of the three-tiered agreement. Remaining undecided is the pace of renovations to the school, which the District wasn't planning to get to until 2013 despite immediate needs, hence the SIT favoring a quicker fix by the developer.

With the school's support withdrawn in the already contentious battle, Councilmembers Cheh and Brown penned a letter to Mayor Fenty expressing their wish to see the project’s library component move forward, while insisting that LCOR’s residential development be sent back to the drawing board.

“We write to ask that you permit the Tenley Library to build now and separate it from any possible mixed-use, or public/private, development on the site,” read the statement's first paragraph. “As for the current LCOR proposal, we believe that it is fatally flawed,” begins another. Cheh and Brown propose a compromise that would allow the library to be constructed with structural supports in place to accommodate any future development above. Meanwhile, the residential component would be put on hold until a mutually agreeable design is produced. In conclusion, the letter asked for a response to their concerns by Friday, November, 7th.

The Letter hinges on LCOR's plans for the residential component, initially planned to sit on top of the library, then moved (by mysterious edict of a revised RFP) off the library and in place of the neighboring Janney soccer field. Now, two differing LCOR site plans (dated November 4th) put the apartments back on the library once again, but still encroaching on Janney green space. That in turn caused SIT to withdraw their support, as both proposals take up some of the green space now used by Janney, but add it back in behind the school, in place of the surface parking lot. According to Kirk Rankin of the Janney SIT, the SIT is opposed to any plan that would require Janney to cede any of its green space for the development.

Still with us? Good, because further complicating matters is the timing, and everyone agrees the quicker the better. And yet The Letter contemplates a two-year construction of the library, completion of which would be followed by a second construction project on the same small site, a process that may yield an architecturally challenged, ever-dusty construction site.

Cheh was not amused by the Deputy Mayor's response, or lack thereof, to The Letter. “Immediately after [receiving our letter], the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development issued a statement saying they were going ahead with it. No one has ever explained to me, ‘With what are they going ahead?’” said Councilwoman Cheh, referring to the widespread confusion resulting from the repeated relocation of the residential units.

While ODMPED would not respond to DCMud's inquiries regarding the matter, an LCOR representative did comment on the council's qualms and the impact that residential development will have on the school zone. “We’re going ahead with it and [ODMPED] is going ahead, too,” said Timothy D. Smith, Senior Vice President of LCOR. “The two [library and residential] are combined. It’s one building with a very prominent location along the street that reads ‘Library’ when you’re riding along Wisconsin Avenue…it’s probably the best way to use the land, rather than build separate apartment buildings.”

"We've been working on this steadily and people make comments in the meantime," he continued. "We were working down Mary Cheh's list of things that she wants to see accomplished when the letter was written...We have been meeting with citizens groups and modifying our plan. We do hope to gain support back from Mary."

Councilwoman Cheh, however, was not quite as optimistic with respect to the library’s future: “If they surplus property, that requires council approval. If the ward councilmember doesn’t approve of the action, I doubt very much that my colleagues would approve of it over my opposition.”

Meanwhile, a standalone library has been funded and approved and could, with Council okay, start construction relatively soon. We'll be waiting to see who blinks. Stay tuned for Episode IV: Revenge of the SIT.


Carolyn on Nov 12, 2008, 7:18:00 PM said...

Why, when NOBODY in the community wants this, do DMPED and LCOP persist. This is not win-win! This is lose for the library, lose for the school,lose for the neighborhood because there will be a bare minimum of affordable housing, and probably lose for LCOR when they can't sell their market-rate condos.

There are three empty lots across Wisconsin Avenue, equally close to the Tenleytown Metro, that are crying out for development.

Anonymous said...

This project should have been a win-win and a no-brainer for the community, but the way the Mayor's office has handled this provides little confidence that the final proposal will be acceptable to anyone.

We can hope though.

Anonymous said...

DMPED has certainly been inept, but win-win was never in the cards. The push for mixed-use came at a time when it would inevitably delay the library and the site is too small to meet Janney's need for expanded facilities while simultaneously allowing substantial private development.

The numbers never worked on this project, but the ideologues keep pushing it regardless.

Anonymous said...

Win-Win could be in the cards if any designers showed some shred of creativity. It IS possible to satisfy the goals of all the constituencies, with the exception of the hard core neigh-sayers.

But it cannot happen if the Mayor's office and LCOR can't run an effective community consensus building session.

Anonymous said...

I know this is hard to believe (and you still haven't gotten it right), but LCOR is not being given the right to build residential units in exchange for rebuilding the library and modernizing/expanding Janney Elementary.

LCOR would be paid by DCPL to rebuild the library (in other words, a no-bid construction contact is bundled in with the land lease) and, at this point, LCOR will have nothing to do with the Janney School project. DCPS will undertake that.

Anonymous said...

Funny how the three different developers (each submitting multiple plans) who responded to this RFP, as well as two other developers (a few years back) all somehow lack the "creativity" to pull this project off. And those who assert that creativity is all that's required here apparently lack the experience/capital/interest to bid on the deal themselves.

People like Mary Cheh, who knows next to nothing about development, routinely make such claims. It's an attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility for pushing this project so long and so hard even after it was clear that the deal would substantially delay the library and deprive the school of the playground space and athletic facilities to which it is entitled.

They can't admit they were wrong (especially when the problems that they now see were pointed out to them by the ANC over a year ago), so they pass the buck by blaming the development community for its lack of vision.

Anonymous said...

Last Wednesday, DCPL's Board of Trustees instructed Ginnie Cooper to move forward with Freelon's design for a free-standing library at the Tenley-Friendship site. When reporters contacted Neil Albert's office, they were unaware of this decision. By Friday, the Mayor's representative had confirmed it, calling ANC Commissioner Anne Sullivan to give her the news.

No official word yet on what happens with Janney's modernization. The paper trail indicates that Reinoso kicked the project to the end of the modernization queue to accomodate/incentivize the PPP (arguably, at Cheh's request!).
One of DCPS's facilities people pointed out that this was in violation of the underlying principles ordering the queue. Hopefully, now that the library has been disentangled from this project, the school will be as well.

As for LCOR, they've never budged on their requirements for the project (174 units in a building whose footprint would require about 30,000 SF of land). Any critique is met with a new and more misleading representation of the same old-same old (with, perhaps, a slight shift in massing). No problem-solving skills (or efforts) whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

Still eagerly awaiting "The Revenge of the SIT" -- both here and IRL.

Despite DCPL's announcement (and the Mayor's confirmation), DMPED is still working on this project and the SIT met with DMPED to see the "latest" designs, despite the SIT's previous announcement that it had withdrawn its support for a PPDP and wanted nothing more to do with this project.


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