Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Unamusing Dupont Follies

Five Dupont townhouses, vacant since 1998, got another zoning hearing on their fate today, and may actually be near approval. Some blame the cantankerousness of DC real estate tycoon Morton Bender, who obtained the property 1988 through his N Street Follies (NSF), first planning the site as an office, then as residential, and now a hotel. Throughout it all, the site has had a history of community opposition, law suits and copious ill will.

Recent spurts of progress, such as approval for a planned 98-room hotel from the Dupont Circle Conservancy, have been sullied by bouts of reticence as the project team sought repeated delays in scheduled zoning and historic reviews. Fear not Dupont, something will give in the ongoing saga of N Street Follies. The Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) just completed a hearing on the case and, pending additional documentation and responses, will issue a decision on June 8th; the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) will likely issue a decision this spring as well. Just one problem: the neighboring Tabard Inn is in a fight to the death against the planned hotel, which would allegedly diminish the quaint charm and revenue of the boutique inn.

Andrulis Janezich Architects, the latest in a series of architects to have worked on the NSF plan, presented a design that will leave the historic townhouses at their current height, but will add a five-story rear addition, bringing the building's height to 57 ft., short of the maximum height of 65 ft. The architect says the planned rear addition will not be visible from the street; though the street is not what concerns Tabard. The hotel would have a 3.99 FAR (the max is 4.0) and will occupy 87% of the lot.

An Office of Planning (OP) staff report indicated that the "mass is broken up by a 2,400 s.f. interior courtyard, which is enclosed with a glass curtain wall," and recommended approval. The Tabard team naturally challenged the helpfulness of the courtyard from the perspective of the street. But since originally filing an application, the team has reduced the number of parking spots from 98 to 58 and may be compelled to reduce that number further by the BZA. NSF argued that the proposed design has been scaled down and designed "with the Tabard in mind," though comments from BZA members trended toward skepticism on that score. Ultimately, the NSF team pointed to approvals by the OP staff report and the HPO staff report, suggesting that the BZA follow suit.

Represented by Arent Fox, the Tabard argued that the height of the proposed building, especially the rear addition, would dwarf the neighboring inn, blocking natural light to the outdoor dining area, parts of the indoor dining room and to guest rooms facing the new structure, making some "unrentable." Citing business concerns, Jeremiah Cohen, the General Manager of the Tabard Inn, said that the outdoor patio with its diffused natural light is a unique wedding venue; wedding business is about 15% of hotel's total revenue. Not to mention the lost customers and guests thanks to construction noise and dust should the project be approved. At least one BZA member noted that just because the NSF plan does not max out the allowable height and density does not mean the design is deferential or compatible with neighboring structures.

The BZA review was full of courtroom-style drama without the suspenseful sound effects of Law and Order (though it could have used some after more than a dozen hours of testimony). A June decision date, however, may not resolve anything. HPRB will likely issue a decision in May, but if BZA in denies the application, a new design may have to go back for HPRB review all over again. This battle might end, but the war is likely far from over.

Washington, DC real estate development news


Anonymous said...

Please correct two serious errors in your story. First, not only did the ANC NOT support Mr. Bender's N Street Follies project, they voted to oppose it 9 - 0.

Second, more than "alleging" that the 5 story glass box Bender proposes would diminish the charm and revenue of the Tabard, the Tabard's expert architecture witness was able to show through shadow studies that it would cut off afternoon light to the outdoor restaurant terrace and courtyard, and that the new building would have five stories of windows, some of them less than 18 inches from the Tabard's existing windows, looking into guest rooms and over diners on the patio.

The important thing to remember is that the zoning rules only permit a hotel on the site if its "height, bulk and design" are in "harmony with existing uses and structures on neighboring property." The proposed building, which in effect occupies 100% of its lot, up to 5 stories in height, when virtually no other building in that block is more than 4 stories and all have open space at the rear, is certainly not in harmony with its neighbors.

Shaun on Mar 24, 2010, 12:39:00 PM said...

Anonymous: I removed the ANC approval statement. I will not be removing "alleging," because both sides made presentations about the effect of the new structure on the Tabard's light and drew different conclusions. Tabard said it would be significant and had expert documentation, NSF said it would not and also had expert documentation. In summarizing a lengthy case, some details are excluded; we summarized the issues without getting into the nitty gritty, choosing not to explore the sun studies at length. We're not picking sides here; that's up to the BZA.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - "no other building in that block is more than 4 stories"

What block are you looking at? The building right next to the Tabard is 10 stories. The building in question is 5. Directly across the street is 8.

PS - I don't have a dog in this fight, I'm just tired of looking at those empty buildings.

Anonymous said...

I heard that the hotel occupues about 85% of the lot (with a hotel the lot coverage is permitted to be 100%). The other 15% of the lot will feature about a 3000 square foot patio that can be viewed and discovered through the glass enclosed existing passage between 1745 and 1749 N Street. A courtyard viewed from N Street sounds great and akin to The "Irongate Resturant" accross the street. Sounds fantastic and in keeping with its surroundings on N Street!

Anonymous said...

P.S. I just looked at 1741 N Street. It has five floors. A basement, a ground floor, a first floor (a proper first floor as the Brit's say), a second floor and an attic. That's five floors, or do you recon "Anonymous" will be sticking to his "stories."

DC Engineer said...

According to the zoning regs, a basement is not a floor. Technically, then, 1741 is four stories. Anything below grade doesn't count. They could dig down 100 feet and it still wouldn't count for FAR or height. So Anonymous is correct.

Anonymous said...

DC Engineer,
I believe you may be confusing a cellar with a basement. A basement (50% above grade) is a floor and counts as floor area ratio (FAR). A cellar is not a floor (more than 50% below grade) and does not count as floor area ratio (FAR). I think 1741 has a basement, so 1741 is still 5 floors.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shaun,
I just found out that the DC Preservation League support approval of the current N Street Follies design. Is it possible to add this to your article? In a correspondence of 16 November 2009 signed by Rebecca Miller, Executive Director of the DC Preservation League Ms. Miller wrote,

"DCPL thanks Mr. Bender for his interest and ongoing stewardship of these historic resources and looks forward to the return of these significant structures to the Dupont Circle Historic District."

Sounds like some think this Mr. Bender is doing the right thing here.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2: I said "virtually no other building is more than 4 stories". Yes, the Topaz is huge. It is also out of scale with the entire block -- I hope you are not suggesting we should consider that as the model to emulate. There are two other 5 story historic buildings, one of which is one of the long vacant Bender buildings, as you note. The rest are either 3 stories with English basements, four stories or four stories with mansard roofs. None of the other buildings on the north side, not even the Topaz (which was built before the zoning changed) occupy 100% of the lot. The so-called "garden" or 3,000 sf patio is essentially an atrium space between the front and rear sections of the building, so that the interior rooms can have windows (in this case, windows that look onto the atrium, not the outside). If you climb the steps to the front entrance, which will cover up a passage now open to the sky, and peer through the lobby, you will be possibly be able to spy the "garden", but it will be nothing like the Iron Gate Inn, more like the Grand Hyatt by the convention center, but on a smaller scale.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous One,
I could be mistaken, but an atrium has a roof and also is a part of floor area ratio (FAR). I looked at the Follies exhibits, which are public record, and discovered the Follies hotel garden has no roof so it does not count in their floor area ratio (FAR). The Follies garden is open to the sky. Follies will have hotel windows that overlook the Follies garden, just like Tabard Inn has hotel windows overlooking the Tabard Inn’s garden. The Follies garden is open to the sky just like the Tabard Inn's garden is open to the sky. So I suppose the Follies garden in its relationship to the Follies hotel is akin to the Tabard Inn’s garden and its relationship to Tabard Inn hotel. I conclude Follies has as much in common with the Grand Hyatt as the Tabard Inn does. More reasons the Follies hotel is in keeping with the surroundings on N Street.

I believe you are mistaken about the stairs at the Follies entrance. There will be none that require climbing. In fact, if you view this passage today the new Follies hotel entrance, I understand, will be exactly at the same elevation the existing ground floor of those buildings are today. No stairs to climb now. No stairs to climb when there is a new hotel. I am told the entrance will be enclosed by a five floor high glass wall with a glass roof that will gracefully mark the garden entrance. I suppose technically the entrance would be considered an atrium by DC codes, but the Follies garden is most certainly open to the light and air.

Further, Follies will be completely accessible to the disabled. This I do not believe is required of an historic building and as far as I can tell this is yet another wonderful thing the owner is doing to accommodate everyone who will visit the open air garden. I don’t believe the Tabard Inn can claim it is accessible with all those stairs that you need to climb to enter and see their garden. But historic building need not be accessible, so why bother, I suppose. Now if all I have discovered about this project is true, I think N Street would welcome this project. If what I read and see in the drawings is not true, someone is spending a lot of money for very little gain.

Oh and 1741 N Street still has five floors.

Anonymous said...

Why is this whole discussion about height ignoring the fact that the taller addition will not be visible from N Street? So as far as the character of the street it will be exactly the same as it is now except with the historic rowhouses preserved.

Also, as far as the Tabard Inn's "light", they don't have a right to the sun under these current zoning regulations. And the concern over construction? Are you kidding me? These land owners have every right to build on their property within the respected zoning regulations, just like the Tabard Inn once upon a time disturbed their neighbors by building their hotel.

Sounds a little like crying over competition, when even the historic preservations approve the design, which is no easy feat.

Anonymous said...

N Street Follies is seeking a special exception for a hotel in a Special Purpose District. A hotel is not a matter of right in this location. N Street Follies has attempted to show that the hotel meets the criteria of Section 512 of the zoning code. As previously stated, one of those criteria is that the new hotel is in "harmony" with existing uses on neighboring properties.

The BZA will decide if the hotel is in harmony with the Tabard. The BZA may very well aprove the Special Exception but with conditions such as some kind of step-back, perhaps the one presented by the Tabard architect that would preserve some, but not all, light and air to the Tabard. The BZA may very well reject the application altogether because the alley is such a mess and so narrow at its opening and probably can't handle another hotel loading dock.

It is pretty clear that Historic Preservation Office supports the "design" of the hotel only as it relates to the historic district. Light and air issues are not its domain. Have you ever been to an HPRB meeting? Light and air are not part of the discussion.

As for the five story versus four, I don't know and I don't know if it matters. The finish grade at 1741 N is less than 4' below the basement ceiling so it can technically be considered a "cellar". I don't think the number of stories matters that much. It is much more about the relative heights of the existing with the new, from front to rear of the property. The relative height and bulk differences of the proposed Hotel with the existing Tabard grows drastically as you proceed from the front to the rear of the lot line.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

What folk see on the N Street footpath is all that matters. The alley between Mass Ave and N Street is rubish (if you will excuse the pun). For what it is worth, I can see from the drawings that Follies is placing their trash on thier property behind a loading dock door. Follies loading dock is also on their property. Other properties in the alley (including the Tabard Inn) keep their trash in big green dumpsters in the alley blocking the alley to two way traffic directly behind their property. Other properties including the Tabard Inn use the the alley as a loading dock, blocking the alley when they are loading and unloading. Follies will do all of this on thier property and will not block the alley when they are loading and unloading. As the disabled accessibility issue, I do not believe Follies is required to provide a loading dock for a contributing building in a historic district. Never the less, they seem to be doing it anyway. Sounds responsible to me.

I don't know much about the BZA, but if Follies is spending all of this dough (resturant pun) on a special exception, when the "matter of right scheme" may be much taller (over 25' taller at the eastern property line I have been told), than the Follies team sounds as if they are trying to again do right with this project. Further, if they just did the matter of right scheme, in addition to a much taller building, Follies could save their dough as they would not need to make application to the BZA. They would only need to satisfy HPRB. Follies seems to be paying a big price to do the right thing.

Everyone seems to think think this scheme is ok except for those who have a financial steak (something to lose) in this slick hotel being built.

Anonymous said...


Residential is a matter of right in an SP-1 district, but that is not enough to get a project approved in a historic district.

The record shows that when the Follies proposed the max height of 65' plus an 18' mechanical penthouse along the Tabard perimeter back in 2006 it did not get a good response from the Historic Preservation Review Board.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous One,

The Follies owners seem like they have the interest of the contributing buildings and their future appearance on N Street foremost in mind. Most certainly, it is 2010 and not 2006. Perhaps the 2010 architects can do what the 2006 architects could not. At any rate, if I were the owner or the architect, I would much rather deal with only one agency than two (BZA or HPRB, but most certainly not both). So you see, the Owner is a good guy to endure all of this time, energy and expense to do the right thing by these structures and the historic district.

I just want to see this block cleaned up. I believe this hotel project would do it. The five contributing buildings that will become the Follies hotel are too noble to endure much more of what they have gone through the last decade or so.

So what do you want for these beautiful buildings? If the Follies hotel or the matter of right scheme is not enough, what is enough? Sounds like you just wants these wonderful buildings to crumble into dust.


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