Though much has been made of the development plans in the Southeast ballpark area, another part of Near Southeast is finally getting some attention, not without drama. This week, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) will review the Cohen Companies' plans to permanently close several unimproved streets that fall within the original L'Enfant city and are technically federal property, but that are now effectively segregated from all other life forms by the Southwest Expressway and Anacostia River. The intersection of 14th Street, M Street and Virginia Avenue in SE could get the addition of 815,000 s.f. of hotel, retail, office and commercial space, if the District and the Developer manage to jump some technical hurdles before a June 1, 2010 deadline.
A little background: MIF Realty had a 99-year assignment agreement (lease) with the District for the Southwest Gangplank Marina. In June 1999, the Cohen Companies, under the name CASCO Marina LLC, sought to take over the leasehold from MIF, a contract between the two companies required that the lease transfer take place prior to November 22, 1999 or the contract would be automatically terminated. Enter the District. The District's Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) stepped into the lease transfer, requesting several hearings and ultimately ruling that MIF was in default on the property for not having properly addressed damage and disposed of insurance proceeds. RLA would overlook the default in exchange for a re-negotiated lease for the marina upon the transfer to CASCO. The RLA officially handed down this decision on November 22, 1999 at which point MIF contested the default claims and simultaneously allowed the contract between CASCO and MIF to end.
CASCO proceeded to sue the District for interference in the transaction and for $25 million in punitive damages. After several suits and appeals, the District and CASCO eventually entered into a settlement agreement. The District will transfer the Southeast property, valued at $8 million, to the developers and ensure District support of the street closings and necessary zoning changes to allow a development with a 6.0 floor to area ratio density. In exchange for the land and support, the Cohen Companies will release its claim to a leasehold to the Gangplank Marina. The whole process has a ticking clock; if the land exchange, zoning and street closure approvals are not finalized by the June 1, 2010 deadline referenced above, then the Cohen Companies can withdraw from the agreement and could once again pursue a lawsuit against the District over the Southwest property and related punitive damages.
The District Council in March approved the land transfer and density elements. The bill was then signed by the Mayor in April and will receive Congressional review. According to the NCPC staff report, the agreement should be law by May 27, 2010. NCPC will review the matter Thursday and submit its opinion to the Council for consideration, the Council will vote on the street closures bill this month. The street closures bill would exempt the developers from several requirements, such as paying rent on the closed street and from having to provide affordable housing to offset the increase in commercial space.
NCPC's Staff Report finds fault with several elements of the plan, in both the agreement between the District and the developer and with the actual design. NCPC staff notes that the streets in question are part of the original L'Enfant Plan, and therefore owned by the federal government. But NCPC cannot actually administer the necessary bureaucratic smack down to resolve the conflict between District and the feds about the rights to transfer titles. NCPC's Staff Report also notes that the plan for bridges connecting the proposed buildings would block viewsheds (see image at left for the lovely view from the property line). Now, that's a familiar complaint...think streetcars. The staff recommended an approval of the initial design, but suggest the obstructing elements be kindly removed.
The NCPC will take up the issue this Thursday.
Update: To clarify, the NCPC's stance on the viewsheds and vistas within the L'Enfant plan reflect the opinion of the District's own Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). In January the HPRB recommended that "any encroachment on L'Enfant views and vistas be completely avoided or minimized to the maximum extent feasible."
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