Sunday, May 08, 2011

Strong Hearts, Crumbling Brick

By Beth Herman

For Eva Martinez and daughters, standing tall among the ruins became literal and personal when their environment was allowed to deteriorate to almost unrecognizable conditions in a low-income Mt. Pleasant apartment building. As the previous owner sought to convert the St. Dennis Apartments, at 1636 Kenyon St. NW, to market-rate condominiums by hasty and aggressive buy-outs, neglect and other measures to force tenants out, the intrepid Martinez women stayed the course for two years as sole residents of the building, "…enduring broken doors and windows, demolition crews, unlit hallways and other hazards," according to a National Housing Trust account.

With the support of city council member Jim Graham, and seeking pro-bono counsel from the firm of Arnold and Porter, Martinez and her two daughters, Eva Aurora and Anabel, believed low-income residents had the right to remain in their Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, filing suit against the owner for failure to comply with TOPA, or D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. According to reports, a settlement was secured with an option to purchase the property at market value, with the National Housing Trust Enterprise Preservation Corporation (NHT/Enterprise) chosen to guide them in obtaining financing to acquire and renovate the property.

For Principal Michael Wiencek and project manager Maybell Laluna of Wiencek & Associates, veterans of housing revitalization and historic and adaptive reuse projects throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, the 1920s-era historic registry St. Dennis Apartments provided an opportunity to preserve history, and perhaps paramount to that, to restore dignity to its former residents, most of whom had left unaware of the means available to claim the 40-unit, five-story building for themselves (unit count was 32 following renovation).

“It had a nice presence and a very attractive front despite very significant issues of structural deterioration at the rear and within the building,” said Wiencek of the firm’s involvement beginning in 2008. Brought in during the continuing economic recession, the project percolated with the architects and planners but was placed on a slow burner, according to Wiencek, with monies filtering in from different sources on varied timetables.

Stabilizing history

Ultimately permitted in mid-2010, due to water penetration and other forms of neglect, the St. Dennis required a “complete gut” of all the interior walls, except for bearing partitions, all the way down to the shell of the building.

“The only things we were required to save were the corridor walls and existing unit entry door frames because they were historical,” Laluna said. Receiving historical tax credits as part of its extensive funding package, an historic consultant was hired to develop the project’s scope and documents which helped navigate D.C.’s copious historic review protocol.

Discovering a litany of problems that mounted almost exponentially during demolition, Wiencek said the rear wall was essentially just crumbling brick. To demolish and rebuild it, however, would have resulted in considerable construction waste and added an additional $600,000 to $700,000 to the project, making it “undoable.” In a bold effort to stabilize it, a patented limestone parging system consisting of limestone, Portland cement and polymers, and involving the scraping of loose mortar and brick material down to a hard material and embedding of a fiberglass mesh for tensile strength, was undertaken. “It’s a hard structural finish that holds all of the existing masonry together,” Wiencek said. Because it’s a 1920s-era structure, masonry walls are 16 inches thick at the ground floor and about 12 at the top, consequently much time was invested with engineers and contractors to ensure the safety and viability of the process.

Targeting sustainable elements, Wiencek said unlike the Wheeler Terrace renovation, geothermal heating and cooling was not an option due to the site’s narrow dimensions and additional budget constraints, though a mechanical system with a higher SEER rating was ultimately used. The owners had to be very creative in the way they put this project together, Wiencek and Laluna recalled, noting low-VOC paint, formaldehyde-free cabinets, Energy Star appliances, a low-albedo roofing system and low-flow fixtures were mandated.

Revealing that prior to the renovation, the St. Dennis apartments were “moldy, filthy and rat-infested,” though people needed to live there because of its prime location, bus lines, and affordable housing aspects, Wiencek talked about the emotional toll of having to call a place like that “home."

“The big idea is that we’re saving this building that would otherwise have gone to relatively high-end condos and displaced a lot of affordable housing tenants,” Wiencek said. “Through a lot of hard work by the owners and contractor, Hamel Builders, we’re getting to build an amazing new building within the historic shell so that the residents can afford to come back and live there. It gives residents a much broader and more positive outlook and really changes people’s lives,” he said, noting construction should be completed this summer.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Eva Martinez.

For design story ideas, please contact Beth at bh@


Anonymous said...

Eva Martinez is a very strong person and did what was right in this situation, but I have a question about apartment conversion to condos. What is the appropriate/legal/ethical way for it to happen? If the Management company fairly buys each apartment and reduces the services over time (because of fewer tenants) - and one person holds out forever - what can the management company do? Obviously letting it rot into a rat infested hell hole is the right answer - but there has to be a way for the actual "owners" of the property to do as they wish with it. As for apartment renters, I think it is a dangerous precedence being set that makes them feel like they "own" the apartment - that is not true. If they want to live somewhere forever, they need to buy property.

Anonymous said...

sorry - letting it rot into a rat infested hell hole is *NOT the right thing to do

Anonymous said...

So is it now a co-op? Tenants purchased the building through TOPA? The article is unclear who the owner is.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first comment. This city has become a hallmark of poor people getting from others by muniplating the system and getting somenthing for nothing. It's amazing how tenant friendly DC has become. This does nothing but to limit investments in DC for smaller apartments. Thanks DC Gov. staff and council for upkeeping the sysytem you were raised in.

Anonymous said...

Come on. It's not as if they're going to be living there for free! They paying rent. And they helped preserve an historical building. Bravo to Martinez for not being jaded with the legal system and following up to uphold her rights as a DC tenant. said...

Eva Martinez is NOT some kind of hero. The only thing she accomplished was to prevent this rotting dump from being made habitable for over FIVE years. By April 2008 (see she and her daughters had been the only tenants of the building for 2 1/2 years, despite being offered a $100K bribe(!) to move out. So here it is mid-2011 and the building still is vacant. Under absurd DC laws tenants are granted property rights to apartments they do not own and cannot even afford to buy. This absurd system is what reduces the quantity of housing and keeps rents high.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous #3: The building will not be condos or co-ops. It is owned by the National Housing Trust, and, as a condition of city funding, will remain below-market rate rental units.

Anonymous said...

The legal way for the process to happen is for the building owner to offer the building to the tenants for sale. The reason that things transpired the way that they did is because the original owner of the building broke the law by not informing his tenants that he was going to sell the building. This system does not reduce the quantity of housing or keep rents high. This helps to preserve the few affordable housing options that exist. If the owner had succeeded, the building would have been made into a luxury condo with high rental rates.

Additionally, the reason that the building was empty for so long directly resulted from the owner not following the law. If he had offered to sell the tenants the building as he was legally obligated to do, they would not have had to stay there delaying construction; they could have immediately sought a developer of their own and begun the process in a timely fashion.

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