On Thursday July 7, 2016, Shakespeare Theatre withdrew its Planned Unit Development (PUD) for the 501 Eye Street SW site. As a result, Shakespeare Theatre’s PUD will not be on the upcoming Zoning Commission schedule. The neighborhood couldn’t be happier.
The DC Office of Planning made it official – they are not recommending that the Zoning Commission set down a hearing for the Shakespeare Theatre Planned Unit Development at 501 Eye Street SW. The neighborhood has been much cheered by the news. The Office of Planning’s recommendation not to set down a hearing is a logical corollary to the work the community and the Office of Planning did in advance of the issuance of the Southwest Small Area Plan last year.
The official word from the Office of Planning came in the Planned Unit Development material the Zoning Commission will review before deciding on July 11, 2016, whether to set down a hearing on the Shakespeare Theatre proposal to change the zoning at 501 Eye Street SW. A copy of the Office of Planning memo can be found here. The full Planned Unit Development case record can be found on the Zoning Commission website here by searching for case number 16-04. There’s no opportunity for public comment at the July 11 Zoning Commission meeting, but if you want to see for yourself what happens, the Zoning Commission livestreams its meetings at this link.
On September 17, 2014, Shakespeare Theatre Corporation (STC) made a series of promises to the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) in return for SWNA’s withdrawing their Historic Preservation Application for the 501 Eye Street SW site. Nearly two years later, Shakespeare Theatre has failed to fulfill many of the promises it made in the SWNA agreement. On the back of these unfulfilled promises, Shakespeare Theatre is now making new promises to community groups.
In the long list of Shakespeare Theatre’s unfulfilled promises in the SWNA agreement, some commitments were for items to be completed immediately or to be enacted continuously, and others were for items to be completed within a year of the agreement. Still others were to be included in the Planned Unit Development for 501 Eye Street SW. Below is a list of STC’s unfulfilled promises by section in the SWNA agreement:
R5. …STC is committed to engaging with the Southwest Community as STC develops its plans for the Property, to minimizing the impact of the Development on the Southwest Community, and to addressing, to the greatest extent possible, the concerns that a redevelopment of the Property poses for SWNA and surrounding residents. [Status: NOT DONE]
3. Demolition…Upon issuance of the Raze Permit…STC shall coordinate with…immediate neighbors to minimize impacts of demolition on…residents. [Status: NOT DONE]
5. b. Off-Street Parking…A minimum of 70 off-street parking spaces shall be provided on the Property for use by STC and residents of the Development. Residents of the Development shall not be entitled to participate in any existing or future Residential Permit Parking program…[Status: NOT DONE. STC’s PUD includes 70 off-street parking spaces but also proposes to reserve numerous spaces of on-street parking for itself]
6. a. Community Engagement…STC will be responsive to and communicate regularly with Townhouse Management III, Inc., and Townhouse Management I, Inc., and a recognized group of residents thereof who live in houses surrounding the Property…regarding all aspects of the development process that will impact the Townhouse Residents, including but not limited to the demolition and construction schedule. STC will also fulfill its promise to make available to the Townhouse Residents all studies commissioned by STC related to the Existing Building, Property, and surrounding infrastructure, including, but not limited to, goetechnical, shading, utility, and transportation studies…STC will continue to provide the Townhouse Residents with further studies as they are completed. [Status: NOT DONE]
6. b. Community Engagement…Within thirty (30) days of Effective Date [September 17, 2014], STC agrees to organize a charette with SWNA and the Townhouse Residents at which three-dimensional models of the proposed massing concepts for the Property will be presented and discussed with meeting participants (the “Charrette”). [Status: NOT DONE, despite repeated requests for the three-dimensional model]
7. c. i. B. Public Benefits…Beginning on the Effective Date [September 17, 2014] STC shall reserve tickets and gift certificates for adult Master Acting Classes and Camp Shakespeare for Southwest Community special events and raffles…[Status: NOT DONE until 2015 and then only in part.]
7. c. i. C. Public Benefits…Beginning on the Effective Date [September 17, 2014] STC shall coordinate with SWNA and/or ANC 6D to distribute free tickets to Ward 6 Night Free For All performances at Sidney Harmon Hall. [Status: NOT DONE. For the first time, free tickets suddenly appeared on Thursday June 23, 2016, for a Saturday June 25, 2016 production. Few in the community were aware of the opportunity. A Ward 6 Night Free For All performance has not been established.]
Two years ago, the Shakespeare Theatre Company purchased the land at 501 Eye Street SW, which is part of a neighborhood the city reserved for single-family homes and non-commercial institutions over fifty years ago. 501 Eye Street SW is the last undeveloped plot of land in Southwest D.C. zoned for single family homes, and it is zoned as R-3. This zoning designation restricts the height of buildings to 40 feet and specifically prohibits commercial establishments.
Shakespeare Theatre Company, however, in purchasing the 501 Eye Street SW property was planning a building that would tower 90 feet or more above street level and serve a variety of commercial purposes, including over one hundred rental apartments; temporary actor housing; and office, storage and rehearsal spaces for an additional seventy people. None of these usages are compatible with R-3 zoning or with the character of the neighborhood. Shakespeare Theatre Company demanded that the zoning be changed to something that would permit a 90-foot tall building with a commercial purpose.
Long-term neighbors and those who recently bought townhouses near 501 Eye Street SW objected to Shakespeare Theatre’s plans for a zoning change, particularly since Shakespeare Theatre Company’s large apartment building and commercial facility would abut the Amidon-Bowen Elementary School playground. Neighbors saw that Shakespeare Theatre’s apartment tower and commercial facilities would destroy a safe and quiet neighborhood. Shakespeare Theatre Company wrongly countered that if they weren’t allowed their 90-foot commercial and apartment building, 501 Eye Street SW would deteriorate and become a public nuisance because no developer could make a profit by building within the current zoning.
Neighbors had no choice but to refute Shakespeare Theatre’s baseless claims. We commissioned Ernst Valery Investments, a respected East Coast developer, to examine what is possible at the 501 Eye Street SW site in the context of R-3 zoning. Ernst Valery Investments determined that interested developers would definitely find construction of town houses and other uses permitted by R-3 zoning at 501 Eye Street SW to be profitable. The Ernst Valery Investments report is here. A developer interested in being a good neighbor to the existing homeowners and renters and to the elementary school could easily make a profit within the context of R-3 zoning. That same developer could find themselves contributing in a positive way to the vibrant Southwest neighborhood the city established over fifty years ago.
Shakespeare Theatre refused to acknowledge all of the community benefits requested by the 70 participants at the community benefits meeting two weeks ago. The vast majority of suggestions for community benefits were ruled “out of order” by Shakespeare Theatre table moderators and by Shakespeare Theatre’s public relations firm (see the May 23, 2016 post about the meeting). Shakespeare Theatre specifically ruled “out of order” any design and land-use community benefits despite the fact their Planned Unit Development for the property includes design and land-use as community benefits.
Below is my best attempt to convey the community benefits participants actually requested regardless of whether Shakespeare Theatre wrote them down or nor. Please contact me if you were at the meeting and your requested community benefit isn’t listed below. The majority, but not all, of the items listed below were offered in the context of the zoning remaining the same.
Protecting Elementary School Children
- Lighted playground until 10:00pm each night. No relocation of existing light poles.
- Netting along fence line to keep balls from going over the fence.
- Prohibition against complaining about noise from children playing on playground.
- Heat lamps on playground paid for and maintained by Shakespeare Theatre to counteract effects of shadows.
- Construct R-3 zoned townhouses, which will assure community stability as well as low automobile traffic, both of which would benefit the children of Amidon-Bowen Elementary School.
Affordable and Workforce Housing
- A free two-bedroom apartment to attract and retain teachers. Rent would be set and collected by Amidon-Bowen Elementary School PTA.
- 20 three-bedroom apartments at workforce housing prices.
- Some apartments should be reserved for teachers at affordable rates.
- 30% of the apartments should be affordable.
- 20 affordable three-bedroom apartments.
Learning and Careers
- A Fall and Spring production directed and produced by Shakespeare Theater company performed at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School using Amidon-Bowen students.
- Apprenticeships for Southwest residents.
- The already-promised scholarships to Camp Shakespeare should be for the life of the building.
- Jobs in construction and in the completed building for residents of Southwest.
- $250,000 over 25 years for Amidon-Bowen Elementary School.
- 1,000 free tickets annually for Amidon-Bowen Elementary School to Shakespeare Theatre productions.
- Shakespeare Theatre should contribute $250,000 to the Amidon-Bowen PTA.
- Public access to the roof garden.
- Permanent programmatic benefits for both Amidon Bowen Elementary School and Jefferson Academy.
Parking and Transportation
- Shakespeare Theatre should not reserve street parking, currently publicly available, for itself.
- Free parking for Southwest neighbors.
- Residents of the new building should not be able to get residential parking permits.
- Shakespeare Theatre should reinstate the Ladybug shuttle.
- Ensure that there is one parking spot in the building for every person who lives or works there.
- Free or reduced price tickets to Shakespeare Theatre performances for residents of Southwest.
Neighborhood-Appropriate Building Design
- The building should be built to current LEED platinum standards, not the 2009 standards Shakespeare Theatre states in their Planned Unit Development.
- The building should avoid shading neighbors.
- The remaining trees on the site should be kept.
- The building should be set back 20 feet from the street on each side.
- Ensure the building has a smaller footprint (no more than 60% of the land).
- Do not build anything over 4 stories high.
- The building should be set back 20 feet from the property line of adjacent property holders.
- Follow current zoning and build townhouses to keep the character of the neighborhood.
- Ensure that whatever is built does not block out the sun or daylight to neighboring residents.
- Ensure that what is built matches the character of the neighborhood.
- Set the building back 20 feet on all sides.
- Build townhomes on the site instead.
- Move the driveway from 6th Street to I Street.
- Ensure that what is built is consistent with the current zoning of the land.
- Build in Virginia, where Shakespeare Theatre’s developer is headquartered and where the limited liability corporation that owns 501 Eye Street SW site, “As You Like It,” is located.
- Build elsewhere (either elsewhere in Southwest or elsewhere generally).
At the community benefits meeting on Thursday, Southwest residents reiterated our position:
- We want construction of within-zoning housing at 501 Eye Street SW.
- Nothing Shakespeare Theatre has to offer is worth compromising our neighborhood for.
Southwest spoke loud and clear. And Shakespeare Theatre again refused to listen.
Approximately seventy Southwesters attended the meeting. Approximately forty were from the four townhouse management areas surrounding the property. The remaining attendees generally consisted of neighbors from Harbour Square, Tiber Island, Waterside Towers Townhouses, Waterside Towers Commons, The View, Carrollsburg, 700 7th Street, and Amidon-Bowen Elementary School parents.
Sadly, some of the attendees from outside the townhouse management area got their first taste of how little interest the Shakespeare Theatre has in listening to the community.
The meeting, which occurred in the Amidon-Bowen Elementary School cafeteria, was moderated by the former President and now Treasurer of the Amidon-Bowen Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Martin Welles. Neighbors sat at seven tables with ten people at each table plus a table spokesperson that Shakespeare Theatre insisted be a Shakespeare Theater representative. If Shakespeare Theatre consulted any best practices related to community engagement, that wasn’t evident at the meeting. Shakespeare Theatre dictated the ground rules, and the first one was to “obey the event format.”
Conversation doesn’t occur when one party is obeying and the other is dictating.
Under DC law, public benefits [community benefits] are features of a Planned Unit Development that would benefit the surrounding neighborhood or the public in general “to a significantly greater extent than would likely result from development of the site under the matter-of-right.” Community benefits are not supposed to be a way to circumvent zoning requirements or sidestep the need for community approval of the overall project. Time and again, the community has said Shakespeare Theatre’s plans for the site are inappropriate. On Thursday night, all the tables made clear that no zoning change was desired at the site, and no benefit could be offered that would compensate for the damage to our neighborhood, including the school, as a result of construction of a large office/apartment complex at 501 Eye Street SW.
With one exception, the Shakespeare-appointed table spokesperson refused to record neighbor comments about keeping the zoning the same. At least four-fifths of those present found their voice silenced, dismissed, or altogether ignored. Even at the table where the table moderator reluctantly recorded neighbor comments, those comments were ultimately rejected by the overall Shakespeare Theatre representative.
After the false discussion phase, former PTA President Welles noted that his own suggestions had largely been turned down, and he said he understood others had been subjected to the same refusals. He wanted to know whether the participants thought it was even worthwhile having the benefits listed by the STC moderators read out aloud.
The response from the assembly was a single loud “NO!”
Given the lopsided response, Welles said he would not go through with the reading of requested benefits. He relinquished moderation to Shakespeare Theater. Welles, along with approximately 60 neighbors, walked out of the meeting.
Shakespeare Theatre’s shameful conduct begs the question: What was the purpose of the meeting? The only answer can be: Another false attempt to show that Shakespeare Theatre is listening to the community. They are not.
An organization that is listening wouldn’t have dictated ground rules and put their own lackeys at each table. They would have let each table appoint its own spokesperson. An organization that was listening wouldn’t refuse to acknowledge the vast majority of requests from the community. An organization that was listening wouldn’t dismiss repeated, vociferous, widespread neighborhood concerns and requests. Shakespeare Theatre hasn’t done anything to show that it cares about being a good neighbor.
On July 28, 2014, at a meeting at Arena Stage with the community, Chris Jennings, Shakespeare Theatre’s managing director, said that Shakespeare Theatre would not proceed with their plans if the neighborhood objects to the proposal. We object. We object. We object. We don’t want the zoning at the site changed. Shakespeare Theatre can sell the site at a profit and build elsewhere.
Where is the accountability at Shakespeare Theatre? How could the neighborhood ever trust an organization that went back on such a public statement from its managing director? How could the neighborhood ever trust an organization that paid $60,000 to a non-profit in return for a historic designation being removed from 501 Eye Street SW so building demolition could begin? How could the neighborhood ever trust an organization that purports to be listening, when in fact all we see them doing is attempting to silence, dismiss, and ignore the community they want to be part of?
Instead of accepting offers to relocate their project, Shakespeare Theatre is renewing its efforts to buy off the neighbors around 501 Eye Street SW by hosting a community benefits meeting on Thursday, May 19th at 6:30pm at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School. We don’t want their “community benefits.” We want 501 Eye Street SW construction of within-zoning housing for families who want to live in Southwest D.C.
But Shakespeare Theatre still isn’t listening. They’re still trying to buy off the neighborhood by building a high-rise apartment that isn’t in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.
Shakespeare Theatre’s first foray into buying off the neighborhood occurred on September 17, 2014. At that time, Shakespeare Theatre agreed to pay a Southwest organization $60,000 to withdraw their historic preservation application for 501 I Street SW as part of a package of “community benefits.”
Leaders of the Southwest organization that accepted the funds subsequently resigned their positions.
The neighborhood, local officials, and many others have tried to help Shakespeare Theatre understand how inappropriate their proposal for the 501 Eye Street site is. It remains a mystery why Shakespeare Theatre is continuing to pursue its zone-busting apartment tower in a 3-story townhouse neighborhood that abuts a 2-story elementary school property.
Other more appropriate development sites for Shakespeare Theatre exist in Southwest and near-Southeast. Those are sites already zoned for what Shakespeare Theatre wants to do. Some of those spaces are already built. Instead of continuing to pursue plans opposed by the neighborhood, Shakespeare Theatre could sell the 501 Eye Street property and get started consolidating their administrative operations elsewhere.
The United Neighbors of Southwest commissioned a study showing that building townhouses on the 501 Eye Street SW site still makes money for a developer. Other developers are interested in purchasing the site and putting townhouses there. The solution is not only clear, but it’s also feasible: Sell the property to a developer with plans that don’t change the zoning.
For some reason, Shakespeare Theatre is choosing not to pursue the clearest, most feasible way forward.
Instead, Shakespeare Theatre’s actions beg numerous questions such as…
- Why isn’t Shakespeare Theatre selling the 501 Eye Street property at a profit?
- Why isn’t Shakepseare Theatre putting funds from a property sale into a move-in-ready site already zoned for what they want to do?
- Why does Shakespeare Theatre refuse to admit that the only thing the neighbors want for the 501 Eye Street site is construction within the current zoning?
- When is Shakespeare Theatre going to stop trying to buy off the neighborhood?
- How much D.C. taxpayer money accepted by Shakespeare Theatre over the years is now being used to hire public relations firms and law firms to fight those same taxpayers?
- Is D.C. taxpayer money being used to subsidize Shakespeare Theatre’s “community benefits” offers?