What It Looks Like for a Developer to Be a Good Neighbor and Still Make a Profit at 501 Eye Street SW

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.

 

39 Community Benefits Requested for STC’s Development at 501 Eye Street SW [Updated to 41 Community Benefits]

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.

Long-Term Engagement

  • $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.

The Arts

  • 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.

Location

  • 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).

Community Benefits Meeting Crumbles Over Shakespeare Theatre’s Refusal to Listen to the Community

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?

 

 

 

Stop Trying to Buy Us Off

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…

  1. Why isn’t Shakespeare Theatre selling the 501 Eye Street property at a profit?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. When is Shakespeare Theatre going to stop trying to buy off the neighborhood?
  5. 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? 
  6. Is D.C. taxpayer money being used to subsidize Shakespeare Theatre’s “community benefits” offers?

 

Developing Alternative Options for 501 Eye Street SW

In February, advocates for neighborhood-appropriate development at 501 Eye Street SW organized as the United Neighbors of Southwest (UNSW) and subsequently established a fund to pay for legal advice and expert studies.

We’ve been able to do a number of positive things with these funds including hiring lawyers and a company that analyzes traffic and parking issues. We also hired a firm to conduct a professional study to demonstrate that a low-rise building option would be economically viable at the 501 Eye Street SW site. The study included a conceptual budget, possible sources and uses of funds, and a returns analysis.

Of course, the alternative development option is just that – an option. But with it, UNSW proved that development at 501 Eye Street SW can meet current zoning requirements, conform with the existing character of the neighborhood, be amenable to members of the community, and still be profitable for a developer. This option was produced in a tight timeframe. With more time, no doubt other options that meet the criteria above could be identified.

UNSW still has a lot of work to do to encourage smart development at the 501 Eye Street SW site. If you’re interested in contributing to the fund or in putting a pro-neighborhood sign in your yard or window, feel free to contact me at eyeon501sw [at] gmail.com, and I will put you in touch with the right people.

Washington Gateway Neighborhood Association: No STC Zoning Change Recommended

Draft SW Small Area Plan - SEU Site Excerpt
Southwest Small Area Plan SEU Excerpt

The Washington Gateway Neighborhood Association (WGNA), an affiliation of eight Home Owners Associations in the Southwest Waterfront compromising nearly 900 households, continues to show its strong support for a community-supported way-forward at the 501 Eye Street SW site.

In letters from July 2015, WGNA wrote to each  City Council member and urged them to approve the Southwest Small Area Plan “without any modifications that cater to special interests or undercut the unique character of our neighborhoods.” In other words: don’t change the plan for the Shakespeare Theatre and against the wishes of the Southwest community. The City Council and Mayor Bowser responded to Shakespeare Theatre’s zoning change appeal with a resounding “No!” Click here for the letter to Councilmember Allen

WGNA reiterated its support for the neighborhood in a February 2016 letter by writing that its “position remains unchanged and parallels the language included in the Southwest Neighborhood Plan: ‘the Theatre and their development partner [should] address community concerns’ and ‘continue the dialogue with the Southwest community through the upcoming Comprehensive Plan Amendment Process.'” The letter goes on to say “We hope we can count on the District Office of Planning to continue to support the specific language of the Southwest Neighborhood Plan and to recommend strongly against a zoning change or a set down hearing for the proposed STC.” Click here for the letter to the Office of Planning

Kudos to WGNA for their continued advocacy!

 

 

Planned Unit Development Filed Despite Objections from Over 50 Immediate Neighbor Households

 

STC PUD 1
Copyright 2016 Shalom Baranes Associates

Shakespeare Theatre continues to trivialize neighborhood opposition to their Planned Unit Development (PUD), which seeks to rezone 501 I Street SW. Their February 3, 2016, PUD application says, “During these meetings, the Applicant continued to receive support as well as localized opposition from some of the townhouse neighbors.”

I don’t recall much support. What I recall is a room full of 50-100 people on numerous occasions over the last two years vociferously objecting to Shakespeare’s plans to build a high-rise at 501 I Street SW.

At one of those meetings (July 28, 2014 – before Shakespeare Theatre purchased the property), Chris Jennings, the Director of Operations for Shakespeare Theatre said Shakespeare Theatre will not proceed with their plans if the neighborhood objects to the proposal.

We objected to the Theatre’s proposal then, and we object now. This is not “some of the townhouse neighbors.” This is nearly every household within 200 feet of the proposed rezoning.

Tone-deaf to widespread neighborhood opposition, Shakespeare Theatre filed its PUD this week. Below are a few images from the combined materials.

STC PUD 2
Copyright 2016 Shalom Baranes Associates

Note the flattering view of the height (click on the document to get a better view) – as if every single proposed new building didn’t stand taller than the townhouses and Amidon-Bowen Elementary School. The angle makes the townhouses in the foreground seem taller. A more accurate angle would show the view from I Street looking north at street level. No mention of the height of Amidon-Bowen Elementary School is made in the rendering, which would show that building at about 20 feet, less than half the height of the shortest of the several Shakespeare Buildings.

STC PUD 3
Copyright 2016 Shalom Baranes Associates

This view is special. It shows forty-foot tall trees at street level. Forty-foot-tall trees would probably be at least 30 years old. I wonder if the trees were put in this drawing to make the 90-foot-tall building look smaller. For real tree growth possibilities, take a look at how much the trees on G Street SW between 7th and 9th have grown in the 10 years since they were planted.

STC PUD 4
Copyright 2016 Shalom Baranes Associates

Oh wait! Here’s a ground-level view. This view from I Street shows the building so tall it actually obscures the 6-story section behind it and the 4-story building near the Amidon-Bowen playground.

The renderings also don’t have the right perspective on Amidon-Bowen. The lot holding the playground and soccer field is not shown correctly, and no attention is paid in any of the drawings to the height of the buildings that are proposed to surround the playground in two sides.

What else is missing: all the “No Parking” signs proposed for 6th Street. Shakespeare Theatre wants parking on the 501 Eye Street side of 6th Street be reserved for their staff — exacerbating the neighborhood’s already crowded parking situation.

The narrative portion of the document continues to misrepresent neighborhood opposition to the proposed rezoning. Click here for the cover page and here for the material I’m referencing. Shakespeare Theatre is not responsive to community concerns. Shakespeare Theatre’s Planned Unit Development application is an attempt to gloss over the community’s numerous deep concerns. Shakespeare Theatre’s application also attempts to subvert the Office of Planning’s work with the community to help shape the future of Southwest D.C.

The PUD is now available on the DC Interactive Zoning Information System (you’ll need to set up an account), and on my Dropbox site linked here (no account needed).