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], and I will put you in touch with the right people.

Dear Shakespeare Theatre: No Thanks

Out Damned Developer and SnowYesterday, over 50 neighbors in the immediate vicinity of 501 I Street SW objected to Shakespeare Theatre’s plans to filing a zoning application for the site. The zoning change Shakespeare Theatre is seeking would permit them and their developer, Erkiletian Development Corporation, to build a 7-story building at 501 I Street. By signing onto the letter linked here, neighbors objected to the various mis-statements in Shakespeare Theatre’s Notice of Intent to File a Zoning Application, and we advised Shakespeare Theatre to refrain from submitting their Planned Unit Development (PUD) at this time. This strong show of neighborhood support for more sensible development at 501 I Street SW came just 24 hours after one of the biggest snowfalls Southwest D.C. has ever seen!

Another Slap in the Face: Notice of Intent to File Zoning Application


Shakespeare Theatre and its developer continue to ignore the neighborhood’s many and varied concerns about a high-rise at 501 Eye Street SW. Today, Shakespeare Theatre distributed a Notice of Intent to File a Zoning Application, the end result of which would be two buildings at the site, and at least one of them would be 7 stories tall.

Shakespeare Theatre had $81 million in assets in 2010 and only $17 million in liabilities. They bought the Southeastern University property, which is as big as half a city block, at the foreclosure price of $6.5 million. Instead of doing any fundraising to buy the property, Shakespeare Theatre partnered with a developer, who said they needed to build 136 market-rate high-rise apartments on the site to recoup the cost of giving Shakespeare Theatre 3 below-ground levels. These numbers don’t add up.

Sitting less than half a mile from The Wharf development, 501 Eye Street SW is some extremely valuable property. Don’t believe for a moment Shakespeare Theatre’s only option is to build a neighborhood-killing high-rise at 501 Eye Street. Greed and a lack of respect for the neighborhood are foremost in this project.




More Signs Available (And A Flyer!)

Two SignsMore signs are available for neighbors to express their opposition to Shakespeare Theatre and Erkiletian Corporation’s proposed development at 501 I Street SW. The signs are sprouting up all over. Let me know if you’d like one of the new signs (the “Shame on Shakespeare! one), and I’ll put you in contact with the household that’s making them available. That same household even wrote up a one-pager (click here for the text), and has made it available alongside the signs in their side yard at the corner of 6th and H Street.