City Paper Widget

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

2724 11th Street: "We Do Know What We're Talking About"

The owners of 2724 11th Street NW came away empty-handed from a hearing of DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) on November 18. Jennifer Parker, representing the family that has owned the building for more than half a century, and attorney Martin Sullivan, of the firm Sullivan & Barrow, led the team who were in search of a handful of zoning variances for a troubled Columbia Heights apartment building.

Parker (center) and Sullivan (right) -- screenshot of BZA video
For many months, the rent-controlled building has been the site of a battle between, on the one side, the tenants and nearly all neighbors and, on the other, the owners and their representatives. The dreadful conditions of the building have drawn far greater public attention than normal to this application for zoning relief. This attention includes a detailed report on the vermin-infested apartments on WAMU and letters to the BZA in support of the tenants from two city council members.

According to section 11-3103 of DC Municipal Regulations, the applicants must show that strict application of zoning requirements "would result in peculiar and exceptional practical difficulties to or exceptional and undue hardship upon the owner of the property". Toward this end, they submitted spreadsheets and other documents intended to demonstrate finanicial hardship.

Attempts at humor probably not a winning strategy

The Board was not impressed with these documents. For example, members of the Board felt that professional expenses of $150,000 were not adequately explained. Parker said the expenses were for lawyers and accountants. She then said she was a lawyer and asked rhetorically if the Board was aware what attorneys cost these days.

Lloyd Jordan, Chair of the Board, replied that he was a lawyer himself and was aware of the going fees for lawyers.

"We do know what we're talking about, despite what you might think," Jordan said.

Jordan expressed further scepticism of the applicants financial statements.

"I don't know if I can accept your financials," Jordan said. Jordan asked the applicants to return with convincing evidence that "your numbers are real".

ANC Commissioners, community testify

Two Commissioners from Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 1B/U Street testified before the Committee.

ANC1B Chair James Turner (Commissioner for district 09) was first. 2724 11th Street is in Turner's ANC district, he told the Board. Turner also told the Board lives on the same block as the building. He told them the matter had been on the agenda for the November meeting of the ANC, but a vote could not be taken because a quorum was not achieved -- see SALM blog post of November 7.

Turner testifies to the BZA
"Sadly, in November, we could not reach a quorum," Turner told the Board.

"It happens," a Board member said sympathetically.

"Too frequently," Turner said.

A Board member, still sympathetic, said it was difficult for Commissioners because they were "volunteers".

"We're not volunteers, we're unpaid," Turner said. The members of the Board laughed and suggested jokingly that all present could start a labor union.

But about the absences, Turner said: "It is unacceptable".

Turner went on to tell the Board about the previous actions of the ANC and its committees, including the October ANC1B vote to protest the 31 percent rent increase on the rent-controlled apartment -- see SALM blog post of October 8.

Turner said Parker's predecessors had not been good landlords but Parker herself in the last two years had made "good faith efforts" to improve the property. Approving the zoning variance would be "the fastest path" to getting better housing for the tenants, Turner said.

Next, ANC1B Commissioner Mark Ranslem (district 08) testified in favor of the applicants. Ranslem characterized the building as in a state of "horrible disrepair". To allow the current dispute to drag out, Ranslem said, would create a "lose-lose situation" in which the building might eventually be condemned. but approving the variance would create a "win-win".

Opponents of the zoning relief had, by the time the hearing took place, gotten 44 people to write in objection to the zoning relief, including the two DC Councilmembers mentioned above. (Sullivan characterized most of these as "form letters".) They also got several people to come to the mid-week hearing in person to testify. The Board had to make clear that not all would be allowed to do so, in the interests of time. In all, four representatives of the opposition to zoning relief, including one actual tenant of the building, testified.

Applicants told to return

The Board told the applicants they should come back in January with improved financial statements. Also, Lloyd Jordan said he "really had a concern" about the state of the building. Other members of the Board agreed with him.

Anthony Hood, Chair of the DC Zoning Commissioner, also attended the hearing. He told the applicants things might go a little easier if they returned with written evidence of a plan for relocating the tenants during the proposed renovation, as well as evidence of better communication with the building's tenants.

The request for a variance will be heard again on January 13, 2015, at 9:30am. BZA hearings are held in Room 220 South, 441 4th Street NW (Judiciary Square Metro).

I did not attend the November 18 BZA hearing. The information above is based on watching a video of the hearing. This video, along with many documents related to this case, can be viewed by going to DC's Interactive Zoning Information System and putting case number 18790 in the search bar. The portion of the meeting dealing with this request starts at time 2:07:53.

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