"Bravo" to parking-free development in Tenleytown
After more than 3 years of meetings, discussions, proposals and counter-proposals, ANC 3E Thursday night unanimously supported a controversial proposal to build a new residential building with ground-floor retail on a corner near the Tenleytown Metro station.
My house is located on the same block as this site, the old Babe's Billiards at the northwest corner of Wisconsin and Brandywine. I've been keenly interested in the fate of this now-derelict building.
The commissioners agreed to the project only after negotiating a long list of stipulations, which they formalized as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) intended to legally bind the developer and all successive owners of the property.
Despite unanimity amongst the commissioners, there was no shortage of vocal opposition from a few of the longstanding opponents of this development.
The prime bone of contention has been developer Douglas Jemal's request for an exemption from the parking requirements. The building would have one disability parking space and no other on-site parking, though there are several garages nearby.
Several local residents voiced strong feelings that skipping underground parking for the planned apartments and retail would make it more difficult to find parking spaces in Tenleytown. At least one attendee argued against the project's density, claiming that its 4.8 Floor-Area Ratio (FAR) would make it would be one of the most densely-developed sites in Upper Northwest.
All opponents fear that if built, this project might become a precedent for future high-density, parking-free buildings in Tenleytown which, they say, will overrun our neighborhood with hundreds of new people and cars parked on side streets. Opponents expressed frustration that the 5 commissioners seemed to have already made up their minds. They were unlikely to be swayed by arguments that have already come up many times times at meetings and on neighborhood listservs since 2009.
However, such concerns feel overblown. The ANC has pushed to allay the parking concerns as thoroughly as possible by imposing draconian restrictions on any and all residents of the building. No one living there will be allowed to get residential parking permits (RPPs). The deed to the property will require that all leases forbid tenants from attempting to gain RPPs, and if Jemal sells the property or it becomes condos, those restrictions will follow to future owners.
Essentially, no one living in the building will be able to park full time on the streets of Tenleytown. Jemal will market the building to people interested in living car free. Those with cars will have to live elsewhere or rent spaces in the Best Buy or Whole Foods parking lots, which have extra capacity today.
Some people may indeed try to get around such prohibitions, but both the ANC and Jemal have tried to limit the impact on street parking as much as possible. To the best of my knowledge, this approach is new for DC, though it is common in other jurisdictions, including Arlington. Some worry that it won't completely succeed in binding parking restrictions to the site, though the DC Council could back it up by passing legislation to codify the no-RPP rule for developments that request it. A bill to do that narrowly failed on second reading last month.
As to fears that this project will set a precedent, the commissioners were all quite clear that they do not consider this project a template for all future Tenleytown development. Rather, they see it as a sort of pilot program for a site that presents significant challenges.
The site is unique. Despite its prime location just one block from a Red Line Metro station, it sports an odd 1-story concrete structure. It includes a below-grade level, which used to house a movie theater. It is essentially a huge concrete bunker, currently painted an ominous black.
The current building is 100% structurally sound, which presents the developer with a dilemma. Either the developer can use the existing building as a concrete base for a taller structure, or he can demolish the concrete bunker, haul away the rubble, dig a deep foundation with underground parking, and build on top of that. This choice is a no-brainer for this particular site.
Using the old concrete base does make it impossible to dig underground parking on the site, but nearly everyone involved has agreed that given the incredibly close proximity to Metro, a zero-parking approach is worth trying. Demolishing the old building would be extremely unfriendly from an environmental standpoint, the millions of extra dollars of expense would likely make the project economically unfeasible without adding 4 or 5 additional stories, and the extra parking spaces would merely encourage extra cars to come into the neighborhood.
The ANC took care to state that this level of density and parking should not necessarily be considered "the new normal" in Tenleytown. If this project is built as currently planned, it will take several more years to judge the effects of this zero-parking experiment, and the ANC explicitly said their vote should not impact the impending zoning rewrite.
From a personal standpoint, with my house being on Brandywine Street, I'm thrilled that there won't be a parking garage 100 feet down the street. It would mean a huge number of new cars buzzing around the block. While I have a single off-street parking space at my house, I personally haven't gotten to use it since my wife found out she was expecting our first child a few years ago.
I have never had difficulty parking on nearby 42nd Street, and while I do anticipate that this development will inevitably make street parking near my house a little bit more difficult, isn't that the unavoidable price of new development?
I love the small-town character of Tenleytown, and I love that you might mistake it for a sleepy suburb despite its incredibly central DC location, but I also don't want the Tenleytown stretch of Wisconsin Avenue to remain littered with rubble heaps, blacked out buildings, and mattress stores. We need revitalization around our highly valuable Metro Station, and if revitalization brings more people to the area, I say, "Bravo!"
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