Greater Greater Washington

"Follies" hotel proposed for N Street

A long-running saga over a proposed hotel on N Street, NW has once again boiled over, as developer Morton Bender will go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a ruling on the latest version of plans. Dupont Circle neighbors and some surrounding businesses have been fighting elements of this proposal for years. In this case, the zoning laws seem to clearly come down against the plan as currently designed.

Bender owns six townhouses on the north side of N between 17th and 18th, through a company entitled N Street Follies, LLC. That block is the point where large downtown office development meets the historic row house neighborhood east of Dupont Circle. There's a new, large glass office building on the 18th Street corner and a few other modern structures like the Topaz Hotel, but most of the original buildings are intact, and house a combination of residential, office, and hotel uses. The Tabard Inn, which encompasses three townhouses, is next door.


Front elevation (existing). Click to enlarge.

Three of the buildings have five floors while the other three have four. The architect plans to keep the original buildings, which historic regulations require, but to construct a fifth floor addition on the shorter buildings, along with a mechanical penthouse, set back enough as to be invisible from the street. There's also a gap today between two of the buildings, which they propose filling in with a glass wall to create an enclosed entrance foyer.


Front elevation (proposed). Click to enlarge.

The rear of the buildings look like most other old townhouses, with projecting bays and a rear yard area used currently for parking. To preserve most of these rear facades, the architects have designed an interior courtyard immediately behind the historic buildings. Then, a new 5-story addition between the courtyard and the alley will house additional rooms, built out to the property line in the rear and on both sides.

Below the new addition would be a 98-space mechanical parking garage, using automated lifts. The development team say that all visitors will arrive on N Street, where valets would drive cars around to the rear and into the mechanical garage.


3rd floor existing (left) and 4th floor proposed (right). Click on an image to enlarge. Also see the 1st floor proposed (not shown). Note: I used different floors only because these were the only drawings I could obtain; the developer refused to provide better diagrams.

This is a clever design that maximizes the visibility of the historic buildings in the front and rear while also fitting many hotel rooms into the space. However, it would also severely impact the adjacent Tabard Inn and other property owners. None of the other buildings on the block extend out to the property line. Zoning doesn't permit it.

However, there's an odd loophole in the rules. In an SP-1 zone, which includes this area, hotels are not permitted by right but require a special exception. If a hotel receives a special exception, it also is allowed to build all the way to the property line, instead of having a rear setback. Therefore, they are allowed to propose a hotel that takes up much more of the property than the owner would otherwise be allowed to use.

The added footprint has real consequences. Next door, the Tabard has terraces in the rear which are part of their restaurant. According to the sun studies in the applicant's submission, the addition would place the Tabard terrace in shadow during most of the afternoon. And at the ANC 2B meeting where they presented the plan, the architect didn't do his client any favors by only showing diagrams of the sun at 11 am, noon, and 1 pm, in what seemed to be a meager attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the audience and the ANC.


Footprints of buildings on the block. Pink=structures, green=unbuilt space (not necessarily planted with greenery), purple=proposed hotel. Image from the Tabard Inn. Click to enlarge.

There's no absolute right to have sunlight. We live in a city, and having other buildings nearby is part of that. However, there is an explicit right according to the zoning rules in this case. The property is part of the Dupont Circle Overlay, whose purposes, according to the Zoning Regulations, include to "preserve areas planned as open gardens and backyards and protect the light, air, and privacy that they provide." For hotels in the SP zone which includes N Street, regardless of overlay, the regulations require that:

The height, bulk, and design of the hotel or inn shall be in harmony with existing uses and structures on neighboring property; ... The Board may require special treatment in the way of design, building setbacks, screening, landscaping, sign controls, and other features as it deems necessary to protect neighboring property.
It seems pretty clear, in this case, that if the BZA wants to grant a special exception to allow a hotel, it must ensure that the exception doesn't unduly impact the Tabard or other properties. And it clearly would. The Office of Planning's report recommends approval, saying that the building is "set back along the northeast corner, allowing additional light and air to the existing use to the east." Unless they've changed the plans since it was presented to the ANC, Dupont Conservancy, and when I reviewed the submissions at the Office of Zoning last week, that's not true. There is an angle in the northeast corner, but that's not a setback, just the irregular shape of the property and alley because of Massachusetts Avenue on the north side of the square. I believe OP made a mistake in recommending approval in this case.

98 spaces is also far too much parking, equal to one space per room. By comparison, the Tabard has 40 rooms and only three parking spaces. The Topaz hotel next door (which has a curb cut on N Street) has 25 spaces for 99 rooms and, Tabard officials said, they have enough space for the cars of Tabard guests who drive.

The very small alley only opens onto 17th Street, which is one way southbound while N is one-way eastbound. Driving from N to the alley would require looping around the Peruvian Embassy; coming back to N Street from the alley would require going all the way around to Rhode Island and Connecticut Avenues. In fact, according to Tabard officials who spoke at last month's ANC 2B meeting, earlier proposals for this hotel included traffic studies arguing that a curb cut was necessary because of the deficiencies of the alley. DDOT opposes the application because of these problems.

In general, denser development that doesn't create unsustainable vehicular traffic is reasonable. Having a 98-room hotel with minimal parking would be fine for this square. Some surrounding neighbors have also objected because of the fear of construction impacts. While it's important for the developer to ensure that construction doesn't damage buildings, it's not reasonable to forbid construction, especially near downtown, just because it'll make some noise in the interim.

The Bender properties don't extend as far back as the Tabard, and it would be totally reasonable for them to add to the existing footprint. It's not even unreasonable to occupy the entire block, as long as there are appropriate setbacks on the upper floors. But to allow one property owner to build a solid, 5-story ring all the way around the property that disrupts adjacent uses fairly clearly violates the spirit and letter of the zoning regulations.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

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Generally speaking I tend to think of anything south of Massachusetts Avenue as fair game for being considered part of "downtown" and being developed at accordingly high intensities. Also, I have very little patience for property owners who think the view from their building is more important than another owner's property rights. So I am all for developing this property at a downtown intensity. If the zoning doesn't allow that, then the zoning is wrong IMO.

That having been said, I also have little patience for a developer who thinks s/he needs 100 parking spaces for a building this size at this location. That's an absolutely unnecessary waste of money (on top of being bad for the city by inducing people to drive), which leads me to conclude that the developer has money to spare, which in turn leads me to conclude that they could just as easily build the project with a few setbacks on the upper floors so as to be less obnoxious.

Long story short: Strike a deal giving them their exemptions to build out to the property line in return for concessions reducing the number of parking spaces and adding setbacks on the upper floors.

Then rewrite the rules to permit appropriate intensity south of Massachusetts Avenue, including any form-based requirements for upper-floor setback deemed necessary.

For the record, I live about 6 blocks from here.

by BeyondDC on Oct 1, 2009 2:23 pm • linkreport

Ah, one more example of why it is necessary to have transportation demand management planning requirements in DC building and zoning and planning regulations. As you point out, they are proposing to build more parking than is likely necessary. This costs a lot of money and if built as proposed, would impose undue burdens on nearby property owners and the street infrastructure.

I don't fully agree with BeyondDC's point about the quid pro quo -- intensity (to the lot line) in return for fewer parking spaces. In this instance, allowing this property owner to build to the rear lot line comes at the expense of another commercial property owner, in a manner that seriously reduces the value of their property and impedes the ongoing operation of the business (the Tabard Inn) as it is currently provided to its customers.

The whole reason for a system of zoning is to mediate these kinds of disputes, mitigate potential problems, and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

This plan doesn't seem to be at that point yet.

by Richard Layman on Oct 1, 2009 2:32 pm • linkreport

It's also worth considering how bad a steward the owners have been of those buildings. They let those buildings rot for over a decade. If they weren't trying to get demolition by neglect, they sure are getting close to it.

I would prefer to see some residential element of this. It is a bit of a shame that almost every one of those beautiful town houses on that block are occupied by sleepy think tanks or other professional axe grinders. Those are necessary things, but it would be nice to have a bit more post 5 pm life on that street.

by Reid on Oct 1, 2009 2:37 pm • linkreport

How does building to the lot line seriously affect the Tabard's alley access? The alley will still be there. Tabard will still be able to use it.

by BeyondDC on Oct 1, 2009 2:49 pm • linkreport

Are these the properties that the developer purchased in 1988 and has done absolutely nothing with for over two decades? Can anyone tell me how much tax revenue the city has lost on these prime location properties?

by monkeyrotica on Oct 1, 2009 2:55 pm • linkreport

So only a hotel would allow this build out?
What would happen in the future if the use was changed to offices or residential? Does the extension get to stay?

by shy on Oct 1, 2009 6:25 pm • linkreport

"That's an absolutely unnecessary waste of money (on top of being bad for the city by inducing people to drive), which leads me to conclude that the developer has money to spare,"

BeyondDc, I come to a different conclusion. The owner wouldn't be proposing this number of spaces if he didn't think it would add to his bottom line. From a standpoint of adding sorely needed parking capacity to our underpriviledged (in this sense) city, then his proposal for spaces above and beyond what is mandated is a good thing. No, actually, a GREAT thing. And while I'd listen to the Tabard Inn's input in regards to height matters which might effect is sun and light, it has no right to comment on increased traffic given the increased traffic its very existence has brought to that street.

Btw, writing off everything south of Mass Ave. to high rise development is a defeatist attitude. It would be best to hope that even those areas which have over urbanized ... and don't contribute to our low rise city ... will as the opportunities come up, de-urbanize and return to the low rise city for which we are known. I.e., let's not accept as a given that south of Mass Ave. is lost. Most of it isn't, and that which is can be turned around over time.

by Lance on Oct 1, 2009 10:35 pm • linkreport

"which they propose filling in with a glass wall to create an enclosed entrance foyer"... isn't that just a big F-You to the "historic row house neighborhood" concept right there? That alone should be grounds for rejecting their proposal.

This reminds me of the Glass-Wall Apple store concept in Georgetown amid a long row of historic rowhouses.

Is it really that hard to build a brick or stone rowhouse facad in keeping with the repeating architectual cues of the block, and the historic-rowhouse nature of the area?

by Lee.Watkins on Oct 2, 2009 7:12 am • linkreport

LW,
Normally I would agree with your comments, but in this case the sliver is so small that a bit of glass isn't going to kill anybody, especially since the whole of the rowhouses are being saved. On the other hand across the street and further down towards 17th streets is what must be one of the most beautiful architectural moments in DC with exactly the same circumstances, so maybe your right.

by Thayer-D on Oct 2, 2009 7:34 am • linkreport

Lance, I'm not "writing off" south of Mass Ave. High intensities near the regional core are good. We *want* more dense development there, lest it happen elsewhere. I *want* as many square feet of development there as can be squeezed in.

by BeyondDC on Oct 2, 2009 9:59 am • linkreport

I've sat in Tabard Inn's courtyard during the day. It's impossible to be comfortable with the amount of sun. The sails they have now don't work. They could use some sun shading.

by rauzia ally on Oct 2, 2009 10:05 am • linkreport

Lance -- man, your suburban approach to decidedly urban questions does not bode well for the future of the center city. The city was designed to optimize non automobile traffic. The more driving is promoted, the less effective is the street network. (See the concept of induced demand.)

WRT the glass, it can be done well. The point is that it's permeable and complementary. Generally, DC architects haven't done so well at this, but the Morgan Library in NYC is an example, although it works better inside as the outside is a little too ugly for my tastes. Another example of an atrium, albeit it's for a "new" building, albeit done in the classical style, is the Marshall Administrative Building for the U.S. Courts, across from Union Station.

BeyondDC -- my understanding is that by building to rear lot line next door, light and air issues are created with regard to how Tabard Inn runs their business and serves customers.

Reid -- yep. Bender interests are notorious for bad faith, demolition by neglect to foster development projects, etc., at least "bad faith" in terms of how a preservation advocate would define it...

by Richard Layman on Oct 2, 2009 2:06 pm • linkreport

Revert south of Mass to low rise? No f'ing way. I'm one of the view that think they should build as high as they can.

by beatbox on Oct 2, 2009 6:40 pm • linkreport

Richard is absolutely on target with his critique of the glass. Some months back David covered a similary solution occuring on U Street to fill in the current 'loading dock' to the east of the building which today houses the Results Gym.

With regards to induced demand, Richard I am familar with the concept but I don't fully buy into it. Yes, I agree that the more you build, the more they will come (i.e., cars), but I think what seems to get overlooked is that people always have the option to 'opt out' of the crushing traffic. They can stop going to where the bad traffic is (e.g., move or change jobs ... or cities), or they can choose to take mass transit ... And the worse the traffic becomes, the more appealing the alternatives become. I.e., everthing balances itself out given not increasing modes of transport in. Of course, the easier you can make it for people to come (for example, more trams, more buses, more subways, more bicycle lanes, more traffic lanes ... and more car parking), the more more people (poor and rich alike) get to have a choice as to which mode of transport they want.

BeyondDC, higher density may be more efficent, but it comes at a price. And in this case it comes at the price of destroying that very essense of DC which makes it so much more desireable than say Chicago ... The LIVABLE scale where you don't have to bend your neck back to enjoy the architecture ... where you can enjoy the sun and breezes in the air ... and lots of greenery, parks, and monumental vistas and monuments. Washington's strenghts lie in its low character .. where the monuments are really monumental because unlike in a city of skyscrapers, the monuments really ARE higher and 'bigger' than the regular buildings around them. It's not for everyone, but it is what Washington is. For example, looking at one neighborhood alone, just compare the area north of Dupont Circle with the area south of Dupont Circle, and ask yourself which is "Washington" to you ... and which is worth preserving. No, it's not efficient and not the best use of land ... But it's the nicest option. Man cannot always do what is the most effecient. For example, the Soviet blocks of apartment buildings which all looked alike and were made of concrete were efficient. But they weren't nice. And they certainly weren't 'human scale'. I'd rather see people fanning out for miles around from a central city so that they all can have that human scale, than to destroy here in the city for the sake of efficiency. Efficiency isn't always 'human'.

by Lance on Oct 2, 2009 10:38 pm • linkreport

very Red Lion Row-ish

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 2, 2009 11:27 pm • linkreport

higher density may be more efficent, but it comes at a price. And in this case it comes at the price of destroying that very essense of DC which makes it so much more desireable than say Chicago ... The LIVABLE scale where you don't have to bend your neck back to enjoy the architecture

I thought we disproved this myth. Which is denser, Paris or Chicago?

by цarьchitect on Oct 3, 2009 12:11 am • linkreport

Way to launch into a great straw man, Lance. I didn't say we should get rid of the height limit and start building skyscrapers. I just said the developers of this downtown property ought to build up to the height limit.

If you honestly think one or two additional floors is going to suddenly turn DC into Chicago, then I question your sanity.

by BeyondDC on Oct 7, 2009 11:15 am • linkreport

PS: Sorry to grave-dig. I didn't see all these new responses back when we were actually talking about it.

by BeyondDC on Oct 7, 2009 11:16 am • linkreport

The comment that Paris is denser than Chicago with a uniform height of 6 stories is significant as Paris and Washington were planned much alike and are similar monumental verdant cities. Paris would look like crap if it were all 12 stories and the parts of DC that are uniformly 12 stories look like crap. Paris learned after one tall building and excluded future tall buildings to the near-in suburbs, much like is fortunately happening here.

Relying on the simplistic notion of building ever taller to get density is a cheat. Residential density has to do with zoning and occupancy. The majority of townhouses in inner DC are 2000 to 4000 square feet and limited to two or three units. Many 4000 sq. foot townhouses are occupied by a single person as a result of the price of a single house being the same as a new condo of less than 1000 sq. feet.

To get greater residential density we simply need to encourage more units in townhouses and the addition of a setback roof unit. A 4000 sq. foot townhouse with a 500 sq foot roof unit could house up to NINE 500 sq foot units, 9 times the density we have now with no visible difference to the street scape.

BTW- This project is taking a parcel reserved for high density residential and allowing it to go to other use with just a special exception instead of a variance. That appalls me. Areas planned for high-density residential should be more protected.

I'm glad the opponents seem to have gotten the developer to cave on half the parking and turn half the garage into function rooms.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 7, 2009 1:48 pm • linkreport

A rear yard is required for this property I checked out DC zoning for this SP1 district. The owner of this property is in luck however! The narrow alley behind this N Street property widens considerably (varies maybe 25 to 45 feet). Based on the height of the hotel, I belive the minimum rear yard width of 12' would apply. As the zoing rules allow one half of the width of the alley to account for part or all of the rear yard of a property in an SP1 district, the building (hotel or whatever) can be built to the property line in this case as the rear yard (required 12 feet) may easily occur in the alley. As an actual fact the alley gives this propery a larger than required rear yard. I will also note that the purpose of the rear yard is to provide light and air to the adjacent properties. So this project is giving more light than the zoning rules require. The properties to the east of the propose hotel have a much narrower alley. As a result, the rear yard of those buildings (hotel or whatever) must be set back from the property alley line. I'm not saying its right, but I will say this Owner and his team are playing by the rules for this project.

by Zoning Expert on Oct 21, 2009 9:34 pm • linkreport

PS Does anyone know who the architects for this project are?

by Zoning Expert on Oct 21, 2009 9:40 pm • linkreport

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