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Mistrust muddles Tenleytown Safeway debate

A week ago, some Tenleytown residents received letters discussing the project to rebuild the Safeway at Davenport and 42nd Street, and asking residents to sign reply cards in support of the project.

Image from Safeway.

The letters came from Safeway or a Safeway representative. Safeway hasn't exactly explained what they intended to do with the card, but it appears that Safeway and Venator simply wish to hedge their bets against vocal opposition. A stack of paper and a polished graphic of neighborhood support could prove the existence of a silent majority favoring the project, with some of the area's vocal opponents to all development getting in the way.

Now, that strategy alone would be a cautious and defensive practice for a company. Considering that the Cleveland Park Giant has been under review for nearly half my life, I can sympathize with their fears of endless fighting. However, according to posts on the Tenleytown listserv and offline as well, it has come out that Safeway excluded the people who live nearby from the mailing. The people who live on the block, and who would be most affected by any changes, got no voice in that survey. Considering that there was no way to say "No" on the card, again, the only reasons why Safeway wouldn't send it out to the residents that are known critics are that the answer is a forlorn foregone conclusion, or that they did not want to incite opponents further. The Northwest Current quotes spokesman for the company, Craig Muckle, as saying the omission was an oversight.

To be completely honest, I'm pretty split over whether this action was reasonable but defensive or an example of disrespectful cunning. At meetings of ANC 3E, which represents residents on the western side of Tenleytown and all of Friendship Heights, vocal transit-oriented denialists can bring to bear a disproportionate influence on decisions. However, critics of the project include people who want more building or just a shorter one; opponents are not necessarily opposed to the current project. Some residents worry about the effect of large, blank walls abutting their townhouses. In fact, when presented with their concerns, the Board of Zoning Adjustment Zoning Commission told Safeway to modify the building in response to resident concerns over shadows and massing.

While no wrongdoing has occurred in a legal sense, Safeway may have breached the public trust in going around the public Zoning Commission hearings. Safeway has touted the successful integration of their stores into neighborhoods and their outreach to neighbors. So far, they had done an exemplary job, proposing a fine urban structure, submitting to the public process for a planned-unit development, and presenting a good amount of information to the public. Safeway could have built a multistory building as-of-right with no discussion.

Jon Bender, the ANC 3E chair, is trying to broker a deal, and he's suggesting progress in the right direction. He has mentioned a compromise of a multistory structure on 42nd Street, stepping down into townhouses nearby. That would be an ideal resolution: to not only ameliorate the impact on the community, but also to make it better for the greater city and environment by adding some reasonable density. Whether Bender's plan has any more support than the current one will come out at the ANC meeting tonight. Hopefully, with that discussion, Safeway and the residents can continue to work together to find a reasonable compromise for Tenleytown's future.

ANC 3E will discuss the Safeway at their meeting tonight, 7:30 pm at St. Mary's Church, 42nd and Fessenden Streets.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.  


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Think you meant forgone conclusion. That might make the neighbors forlorn. Thanks for the piece.

by HM on Nov 5, 2009 1:53 pm • linkreport

The set down hearing was before the Zoning Commission, not the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

That said, the Alliance for Rational Development has already publicly staked its support for this one-story suburban grocery store on Wisconsin Avenue located between the Friendship Heights and Tenleytown Metro stations. The zoning for commercial portion of the property allows for, I believe, 50 feet of vertical development.

Given the broader Smart Growth issues associates with building low, the potential for a brokered deal by Commissioner Bender would be a terrific enhancement for both the city, the community and especially the immediate neighbors.

Now, how to get Safeway off the dime?

by Andrew on Nov 5, 2009 2:03 pm • linkreport

Yesterday was the DDOT Open House for the DC streetcar proposal, where there was much support for a streetcar line up Wisconsin Avenue. If we want to see a line up this corridor, Tenley residents need to support higher density development near existing transit infrastructure to provide the ridership to make such a route viable. A development that includes both a store and new residential will support this goal.

by Ben on Nov 5, 2009 2:14 pm • linkreport

Not sure what you mean by "... fine urban structure..." This proposal is nothing more than mediocre suburban design -- a single use, one level box with surface parking. I can't see how more of the same auto-oriented development enhances the neighborhood or how even a nod to LEED in a PUD application might counterbalance building in this manner when you could have a decent TOD in this location.

by Ron Eichner on Nov 5, 2009 2:22 pm • linkreport

I'll go out on a limb and predict that the reactionary Tenleytown ANC will oppose any changes to the Safeway, yet demand a brand-new Safeway.

by Fritz on Nov 5, 2009 2:26 pm • linkreport

It's fine, as in passable, in that it's not detrimental to the area, as the current one is. It's sub-optimal, but Safeway's physical and conceptual 180 degree shift of the store should be encouraged.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 5, 2009 2:27 pm • linkreport

Ron- this building would have an open, inviting entrance on 42nd Street and most of the surface parking lot would be covered. These are improvements from the current property with its large blank wall and large setback from 42nd Street. That said, I agree with you that this building should include new residential development. The parcel is only a five minute walk from the Tenley metro station and less than a ten minute walk from the Friendship Heights metro station.

by Ben on Nov 5, 2009 2:34 pm • linkreport


The ANC Chair is trying to broker a deal for vertical development on the parcel. This isn't you father's ANC.

by Andrew on Nov 5, 2009 2:46 pm • linkreport

Neil, I 'm sorry, but it is neither fine nor passable. From a smart growth or good urban design point of view it is just lipstick on a pig. This area could and should be redeveloped as a walkable, mixed-use, transit oriented neighborhood focused on the Metro station. To replace a suburban-style grocery store with a newer and shiner suburban-style grocery store is detrimental, no matter where the entrance is. Why set the bar so low?

by Ron Eichner on Nov 5, 2009 2:52 pm • linkreport

it is 'disrespectful' and 'crude'. you don't send them to the people who would be most affected because that would be decent. but we know corporations are not in the decency business.

Safeway didn't count on organizations like GGW being able to publicize a disreputable act like this. They know that WaPo and other dailies won't cover it critically, because Safeway owns them -- with heaps of ad money throughout the year.

I'd like to see the letter and all accompanying cards, signatures, etc.

and, in general, i'd like to see far more support -- out the box/automatically -- for non-corporations. normal human beings don't have all the power, rights, and privileges of corporations -- we do not get to live and accumulate wealth and power forever, so how about a little more support for human beings instead of corporations?

in austin, texas, the black star pub coop is about to announce the opening of their brick-and-mortar location -- it will be a worker-owned and controlled coop, not just a wacky consumer coop. that means it will bring the best of democratic principles to the table, including a healthy, built-in respect for the dignity of those who live closest to the pub. those who live closest to the pub will actually get a member-level vote on how the coop carries out its business, even if they are not member-owners. this is just common sense, but it's also being decent -- having enough respect for human beings to say, "Yes -- you matter, democracy matters, decency matters."

We should tell Safeway to go away and we'll build our own grocery coop instead. There are plenty of examples all over the US. Better, it looks like DC doesn't have any yet. Let's create the first of many.

by Peter Smith on Nov 5, 2009 3:23 pm • linkreport

Having lived in that neighborhood, my bet is that the very vocal "we hate any development" folks will keep anything from happening. It's a shame that Wisconsin Avenue with it's fixed transit infrastucture in place hasn't grown in density to further support more retail and services coming to our neighborhood. I really wish sometimes that some of these opponents to development would just move to the suburbs where they can have their strip malls and parking lots they love so dearly.

by scott on Nov 5, 2009 4:47 pm • linkreport

Am I reading this right-- the ANC chair is trying to adjust the proposal to include more density than the property owner wants? I've never heard of that happening before.

by Josh B on Nov 5, 2009 9:49 pm • linkreport

Josh B, you are reading that correctly.

scott, the Alliance for Rational Development has already proclaimed its support for this project, presumably because it is only a one-story rebuild of what already exists. Presumably they would oppose a matter of right development that had three or four stories of residential atop the grocery store. Maybe not, but unless the community pushes Safeway for something more urban and environmentally responsible, we will never know!

by Andrew on Nov 5, 2009 10:14 pm • linkreport

I'm that Jon Bender guy, and just saw this article. I'm glad to see GGW spending quality time with this subject. Nonetheless, I want to say that the phrase "broker a deal" in the article is perhaps unduly optimistic.

I think what Safeway currently proposes is unacceptable, and close to the worst of all worlds from a design perspective. It's a big box, suburban style store with some (arguably) urbanist cosmetics. The big box backs right up to a bunch of homes and puts a 30+ foot tall wall where the sky used to be.

Safeway -- or somebody -- could build up near Wisconsin, pull the building back from the adjacent neighbors, and have more economic activity at the site with less burden on the neighbors. I urged Safeway at the ANC meeting tonight to do this, as did two of my colleagues, Sam Serebin and Matt Frumin (which makes 3 out 5 commissioners). Most of the adjacent neighbors also said that, in principle, building up instead of out could work for them (details naturally would matter).

To "broker a deal," however, requires the party on the other side to be open to a deal, and we haven't yet seen much demonstrable openness to change from Safeway. "Pressing the idea" is probably more accurate phrasing.

There's much more to say, but GGW probably pays Neil Flanagan as much to do his job as DC pays me to do my ANC job, so I may wait for Neil's article on tonight's meeting to see whether I need to add anything.

Oh, and here's a link to the ZC initial hearing, which for urbanist geeks like me, at least, is quite interesting:

by Jon Bender on Nov 6, 2009 12:21 am • linkreport


I admit it's way too optimistic. I might put up observations on my personal blog, but I don't think the meeting warrants specific information here. The content was pretty important, so I'll definitely be applying a lot of what I learned in any future coverage.

Ron: Some parts of the building I thought were fine have shown themselves to be much different when I looked at a hard copy of the renderings, or when neighbors explained complaints in more detail. So, eschewing Palinesquities, it's not anything near appropriate development.

I found it amusing to hear the rep mention that they earned LEED Silver certification. 1) That's achievable with practically no real environmental mitigation, and 2) that's BS, it takes months to get LEED certified for new construction after you've finished the building and certainly not before putting shovels in the ground.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 6, 2009 12:43 am • linkreport

I would have to agree that it's passable aesthetically etc. and I even like the broken corner move. That being said it should be designed with future development in mind if there's not the political will to make it happen today much like the NYC Herald building of yore. Over design the columns to take another 6-7 stories or whatever and in due time a deveopler could buy the air-rights and build the housing above that should be there today.

In the future it will become less and less possible for lawyered up neighborhoods to retain their Mayberry posture in the face of an ever expanding metropolitain area. We're all going to have to give something up for the greater good (and greater Washington:)

by Thayer-D on Nov 6, 2009 4:17 am • linkreport

I lived next to this Safeway for years. Just horrible!

I once spotted Bill Clinton shopping at this sad sad grocery, with his daughter a couple years ago on thanksgiving day.

This place needs to be demolished and start over.

The size of the surface parking lock is obscene considering the location. What's funny is if you stand in the parking lock and watch the people, more than half of them are not actually shopping at the Safeway, they are are just walking back to their apartments on Wisconsin Ave. At least half of the people that are shopping are walking here, not driving.

The parking is so bad here I sold my car.

by Lee Watkins on Nov 6, 2009 8:41 am • linkreport

I don't think that what Safeway did was wrong -- they reached out to neighbors who were beyond the 250 ft (or whatever it is) radius that leads to automatic notification of a project -- it's not like they reached out to households a mile or two away -- we're talking about the distance of a couple of blocks here, judging from listserv posts. And the nearest neighbors haven't, in any way, been "excluded" from the conversation (nor is what Safeway sent out a "survey"). In fact, Safeway's mailing prompted more conversation among neighbors -- including some outreach from the closest to explain their objections to the project (objections that suggest that they'd be even more opposed to what the ANC chair is advocating.)

by Z on Nov 6, 2009 8:56 am • linkreport

Giant isn't in Cleveland Park

by Jim on Nov 6, 2009 8:59 am • linkreport

I've uploaded a scan of the letter, that Jon kindly forwarded to me.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 6, 2009 12:14 pm • linkreport

To anonymous poster Z (whose identity I can narrow to about three people):

I met with adjacent neighbors, and they agree that what I suggest is (a) an acceptable option, and (b) far preferable to what Safeway is proposing. There may be other options individual neighbors would prefer to the "build up rather than out" option, but none that Safeway has proposed.

Consider how "ARD," "CSTO," "FNA," "TNA," "FHORD," and the rest of the alphabet soup of groups made up primarily of 10 or 20 of the same people would react to the following hypothetical:

Safeway was proposing to build a ten-story mixed-use building, and (1) ANC members told Safeway they opposed it in its current form (2) neighbors told Safeway they opposed it in its current form (3 ) Zoning Commission members told Safeway they opposed it in its current form (4) Safeway represented that it was reviewing its entire plan in light of all the objections raised, and, yet (5) four days after the Zoning Commissioners conveyed their displeasure to Safeway, and Safeway announced it was going back to the drawing board, the company or its surrogates urged (selected) residents to lobby the ANC and the Zoning Commission to support the company's plan in its current form.

I, and I suspect most of this blog's readers, can confidently predict the answer.

As to your claim about "the conversation," there was no attempt by Safeway to hold a conversation with the recipients of the letter in question. The letter sought no feedback nor provided any opportunity to transmit any feedback except for unconditional support. Likewise, Safeway's actions didn't provoke conversation among the neighbors, they provoked outrage.

by Jon Bender on Nov 6, 2009 12:33 pm • linkreport

Don't forget the Organization for Modern, Feasible Growth and Better Building Quality, or OMFGBBQ.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 6, 2009 2:09 pm • linkreport

Neil: You should totally start a local group with that name. :)

by David Alpert on Nov 6, 2009 2:12 pm • linkreport

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