Saturday, September 29, 2018

After Meridian International wins zoning exceptions, residents look to rezone lot

Lilah Burke,

Adams Morgan ANC backs latest effort against eight-story project on 16th Street NW

The Meridian International Center's development partner, Westbrook Partners, is seeking to build an eight-story building that would include 111 apartments as well as office space and a new conference center for the nonprofit diplomacy organization. (Rendering by Perkins Eastman DC from the developer's Board of Zoning Adjustment submission)

The Meridian International Center has been planning for redevelopment of a plot of land on its 16th Street NW campus for the past seven years. But despite the forward momentum gained this summer, a newly organized group of residents is gearing up with zoning maneuvers in the hope of limiting the project’s size.
The advocacy group, called Keep Meridian Hill Green, filed papers in August in an attempt to scale down the zoning for the land, which could present a potential hitch for plans to add a new eight-story, mixed-use building to the parcel directly across from historic Meridian Hill Park.
This is just the latest battle in the ongoing saga to redevelop 2300 16th St., an area that’s now a walled-off parking lot with some trees. Meridian has a contract to sell the land to its development partner, Westbrook Partners, which has revised its designs several times over the years in response to neighborhood objections and city input.

The proposed building, shown from the perspective of 16th and Belmont streets NW, won DC Board of Zoning Adjustment approval in July, but a neighborhood group is asking the Zoning Commission to change the site’s zoning based on a designation in the DC Comprehensive Plan. (Rendering by Perkins Eastman DC from the developer’s Board of Zoning Adjustment submission)

The latest proposal calls for 111 apartment units, as well as office space and a new conference center for Meridian, a nonprofit public diplomacy [JB emphasis] organization. Meridian says the developer’s building would help fund upkeep of its two campus mansions — both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places — while the conference center would fill a need for modern space to accommodate meetings and other events.
Meridian made zoning progress with its plans in July despite organized opposition, winning a special exception from the DC Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) that allows for some flexibility. But now Keep Meridian Hill Green has filed a petition with the DC Zoning Commission to rezone Meridian’s entire lot area into an “R-2” designation, which would only allow for buildings up to four floors. The case is awaiting input from the DC Office of Planning.
The residents’ argument hinges on a discrepancy between two maps that control DC land use — the zoning map and the Comprehensive Plan’s Future Land Use Map (FLUM). While the zoning map allows a nine-story building on part of the lot, the FLUM envisions only a low-rise development. “According to D.C. law, when a discrepancy like this exists, the FLUM controls and the Zoning Map must be amended,” the petition says.
“Our concerns are around lawful development,” said Gary Youngblood, chair of Keep Meridian Hill Green. “What we want to do is make sure that all the laws are followed in any development that’s going to happen.”
Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau has disputed claims that the project violates the Comprehensive Plan, based on her consultations with Eric Shaw, the director of the Office of Planning. In a letter to an ANC 1C commissioner, Shaw said that his agency and others had verified compliance with the Comprehensive Plan prior to the review by the BZA, even though proceedings there do not address consistency between the zoning map and the Future Land Use Map.

The proposed project would occupy the eastern edge of the Meridian International Center campus, which is currently the site of a parking lot surrounded by trees on three sides. (Site plan by Perkins Eastman DC from the developer’s Board of Zoning Adjustment submission)

As to the project’s impact, Youngblood said that the concerns of his group’s individual members are varied. “Some people are very concerned with tree law and the trees in the area that will be killed or moved. And there are some people concerned with congestion,” he said. The group’s petition had 284 electronic signatures as of Sept. 25.
Some in the neighborhood, including Greater Greater Washington contributing writer Jeb Stenhouse, have countered that housing people in a dense, centrally located neighborhood like Adams Morgan is more environmentally friendly than pushing growth out to an auto-centric suburb.
The downzoning proposal has backing from the Adams Morgan advisory neighborhood commission, which has sought to block this development many times before. At its Sept. 5 meeting, ANC 1C passed a resolution supporting Keep Meridian Hill Green’s petition and asking the Zoning Commission to proceed with the case by scheduling a public hearing.
Over the years, opposition to the project from residents and the ANC has been wide in scope. In the past the commission has submitted a number of resolutions to the BZA, arguing that the development would negatively impact the noise level, traffic, character and parking in the community.
The resolutions adopted by the ANC have also argued that the Office of Planning did not look deeply enough into the impacts of the project during earlier reviews.
“We became concerned … that the Office of Planning really didn’t do any sort of impact studies,” said ANC member Amanda Fox Perry. “They were really mostly just depending on what the developer was telling them. And in terms of traffic they really just relied on what the developer’s traffic expert was saying.”
Ambassador Stuart Holliday, president and CEO of Meridian International Center, emphasized that the project has the support of some community members, noting that agreements are in place between six neighborhood residential groups and both Meridian and the land developer. In June, project planners signed an agreement with the Beekman Place Condominium Association, which represents the gated community next to the land in question. Planners committed to routing cars away from Belmont Street, which serves both properties.
“Obviously any kind of development or construction is disruptive, and we totally understand that,” Holliday said. “There have been concerns about obviously the traffic and volume of activity that may take place. [But] the traffic studies have been done and don’t bear out the concerns that have been raised.” And some concerns, he said, are based on inaccurate assumptions about Meridian and its plans.
While Holliday and others at Meridian were aware of the Keep Meridian Hill Green petition, they could not speak to how a rezoning might affect building plans.
Meridian has already won sign-off from the Historic Preservation Review Board on its architectural designs by Perkins Eastman, which are intended to complement the style of the Meridian Hill Historic District.
The Zoning Commission will not decide whether to proceed with a public hearing on the Keep Meridian Hill Green petition until the Office of Planning has weighed in with a recommendation.

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