Change We Can Believe In: Not on 17th Street

by Borderstan.com September 8, 2011 at 10:00 am 1,541 10 Comments

Stephen Rutgers, Urban Neighorhood Alliance

Stephen Rutgers

The following column is from Stephen Rutgers, vice president of the Urban Neighborhood Alliance and Co-Chair of the 17th Street Festival. Borderstan is a member of the UNA and among the sponsors of the Festival. We welcome similar columns — you can reach us at [email protected].

The Zoning Committee of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B held a forum Tuesday night on the residential building proposed for 17th and O Streets NW. Both Greater Greater Washington and the City Paper‘s Housing Complex blog have reports.

From Stephen Rugters. You can email him at [email protected]. Follow UNA on Twitter @unadc.

Since the recent debt crisis ended there seems to be a lot of dissatisfaction with how the way Washington operates and how certain sides never want to find a middle ground and compromise. Since getting involved in the neighborhood a year ago, I have come to see a similar parallel in our own neighborhood.

The 17th Street Corridor is a unique and diverse neighborhood and, in my opinion, is one of the finest in the city. However, there seems to be a never ending divide of residents fighting any expansion or new project that will benefit the neighborhood. It’s not only splitting neighbors, but will eventually damage the success of our local businesses.

We need to come together and support the First Baptist Church’s plans for a residential building at 17th and O Streets NW.

17th Street NW, First Baptist Church of Washington,

The parking lot of the First Baptist Church of Washington at the southeast corner of 17th and O Streets NW. The buildings on Massachusetts are commercial. The church is to the east of the lot and fronts on 16th Street. (Luis Gomez Photos)

I became co-chair of the 17th Street Festival last year to complete 500 hours of work experience needed for my Masters Degree from The George Washington University. During this process I saw first hand the division in the community and the fighting that was occurring in the neighborhood.

As my love for the neighborhood grew, it opened my eyes to the greatness the neighborhood could be and made me more passionate to make it better. After seeing the issues first hand I helped found the Urban Neighborhood Alliance with both business owners and residents.

Our hope is to bring change, bridge the gap and rid the community of the divide between the businesses and the resident. This is not unique to the 17th Street corridor. Talk to those on Capitol Hill or along H Street NE and you’ll find common factors. While we have seen this to be difficult for President Obama on the Hill, it has been equally as difficult on 17th Street and around our city. We are making progress, but it of course has not come without a fight.

First Baptist Church of Washington, 17th Street NW

The view toward the northwest from the parking lot at 17th and O Streets NW. The 17th Street buildings in the view are residential. (Luis Gomez Photos)

17th and O Project Illustrates Divide

The First Baptist Church of Washington on 16th Street NW is proposing to build a nine-story, 228-unit apartment building on the site of its parking lot on the corner of 17th and O Streets NW. Not only will it get rid of a hideous 36-spot parking lot, it will bring a new influx of residents into the neighborhood which will translate to customers for our local businesses.

Unfortunately, a small group or residents are objecting the project and, once again, the issues being raised were far from factual. Instead of working with the business proposing the plan (in this case one of our local churches) some of our residents will fight it until the bitter end. Doesn’t this sound like Washington? Instead of working together some are more worried about having a “W” instead of an “L”, but in reality should be worried about getting a “C” for compromising.

This new building will not only bring in a new influx of residents into the neighborhood, but these residents will start shopping, eating and become customers to the more than 50 businesses along 17th Street. From our fabulous restaurants, bars, and other small businesses these businesses would love the extra business. This project will also provide continued financial support to the First Baptist Church of Washington which houses multi-use community space for the neighborhood.

Concerns Based on Facts?

While I fully support businesses and residents raising concerns over proposed project, I do hope that these claims are truthful and factual. One of the concerns raised is that the building is going to turn into a “dorm” for students and young adults.

It is important to note that the John Hopkins and SAIS campuses next to the proposed building only have graduate students. Most of them work full time or part-time in addition to going to school. Moreover, most GW students would not live in this building as most live on campus in Foggy Bottom for all four years.

As a recent graduate of both my Bachelors and Masters degrees from The George Washington University, I question the assumption that all young 20-somethings have no interest in investing in their neighborhood and building. There seems to be this perception that if young adults move into the neighborhood we will turn into the next Adams Morgan or Georgetown.

Diversity and Age Stereotypes

The one thing about 17th Street is that we have young, old, straight, gay, single, married, and everything else in-between. This community needs to accept everyone because we all bring something unique to this neighborhood.

This notion that one generation is going to ruin things is unjustified and an awful stereotype. Whether or not the church is allowed to proceed, there will always be noise as this is city living from both young and old. After talking to Keener-Squire Management I learned that they do not want their residents being bothered either, and noise complaints are unacceptable in any of the buildings they manage around the city.

Rooftops and Noise

The other main complaint is that there is a proposed rooftop common area for residents. As a resident of a building with a rooftop deck for residents, I have never once heard noise — either in my apartment or on the street from people on the deck.

There is more ground noise from cars and pedestrians driving by then anything else. The proposed rooftop, like most in the city, would have closing times to help prevent any loud noise late at night. Keener-Squire has already redesigned the rooftop to help block any noise that may come from the roof, and will continue to work to fix that concern. While this is a fair item to bring up, this does not need to be an issue, as the management company will deal with any noise complaint and rarely has issue with this at any of their other building with rooftop common areas.

Make Building Work for Everyone

While people should and will raise issues with new projects along 17th Street and across the city, it is my hope that instead of starting an all out war against any proposal we come together as a community and work together in making the proposal work for everyone. Keener-Squire has already gone back to the drawing board to help ease concerns in the community. I commend them for willing to be open to changes and listening.

We all need to be more involved and let the neighborhood know we are ready for the change not only our country needs, but 17th Street.

  • cathy

    i would love to see this project happen! that parking lot is unattractive and generally throws off the pleasant pedestrian experience up and down 17th.

  • As a 20-something living (renting) one block from the proposed site, I agree with each of your points. Valid concerns should be aired and addressed – there are processes for this and builders can and do respond to resident pressures.

    Don’t prevent the neighborhood from improving over such unfounded fears as rooftop noise and increased foot traffic. A crappy parking lot over new neighbors, more tax payers, and a better walk between Mass Ave and Trio Fox & Hounds? I vote for the 200+ units.

  • David

    As a nearby resident (P & 17th), I fully support this project. Urban neighborhoods benefit from more density. Plus, surface parking lots, like the one to be replaced, are eyesores and a very poor use of valuable land. It’s never fun living through a large construction project, but in the end we will all benefit from the new residents and increased business this will bring to the neighborhood.

  • This is a SUPERB piece. I’ve become accustomed to being disgusted by a common rhetorical posture in the neighborhood, that has been deployed against this proposed project. I’ve heard time and again that younger residents, and/or renters, aren’t engaged or invested in the neighborhood. This piece above, by a newer and younger resident, disproves the intolerant stereotype. I’ll also note that objectors to the project peddled messages before the ANC that were dismissive of renters in our neighborhood…earning a rebuke from at least one of the renters who serve on ANC2B.

    At any time, but particularly in an enduring recession, I’m amazed at the obstructionist cliques that endure in the greater Dupont Circle neighborhood. Construction equals jobs. New residential units will equal additions to the tax base, and to support for independent retail nearby. The list is long of municipalities and neighborhoods nationwide that would beg for this “threat.”

    Logic holds no sway against the obstructionists, of course. The agita over parking ratios for this building ignore that only 69 parking spaces are provided for the Chastleton, for example.

    The building will be built, the neighborhood and city will benefit for decades to come, and the obstructionists will pivot their sour rhetoric and time-sink skills onto a new target.

  • BobInDC

    Thank you for including the two photos of the parking lot and surrounding buildings. It’s obvious that this new building will be a perfect fit for the neighborhood.

    Based on the hysteria being conjured up by opponents, you might think that the blocks around the parking lot were nothing but single-family cottages, sheep pastures and a nice lake stocked with trout.

  • Jack Jacobson

    Thank you for writing this article, Stephen. It’s important to bring some common sense to this discussion, which has been riddled with falsehoods and entitlement claims (i.e. Our building was here first, so we’re the only ones who should have a say.)

    The most disturbing argument that I’ve heard time and time again is that the building will house students and young people. DC law prohibits ANY form of discrimination, including based on age or employment status. It’s just the same as discriminating based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. We need to be more realistic and accepting of ALL individuals in our neighborhood, not just those that look like us/earn as much as we do/etc.

    Disclosure: I serve on the UNA board with Stephen.

  • Jupo

    Excellent article, thanks.

    I agree that there is a real obstructionist attitude from some neighbors which makes growth and improvement very challenging. It is unfortunate that some folk’s are so change averse.

    However, at the risk of sounding like a loon, I kind of like that little parking lot. I understand that it may not be the prettiest or most financially advantageous use of the land, but it’s nice to have occasional open spaces along streets – not just a solid wall of building facades. But that’s just me.

  • Hugo B Lystic

    I could not disagree more with the opinions expressed here. Whether or not a high density residential building is appropriate for that location is debatable. But I get especially angry when this type of pro-growth mentality with no consideration to the larger impact on the quality of life issues tries to masquerade as “can’t we all just get along” phoniness. As a long time resident of the neighborhood, I have witnessed developers time and time again take advantage of the neighborhood through broken promises and ill-conceived over-development. Anyone who thinks a developer has any motive other than maximal profit is fooling her/himself.

    • We invite you to submit a column detailing your concerns and giving examples of projects and buildings you cite in your comment, i.e., ones that have caused problems in the area. You can reach me at [email protected]. — The Editor

    • Note the rhetorical posture of “Hugo”: invokes long-time residency, slams a differing opinion in the neighborhood as “phoniness,” and wags his finger to warn that developers are…newsflash…business concerns.

      It’s all centered on a patronizing viewpoint. The shorter-term resident, in Hugo’s world, is either naive or peddling “phoniness.”

      Well, I’m a long-time resident too, and I’ve dealt with enough negotiations between developers and the community, and yet I could not disagree more with “Hugo’s” reflexive opposition to this patently normal in-fill of a vacant urban space with a new building, new residents for the city’s tax base, and new customers for local (esp. independently-owned) retail nearby.

      Newer viewpoints are valid too, Hugo, and countless long-time residents are also allowed to hold a differing opinion.


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