Opinion: Developer’s Plan for SunTrust Site Violates Law

by Borderstan Contributor August 18, 2016 at 3:00 pm 47 Comments

SunTrust bank

Borderstan periodically publishes opinion pieces from our readers. Have something you want to share with Borderstan’s readers? Email us at [email protected].

by JonMarc Buffa

The proposed SunTrust plaza redevelopment by PN Hoffman is one of the most significant and consequential developments in Adams Morgan. However, the project clearly violates the law — both zoning regulations and historic preservation guidelines — and so must be significantly redesigned.

The project will forever transform the prominent corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW — the gateway to Adams Morgan. The project has rightly garnered significant media coverage and has energized neighbors unlike any project in memory. Many commentators have been very vocal when debating the merits of the SunTrust plaza’s public space. Undoubtedly, the SunTrust plaza is an important space and deserves protection. Yet, the debate over the future of the plaza has overshadowed the other important legal issues at stake here.

As one of the members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission representing Adams Morgan (ANC 1C), I strongly support thriving development and economic growth in Adams Morgan. I am committed to ensuring that any development project is undertaken in a thoughtful manner that respects the special character of our community, which the citizens of Adams Morgan have strived so hard to build.

I challenge those who have simply portrayed this debate as a choice between pro-development and anti-development forces. The community, led by ANC 1C, has engaged in a deliberate, comprehensive and inclusive process that will hopefully lead to a win-win scenario that delivers a building whose scale and height complies with the law, protects a substantial portion of the plaza for public use and delivers a successful project for the developer. These goals are not mutually exclusive. If PN Hoffman meaningfully engages with the community and is open to creative solutions, we can correct the myriad of legal infirmities with the project, namely its excessive height and disproportionately massive scale.

One of the most consequential elements of Adams Morgan is its historic structures and historic districts. The project is located within the Washington Heights Historic District, and so must be built in conformity with historic preservation guidelines. As explained at length in the detailed formal resolution of ANC 1C, the proposed height and scale of the project clearly violates historic guidelines.

The project will tower over all of its adjacent buildings and is fundamentally out of character with the neighboring structures in the Washington Heights Historic District. The project is significantly taller than its adjacent neighbors and is about 10 times the width of the existing neighboring buildings. The project proposes a scale that is significantly larger and visually incongruous in comparison to adjacent structures.

These substantive concerns were validated by the Historic Preservation Review Board — the D.C. government agency charged with ensuring that projects comply with D.C.’s historic preservation laws. At a hearing on the project, HPRB declined to approve the project. Instead, HPRB provided a detailed list of significant revisions that PN Hoffman must implement if they wish to win approval for the project.

Multiple HPRB members explained that the height, mass and scale of the building were so enormous as to be incongruous with existing neighboring structures. In fact, board member Joseph Taylor declared that the project ignored the “blood line” of 18th Street and needed to have its height significantly reduced in order to comply with historic preservation law. Similarly, board member Graham Davidson explained: “The 18th Street side is truly a problem, and the building is still far too big in comparison to the other buildings along the street.”

Also, PN Hoffman has inappropriately claimed that this project complies with D.C. zoning laws. However, the relevant zoning law doesn’t allow this project to be as tall or massive as the developer proposes because the project fails to meet the setbacks and rear-yard requirements of the zoning code. This has forced the project to seek zoning variances because it exceeds the zoning limits. (For more details, please read ANC 1C’s detailed resolution outlining the zoning violations of the project.) There are a number of pending developments adjacent to this site which are awaiting the outcome of this debate. If the project is built as proposed, it will establish a detrimental new benchmark for height and scale for future buildings on 18th Street, transforming a row dominated by two- to three-story rowhouses into a row dominated by massive apartment buildings.

All told, the project can and should be substantially redesigned to comply with the law. I remain hopeful that if the developer works constructively with the community and within the existing historical guidelines and zoning, we can have a win-win development at this monumental location in Adams Morgan. Our neighbors deserve nothing less!

Buffa is the commissioner for ANC 1C Single Member District 08 and chairman of the commission’s planning, zoning and transportation committee. He can be reached at [email protected].

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of either ANC 1C or Borderstan.

  • A

    oh god just shut up already. this is so ridiculous. Write a post actually detailing the legality. we dont need to hear about aesthetics.

    • aubreyms

      Yeah seriously, stop being so obstructive. What’s wrong with the thing and how soon can they fix the plans and start building?

  • nevermindtheend

    The SunTrust building may be in a historic district, but it is not a contributing structure. This post doesn’t in any way show that the plans are illegal.

  • DC_D

    Build it. Get rid of the SunTrust. Accept investment in the neighborhood. Worried about home values? They’ll continue to rise. The place will become more valuable. Want new homeowners to move in who can afford the homes? Build more housing. Prices don’t drop magically. Have to increase the stock.

    • selftitled85

      More housing is definitely needed. But if you think building a luxury apartment/condo building there is going to drop housing prices well then you are sadly mistaken.

      • Anon

        Developing that corner into luxury units would be a significant step in Adams Morgan’s march to become like Clarendon, sadly.

        • Not developing that corner would be a significant step in Adams Morgan’s march to become like Cleveland Park — stale, depressing, and filled with boring millionaires.

          • Payton Chung, you must always be winning fans by making fun of the communities you so called advocate for. Wow, ass.

      • dentro

        If you think low-end housing stock is going to be built as new construction, you’re crazy. Of course new construction is going to be luxury apartments/condos; new construction is a huge up-front cost that needs to be recouped and brand new things are generally more desirable. But every new upmarket unit built is pressure relieved on downmarket homes to be aggressively renovated into an upmarket home to capture the upmarket demand.

  • DC_D
  • Alan

    Your argument against this building has been flawed from the start. This piece does nothing to explain why the building violates zoning provisions nor does it provide any coherent argument as to why variances shouldn’t be issued. This isn’t a contributing structure to the district. We have a severe housing shortage in DC and this is a prime opportunity to help address that. I am very tired of your efforts, and those of others in your condo complex, to fight projects designed to expand housing and make DC more livable.

    • Anon

      Do we have a severe housing shortage? Boston has a housing shortage. San Francisco too. We’re talking about places where all but the very wealthy could never dream of owning property *anywhere in or near the city* due to a combination of high density and opposition to new development. DC is positively swimming in housing of all description by comparison, and the building boom of the past decade (NoMA, etc.) is partly to thank for that. It’s OK to take the foot off the gas pedal now.

      If we’re really worried about availability of housing in DC, let’s look at making affordable neighborhoods safe and livable. Luxury development in one of the densest parts of the city is barely an improvement and it makes the neighborhood pricier.

  • Anon

    I really hope they keep the plaza. It’s a nice open space, and is aesthetically important because it keeps lines of sight open on that hill. If you block that corner off, Adams Morgan feels very different.

    • nevermindtheend

      No one seemed bothered by a building taking up the full footprint of the property when the Knickerbocker Theater was there.

      • Anon

        You bring up a good point — the snow hazard alone is reason enough to not further develop the space. We must learn from our predecessors.

  • Chinarye

    I live in Adams Morgan and I am tired of hearing about this damn plaza. It is an ugly concrete eyesore that is only used by pigeons. Good riddance. Can’t you people find better things to do? What is so bad about using the plaza DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET for the farmer’s market? The plaza and building are PRIVATE PROPERTY and the fact that they have even altered their plans means they are willing to compromise. Why can’t you? Sorry for using caps lock, but I feel that it’s really hard to get that message across to you NIMBYs.

    • Anon

      There is no plaza “DIRECTLY ACROSS FROM THE STREET.” There is sidewalk in front of businesses, with no seating. Do you really live in Adams Morgan? How often are you around? I live here and work from home, and see people using the plaza *all the time*, mostly waiting for the bus, but there is also the farmer’s market. If across the street were an alternative, you’d see people there. Which is not the case.

      • nevermindtheend

        He means kitty corner and you know it. If you stand in the plaza and look directly across the intersection there’s another plaza.

        • Anon

          What? That’s what I’m saying. None of the other three corners are plazas by any description.

          • nevermindtheend

            So you’ve never noticed the plaza in front of BB&T bank where there are often concerts?

          • Anon

            Yes I’ve noticed it, and it’s what I was referring to originally, it’s a large sidewalk. There is nowhere to sit or any distinguishing feature. By contrast, the SunTrust plaza, which is bland at best, is a masterpiece of urban planning, if for its functionality alone.

          • Chinarye

            A “large sidewalk” big enough to handle summer rock concerts can handle a famers market.

          • SJ

            I thought the proposed plan from the developers does keep the plaza, with enhanced seating (both more seating and nicer seating). The bigger difference is the building that would replace the bank. The proposed building looks much more appropriate for a neighborhood gateway than the boxy, nondescript one story bank building.

          • David Koch

            Someone unclear on the meaning of “masterpiece.”

          • areia

            NE corner sure looks like just as much of a plaza to me…


      • Chinarye

        Are you blind to the big open plaza kitty corned from SunTrust or is your argument about semantics because I said it was across the street? When you have to counter argue with semantics, you know you have no ground to stand on. Just another tired old hippie with too much time on their hands. Move along, old timer.

  • Edward

    This post is the essence of knee-jerk NIMBYism. First, it lacks any factual information to substantiate the sweeping claims that the project is “illegal.” The property owner filed an application with HPRB and BZA. neither action is illegal. It’s, you know, actually the process as outlined by local law. The use of such hyperbole is nothing more than grand-standing. It isn’t a legitimate critique of the proposed plans and only serves to gin-up murmurs of protest based on baseless claims rather than voice legitimate criticisms of the plans.

    Second, wrapping oneself in the banner of “preserving character” is silly in the context of the actual property here. The bank branch is nothing to celebrate; it’s not a contributing resource. Why should this site be embalmed in amber? Historic preservation isn’t (or shouldn’t) be a tool to stop development. Here, it’s being invoked to stop this project. I’m unmoved by the strident concerns over height – there are tall buildings all along Columbia Road; just because this site has 18th Street frontage it needs to be 2-3 stories? Very arbitrary.

    Third, the post closes with a slippery slope argument which is 1) baseless 2) intellectually lazy. Oppose the project on its merits; push back on the height, materials, etc. Claiming that approval here will usher in a wave of “massive apartment buildings” makes the author look foolish and alarmist.

    The ‘outrage’ over this project is sad. There’s a massive plaza across the street that can easily accommodate a range of community uses, including the farmer’s market. The site is better served as housing with ground floor retail. It will create jobs and will include affordable housing.

  • WRD

    Step 1: Lobby for restrictive development laws that give existing neighbors influence in all development.

    Step 2: Grandfather in existing buildings

    Step 3: Profit!!

    What bullshit. Laws are designed to encourage positive outcomes (good policy). If this is “against the law,” the law itself should change.

  • Anon

    Adams Morgan is unsafe for families? That’s news to me. And yea, I’ll gladly pass on Clarendon’s vibrancy, as it were. It was OK fifteen years ago. Anyway I’m sure we’ll get our Apple Store and Pottery Barn just like Clarendon in no time. Then we will be “successful,” yay!

  • ryan

    Oh my goodness. Just shut up already.

  • ryan

    Unbelievably, this guy is a professor at Georgetown Law. Yet his post fails to show how this project would violate a single law.

  • NIMBYsmoveon

    Omg shut up already. These same NIMBYs were responsible for us losing a potential BnB on a beautiful historic property on 16th Street. Because of them we got a foreign embassy that removed all the trees and landscaping and covered the entire front with asphalt. We don’t want parking lots and concrete eyesores in our neighborhood. Stop destroying potential.

  • AdMo Home & Business Owner

    While variances are required to build the project as conceived to call it “violating the law” is hyperbolae. Doing so is headline grabbing instead of being accurate. Also, to suggest it is out of scale is wrong. Just look to the east and the hotel under construction at the Scientologist site that is much larger as well as across the street to the existing apartment building similarly scaled (or to many other buildings in the historic district). But then the resolution you referenced was drafted BEFORE the public meeting presentation so how would you know?

    What we need is greater density in Adams Morgan. We need more people. We also need better floor plates, if we are going to see improve retail. Retail follows, it doesn’t lead. Adams Morgan has the same crappy retail despite increases in population elsewhere in the District. We will not see a better streetscape until we increase our population and also have better retail spaces.

    The property under consideration is private property. Developed it benefits us all. Now it is an eye sour. Our ANC commissioners should be organizing crime watches and other meaningful activities, instead of retarding Adams Morgan.

  • dentro

    People need homes. Our economy needs them to be able to live and work here. Stop bending over backwards trying to find reason not to build them. You are making our city a worse place for your efforts.

  • scooterj2003

    Also, PN Hoffman has inappropriately claimed that this project complies with D.C. zoning laws ….This has forced the project to seek zoning variances because it exceeds the zoning limits.

    I think Mr Buffa is being intentionally deceptive with language like this. The zoning laws allow the developer to seek a variance. So the project does actually comply with zoning laws.

    It looks like Mr Buffa plans to run for an ANC spot this November, however, I won’t be voting for him after this. Even in its original form, this project would be a tremendous improvement over what’s there now.

  • Doug Johnson

    Unbelievable. I think its clear that our ANC is completely out of touch with what the MAJORITY of the community wants.

    • TheDistrict

      Then stop complaining and run for office if you aren’t happy with those in office.

      • Doug Johnson

        I have been a commissioner in the past. So I am not just complaining.

  • Dan

    Commercially, Adams Morgan is a dying neighborhood. This knee jerk NIMBYism is why.

    • Borderstan


      Andrew Ramonas
      Co-Editor Borderstan

  • a

    Love how the author couldnt be bothered to answer any of hte comments…..truly tone death

  • #Suntrust has a neighborhood agreement on the plaza. The public has been using the space for 40+ years. It has important historical context as far as racism and classism and the fight of Adams Morgan residents against it. The proposed condo will not be for families, it is a glorified dormitory made out of stick and plastic. http://www.saveourplaza.wordpress.com

    • The developer is Monty Hoffman, of PN Hoffman fame. This is the same developer
      who was gifted acres and acres of prime waterfront property at the Wharf
      in Southwest for $100, land that was made public through eminent domain
      and essentially given away by the city, among other deals around the
      city. https://apps.npr.org/deals-for-developers-wamu/

      • The “purchase price” is meaningless. Hoffman is also building, with $0 cash outlay from DC, 14 acres of parks and public spaces (including a mile-long 60′ wide riverwalk and parallel 10′ wide bike trail), 30% affordable housing (half of which is at public-housing affordability levels), and a rebuilt and raised seawall. Those all cost real money, and have real public benefits.

        • Monty Hoffman paid $100 for land worth about a 1billion, land that was purchased for significant sums by the city. Housing units (mostly for single professionals) sold/rented at 50-80% AMI is not public housing. And, so OK I’ll build some parks and a river walkway for my condo owners
          who just paid me $1million dollars for 2500 square feet. Do the math Payton Chung before looking totally like a developer shill guised behind so-called “smart-growth.”

          • Ah, the “shill” accusation, every conspiracy theorist’s favorite logical fallacy! Meanwhile, I wasn’t aware that you were a land appraisal professional.

  • Oreo123

    I would be interested to know when these people use this plaza, APART from Farmers Market? I have walked by dozens of times and have only seen people waiting for the bus and sleeping outside of the bank. If you practice what you preach and you really use the plaza then let it show.


Subscribe to our mailing list