Georgetown Current

Whole Foods Still Shut Amid Landlord Dispute

September 28, 2017

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

Glover Park is still without its Whole Foods Market, with the grocery store remaining locked in a heated legal battle with its landlords.

The 2323 Wisconsin Ave. NW store has been closed since March, after a D.C. Department of Health inspection found evidence of a persistent rodent infestation. Although the Health Department allowed Whole Foods to reopen, the company decided to voluntarily close and conduct more thorough remediation efforts.

But Whole Foods needed the permission of its landlord, Wical Limited Partnership, to get building permits for its project — which Wical refused to provide. The landlord then sought to terminate Whole Foods’ lease, saying the store violated a ban on closing for more than 60 days at a time. Whole Foods sued Wical in June over the issue.

At issue is what Whole Foods calls a contradictory lease, according to its filings in U.S. District Court. On the one hand, the store can’t be closed for more than 60 days at a time. But at the same time, the lease requires Whole Foods to “keep the property clean and free of pests and operate the store in accordance with the same standards of quality as it does in similar stores” — and the grocery chain says a full-scale renovation is required to meet that standard.

To address its rodent issue, Whole Foods said, the only option was to gut the store and rebuild — a process that would also allow for a much-needed renovation that would bring the Glover Park location up to the standard of other modern Whole Foods stores. Then Wical stalled the work by refusing permission for Whole Foods to file for city building permits.

“When Whole Foods was unable to thoroughly prevent the rodent problem through standard business means such as engaging a pest control service, it had no choice but to close the Store to ensure all steps would be taken to eradicate the rodents and conform to the Lease,” the grocery chain wrote in a Sept. 18 filing. Whole Foods alleges that Wical is simply trying to pressure it into accepting a higher lease rate, given that it’s already heavily invested in the Wisconsin Avenue building.

Whole Foods is asking the court to protect its current lease; require Wical to consent to its building permit applications; grant Whole Foods damage payments; and give Whole Foods the right to terminate the lease in addition to receiving damages.

Wical’s court filings paint a different picture. The landlord argues that Whole Foods closed down and even began its renovation work without seeking Wical’s permission as the property owner. Given that the demolition lacked permits, the District issued a stop-work order, which remains in effect.

“Having created its own so-called ‘emergency’ by failing to maintain the Store and by failing to obtain permission from its landlord or the District before beginning large-scale alterations, Whole Foods rushes into this Court seeking an emergency order forcing Wical to consent to permit applications,” Wical contends. “Whole Foods, with all its resources and experience, has no excuse for the neglect that led to its health code violations, issuance of a Stop Work Order from the District government for failing to obtain the required construction permits, and failure to keep the premises up to the required standards.”

Wical asked the court to dismiss the case last month — allowing it to proceed with terminating Whole Foods’ lease — and no decision has yet been made.

Even before the lawsuit, Whole Foods declined to speculate to community members how long it would take for the supermarket to reopen. The store’s interior was already heavily demolished before the city’s stop-work order, and Whole Foods hasn’t yet even applied for permits to rebuild it due to Wical’s opposition.

Wical and Whole Foods have declined to comment to The Current on the lawsuit, and a Whole Foods spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about how the company plans to serve the Glover Park/Georgetown community moving forward.

Jackie Blumenthal, a Glover Park advisory neighborhood commissioner who used to shop regularly at Whole Foods, told The Current that residents aren’t pleased with the store’s handling of the situation.

“The community is extremely unhappy and even upset that Whole Foods remains closed, is embroiled in a lawsuit, and refuses to comment about when — or if — it will reopen,” Blumenthal wrote in an email. “The inconvenience of Whole Food’s closing is one thing ... but given that our community has probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars every year at Whole Foods, the lack of communication is arrogant and insulting.”

This article appears in the Sept. 27 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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City Drops Planned Circulator Cut

September 21, 2017

By Grace Bird
Current Staff Writer

After neighbors rallied to protect lower Wisconsin Avenue’s DC Circulator bus service, the D.C. Department of Transportation has backed off plans to terminate its Georgetown-Union Station route at M Street NW.

But while the Circulator will continue to travel as far north as Whitehaven Parkway, the agency also announced last week a series of other proposed changes to the popular six-line bus system, which offers $1 rides and 10-minute headways.

Notably, the agency has proposed removing a number of stops from the Georgetown-Union Station route, and also hopes to shift the line’s eastern terminus outdoors from a Union Station parking garage. Additionally, it’s moving forward with long-term plans to offer Circulator service on U Street NW.

Meanwhile, no changes have been proposed for the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square route, and the agency said it will continue to evaluate the National Mall line’s low winter ridership to determine whether possible adjustments are needed.

Due to “fleet and facility needs,” officials are focusing on improving the existing system rather than expanding it, at least for now, according to Transportation Department spokesperson Michelle Phipps-Evans.  

Changes that do not require additional buses may be implemented within about a year, but others — including the long-sought extension of the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn line to U Street — remain a few years off.

For the Georgetown-Union Station route, the Transportation Department recommends a series of bus stop eliminations to alleviate traffic congestion and improve service reliability. They are:
■ Eastbound and westbound New York Avenue at 9th Street NW;
■ Eastbound K Street at 11th Street NW;
■ Eastbound Pennsylvania Avenue at 21st Street NW;
■ Westbound 21st Street at K Street NW;
■ Eastbound Pennsylvania at 28th Street NW;
■ Eastbound M Street at Thomas Jefferson Street NW;
■ Eastbound and westbound Wisconsin Avenue at P Street NW; and
■ Eastbound and westbound Wisconsin at R Street NW.

Also, left-turn signals may be installed at two intersections: Pennsylvania Avenue and 20th Street NW, as well as North Capitol and H streets.

Initiated in 2005, the Georgetown-Union Station route travels 9.9 miles from NoMa to Burleith. Low ridership, as well as overlap with Metrobus’ 30 lines, led officials to consider shifting the Circulator’s turnaround point to the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW—the heart of Georgetown’s commercial district.

However, neighbors and local representatives — who’d grown reliant on the Circulator’s frequent, inexpensive service — fought back against the proposal. In a Transportation Department survey, 66 percent of respondents called for retaining the existing route. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B (Glover Park, Cathedral Heights) and ANC 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) submitted resolutions over the summer urging the Transportation Department to save the Wisconsin Avenue NW section of the route, citing a lack of public transportation options in the area. Without a Metrorail station, the Circulator is the most efficient way for many residents to cross the city using public transportation.

While the Circulator has sometimes been criticized for poor maintenance of its buses and slipping service reliability, many residents from the Georgetown area spoke highly of the system. News of the decision not to eliminate the Wisconsin Avenue service was even greeted with brief applause at last week’s ANC 3B meeting.

Mary Levy, who moved to Burleith in 1971, uses the Circulator multiple times a week to travel to downtown meetings as well as Union Station. In her view, the Circulator is less crowded and more frequent than Metrobuses—a particularly important attribute at nighttime and during D.C. winters.

“The Wisconsin Avenue buses are irregular and unpredictable,” Levy told The Current. “They’ve improved somewhat … but you’ll get three of them coming at once and then none for a while. The Circulator comes really quite predictably and I can rely on it.”

To ANC 3B chair Jackie Blumenthal, Glover Park’s public transportation options are not adequate. Blumenthal told The Current that she hoped the Circulator wouldn’t merely be preserved but would also be extended to the Washington National Cathedral — a change the Transportation Department had proposed a few years ago, though the agency’s recent leaders have said it’s not feasible.

“The Circulator is faster than the regular [Metro] buses that tend to be much slower and much more crowded,” Blumenthal said.

Meanwhile, ANC 2E member Ed Solomon said service needs in upper Georgetown have been growing rapidly, citing the reopening of Duke Ellington School of the Arts and an upcoming redevelopment at the site of the former Holiday Inn at 2101 Wisconsin Ave. NW.  

“I received a lot of emails and phone calls from the community about their concerns over discontinuing the service,” Solomon said in an interview. He added that he was “just thrilled” that the Transportation Department had reversed its decision to shorten the route, opting instead to study the 30s Metrobuses further to reduce overlap with the Circulator service and ensure that the services complement one another.

It will also be easier for Georgetown residents to reach U Street NW in a few years, if plans advance for the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route’s planned expansion there. Established in 2010, the line is the shortest in the Circulator system yet is the third most popular, serving 1.07 million riders in 2016.

The U Street NW extension would increase the cost of operating the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route to about $6.6 million, a $3.2 million increase. Because the extension would require six additional Circulator buses—and the system currently lacks a sufficient number of vehicles—the proposal won’t be implemented for several years.

According to Phipps-Evans, the District created the Circulator to encourage non-bus riders to hop on for short trips, so officials have no plans to change its low fares. When service began in 2005, Circulator rides ran $1 or $0.50 for Metrorail transfers — and the price has not changed since, even as Metrobuses recently rose to $2 per trip.

Other currently proposed changes affect Circulator lines outside of Northwest. Officials are accepting comments on all the proposals at until Oct. 13.

This article appears in the Sept. 20 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Heating Plant Revision Secures ANC Nod

September 14, 2017

By Grace Bird

Current Staff Writer

Plans to redevelop the long-vacant West Heating Plant inched forward last Wednesday, as the fourth iteration of designs for the proposed 110-foot luxury condo building won support from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith).

Opened in 1948 and shuttered half a century later, the art deco industrial building at 29th and K streets NW has drawn divided opinions: Neighbors generally see it as an unsightly stain on the otherwise upscale Georgetown neighborhood, while some preservationists have argued that it has historic significance.

In May, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved a proposal that would essentially demolish the historic plant to construct a new 10-story, 60-unit Four Seasons Residences building and an adjacent public park. The project would retain the heating plant’s approximate dimensions, its 29th Street facade, the structure of its existing windows and a stone wall at the perimeter of the property.

Despite their support for these general plans in May, Fine Arts Commission members requested bolder architecture that replicated the old heating plant in a less literal way. The project team presented these revisions at ANC 2E’s Sept. 6 meeting, in advance of a Sept. 20 review by the Commission of Fine Arts. ANC 2E has also supported past iterations of the project.

The building’s new design is indeed “less suburban” — as requested by the Commission of Fine Arts — drawing more clearly from its industrial past. The proposed east facade has been altered to add an exterior steel frame and large metal balconies, contrasting with its sweeping glass walls, while the condo’s north side is decorated with vertical rows of rusted steel, offset with sweeping window panels. In all, updated designs use a more diverse array of materials in an effort to better straddle the intersection of history and modernity.

The planned 1-acre public park, which would sit on top of the building’s 80-space parking garage on the property’s former coal yard, also saw design revisions after May’s Fine Arts critiques.

The green space, whose construction and maintenance will be funded by the condo building, echoes the industrial plant through an “unexpected combination” of design features, landscaper Laurie Olin of OLIN Studio said at last week’s meeting. These include metal water troughs of different heights, the use of steel, a conveyer belt and several metal benches, contrasted with sprawling lawns and flowering plants.

“Turns out, they’re the same pieces that we had in the previous scheme — it’s just the formal expression now speaks more to the recent history of it as an industrial site,” Olin said. “It is actually much more integrated with the architecture of the building.”

The project has been moving slowly toward construction approval. The Levy Group acquired the vacant heating plant from the federal government in 2013, and enlisted famed architect David Adjaye to reimagine the industrial site as a high-end residential property. The project has faced numerous design iterations amid conflicting opinions about how to respect a hulking yet historic industrial building — and further hurdles remain.

The West Heating Plant project has two upcoming appointments: with the Fine Arts Commission on Sept. 20 and the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board on Nov. 2. The latter hearing will include consideration of a landmark application filed by the DC Preservation League.

Early next year, the project team moves on to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation, who can allow demolition of historic buildings to accommodate a project of “special merit”; and the Zoning Commission, which will review the project’s size, scale, public benefits and traffic impact as part of a planned unit development.

Levy said the project would break ground in 18 to 24 months, but declined to provide an opening date. “My crystal ball is not clear about that yet,” Levy said.

In an interview, Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans said he expects the development to revamp a dilapidated site.

“My concern is that it’s just taken way too long,” Evans said, which he attributed to a somewhat misguided squabble over the plant’s historic status. “Frankly that’s not in my view — it’s very unsightly; a somewhat out of place building for Georgetown.”

ANC 2E chair Joe Gibbons is also looking forward to the project’s completion, saying that the “bold interpretation” reflected in the proposed designs pays homage to Georgetown’s industrial past while looking toward the future.

“We want this project to get started, for people to be walking around, for people to be utilizing it,” he said.


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