Georgetown Current

Council Revises Mayor’s Shelter Plan

May 18, 2016

By Cuneyt Dil
Current Correspondent

The D.C. Council yesterday overhauled Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to replace the D.C. General homeless shelter, giving initial approval to a new plan to relocate a number of the proposed family shelters to city-owned land and taking cost-cutting measures.

Engineered by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the approved plan would build all of the seven new shelters on land owned by the District government, rather than leasing most of the facilities back from developers as Bowser proposed originally. The chairman and mayor fought over the details Tuesday, with Bowser administration officials arguing that the changes will set back their 2018 target year to close D.C. General.

Mendelson blasted the mayor’s handling of her plan’s rollout, saying her administration spread “misinformation” and didn’t respond to “repeated and continual requests” for more project details. The chairman said that his plan would “speed up the acquisition, design and construction process” of the shelters and that he was more hopeful of reaching the 2018 completion deadline under the council’s plan.

The revised proposal would relocate shelters in wards 3, 5 and 6 to land already owned by the District. In Northwest, Bowser’s plan called for the Ward 3 shelter to be built at 2619 Wisconsin Ave. NW, across from the Russian Embassy, but the council-approved plan would place it on property that’s currently the parking lot of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 2nd District Headquarters, at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW. The Ward 1 and Ward 4 shelter locations are unchanged from the mayor’s plan, but the council’s legislation calls on the mayor to negotiate the purchase of the land or acquire these locations through eminent domain.

The drive to construct the family homeless shelters on city-owned land came after residents and some council members complained that the city would pay pricey leases on the facilities to developers. Under the mayor’s plan, the city would have leased the facilities for up to 20 or 30 years in all the wards except ones east of the Anacostia River, where the shelters were already proposed on government-owned lots. An independent real estate analysis released on Monday, commissioned by Mendelson, concluded that the proposed leases negotiated between the Bowser administration and developers for the wards 3 and 6 sites were “significantly above market.” The report, by Integra Realty Resources, also found that the city would be leasing the Ward 1 site at an above-market rate and recommended the city acquire the land.

The plan approved by the council showcased a rift between Mendelson and Bowser on the issue. The council chairman said his plan was drafted in collaboration with council members, but top Bowser aides voiced frustration that they were cut out of the process. Administration officials said they were first notified of Mendelson’s plan on Monday morning, and hours of private meetings ensued among officials. The Bowser administration accused the chairman of pushing through a plan without committing enough “due diligence.”

Tensions boiled over in a Wilson Building hallway on Tuesday afternoon between council sessions, when Bowser reportedly responded to Mendelson with an expletive, according to two reporters who overheard the exchange. “You’re a f---ing liar,” the mayor yelled at Mendelson, adding that he should know the council plan would not enable D.C. General to close by 2018.

Bowser spokesperson Michael Czin told reporters that afternoon that using eminent domain to acquire shelter land would set a “problematic precedent,” and City Administrator Rashad Young said the process could delay the closing of D.C. General. The council’s relocated Ward 6 site, aides said, could take at least three years to secure.

“We had a nine- to 14-month process that we engaged council members, including the chairman, on. ... And what we’re left with today is a plan [that] we found out about 26 hours before,” said John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff. “For that, there is a bit of frustration, that we’re not both dealing with each other at level footing.”

The council on Tuesday also took a first vote on the District’s 2017 budget, and Mendelson, in the capital budget, set aside $60 million for the family homeless shelter plan, shifting those funds from the Coolidge High School modernization.

In Ward 3, some community members had leveled complaints about the original Massachusetts Avenue Heights shelter site for months. Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh voted yesterday for the council’s plan and said she supports using the police headquarters property for the new 38-unit shelter.

At the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B (Glover Park, Cathedral Heights) meeting last Thursday, before the council’s plan went public, residents peppered Bowser with questions and concerns about her proposed Wisconsin Avenue site, including criticism that she hadn’t adequately consulted the ANC or the broader community.

One woman complained that the mayor’s aides had set up a process that would inevitably become adversarial. Several audience members objected to last week’s filing of a Board of Zoning Adjustment application for the Wisconsin Avenue site.

“Some of the people in the administration don’t seem to understand our role,” said commission chair Jackie Blumenthal when asking Bowser more generally about responsiveness to ANC concerns.

Staff writer Chris Kain contributed to this report.

This article appears in the May 18 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Signal Timing Adjustments Coming to M Street Soon

May 11, 2016

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

Traffic signals on M Street NW in Georgetown may soon be re-timed so pedestrians don’t have to wait as long to cross, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation.

While the agency hasn’t yet determined what the new signal timing would be, spokesperson Michelle Phipps-Evans said Monday that revisions are scheduled to be in place by the end of this month.

The change follows a long-running push by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, which was joined last month by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E. According to the community members, pedestrians at a number of M Street intersections currently must wait for up to 90 seconds for a chance to cross. This delay frequently leads to crowds of pedestrians blocking the sidewalk as they wait.

Until about a year ago, wait times didn’t exceed 60 seconds, which ANC 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) said was an acceptable standard. The business group is seeking a maximum of 45 seconds.

But Georgetown’s pedestrian-heavy main street is also a critical east-west commuter route for cars. Accordingly, the Transportation Department last May made the move to adjust M Street’s signals as part of a broader program to ease traffic into, out of and around the city’s downtown.

“The timing changes were implemented to reduce the constant traffic congestion that has plagued the Georgetown area over the years,” Phipps-Evans wrote in an email. “Before, and even during the implementation of new timings, DDOT’s traffic signal engineers made several observations of traffic patterns (during peak hours), all the while considering the delicate balance among the multiple modes of travel in the District.”

Will Handsfield, transportation director for the Georgetown BID, said this neighborhood has its own specific needs: It’s a pedestrian-oriented shopping district with narrow sidewalks and a healthy tourist trade.

“That’s our competitive advantage,” he said. “They could go to the same stores in a number of other places. The primary part of it is that you can walk in comfort and safety. … If we don’t pay attention to that and try to protect that, we lose this thing that’s intangible, which is how special Georgetown is as a place. The specialness would probably be out-competed by areas that do take that into account.”

In a unanimous resolution passed April 4, ANC 2E prioritized three specific intersections — where M meets 30th, 31st and Thomas Jefferson streets NW. At the time, commissioner Bill Starrels said other intersections in Georgetown have also been problematic, but that these three were the worst trouble spots. He added that car traffic on the side streets is also affected.

The Georgetown BID, meanwhile, is focusing on pedestrian crossing times at all M Street intersections.

Phipps-Evans said the Transportation Department is working with the business group on the signal issue. Handsfield said he’s hopeful that the agency can develop a win-win solution.

“We think we can get all or most of the congestion-relief benefits that the city has delivered and also make it comfortable for pedestrians,” said Handsfield. “I don’t think it’s an either/or choice.”

This article appears in the May 11 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Plans Move Forward at Vacant Hotel Site

May 3, 2016

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

The Latham Hotel site in Georgetown is now slated to be restored as a new hotel, instead of the residential project that a previous developer won approval for a few years ago.

The 3000 M St. NW property — the hotel facing 30th Street and retail storefronts along M — has stood vacant for several years after suffering severe water damage in 2012. Neighborhood leaders and residents are generally receptive to the latest plans despite concerns about elements like a large rooftop deck and a loading area.

Developer Thor Equities purchased the property for more than $50 million earlier this year and subsequently announced plans for a renovated 82-room hotel with several floors of above-ground retail on the street. Current designs include 24 parking spaces accessible by car elevator and a valet parking program. The developer also hopes to incorporate a small bar or lounge on top of the hotel, which will require a special exception from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, to be decided at a hearing June 21.

Representatives from Thor Equities presented the plans to Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) on Monday. The representatives said the firm intends to spend the rest of May working with ANC 2E, the Citizens Association of Georgetown and other neighbors on issues like transportation and loading management.

The neighborhood commission voted unanimously to oppose the proposed rooftop lounge, arguing that the 2,700-square-foot enclosed portion is too large and noting that the Old Georgetown Board, which must register design approval before the project can proceed, typically opposes rooftop establishments as well. Commissioner Bill Starrels recommended the developer shrink the perimeter of the roof deck and said a settlement agreement will be required before ANC 2E signs off on an alcohol license for the spot.

Beyond that — aside from requests for more information and small tweaks on aspects like the south facade and a cooling tower — ANC 2E generally expressed appreciation to the developer for the project’s goal and for working cooperatively.

“It’s going to take essentially an eyesore and an abandoned building and make it into a center of activity,” Starrels said in a follow-up interview. “It will bring people to eat, dine and spend money in the city.”

Starrels told The Current that the developer hasn’t yet indicated a timeline for the project.

At Monday’s meeting, resident John Lever, representing the citizens association, opposed the roof deck and questioned whether the street-level entry and exit will create a “logical flow,” but added his thanks for the developer’s agreeable nature as well. “It’s really rare to see a developer who actually cares about what they’re doing,” Lever said.

The Georgetown Business Improvement District also expects the redevelopment to boost the commercial fortunes of the busy shopping district on M Street, according to Jamie Scott, the group’s economic development manager. The retail frontage on the block will be particularly lucrative, Scott expects.

“Having the space activated is good for the experience of shoppers in Georgetown and good for the commercial district overall,” Scott said.

Some residents had raised concerns about the previous plan for the Latham site: a proposal by developer SB-Urban to turn the hotel into 140 “micro” apartment units with no on-site parking spaces, and to rebuild the M Street storefronts for new retail space. Following various compromises and design tweaks, developers and community leaders generally reached a compromise and the project won various necessary approvals. But SB-Urban, which purchased the property for $45.4 million in 2013, elected to sell it two years later to prioritize its projects in Dupont Circle and Blagden Alley.

This article appears in the May 4 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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