Clash over 15th Street & Good Hope Road Development

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A vacant Art Deco building hugs the corner of 15th Street and Good Hope Road SE. The former laundromat is across the street from Ketcham Elementary and outside the Historic District boundaries. Photo: John Muller

The hair salon, print shop, storefront church and laundromat are long gone from the Art Deco building that wraps the corner of 15th Street and Good Hope Road SE. Gone also is the Long & Foster banner that for years advertised office, residential and retail opportunities.

In recent months, SIM Development LLC and nearby residents have clashed over plans to renovate the now empty two-story building at 1916 15th St. SE with an additional two residential floors and a penthouse.

To move forward, the developers are seeking a variance from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) to allow for an increase in the number of housing units from nine to 25 and relief from providing additional parking spaces commensurate with the increased density. The developer proposes to retain existing commercial space of nearly 5,550 square feet on the ground floor, while the existing second floor and an additional two floors and a penthouse will be devoted to residential units. Of the proposed units, 24 will have three bedrooms while one unit will consist of two bedrooms and a den. In documents submitted to the BZA, the developer contends the size of the dwelling units is dictated by market demand for housing.

ANC 8A’s Motion to Support
At October’s meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A, the development was brought to the attention of the community, just days before the developer’s first scheduled hearing at the BZA. Without a visual presentation or handouts to use as reference, residents voiced their concern about a development in which the scope and characteristics were only communicated orally.

The developer was granted a continuance and the BZA hearing was moved to the middle of November. In early November, SIM Development returned to ANC 8A’s monthly public meeting and was able to secure an unscheduled vote for a motion of support by a 4-2-0 tally. However, a number of residents and the two commissioners who went on record against the motion questioned the legitimacy of the vote, as the required traffic study was shared just moments before the meeting.

At November’s BZA hearing, residents voiced their concerns about the development, which is separated by an alley from the boundary of the Anacostia Historic District, and its potential adverse impact to the continuity of the character of the Good Hope Road commercial district. Although the developer pledged to register the address with relevant agencies, which would restrict parking passes from being issued, residents argued the adjacent block of 15th Street SE is un-zoned and already used as overflow parking for staff at Ketcham Elementary School, across the street, and nearby DC Prep’s Anacostia Elementary School.

In a letter to the BZA, Dorcas Agyei, a homeowner on 15th Street SE, less than 200 feet from the proposed development, wrote, “It is not a matter of being opposed to the development … it is the point and principle of SIM’s respecting and hearing the voices and concerns of the community. SIM has currently made no effort to create a harmonic integration between its current building design for 1916 [15th Street SE] and the existing historic aesthetics of the neighboring homes.”

Agyei, who has owned his home since 2004, continued, “SIM has failed to respect the individuals and families that have lived in this neighborhood before SIM’s interest in building 1916. DESPITE the abandonment, blight, and violence, the residents of Historic Anacostia on 15th Street SE were here: we did not flee; we stayed and lived. Anacostia is changing, and we SHOULD have a voice in that change.”

Taking letters and testimony of a number of residents into consideration, BZA encouraged the development team, which includes Phinis Jones, a well-known figure in Ward 8 development and political circles, to make a renewed effort to meet and consult with the community. A subsequent BZA hearing was set for late December.

Dorcas Agyei, a homeowner on 15th Street SE, passes out documents at December’s ANC 8A meeting concerning the proposed development at 15th Street and Good Hope Road SE. Photo: John Muller

ANC 8A’s Rescinded Motion of Support
At the ANC 8A meeting in early December, attended by Gottlieb Simon, executive director of the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, Agyei gained the attention of Chair Troy Donte Prestwood regarding a review of November’s motion of support for the project. When asked before more than 50 people to explain his vote in support of the November motion, Commissioner Travon Hawkins (8A05), whose single-member district includes the development, simply responded, “No.”

With the insistence of Commissioner Greta Fuller and voices in the audience, notably homeowner Karinne Kennedy, who owns the building on 15th Street abutting the potential development, Prestwood moved to rescind the vote taken in November to provide a letter of support to SIM Development’s BZA application.

In a procedural move this reporter had never seen in nearly a decade of attending ANC 8A meetings, by a vote of 4-0-2, with Commissioners Hawkins and T’Chaka Sapp abstaining, a motion to rescind November’s letter of support passed. At least a dozen or more in the audience applauded the motion, to which Simon did not procedurally object.

December BZA Hearing
At December’s BZA hearing, Prestwood spoke about the back-and-forth that had occurred in previous months between the developer, the ANC and the community. Asked to explain the turn of events by Anthony Hood, representing the Zoning Commission on the BZA, Prestwood conceded, “We moved forward too quickly.”

When explaining the rescinded letter of support, long-time ANC 8A Commissioner Holly Muhammad added, “We are obligated to the community to do our due diligence.”

Expressing frustration at what he deemed “a tactic to delay this project to kill it,” Jones offered that “the developer would like for you to make a decision and we will live with the decision of the board.” To resolve the apparent impasse, BZA Chair Frederick Hill asked Prestwood if the developer could be granted a place on January’s ANC 8A agenda, and could again present, to provide time for the ANC to generate a letter of support or opposition. Both parties agreed.

A case manager with the Office of Planning confirmed that OP had reviewed the available documents and recommended approval of the requested relief for a variance and special exception from the parking requirements. Additionally, documents available online state, “The project would be subject to Inclusionary Zoning and the Applicant would be required to provide any additional affordable units on-site or contribute to the Housing Production Trust Fund for the proposed penthouse habitable space.”

BZA Case 19572 has subsequently been granted a continuance until a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 17, at 441 Fourth St. NW, Suite 200S. The record remains open, and those in support or opposition to the development may email BZAsubmissions@dc.gov.

A full record of all case documents and previous hearings can be viewed online at www.tinyurl.com/y8tjrgkg or by searching “Case 19572” at https://dcoz.dc.gov/.