Early this summer, Ward 1 neighbors and lawmakers directed a fresh wave of scrutiny at The Line Hotel in Adams Morgan after revelations that the hotel was operating under a series of temporary certificates of occupancy, despite the fact that the hotel appeared to be fully operational as far back as December of 2017.
They also criticized the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the District agency responsible for issuing them. But documents provided to City Paper, which detail the challenges the hotel’s owner faced in complying with DCRA’s occupancy requirements, help explain why the agency did not issue a final certificate of occupancy until July of this year.
“It was set up for failure from day one.” That’s how the president of a subcontracting company who completed work on The Line described the project to City Paper in early November, when we first reported that dozens of subcontracting companies await payment for work they completed on the hotel years ago.
Critics slammed the developers of the building, converted from a church at the intersection of Columbia Road NW and Euclid Street NW to a luxury hotel where rooms can run nearly $400 per night, for their apparent lack of compliance with D.C.’s “first source” law. That law requires the majority of construction workers redeveloping the building be D.C. residents, and District employees have warned since the fall of 2016 that it appeared unlikely that Sydell, the New York-based owner of The Line, would meet those requirements.
Consequently, onlookers have speculated for months that the hotel received these temporary certificates of occupancy––a dozen of them, between November of 2017 and June of 2018––to stave off an audit of Sydell’s compliance with first source rules, which the issuance of a final occupancy certificate would trigger. Compliance with this law is also a condition to receiving a $46 million tax abatement from the District, which Sydell would receive over 20 years.
“I am concerned the procurement of Temporary Certificates of Occupancy is an attempt to disingenuously extend the construction period for one purpose: to delay when the hotel must begin complying with the conditions of the tax abatement and still receive the abatement in full,” Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau wrote to City Administrator Rashad Young in early June.
But documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided to City Paper indicate that structural and safety compliance issues in the building itself were a significant factor in Sydell’s decision to apply for (and DCRA’s decision to issue) temporary, rather than permanent, occupancy certificates. They detail the structural and logistical issues the hotel faced in the months between its soft opening last December and the date it received its final Certificate of Occupancy.
The documents, including dozens of emails between employees of Sydell and DCRA, show that the District flagged a number of outstanding safety issues in the hotel that precluded DCRA from issuing a final certificate of occupancy.
On June 12, a deputy zoning administrator in DCRA flagged 11 inspection issues at the property, which included “fire alarm in trouble” and improperly installed handrails and other accessibility features.
These “immediate life safety issues,” as Sydell management referred to them in communications with DCRA, include blocked exit paths and sprinklers that didn’t comply with D.C. fire code.
On June 18, The Line’s director of security submitted a memo to D.C. Fire and EMS acknowledging that a DCRA fire inspector located three sprinkler heads along one floor of the property that did not comply with the fire code. Consequently, the hotel hired five “fire watch personnel”––at $35,000 per week––from a private security company that serves the region, to patrol that floor in the event of an emergency.
But on June 20, a DCRA employee emailed Seth Dubner, a Sydell employee and project manager of The Line, to say that Sydell’s efforts to ameliorate the sprinkler issues weren’t sufficient, because the fire watch team wasn’t actively patrolling the hotel. Instead, they were apparently sitting inside their car.
“In a meeting held with the Owner, and DCRA on June 14 2018, DCRA clearly indicated the minimum requirements for the Conditional Occupancy to be issued, and confirmed via email on Jun [sic] 18, 2018,” the DCRA employee wrote. “An inspection [was] performed this morning with the following results: The DC FEMS fire watch was in-place, however the supervisor had to remove people from vehicles in the garage upon my arrival[.] Based on these findings, the inspection has been disapproved at this time.”
In a subsequent email to DCRA, Phil Hospod, Sydell’s vice president of development, said that Sydell has “given our Fire Watch service a stern warning that they cannot be sitting in vehicles during their service and do not expect it to happen again.” He later refers to inspection issues regarding egress paths in a stairwell, which were apparently being used as storage for “chairs and other hotel operations,” according to a DCRA employee, as “frustrating and embarrassing.”
Other inspections issues include covered sprinkler heads, restricted exits, noncompliance with minimum head clearance requirements, and the garage being used as storage. (Hospod did not respond to City Paper’s request for comment.)
And as of June 11, the emails show, the Department of Energy and Environment had not yet completed final inspections for erosion, sediment control, and stormwater management that are necessary for the agency to issue a final approval notice. Subsequent inspections at the end of June by DCRA appear to have cleared the hotel of these issues.
By the end of July, the DCRA employee emailed Dubner and Hospod to say that DCRA “has processed your application [and] it is ready for pick-up on the fourth floor.”
“OMG,” a legislative affairs officer at DCRA replied, “is this the final C of O?”