Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Of all the buildings going up in his neighborhood, Jim Norris is most annoyed by the one next door.

The 71-year-old homeowner has lived in a squat, two-story brick townhouse on Richardson Place NW since August 2001, when he purchased the then-abandoned property for $60,000. The street is a somewhat hidden, almost Lilliputian block, tucked between New Jersey Avenue and 4th Street NW, immediately south of where Rhode Island and Florida avenues intersect, in Truxton Circle. Residents have cherished its distinctly quaint vibe as adjacent Shaw and nearby U Street have transformed into bustling neighborhoods, replete with nightlife and youth.

But over the past few years, Norris, who moved to D.C. in the 1960s and has remained in what he considers Shaw for roughly three decades, has felt besieged by what’s happening on the lot with which he shares a wall.

He discloses upfront that he used to own it—once intending to build a house there—before selling it to an interim owner, Wilbur Mondie, who had it subdivided in two. Mondie dug out the lot and installed the cement form for a basement, which would fill with water during heavy rain. This attracted mosquitoes and rats in the warmer months, and produced “attendant smells,” as Norris puts it. In 2014, Mondie brought in prefab sections for two buildings, stacking them atop one another until they were three stories tall, but never completed them as apartments. (Norris says work on the site resulted in detritus in his backyard garden.) Then, Mondie sold the property in April.

The new owner, Arlington-based Oaktree Development, is converting the attached buildings into a co-living space to be operated by New York-based startup Common, which runs several projects in Brooklyn and San Francisco totaling 120 bedrooms. Common CEO Brad Hargreaves says “Richardson,” as the inaugural D.C. project is dubbed, is expected to open in December or January. Potential tenants apply online before being interviewed for Common “memberships.” These include a private bedroom, furniture, utilities, WiFi, and weekly cleaning, among other amenities.

For Richardson, prices for 12-month memberships start at $1,700 a month. Hargreaves says the median age and income for Common tenants is 30 and $98,000 a year, respectively. The D.C. facility, being marketed as “in Shaw”—in part with a photo of Blagden Alley on Common’s website—will have four units with six bedrooms each. Seven in 10 Common members have one-year leases, though there are three- and six-month options, says Hargreaves, who founded the company.

The rub for Norris and some of his neighbors comes with the project’s size and intended use. 

“What they’re proposing now is to make it basically a glorified rooming house,” Norris says. 

“You can call it whatever you want, but that’s what it is. It’s too big for the immediate context.”

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Norris compares the construction on his block to Adams Morgan. “You change from what was historically single-family houses with limited commercial activity to a neighborhood where every commercial property is being developed, and by adding these larger buildings with more inhabitants, it just changes the feel of the neighborhood.” He says the people likely to move into Oaktree’s property will be transient residents and worries they won’t care about preserving the area’s character. “The other issue is, if it can happen here, it can happen in your neighborhood.”

Given lease terms at other Common properties, Hargreaves counters that it’s a “myth” that tenants are only looking for “short-term occupancy.” “These aren’t immediate graduates,” he says. “They’re looking for community, to know their neighbors, but don’t want a lot of the annoyances that come with traditional living situations. They’re not negotiating with roommates about cleaning shared space.”

As for the site’s massing—a combined 10,700 square feet—Oaktree Partner Peter Stuart says the development complies with zoning requirements and is the same height as a building across the street (which is set back from the sidewalk). The company gutted and renovated the prefabs Mondie ordered and installed brick siding that matches the materials used at JBG’s Atlantic Plumbing site in Shaw. Although their dimensions vary, each bedroom measures between 120 and 140 square feet. “Every project brings its unique set of challenges,” Stuart notes. “Certainly … it’s a tight site.”

There are about 10 houses directly on Richardson Place, and the street leads to an alley behind homes that line New Jersey Avenue. Alphonso Frost Jr., a senior who lives on New Jersey and can see the development from his kitchen, doesn’t like it. “It’s awful, that monstrous thing back there with umpteen million bedrooms,” the 30-year D.C. resident explains. “They have no concern about the architectural integrity of the area or if it’s primarily residential.” 

A resident who lives on R Street NW, south of the development, says younger neighbors tend to view the project positively, and they’re glad something is finally poised to open on the property. Still, James Wilson, who’s lived in the three-story building across the street since 2014, says many neighbors are circumspect about the development’s effect on the surrounding area because it could double the population of Richardson Place. “There’s a difference between NIMBYs and recognition of shared spaces that have to occur in tight cities,” he says. Similar to other new buildings around the District, concerns include parking availability, the amount of trash generated by Common’s project, and access to the contiguous alleyway.

But these worries are amplified because of the street’s small stature. “It has a quiet charm to it in the middle of the city,” Wilson says. “We have sort of an open conversation with the developer, and they’ve come to the table and are willing to negotiate matters. We are cautiously optimistic.”

For others, including Norris, there are bigger stakes at play. Teri Janine Quinn, who chairs the neighborhood commission that covers the site, says she hasn’t maintained communication with Oaktree or Common and questions whether the co-living model “fits a highly residential construct” seen in neighborhoods with similar zoning. “I would want to know what has been the real impact of having something like this right next to your home—particularly when you’re in a single-family home,” she says. “I live in a rowhouse too. If this were coming next to my house, I would be crazy.” Quinn believes there should be more government oversight of shared-living projects.

Or, as Norris says, “Whether I’m mad or have a case against them or not, we’re entering into new territory here, like with Airbnb. It’s nice to see the city come back and progress into the future, but it would be nice to see it happen in a way that doesn’t destroy neighborhoods as a whole.”