St. Joseph’s Seminary
St. Joseph’s Seminary Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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John Feeley, Jr., 62, still lives in the house where he grew up, a squat dwelling on a tree-lined street that sits several blocks south of Providence Hospital, in Northeast. A neighborhood commissioner for ANC 5B, Feeley says the area has remained “integrated and middle class” for as long as he can remember: government workers and families, though many employees of nearby Catholic University have moved away. These days, he sees more young parents there than before, which he ascribes to it being one of the still “barely affordable” corners of the city.

But Feeley is concerned that Michigan Park, just north of burgeoning Brookland, which saw its first million-dollar home sale last year, could lose its relative affordability as denser and more modern developments go up. At issue in particular is a proposed redevelopment surrounding the St. Joseph’s Seminary at 1200 Varnum St. NE, where the Josephite order trains budding Catholic priests. The four-story structure debuted in 1930, and contains almost 104,000 square feet. Bethesda-based developer EYA plans to maintain the historic seminary, and build behind it 82 three- and four-bedroom townhouses that would total 184,000 square feet. Initially, EYA had proposed 150 to 180 townhouses across the site’s eight acres.

That was before receiving pushback from some Michigan Park residents, who felt that—despite EYA’s partnership with the religious group—the project on privately owned land would eliminate grassy patches that neighbors use for pick-up soccer games and the like. Feeley, whose ANC lies on the site’s south side, recalls “pretty heated” community meetings about EYA’s plans. He personally favors building “something middle-class people can afford” under current zoning.

“When developers come in and say, ‘It’s empty land,’ people are not sympathetic to that,” Feeley says. “It’s not about ‘smart growth,’ it’s about greed. It’s about upzoning in a neighborhood that doesn’t want to hear about it… transforming our area where community members don’t want it.”

Both new and longtime Michigan Park residents say almost universally that they moved there for the neighborhood’s “suburban” feel within the District. But proponents of the St. Joseph’s redevelopment doubt the planned townhouses would be radically out of character with what now exists. They praise EYA’s commitment to preserving the seminary itself, providing at least 2.5 acres of green space and facilitating public art programing. Additionally, EYA has designated 10 of the eventual units for sale as affordable, and the Josephites, who have struggled with funding and recruitment in recent years, are happy to sell some of their land.

Adrian Jordan, a neighborhood commissioner who’s lived in Michigan Park for five years and whose single-member district covers the site, says he’s pleased with EYA’s responsiveness to the community. He adds that extra family housing could produce investments in public safety, education, and retail—a diversity of which is sorely needed there, he says. “Anytime you put more families in a neighborhood, I think you’re going to better the community.” To Jordan, a now-defunct basketball court with overgrowth on the property looks positively “post-apocalyptic.”

“It’s not like they’re taking everything down and building on it,” says Lavinia Wohlfarth, founder of the Brookland Community Development Corporation. Her group is “very invested in the public art piece and the design of the community gardens” expected to occupy the site’s southern half.

Still, these kind of warm vibes haven’t silenced the loudest opposition. A group called Neighbors of St. Joseph’s Seminary has taken to the internet with templates of emails to elected officials, a “community survey” that spells out nearly 20 concerns with the previously proposed number of townhouses (“check all that apply”), and a video depicting the site’s open space on a sunny day. 

Its website also features pre-crafted tweets, such as “We moved here because it was quiet” and “There’s nothing sacred about 150 townhomes in the Seminary’s backyard.” Most have the hashtags #NoEYAinMP (that is, Michigan Park) and #NotAt12thAndAllison, referring to an intersection behind the seminary. (Group members declined to speak on the record.)

There are also anxieties about whom the development will serve. Feeley argues the project “is for a different population: people who have more money than we have.” Residents, including those in his district, are worried about higher taxes, too, the commissioner adds.

While EYA could not provide potential prices for the townhouses, anticipated to be complete by fall 2018, project leaders say D.C. needs new homes designed for families. Although the Josephites’ land could support more density than was formally proposed to the D.C. Zoning Commission last month, they say they have struck  “the right balance.”

“Neighbors, rightfully so, have concerns about change, and we respect that in every situation,” says EYA president Bob Youngentob, who notes the proposed project targets “young urban families” who want to stay in the District. “Our goal is to find a housing type that we believe is consistent and compatible with what’s happening around the neighborhood.”

Zoning officials will now review the planned unit development. It proposes to change the zoning for the property from R-2—which borders the site on three sides—to RA-1, which covers Providence Hospital directly to the west. A hearing for the parties’ case has yet to be scheduled. But the lines within Michigan Park have already been drawn.

“The reality is that this land is private property, and that the cash-strapped seminary is going to have to develop it,” 15-year resident Patrick Foley wrote to the D.C. Zoning Commission just last week. “I am a realist… Too often, the voices that are heard are the ones raised in protest.”

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