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That sound you just heard in Adams Morgan was a bunch of misdirected residents whistling past the graveyard.
Neighborhood residents who have become accustomed to co-opting a plaza where the old Knickerbocker Theatre once stood—and where 98 people died in 1922 after its roof collapsed from a blizzard—are indignant that its owner wants to redevelop it. Some even have grand illusions that they can persuade the city to buy the private property.
Holding “Save Our Plaza!” signs, they have been demonstrating on recent Saturday mornings in front of the Suntrust Bank at 18th and Columbia Road to ensure they can keep event-squatting on the undistinguished pigeon perch they have appropriated for a farmers market and other gatherings.
Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau has declined to hold a public forum about the baffling controversy and charitably describes the uproar. “That plaza has been on loan to the community all these years,” Nadeau says. “It’s not a public plaza, but it’s being used by the public.”
Earnest residents are rallying against the development plan to demolish the existing plaza and bank to erect a seven-story, mixed-use luxury apartment building. They hold “teach-ins” about the plaza’s history and urge residents to contact Nadeau to express disapproval. The group, Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development, has even submitted comments to the city’s historic preservation office about why it should be saved.
But while the property sits within the Washington Heights Historic District, the space is not itself historic.
Activists, meanwhile, are not appeased by D.C. developer PN Hoffman’s compromise in the face of community outrage. The redesigned plans include a smaller, 2,500-square-foot plaza with planters and benches at the intersection where the current one stands, and moving the building back.
“I’m horrified by them building a luxury building,” longtime Adams Morgan resident Lydia Sarner says as she buys peaches from the plaza’s farmers market. “Sometimes, traditions are nice.”
Sarner calls the space—characterized during the daytime by its brick layout and knots of pigeons—the “center of our village.” There are also occasional concerts on the plaza, and it’s part of Adams Morgan Day, an annual street festival.
Billy Simpson, a commissioner for the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that includes Adams Morgan, says the plaza is the “heart of Adams Morgan” and that the community values the open space it provides for casual and organized activities. Simpson complains that the new plaza wouldn’t be welcoming with a new, larger building next to it.
“It creates a different feeling,” Simpson says. “It cancels out the feeling of openness.”
All of this leaves Monty Hoffman, PN Hoffman’s founder and CEO, somewhat dazed by the outsized expectations from people who don’t actually have the right to any. Hoffman says he didn’t expect such indignation over private property, adding that there’s a significant cost to relocating building space away from the valuable area where the plaza is to the back of the building near the alley, per his compromise.
“We go the extra mile to make things work out, but this particular ANC has been very hostile towards our development,” he says. “We’re giving 2,500 square feet to the public.”
Longtime Adams Morgan resident Eddie Becker hopes that the city will buy back the property from PN Hoffman so that the public can keep using it as is. He points to tax records that show the value of the building to be nearly $5 million.
“The plaza has great potential,” Becker says. “You need open spaces.”
The dispute has strained Nadeau’s relations with her plaza-obsessed constituents. Last month, protesters crashed Nadeau’s “office hours” in Adams Morgan in an attempt to save what they’ve dubbed “Reparations Plaza”—purportedly in reference to alleged bank redlining, the practice of refusing service to poor and minority bank customers. Plaza protesters complain that Nadeau eventually just left rather than listen to their complaints.
“I was shocked when she turned away from us to fold up her outreach table rather than fully hear the real concerns of her constituents,” Adams Morgan resident Mary Jane Owen said in a press release the plaza group distributed.
Nadeau says she believes the perspectives from the ANC commissioners are being heard and that a forum would be unnecessary. Adams Morgan residents participated in a survey last year called Envision Adams Morgan, in which they offered input about how they would like their neighborhood to grow.
“There’s been a really good discussion of that plaza and other public spaces,” she says. “It’s not going to add value when we’ve had discussions already.”
Nadeau says she’s looking at ways to better utilize the genuinely public spaces in the Adams Morgan area to compensate. She held a meeting three weeks ago so the developer and neighborhood organizations could make nice, but Simpson says the meeting didn’t facilitate a compromise on building designs.
It’s a lot of energy to invest into saving what might be one the neighborhood’s least attractive spaces—with its brick-on-brick design and complete lack of shade. Meanwhile, Hoffman says the farmers market is using the plaza “sparingly” during the week and that the space is even a “dead zone” at times. He is working with the community to find alternative open spaces for the activities there now.
Mike Tabor, who owns the farm that hosts the farmers market, says it is “caught in the middle” of the development plan and that he’s searching for alternative locations for the market after the site is developed into the smaller plaza.
“I’m a little bit afraid that it’s going to be difficult for people to afford to live in the neighborhood,” he says.
Southeast D.C. resident Julia Kann, who has volunteered with the farmers market for six years, says the development of the area with Suntrust Bank will further gentrification and make it more difficult for people to afford to live in Adams Morgan. She says the plan is “symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the city.”
Kann says that the plaza allows a place for diversity to thrive and predicts that removing it to build luxury housing will divide the community. She says the people who come to the farmers market share similar opinions about the development. “You will hear that all day,” she says.
Esther Siegel, who helps run the farmers market, says that the group opposes PN Hoffman’s plans as a way of “honoring the will of the neighborhood.” She says most people in the area would agree that the current structure could use some work but that it’s wrong for a developer not “invested” in Adams Morgan to make such a change.
“For an outside developer to change the soul, the spirit, of the neighborhood, it’s so tragic,” Siegel says. “Neighbors are left with what someone wants to build here.”
Hoffman, meanwhile, may be the District’s most sympathetic face of development. “The community raised concerns about the plaza, so we responded to that,” he says from his office. For a company giving 2,500 square feet to the public, “frankly I think we’ve been treated very poorly.”