City Paper is not for tourists
David Ehrlich has lived in Southwest since 1979. After managing his family’s retail business in Boston, he came to the District to work for the Smithsonian. The quadrant, a one-time enclave for both poor and wealthy African Americans, was still rebuilding after being wiped out by a misguided federal renewal effort in the 1950s. But Ehrlich sensed that the area, with its quaint townhouses and charming waterfront, would keep growing.
Ehrlich moved into Waterside Towers at 907 6th St. SW, a ten-story apartment building constructed in 1970. In 1985, Ehrlich and his second wife, Barbara, bought their current home on the 500 block of H Street SW—a two-and-a-half-story townhouse on a tiny cul-de-sac. They’ve lived there happily while the development that’s swept the city’s three other quadrants during the last decade largely passed over Southwest.
That’s rapidly changing. A number of high-profile developments in the District’s smallest and sleepiest quadrant are set to be completed in the coming years—most notably, the $2 billion, mile-long Wharf project on the waterfront, and the D.C. United stadium in Buzzard Point.
The Ehrlichs belong to a core group of Southwest residents who are railing against another proposed development—one just a fraction of the physical size of The Wharf, but as menacing as a skyscraper to its opponents: the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s anticipated headquarters at 6th and I streets SW.
STC plans to construct the multi-story building—dubbed “The Bard”—in partnership with Erkiletian, an Alexandria-based real estate firm whose president sits on STC’s board and whose family nonprofit has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the theater company. To date, plans for the building include administrative offices, rehearsal spaces, classrooms, shops for costumes and props, dorms for visiting artists, and—most controversially—market-rate housing that Erkiletian would own and operate. The housing, STC says, is key to funding the HQ, which will centralize its operations under one roof.
“I realize I’m guilty of this awful suburban thing called NIMBY, but we find it pretty offensive that [STC’s] fundraising effort [to construct The Bard] was to get a developer,” Ehrlich says.
Although the area of Southwest near the National Mall is full of multi-story buildings, opponents of the project argue STC isn’t offering sufficient community benefits to outweigh purported damage to neighborhood character: contextual disharmony with dozens of two- to three-story townhouses surrounding the proposed site; shadows that would block out sunlight for families in their homes and for children on the playground of next-door Amidon-Bowen Elementary School; and worsened traffic and parking for the community; among other concerns.
“We’re not against Shakespeare Theatre Company,” explains Jessica Blond, who lives directly behind the development site. “We’re against all the apartment buildings that would finance it.”
Shakespeare and Erkiletian have proposed incorporating roughly 150 residential units into the new building. Its southernmost section, located across the street from the Southwest Duck Pond, would rise nine stories and be crowned by a penthouse, meaning apartments would constitute more than half of the building’s total height. Other parts of The Bard would rise eight and three stories, set back from the street. Many of STC’s operations would be below the ground floor. (The final price tag on the building will depend on how it’s eventually constructed.)
The two entities jointly bought the one-acre space for $6.5 million in October of last year. There was still a building on the site, however, at 501 I St. SW: a piece of Brutalist architecture from the 1960s that had formerly served as the campus of Southeastern University. In 2010, the 130-year-old university was acquired by The Graduate School (now Graduate School USA), but the facility remained vacant.
When the graduate school—at STC’s request—filed a raze permit for the site in May 2014, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, a private nonprofit citizens’ organization, filed a historic-landmark application for the Brutalist building with the D.C. Office of Planning. If granted, historical-landmark status would have stopped the planned development in its tracks.
But in September 2014, after community meetings with STC and Erkiletian, SWNA agreed to drop the application in exchange for $60,000 from the theater company, which closed on the site with the developer a few weeks later.
“SWNA did not consult all the local residents,” says Josh Hurwitz, the president of Townhouse Management 1, which represents homeowners on 6th Street SW, across from the site. “I would speculate that [the deal] was so SWNA wouldn’t be a hindrance in [the development] process.”
Hurwitz wants the property to be developed in a way that “fits with the community”—namely, with more townhomes, or high-end condos on a lower scale. He also says residents would welcome STC as a neighbor, without the apartment component. “We don’t want to fight, but if they keep pushing a seven- to 10-story building, we have to in order to protect our homes and [Amidon-Bowen],” he explains.
Marty Welles, president of Amidon-Bowen’s parent-teacher association, says he’s worried about the negative environmental impact STC and Erkiletian’s building could have on young students. A nine-story building, the father of three says, would “cast a shadow on the entire playground,” and it would never dry after rain or in the winter. The site would create “an echo-chamber” with the school and a four-story building to the north that would amplify noise from traffic on I Street SW, too.
“Adding a commercial space next to the school where there is an increase of automobile traffic at drop-off and pick-up times will [be a] risk factor for children,” he says. “Adding a [high-rise] building will exhaust existing parking and create a nightmare scenario for residents.”
In light of their concerns, community residents launched a petition in June voicing their opposition to the project. An online version of the petition has garnered roughly 75 signatures, and a paper version circulated around the neighborhood got nearly 250, says Betty Baker, who moved to Southwest in 1975. Almost every resident in the two-block area where she canvassed signed the petition, Baker says. “We feel there’s a long battle ahead of us. We hope to prevail.”
Despite the community pushback, STC seems intent on constructing the building as planned. The Southeastern building was razed earlier this summer, and the theater company is doing additional community outreach on social media and canvassing to win over resistant residents.
“This facility is needed to provide stability for the company,” says Chris Jennings, STC’s managing director. “Our plan is to continue to educate the community and engage them in the design process… We’re interested in doing this right, and doing this right means continued community engagement and dialogue so we can be good neighbors and good citizens.”
Jennings explains that STC has been looking for a home for about a decade, in order to consolidate resources and protect stakeholders from D.C.’s rising rents. Right now, the company is spread throughout the city, occupying administrative offices, rehearsal studios, shops, and the Harman Center for the Arts (where STC would continue to stage productions). Shakespeare leases about 30 apartments on Capitol Hill to house visiting artists and directors; The Bard would feature about 35 on-site units.
Other sites did not work for a “variety of reasons,” Jennings says. “Our needs are so specific—the options that came into play were very few and far between… This is the first site where everything came together.”
STC has distributed pamphlets about the benefits the new facility could bring, outlining educational opportunities such as an annual summer camp for kids and teens, “a public plaza located along 6th Street connecting [STC] to the growing cultural corridor along Eye Street,” and “an energy efficient design equivalent to LEED Silver rating.” A removable card at the back of the pamphlet asks readers to “show [their] support for The Bard” by emailing the Office of Planning, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s office, and members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D.
“I support Shakespeare Theatre and The Bard Development!” the cards reads.
The theater company has also hosted several community meetings since last year, and even enlisted Mayor Muriel Bowser’s former campaign manager Bo Shuff to coordinate outreach efforts. Supporters of the plan have sent hundreds of emails to Allen and the Office of Planning, Shuff says.
Addressing the residents’ specific concerns, Jennings says STC has “done shadowing studies and shared those with the community,” has “been doing due diligence with the [District] Department of Transportation,” and has plans to build an underground garage with 70 or so parking spaces.
Still, Southwest residents who oppose the project say STC’s talk of “community engagement” is just doublespeak for intensified public relations.
“I think what they’re trying to do is rally support from arts-lovers all over the country to repeat the message that if you don’t like the [multi-story] apartment building, you hate the arts, you hate theater, and you particularly hate William Shakespeare,” says Bob Craycraft, president of the Waterfront Gateway Neighborhood Association—an affiliation of eight homeowners’ groups representing roughly 2,000 residents along the northern edge of Southwest. “They have refused to accommodate our requests [for downsizing the building].”
In addition to community resistance, there’s a legal obstacle to the proposed development: The site is currently zoned R-3, which is limited to single-family homes, churches, and schools. To build what’s currently planned (or even a scaled-back version), STC and Erkiletian will have to petition the Office of Zoning for a variance or go through the Planned Unit Development process. STC has yet to formally initiate either.
It’s unclear whether such an exception would be approved. In mid-July, the District adopted a small-area plan for Southwest that did not recommend a zoning change for the site.
“STC chose to purchase this property even though the existing land use and zoning would likely preclude the building of their project,” wrote Eric Shaw, director of the Office of Planning, in a June 1 memo to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “During the planning process and the public comment process, [the Office of Planning] overwhelmingly heard only negative feedback from the adjacent property owners about the impact of such a large building… While STC can rightfully state they ‘met with the community,’ they failed to provide any of the requested information or compromise on height and density and did not muster any community support from the surrounding neighborhood in the last 8 months.”
Though STC apparently failed to prove community support to the Office of Planning, not everyone who lives in Southwest opposes the development as proposed. Melissa Rohan, founder of Waterfront Academy, a Montessori school located at 60 I St. SW, says she’s excited by the rehearsal space and costume shops included in the plans because they would allow her students to learn practical skills like public speaking and art design. Rohan adds that she’s had good communication with the theater company regarding educational opportunities for her students, but understands some of her neighbors’ concerns over the density problems the building would possibly create.
“Change is hard, it always is,” Rohan says. “But there [are] pockets in Southwest where we could use more economic bursts of energy. If we’re bringing more people in who are going to be here during work hours and also living here, we’ll have more restaurants, shopping, and stores.”
Chase Coard, a budget analyst for the D.C. government who lives about a block away from the planned site, agrees with Rohan’s sentiment. A five-year resident of Southwest, Coard says The Bard represents “smart development”: STC has liaised with the community, and even altered the original plan to move the building back several feet away from the street. The increased density, Coard adds, would augment the potential of businesses opening in the area.
“I don’t have any concerns about Southwest being overdeveloped,” Coard says. “As a vested homeowner, it all translates to dollar signs for me—every new condo or infrastructure change.”
Regardless of whether The Bard would bring economic and cultural benefits to the quadrant, some residents have a hard time sympathizing with STC’s claims that its facilities are unfeasible without the housing. (“Shakespeare Theatre could not have developed this site on its own,” Jennings says. “We could not afford it.”) Ehrlich, for example, criticizes the big-name nonprofit for failing to mount a capital campaign for the development site or build support for it much earlier in the process.
For other residents, the damage was done after STC struck a deal with SWNA. Andrea Pawley—a 12-year resident of Southwest who runs a blog about the project, Out, Damned Developer! Out!—says an air of suspicion descended over the community last September, when SWNA withdrew its historic-preservation application for the site. Many people felt SWNA “sold out” the neighborhood, she says, since it didn’t consult with them about the deal.
“It was hard not to call it a bribe, or some version of scandal,” Pawley says. “If SWNA had held onto the application, I doubt Shakespeare Theatre Company would’ve bought the property.”
Kael Anderson, SWNA’s president at the time, denies any charges about hush money. Though he stepped down from the voluntary position toward the end of 2014, Anderson says he did so because he had “put his time in” (he’d been SWNA president for five years on top of previous civil service).
“Anyone in a leadership position is going to get criticized from either side,” Anderson says. “My objective was to bring positive development into Southwest, if it was done right… to make sure the mitigation was locked down as much as possible. And that was a huge amount of work.”
Bruce Levine, SWNA’s current president, says the group is not taking advocacy positions toward specific development projects, including The Bard. Still, he thinks most residents would likely support the move, were it only a three-story building featuring STC’s facilities. The prevailing attitude is that the proposed project is oversize, Levine adds; people have become skeptical of The Bard’s “brand.”
“If you know the actual deal, it’s not unmitigated wonderfulness,” Levine says. “At worst, it’s a back-office project coupled with a larger-than-appropriate residential project… My view is that it’s a losing battle [for STC] with the current plan. It’s gone too far for that.”
Allen, however, hopes the community and the theater-developer pair can hit the reset button, despite the “frankly toxic” conversation they’ve had thus far. The Ward 6 councilmember is of the view that STC’s project has “immense potential” for Southwest, and would add to the growing “cultural hub” in the area (the site is two blocks from Arena Stage) provided that the site is developed “in the right context.”
“That’s a corner that has been an empty, abandoned building for quite a number of years,” says Allen, who called residents’ concerns “very legitimate.” “Having a big empty building [there] doesn’t help anybody.”
But first, the parties will have to do what now seems impossible: “Trust each other.”
“Otherwise, there isn’t a path forward.”