Get our free newsletter
Gentlemen, start your bulldozers.
Let’s begin in Northwest. I want to lay some concrete over, say, all of it. Now you masons: Stack the brick. Build it up. Higher, dammit. Yes. Build it up so it cleaves the clouds. Pokes a hole through the sun. Slaps the Milky Way into a lower-rent neighborhood. Yes. Yes! Yes! Build it to…God!
It’s fortunate most of us aren’t privy to the wet dreams of D.C. developers, lest our society spend all its time at the cleaners. No, most of us have to rely on our observations to assess the rapacity behind the city’s growth. Not that you’d need eyes. You could just as easily walk blind in any direction until you hit a wall. Odds are a construction guy on scaffolding above you will be yelling at you to get your goddamn ass off the work site.
Though you would never guess it in our Reign of Crane, there are limits to how tall, how dense, and how many developers can build. Every so often, one stumbles into an impediment that precludes a thorough deleafing of the money tree. There are historic horse barns and obstinate landowners, and then there’s the biggest impediment of them all: wimpy zoning. Can you construe “single-family dwelling” to mean 85 rooms for cousins thrice removed and lost Aunt Myrtles? Probably not, though that’s not to say nobody has tried.
In times of trouble like these, a developer turns to his secret weapon. It’s called a planned unit development, PUD for short, and it’s what a developer asks to build when he wants to override the existing zoning restrictions on a given property. These projects, unlike buildings built by matter of right—meeting the specifications of the zone—entail an obligation for the developer to disclose all design plans to the D.C. Zoning Commission and present evidence of community support. This oversight exists because PUDs, despite the endearing nickname, are ferocious beasts with the power to move vast quantities of earth. “Half a block or something, usually,” says Phil Spalding, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Shaw. “They’re big programs.”
PUDs are behind the imposing Chevy Chase gateway, the Jesus-that’s-big Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, and One Judiciary Square, which houses the Office of Zoning itself. Because a PUD almost always changes zoning for the bigger, its birth is attended with a momentous flourish of activity. Those guardians of the plebes, the advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs), strap on their armor and sound the war cries. The developer, in response, turns loose a team of land-use golems from Shaw Pittman or Holland & Knight or, in olden times, Wilkes Artis. These silver-tongued servants storm ANC meetings, chipping away opposition to their massive monuments. “We’re occasionally good, but we’re not occasionally full-time, paid, and organized the way they are,” says Spalding. “They have steamrolled a few ANCs.”
The developer’s crusade culminates in front of the Zoning Commission. Here, the seeker of a PUD offers a ritual sacrifice. Swearing upon that arcane manual, the D.C. zoning regs, he promises to shower the community with “project amenities” and “public benefits” that never would have attended a project built under the existing zoning. Sometimes the gift is affordable housing. Sometimes it’s a scholarship to a public-school student. Sometimes it’s an inspirational mural. And sometimes it’s much, much less.
PUDs had their heyday in the ’80s, when land was cheap. Developers filed for 15 PUDs in 1988, a number that plummeted in the following years. But the filings climbed back up to 14 in 2004. The PUD is back.
“I think they’re becoming more and more a necessity,” says Jim Abdo, whose Abdo Development is now converting the old Capital Children’s Museum into condos via a PUD. “[E]ight years ago, you could almost go out and cherry-pick sites that didn’t have any of these constraints. You could say, ‘OK, I’ll take that piece of land right there. Oh, I’ll go after this building right here that’s not historic. I can knock it down; I can build what I want by right.’”
All that’s changed, says Abdo. “Now, this marketplace has become extremely competitive. Land is an extremely finite resource as it relates to the District, so developers are forced to come to the table with innovative ideas, ways to take on very complex, difficult projects.”
Foggy Bottom activist Dorothy Miller has heard every appeal in the developer’s PUD playbook. “I live in the first PUD in Foggy Bottom, which was Columbia Plaza, and the Watergate was second,” says Miller. “Then they gave one after another. PUD all over the place.”
Miller, an ANC commissioner, is fighting a new George Washington University residence hall at 2025 F St. NW. That PUD’s proposal stresses its superb “indoor environmental quality,” which translates to no smoking in the dorm. In exchange for the extra traffic and bodies pulling on District services, Miller says, she knows exactly what she would be getting from the developers.
A formidable PUD, about 15 acres big, came to Shipley Terrace in 1999. When the work stopped, the community found itself looking at 210 charming town houses with gabled roofs and façades in shades of pearl, sunglow, and country beige.
The PUD left behind something else, too. Behind the houses on Mississippi Avenue SE, it deposited a swamp.
“It’s just a big, snowy thing,” says Kim Burke, a 30-year-old staffing-agency owner. Burke’s back yard in the Townhomes at Oxon Creek abuts the half-block-long lagoon, which rests at the bottom of a steep hill in the middle of the development. Its slushy, black waters are dotted with cold-deadened plant life. “You have to really see it in the summer to fully appreciate it,” says Burke.
The developer, William C. Smith & Co., has experience in selling neighborhoods on aquatic amenities. Earlier in the ’90s, it built the Villages of Parklands, a nearby development featuring the carnivalesque Splash Park. This $1 million swimming utopia has slides and water-spitting cannons, and, in the words of D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, it “looks as if it were straight out of Disney World.”
William C. Smith clearly didn’t figure it had to impress zoning officials quite as much in the Oxon case. Otherwise, the development wouldn’t have ended up with a swamp. Fetid associations notwithstanding, the water feature sold well downtown. The “rain garden” was to have a sandy fundament that would catch, filter, and release storm water coming down from the hill. When it wasn’t draining, it would blossom with flowers.
Regular old sewer drains did come up in planning for the development. “We could’ve done the traditional fan filter for each lot,” says Brad Fennell, senior vice president for William C. Smith. But that would’ve meant more money and a potential reduction in trees. The rain garden, Fennell says, was a solution both “innovative” and “cost-effective.” “And, you know, it also gives a qualitative feel to the environment,” he says. “I think if you’re a naturalist, if you like the idea of attracting birds, you’ll like it.”
The water does indeed buoy ducks. When dry, it attracts cats that roam around the grasses and mulch in search of food. Children sometimes visit, too, hoping to retrieve lost footballs. “My son has a couple of balls in there,” says Burke, “because that [rain-garden] fence is right up against our property fence. So if he throws his ball over our fence, it goes into that.”
One resident, who won’t give his name but has lived next to the garden since 2000, says its fence acts as a trap for waterborne garbage. The beer cans and candy wrappers get cleaned out only when the lawn mowers come. The resident also worries that lush summer vegetation gives refuge to nogoodniks. “Somebody could be hiding back there in that garden,” he says. “You could be sitting on your deck…and they could jump out of there…and try to rob you or something.”
Of course, the swamp does alert neighbors to incomings. “It’s good to hear the birds and the ducks and stuff in the morning, because all the time I wonder what’s up,” says Burke. The quacking and plashing and occasional mournful cry that follows another football’s drop into the drink is reassurance that all’s clear.
“I don’t want a playground,” Burke says, “and I don’t want anything that’s going to bring people back there.”
Supporting the Arts
Every weekday, the employees of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) say hello and goodbye to Stag Minos. The sculpture, created in 1985 by John McCarty, sits to the left of the association’s front door, outside but in a covered atrium. It’s a vertical conglomeration of steel forms reminiscent of car parts, pillows, and potato chips. Taken as a whole, it resembles a plane that has crashed and comically lodged itself in the ground at a 90-degree angle. Except for some bird poop up top, the color is dark brown, which blends in well with the dimness.
To the right of the entranceway is a second piece, Christopher Gardner’s Street Signs. Unlike Stag Minos, which is shrouded in an air of melancholy, this 1991 production is frantic, in both hue and shape. It’s an explosion of red, white, and black arrows that intertwine like angry snakes.
It’s hard to see either sculpture from the street. The building, at 2450 N St. NW, has thick brick columns that divide the atrium into shadowy windows. Stag Minos is lost on a cloudy day, and Street Signs is viewable only in pieces, like an elephant hiding among trees.
The city’s least-known museum owes its existence to a PUD. In the mid-’80s, the Zoning Commission gave Boston Properties a concession on the construction of office space (which the AAMC subsequently moved into). In return, the developer promised a cul-de-sac at the end of 24th Street NW, $50,000 for the nearby Francis Recreation Center, and yearly grants to Francis Junior High School for physical improvements. It threw in the two-piece “sculpture garden” because the building sat in a fine-arts district.
“Once we knew that AAMC would be the owner/occupant,” e-mails Peter Johnston, the building’s project manager, “we considered commissioning something specific but rejected the idea thinking that we didn’t want to tie the pieces with any specific identity other than their own.”
People taking smoke breaks are a captive audience. Fortunately for them, each sculpture has an ashtray a few feet away (constructed from “Dura Art Stone”) that can serve as a station for contemplation. And there are things to contemplate. Just ask the artists.
“The arrow form has such a strong iconic sense to it when you think about, oh, all the arrows in the sciences and math,” says Gardner, who’s 50 and lives on Capitol Hill. “They’re always very positive….And there’s just nothing but fun and games with them.” For more fun, Gardner says the developer paid him $10,000 for Street Signs, which is only one member of his army of publicly displayed, arrow-related artwork. (He also has a piece in the new convention center and the sprawling Cupid’s Garden in Rosslyn.)
Stag Minos had quite a history before landing in its concrete shoe on N Street. After the thing was assembled, McCarty tossed it in a fire, where he cooked it until it glowed red and then rubbed wax into its open pores. The painful cosmetic procedure prepped it for exhibition tours in Baltimore and Berlin. “It’s nice to have a place for it,” says the 65-year-old McCarty, who teaches sculpture at the University of Maryland. “[I]t’s not that large, so putting it absolutely outside in a big open space, it would be kind of dwarfed.”
Office workers exhibit mild appreciation for the injection of culture into their workaday lives. Sandra Dunmore remembers when she first gazed at the twin sculptures. “I said, ‘Well, that’s truly some kind of artwork.’” Eighteen years later, the 57-year-old senior program assistant still hasn’t developed a firm critique. “You know how they say…everybody has their own interpretation of art? But I just couldn’t put nothing in my head.”
You can’t miss the project amenity at 2501 Porter St. NW. It’s plastered all over the PUD for everyone to see: Balconies. Lots of ’em.
How they got there is a complicated tale.
A quarter-century ago, a fearless developer whose name is lost to history proposed an 18-story apartment complex on 2501 Porter. The developer could conceive of such a behemoth because city regulations allowed measuring its height from Quebec Street, which is up a steep hill.
In D.C., at that time, living out in that finger of Cleveland Park was the equivalent of being a grizzled woodsman. Garbage and utility trucks rarely visited. You could stand in your back yard and recite Leaves of Grass in the buff and no police would show up. Naturally, people didn’t want a downtown-sized building disturbing the peace and views of migrating geese.
And so those 18 stories never got off the ground. The unnamed developer sold the property.
Prospect Joint Venture bought the hilly lot in the ’80s, and wary neighbors suggested a countrified hamlet of 10 houses. The developer met that suggestion with a counterproposal: 98 five-story town houses. Prospect cut that number in half after a few public meetings and then entirely, saying the town houses would have ended up with nonexistent back yards and driveways that slanted in excess of city regulations.
To solve those problems, Prospect proffered another apartment building, still huge at 10 stories. To make amends for the kicked-up zoning the development required, Prospect agreed to rehab and sell a vacant house it owned on Quebec Street. It would also plant trees to hide the apartments and their vaunted balconies from neighbors, who feared a “canyonization” of Porter Street.
The Zoning Commission signed off on the PUD in 1986, noting that the bulky project’s balconies “would otherwise not be guaranteed through a matter-of-right development.”
There are those who disagreed. “Private balconies for apartments are not a benefit to the public,” e-mails D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who was involved in the PUD as an advisory neighborhood commissioner. “I thought the Porter Street project was another example (among many in the 1980s) where the District government was letting itself be conned.”
The balconies hang proudly to this day. They’re fronted with guardrails of dark metal and glass and look kind of like reptile aquariums.
“The neighbor next door has a grill,” says Josh Butzbaugh, who moved into 2501 Porter partly because it had balconies. “I like plants,” he says. “I’m probably gonna put some out there for the summer. And, uh, chairs.”
Butzbaugh’s old apartment in Adams Morgan had only windows to fill his staring needs. Those windows looked out on another apartment. Here, the 25-year-old market-research associate has a top-floor balcony with a prime view of…well, not another apartment. “It’s pretty much a big side of a hill,” Butzbaugh says. “Trees and a ravine.”
“When I moved in…they said there was deer back there.” Deer have yet to show. “I’ve seen them in the park, though…so I guess it’s feasible.”
Loving Our Parks
A group of George Washington University students sit around the TV in a downtown house, debating just how fugly the poison garden next door is.
“I think it looks like ass,” says one.
“Yeah, but some asses look fucking nice,” corrects another.
The poison garden doesn’t look like ass, but it’s certainly conceivable it was dumped out of one. It festers in a secret place of shame behind the Winston House apartments at 2140 L St. NW: a tiny, lightning-bolt-shaped park that has trapped three trees, one dead and the others doing their best impressions of firewood. A tall fence puts a much-needed barrier between it and civilization.
The garden sits on a PUD that dates to 1986. ESP Associates LP wanted to build an 11-story apartment building called the Mayfair House. They had asked for a zoning change to increase the building’s maximum height from 90 to 110 feet. The Zoning Commission agreed to the enlargement but only, for some reason, if there would be an off-limits garden. “Access to the courtyard garden shall be prohibited to restaurant patrons, residents, and the general public,” the commission’s order dictated. “It will be accessible only for maintenance.”
“The Mayfair House” proved to be only a working name. The apartment that was finally built, the Winston House, fulfilled the PUD’s dark prophecy.
Developers of PUDs shill out lots of cash for park improvement; after all, it’s the developers who are eating up what green space the city has left. The Friends of Mitchell Park recently received $75,000 from a PUD pursuer, which bought a trampoline-like “safety surface” for the park’s playground and teak benches. “They’re beautiful,” says Friends President Betsy Santarlasci. “It’s what an amenity is truly meant to be.”
But if the idea behind fencing off the garden on L Street was to provide a protected Eden, the plan has backfired. The fence instead acts like a prison wall, creating a supermax for the foulest of the foul of our city: Rat burrows the size of dock-post holes. Leafless stems stunted by carbon monoxide, twisting from the ground like those long hairs you sometimes see on moles. The garden even has its own mystery spot. This 2-foot-diameter patch of dead leaves, located on the plot’s west side, has on at least two occasions oozed a shiny, yellowish liquid. It looks like greasy urine.
The garden has an unlocked gate, but neighbors say nobody ever goes in. It’s a good thing, too: There’s no latch on the other side. If somebody had to make a quick exit—say, from a pack of plague rats or a carnivorous plant—she’d have to vault the fence.
A man who lives nearby and doesn’t want to be named says the garden improves during the summer. “When there’s some vegetation, it’s all right,” he says, strolling around the garden’s perimeter. “It covers up the fact that it’s so dirty.” He peers at a pile of burned logs and guesses they’re the same ones he dumped back there a while ago. He should probably pick them up. “When you fucking neglect something,” he explains, “it makes it more acceptable for other people to neglect.”
It took until 2001 for PUD developers to strike upon the ultimate concession to the community: doing nothing. The pioneer of this strategy was Tenley Park LLC, which, in return for six mammoth town houses, did not kill a tree.
True, this particular tree, a white oak of maybe 130 years, had special powers. It had already stymied the Holladay Corp.’s attempts to develop town houses, and it wasn’t even on the site—it’s just across the border on Wilson Senior High School’s property. Citizens complained that the construction would damage the oak’s roots. Holladay left, and the tree lived another day to dominate its fiefdom of Japanese knotweed and virgin’s-bower.
Then Tenley Park took a swing at the land. Those sympathetic to the oak—and who couldn’t find any park in Tenley Park’s plans—went before the zoning commission to defend the overgrown tract where the tree grew, a baby heart of darkness that drops into a creek on the 3900 block of Albemarle Street NW. In these testimonies, the oak emerged the true linchpin for preservation arguments. It had survived, whereas square miles of trees hadn’t, the campaigns of ax-’em-all Union soldiers. Its roots affected the temperature of the creek and thus, according to the National Park Service, the health of salamanders, freshwater clams, and phantom crane flies. The book Tenleytown, D.C.: Country Village Into City Neighborhood found its way into the zoning file, where it no doubt surprised a few Office of Zoning workers with its assertion that craps used to be played in “Tennallytown”—under the oak, maybe; under trees, indisputably.
Tenley Park had little chance in the face of such profound opposition. So in September 2001, it relented: It would build its town houses 50 feet away from the oak’s trunk and not kill the tree.
The corporation did offer a few concessions. It promised to construct driveway foundations from a “fired shale product” that would allow water and air to reach its roots. It raised a decorative iron fence near the oak, making sure to dig the fence holes by hand. It also donated 3,870 square feet of land near the development to the National Park Service, adding to the creek’s wildness.
And wildness has apparently increased since the development went up. Today the oak’s boughs shelter an encampment of homeless folk on the far side of the creek. Hobo underwear hangs on vines on the slope leading down to the creek, which has gotten much more interesting since preservationists lauded its clear waters. The clams and crane flies are nowhere in sight. They’ve been replaced by a psychedelic dribble of green slime and swirling, iridescent petroleum. But the oak is still there, lord of the Albemarle Street biosphere. “[W]e feel pretty confident that our measures during construction did nothing to hamper the [oak’s] health and livelihood,” says Mark Knebel, who worked with Gibson Builders to develop the Tenley Park town homes.
When the houses were built, the tree was so well-preserved that future homeowners could only sully its historicity with their gardening efforts. “There was all kinds of stuff sticking into the tree,” says Edie Semler, an artist who lives in one of the new town houses. “Like old wire fencing, and it was all covered with weeds and junk.” Semler, apparently no Antiques Roadshow fan, removed the obtruding objects and promptly devalued the tree.
Semler’s husband, Steve Semler, a lawyer and volunteer EMT for the Kensington fire department, once stopped a man who had slipped onto the property with a camera. “I challenged him [to explain] what the hell he was doing in between the two houses,” Steve says, “and he said he was taking a picture of that tree with which he was familiar. And he seemed to be perfectly straight.”
The French bagged a PUD in 1979.
At the time, their dozen diplomatic offices were scattered throughout Washington. The Parisian brass thought it could consolidate them on the old Archbold estate on Reservoir Road NW. Designed by Grand Prix de Rome winner André# Remondet, the compound was to be the biggest French mission in the world, encompassing numerous buildings and employing 400 people. All the French needed was to get rid of the area’s single-family zoning.
Neighborhood residents didn’t miss the implications for traffic. With a planned 600-space parking lot, the embassy could generate more than 1,200 automobile trips each day. “Let us not forget also,” wrote one “Enrico Pierre” (a character who reeks of nom de plume) in the Burleith Citizens Association Newsletter, “a mini-rush at noon and 2 p.m. when the employees get tired of the cuisine at the chancery restaurant and head for the French bistros of Georgetown.”
The response from credible sources was equally grim. “Classic case of planning by spot zoning which ignores previous policy statements on chancery locations,” said one American Institute of Architects housing specialist. “If…giant parking lots are an integral part of the chancery plan,” wrote Glover Park ANC commissioner Roger Mingo, “then we would suggest that a better location for the chancery would be somewhere adjacent to the Capital Beltway.”
The embassy, however, thought it had a better idea. It would build what it wanted and then just carpool to work. The plan, as codified in the PUD decision, suggested that a quarter of the staff would cram themselves into each other’s automobiles every morning, military personnel and senior diplomats excepted. The embassy claimed it would have a firmer system of socialized transport once the development was finished.
“When the new building is occupied, a definitive plan will be relatively easy to prepare,” said Pierre Boyer, deputy chief of the mission of the Embassy of France, testifying before the Zoning Commission. “As of today, we can only assure the commission that carpooling will be mandatory, where it is possible, and will be enforced. The good faith of the embassy is behind that statement.”
Jeanne Freud is a press officer at the embassy. She says she was around for the building’s opening and never heard of a carpooling plan.
“No way,” Freud says, laughing. “People live, you know, in Virginia, in D.C., in Maryland….But, you know, people are too individualistic to carpool.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Pilar Vergara.