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Will the Yale Laundry hotel plan take the neighborhood to the cleaners?

It’s a long way from SoHo to the dormant chimney of the Yale Steam Laundry on New York Avenue. True, the abandoned laundry and the adjacent vacant horse stable embody a funky charm, but the area’s decaying array of Industrial Age buildings hasn’t yet transformed itself into a local version of the once-gritty lower Manhattan neighborhood’s reinvented urban chic. Instead, the old edifices sit facing a wasteland of parking lots stretching south to Massachusetts Avenue NW.

It’s not a pretty sight, unless you live on the street and you’re looking for some solitude at night. Still, dreams have been built from much less. Many neighbors see in the barren environs a small-scale urban village of stores and houses—an artsy enclave on the low-rent east side of downtown.

Of course, that’s not a future many D.C. developers dream about. And, with the mammoth new convention center on its way, many people in Shaw, the laundry’s neighborhood, are more nervous than usual when they hear about new large-scale development projects. In the past year, they’ve beaten back proposals for both a ballpark and a 7,000-stall underground parking garage. Some M Street NW residents who live behind the old industrial laundry, likewise, worry about the latest plans for the structure: two 130-foot hotel towers set beside a new loft-style residential building.

But developer Michael Minkoff’s promise of a “hip, urban, high-end hotel” on the Shaw neighborhood’s doorstep has won over many residents, especially long-timers locked in a continuous low-level struggle against blight. A recent vote of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association broke overwhelmingly in favor of the hotel. “Even without much help from the city, residents here have been trying to clean up these alleys and clean up this neighborhood for 20 years,” says advisory neighborhood commissioner Lydia Goring, who welcomes Minkoff’s interest in the area.

The way Minkoff sees it, his hotel would bring a slice of New York City to New York Avenue. His plans call for a large boutique hotel of elegant design, maple built-in cabinetry, large bathrooms, and a retro lobby fashioned out of the 1902 laundry and its 120-foot-tall brick chimney. His market, he says, will be young, hip, and well-heeled. Besides the two 13-story hotel towers—which will have a total of 406 rooms—Minkoff wants to build a nine-story, 46-unit residential building intended for a similarly young, hip, and rich clientele.

“There’s a huge risk here,” Minkoff says. “It’s not traditional D.C., but then it may be accepted because it’s not traditional.” He is also promising street-level shops, a gymnasium, an open garden, and a corner coffee shop.

But others recoil at the stark juxtaposition of 130-foot hotel towers and their row houses. The NoMa Neighborhood Association, a group that’s trying to protect the residential character and promote the arts in the adjoining area north of Massachusetts Avenue, has unanimously rejected the hotel proposal.

“It’s a monster,” says videographer and neighborhood activist Beth Solomon, an outspoken critic of the proposed development. Though the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board and a city zoning administrator have granted preliminary sign-off to Minkoff’s project, Solomon has pleaded her case personally to city Planning Director Andrew Altman, whose office has yet to weigh in formally.

It’s not just a cultural battle between SoHo wannabes and hungry developers. Designated a historic structure, the Yale Laundry has been exempted from housing requirements. So besides worrying about the height and the girth of the proposed hotel development, residents like Solomon also worry about a precedent that would establish superscale development as the NoMa norm. “We’re trying to make sure we don’t re-create the problems we have downtown,” she says. “It’s not just about two glass towers; it’s about the future.”

From Solomon’s rooftop patio, 42 feet above M Street, the horizon extends from the green copper roof of the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square all the way east to the Capitol dome. In the foreground is the Yale chimney. It’s not a bad perch for a video producer who wants to be close to downtown but still far enough away to live in a quiet neighborhood.

For Solomon and her neighbors, a push to finally make something happen in their neighborhood isn’t altogether unwelcome. But Solomon, who has thrust herself into the middle of pretty much every recent local development controversy, still clings to the vision of a leafy inner-city neighborhood of row houses, cafes, corner grocery stores, shops, and artists’ lofts. She invokes new urbanist icons like Georgetown, Alexandria, and SoHo—which inspired the term “NoMa,” for “North of Massachusetts Avenue.”

In fact, the District’s comprehensive plan for NoMa, aka Mount Vernon Square East, calls for a residential community with medium-density shopping and business. But that kind of vision is popular with pretty much everyone except the private developers who actually build things—and make more money from offices and parking lots. Various proposals have come along over the years, notably one from Horning Bros. in 1987 that featured courtyards, walkways, and a community fitness center with a swimming pool. Accepted by the city, it languished in a depressed real estate market.

Recent trends in real estate have brought renewed interest in the area—though not exactly along the lines the comprehensive plan had in mind. Tired of waiting, many locals have jumped at Minkoff’s proposal, no matter how it differs from thus-far-unrealized planning goals. “We’ve waited a long time for good things to happen,” says Maggie Limehouse, a member of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association. “This could be a jump-start for a gateway to downtown and everything that is supposed to happen south of New York Avenue.”

By contrast, Solomon and others see the proposed hotel towers as the first step in creating a “concrete alley” that would cast both figurative and literal shadows on prospects for more downtown housing. They also see the high-rise as potentially raising property values and pricing out still more potential housing. “It would be a terrible shame to destroy what has been restored by allowing 130-foot towers to dwarf our rowhouse neighborhood,” said M Street resident Heidi Mackey in a recent letter to Altman.

“This will keep all of M Street in perpetual darkness,” says Scott Hoffman, president of the NoMa Neighborhood Association. Then there’s Solomon’s rooftop view, which would be obliterated. In its place would be the shadow of a tower rising practically out of her back yard, shutting her off from the rest of the city. “Not only do you hurt the future of housing in the area, but you build a wall abutting a fragile downtown neighborhood,” she fumes.

Minkoff’s hotel scheme wouldn’t be so galling to Solomon if it weren’t for what she says is a zoning end-around, which allowed Minkoff to accomplish his aims. It is the Yale Laundry’s status as a historic landmark, after all, that exempts its developer from rules that would otherwise require hundreds of housing units on the site. Absent the housing requirement, Minkoff is presumably free to convert the laundry to a hotel or even an office building. Solomon complains that this loophole perverts both the zoning and the historic preservation process. “He doesn’t want to build housing, because the big money is in hotels and offices,” she says.

If critics don’t like the plan, says Minkoff, their quarrel is with District zoning and preservation laws, not him. “I didn’t do anything to manipulate the process,” he says. “I’ve just dealt with every ball as it’s been thrown across the plate.”

But some of those balls have been thrown by Minkoff himself. He bought the Yale Steam Laundry building out of bankruptcy way back in 1981—10 years before city officials established legal residential requirements on new downtown projects. It sat quietly as the convention center got rolling and a 1997 agreement was struck to establish a historic district around it.

Once the Yale Laundry was captured in a historic district, its designation as a historic landmark seemed to Minkoff to be a foregone conclusion. Reading the writing on the wall, Minkoff moved to have the site designated himself. Normally, historic status is to a developer what a cross is to a vampire: Though it can confer tax credits, historic status limits options, particularly demolition. Solomon suspects that Minkoff simply sought historic designation in order to escape the housing requirements of the underlying zoning.

Minkoff scoffs at the charge. Whatever plans he might have had for the property, he contends, events overtook him. “Once you’re targeted as a landmark, you’ve got few choices as an owner,” he says. Minkoff says he’s merely trying to make the best of the situation.

City officials say Minkoff’s proposal meets all height and density requirements. “As far as I know, it falls within the zoning envelope,” says Roberto Duke of the city’s Office of Planning, which will accept written comments on Minkoff’s proposal until March 10. Facing New York Avenue—a major thoroughfare—the development gets treated essentially the same way as any big building on Connecticut Avenue or 16th Street. In fact, Minkoff notes, because the housing requirement no longer applies, there’s nothing preventing him from building twin office towers on the site rather than a hotel.

Solomon, meanwhile, promises a large-scale campaign for small-scale development. She has pressed the Board of Zoning and Adjustment to review a zoning administrator’s decision to grant a housing exemption to Minkoff’s project. She’s also asking city planners to reconsider the appropriateness of current zoning that allows 130-foot towers to be built alongside 42-foot row houses. And she’s trying to get the planning office to agree that the whole project is out of character with the Mount Vernon Square Historic District.

Goring would rather see low-rise buildings along the avenue but says she recognizes that they would not be as attractive an investment for developers, who have the right to go up to 130 feet on most major thoroughfares. “We butt right up against New York Avenue,” Goring says, “so no matter what, it’s going to be commercial.”

Others see the hotel proposal as the inevitable consequence of the even more controversial convention center. “You drive a mega-convention center into the neighborhood, it’s no shock that suddenly people want to jam in major hotels,” says Terry Lynch, of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “It’s a spillover of the economic upturn that threatens the stability of those neighborhoods.”

And it’s a process that also means Minkoff’s hotel will likely hit pay dirt, no matter how much of Solomon’s rooftop view—or her urban-development vision—he obstructs. “He’s speculating, and the thing is, he’s right,” says Ron Linton of the nonprofit New York Avenue Development Corp., which is developing ambitious plans to turn the thoroughfare into a “gateway” to downtown. “If he hangs on, he’ll reap the rewards.” CP