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City housing activists have been battling for 20 years to force commercial real estate developers to build housing downtown so that the city’s inner core wouldn’t become a ghost town after 6 p.m. But their efforts have been handily defeated, in large part by the law firm of Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick and Lane. Partner Norman “Chip” Glasgow in particular has made a cottage industry of “pretzeling the zoning law” for the commercial real estate industry, according to Terry Lynch, a housing activist and head of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.

So when Glasgow showed up before the D.C. Zoning Commission on May 20, onlookers were reasonably confident that he was cooking up a deal for his developer clients so they could plaster some downtown lot with yet another dreary but lucrative office building without being bothered by the District’s downtown housing requirements.

But that Thursday night, something weird happened. Glasgow asked the commission for a modification to a development planned for a vacant lot at 13th and L Streets NW. What Glasgow’s clients wanted was not more office space, but permission to add some housing to the site. “We have been studying the feasibility of converting that to an apartment building,” Glasgow said.

Glasgow’s performance was a remarkable indication of just how fast the District is changing, given that his clients have spent a small fortune over the past decade getting out of their housing requirements for that very same site. Before Glasgow got to it in the early 1990s, 13th and L was zoned for small buildings with an even mix of residential and retail uses. But Glasgow convinced the zoning commission to approve a planned unit development that allowed his clients to build high-density office buildings there while dodging downtown housing requirements.

Along with all the legal fees to Wilkes, Artis, six years ago Square 247 Associates Limited Partnership essentially buttered up the Logan Circle advisory neighborhood commission with a $500,000 grant to get its support for changing the plans for 1331 L St. from a mixed-use, four-story residential building to a 10-story office building. In addition, the partnership anted up $3 million to the Salvation Army drug treatment program in Northeast as a substitute for having to build housing downtown.

But last week, there was Glasgow, suggesting that his clients might have had a change of heart, and now they might want to build some apartments downtown after all. Of course, now that his clients are generously considering complying with city planning policies, Glasgow says he wants the District to chip in with 15 years’ worth of tax abatement and federally subsidized financing from Fannie Mae as an added inducement, but the market just might support the housing.

Indeed, the city might want to consider stiffing the funding request, given how quickly the market for downtown housing is taking off without any government incentives. Along with new luxury condo developments going up on M Street, the United Mine Workers are considering transforming one tower of their building at McPherson Square into residential units, as is the owner of a building on 5th Street between G and H. After 20 years of waiting to see housing built downtown, Lynch says, “We work for God over here. We believe in miracles.” CP