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Jamie Linen stands on the back porch of his Georgetown town house, pointing out the area where a local developer is to build a private pool house and three new town houses bordering his back yard. “See, right now we have sort of a pastoral view through the trees,” he says, sucking on a cigarette. “But basically we’re going to wind up with a big green wall. So you can see why the neighbors are upset.”
Linen was appointed the new advisory neighborhood commissioner only a few weeks ago and has yet to be sworn into office, but he’s already leading his first neighborhood crusade. Last year, D.C. developer Herbert Miller bought the historic Bowie-Sevier House at 3124 Q St. NW, a few doors down from Linen’s canary-yellow town house. Miller plans to move into the main house, bringing with him his wife Patrice and their two children. But renovation plans also call for the destruction of a large western wing once used as a nursing home, which will be replaced by the Millers’ private pool house and the three town houses.
Georgetown residents are delighted to have new neighbors in the once-abandoned property. But many, particularly those on 32nd Street where the town houses will be built, oppose new development on a narrow and already overcrowded street. They are looking at 18 months of construction while the west wing is torn down and new housing is built up. Parking will be impossible. “Everyone thinks it’s great they want to move in and make that place a home again,” says Georgetown activist Westy Byrd. “But as one neighbor said [about Miller], either be a neighbor or be a developer.”
Although the project’s opponents are canvassing the community for support, they know enough not to call on one of their more illustrious neighbors: Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, whose town house at 3141 P St. sits directly behind the mansion and was once part of the estate. Unlike the folks around the corner, Evans’ enjoyment of one of the city’s most idyllic settings won’t be affected by the development. His back yard borders the expansive garden of the mansion, a large plot of grassy land where Miller has no plans for town houses, pools, or any other structures. Small wonder, then, that Evans last month signed a form letter circulated by Miller’s architect, Outerbridge Horsey, saying, “[As] an abutting property owner…I have no objections to the proposal.”
Of course he doesn’t. In his impressive 1998 mayoral campaign, Evans has made no secret of his intention to scare off rivals by building up a hulking campaign fund. Unfortunately for some Georgetowners, the strategy often entails siding with business interests over NIMBYites. Last year, for instance, Evans laid bare his loyalties in a dispute over a plan to limit parking for non-Georgetowners to one side of residential streets in the neighborhood. Merchants said the plan would deter customers from the suburbs and other neighborhoods from coming to Georgetown. Evans agreed and asked D.C. financial control board vice chairman Steve Harlan to kill the proposal.
In the Bowie-Sevier dispute, Miller is just another Georgetown tycoon Evans apparently feels he can’t afford to alienate. According to campaign finance records, Miller and his wife donated $1,100 to Evans’ 1996 council campaign and might be amenable to chipping in again for his mayoral bid. “It’s pretty disgusting that Jack Evans would again put his bloody personal ambitions in front of his constituents,” Linen says. “But this is something that is not new to us when it comes to Jack.”
An annoyed Evans denies that his stand on the development is tied to his mayoral campaign.
“I’m not impacted by the town houses,” Evans says. “So, as a resident, it doesn’t directly affect me….My position is that I hope Herb and the people affected can work something out.”
Miller serves as president of Western Development Corp., which developed Georgetown Park and Potomac Mills, and was appointed chairman of Mayor Marion Barry’s task force to revitalize the District’s downtown commercial core. Last year, he was criticized for winning bids on some of the very ventures he had proposed on the task force, including the $200-million Gateway Square, a glitzy commercial complex to be built near the new MCI Center.
Linen and Byrd say Miller has manipulated the process in pushing his backyard plans. Miller asked the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) to postpone a meeting on the projectwhich is also subject to review by the Old Georgetown Board, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, and the Commission on Fine Artsso he could take a scheduled trip to Japan. However, notes Linen, Miller did not postpone an appointment with the Commission on Fine Arts, which was scheduled to review the plans this week, without ANC input. “That’s a slick maneuver that we have a real problem with,” Linen says.
To his credit, Miller’s architect Horsey requested a postponement of the commission’s review until next month, to allow for consultation with the ANC and concerned neighbors. Horsey says he and the Millers have been “talking extensively” with neighbors for the past two months. “Hopefully, there will be a happy ending to this,” says Horsey, noting that neighborhood input prompted him to move the town houses back a few feet from the street.
Although Evans and Horsey characterize the opposition as the work of a vocal minority, residents of seven out of the 11 properties along 32nd Street that are directly across from the proposed town houses signed a letter to Horsey expressing specific concerns and requesting that the “concept proposal be abandoned.” Linen is circulating a similar letter and has gotten the signatures of more than two-thirds of the neighbors on both 32nd and Q Streets. The same neighbors have also agreed to pool money to hire a lawyer and a historic preservationist to challenge Miller’s proposal if it is not abandoned.
“The Millers have really angered people,” says a 32nd Street resident. “And there’s going to be a fight.”CP