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On Sept. 19, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans held an off-the-record meeting with a group dubbed the Ward 2 Working Group on Downtown Issues. Bill Rice was asked to leave the meeting before it began, so we can’t provide a firsthand account of what happened. According to attendees interviewed after the parley, though, the ostensible point was to strategize in favor of downtown housing in the wake of Dave Clarke’s election to D.C. Council chair. (Clarke was considered least supportive of more downtown housing among the leading candidates for the post.) Some who attended the meeting, however, say that Evans sounded less than fully supportive himself.
While stressing his theoretical backing of the target of 5,400 units along the 7th Street NW corridor that are supposed to provide critical mass for the long-envisioned “Living Downtown,” Evans reportedly endorsed every exception that’s been proposed. In addition to defending his controversial vote to eliminate the housing requirement at 1201 K St. NW, Evans counseled meeting-goers to accept developer proposals to reduce housing provisions at 1312 Massachusetts Ave. NW and at the old Hecht’s site at 7th and G Streets NW.
Evans also didn’t reject a developer request to eliminate housing at the old Steuart Motor Co. site at 4th and M Streets NW, although eyewitnesses say he didn’t go so far as to endorse that proposal. The Steuart property is north of Massachusetts Avenue, in an area that is supposed to be predominantly residential; if its housing requirement is waived, it would make a mockery of the downtown-housing zoning.
One person who attended the meeting suggested that Evans was missing the larger picture: “On the one hand, every individual case seems like a reasonable exception. On the other hand, you take 100 units here, 100 units there, it’s just gone. You don’t make a goal by making a hole here, a hole there.”
Another attendee put it more bluntly: “It’s hard to believe that Evans is not doing the bidding of [leading zoning-law firm] Wilkes Artis [Hedrick & Lane].”
That’s just what Evans was doing two days earlier, when the D.C. Council held a hearing on an alley closing in the 1300 block of G Street NW. The closing is designed to allow the construction of 1310 G Street, an office building being developed by the Akridge Co., whose lawyers are from Wilkes Artis.
What makes the closing noteworthy is that 1310 G Street would be vestigially connected to 600 13th Street; because of that connection, 1310 G would technically be a 13th Street building and would therefore be allowed to rise two stories higher. (Under the D.C. Height Act, maximum building height is generally determined by the width of the facing street, and 13th Street is wider than G Street.) The complication is that 600 13th Street doesn’t exist yet, although Akridge plans to build it eventually. Thus 1310 would qualify for added height because it’s linked to a structure that doesn’t exist.
Evans professed to not understand the controversy, asking Wilkes Artis attorney Whayne Quin at a Sept. 18 hearing why citizen activists were “picking on” the alley-closing application. Yet the matter is far from routine. Evans himself introduced the alley-closing resolution, even though such requests ordinarily come from the mayor. And any exceptions to the Height Act are potentially contentious at a time when D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is working out a binding guarantee for Congress that the city’s skyline won’t be transformed if D.C. becomes a state.
Downtown Cluster of Congregations Executive Director Terry Lynch and the Citizens Planning Coalition’s Ellen McCarthy were among those who spoke against the alley closing. “Whayne Quin must be trying out for the national gymnastics team in trying to say this is one building,” commented Lynch. “It fails the test of common sense. 1310 G Street—what [street] does it front on?”
1310 G will be “almost like one building,” concluded Evans. “I certainly hear the technical arguments on both sides.”
The citizens, however, weren’t convinced that their side had been heard. “Jack Evans has shown his true colors; they’re absolutely appalling,” said Dorn McGrath of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City after the hearing. “At the same time that Mrs. Norton is going to some length to protect the building Height Act in the quest for statehood, Evans is going the opposite.”
“Evans said all the right things,” he added. “Now he’s doing all the wrong things.”
Several days after the meeting, Evans called it a “non-event,” and said he “supports the neighborhood” on the Steuart-site project. (One local community group has endorsed the development.) As for the alley closing, Evans said he would vote for it, but won’t push it. “It’s up to Dave [Clarke],” he said.