A bunch of mixed-use development projects around the city have divided communities, forcing arguments about who has what rights and how the neighborhood should grow (or not). The Hine School project on Capitol Hill is one, Cathedral Commons in Tenleytown is another. But perhaps none has been more acrimonious than 901 Monroe Street NE across the street from the Brookland Metro station. At a hotly contested Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association meeting earlier this fall, the group gave its support by a vote of 51-49—-after which the development partners were accused of padding the membership with their own employees.
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5A finally weighed in last night, with dozens of constituents packed into a small meeting room on Irving Street. Many of the so-called “200-footers”—-those living in close proximity to the project—-spoke out passionately against it, most with the simple objection that it was too big for the site, and would set a precedent for further development down the road.
“A 90-foot building ten feet from my house? It’s going to change all of our lives,” said one 10th Street resident (the project is actually only 61 feet at its highest point). “And I hope you can understand that this is just the beginning, believe me. This will be coming into your neighborhood too.” Ward 5 Business Association president Eddie Johnson portended a slippery slope, claiming that projects proposed for the ward would cover all the existing green space and bring 25,000 new cars, leading to a dangerous deterioration in air quality. “People are going to die,” he finished.
The affected single member district is represented by one Carolyn Steptoe, who has not only scrawled her opposition on her own house, but also unashamedly admitted having used ANC funds to post signs urging residents to oppose the project. She stood the whole time, brandishing a tape recorder over her head, glaring over her glasses, and occasionally squabbling with other commissioners.
But in an impressive show of YIMBYism, people in favor of the project turned out as well, making points about the jobs the project would generate, the logic of placing density near a Metro station, the additional safety created by six new ground floor businesses. Aside from the benefits, some Brooklanders took issue with the sovereign right of the 200-footers to decide what happens in their backyard—-especially if what they want is to prevent other people from enjoying the benefit of living near transit (for which renters will pay an additional 28 percent). “You live a block from a Metro stop, near a public asset, and you have to expect some change,” said one particularly logical fellow.
After the public comments, the ever-affable developer Bo Menkiti made his final pitch: A community benefits package worth $385,000, wider sidewalks, buried power lines, neighborhood-serving retail, and a willingness to incorporate feedback that had already resulted in the project shrinking down 11 percent. But he couldn’t make it work at the lower zoning category some commissioners wanted, while retaining the high-quality architecture and amenities they also wanted. “It’s possible to build a building at C2A,” Menkiti said. “But this building? It’s not possible.”
In the end, the commission voted six to five, with one abstention, to support the project as presented. A few commissioners were clearly swayed by the number of people who’d turned out to speak for the project—-Fort Lincoln’s Bob King, the city’s longest sitting commissioner, said he’d expected opposition to be overwhelming, and found otherwise. Steptoe and others will probably still show up at the Zoning Commission hearing on Jan. 19 to slam the project. But the Zoning Commission listens to ANCs on projects like this, and this one was a victory for residents showing up to advocate for something, not just oppose it.
Below, Steptoe in action—-not her greatest hits, but at least a flavor.