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The backs of the townhouses, where a new hotel may rise. (Lydia DePillis)

A bank of townhouses on N Street has sat, bricked up, for over a decade now. Since 2005, developer Morton Bender has been working on turning his “N Street Follies” into a boutique hotel, but his case was originally dismissed by the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and then rejected by the Historic Preservation Review Board.

Bender came back last year with a scaled-down proposal: 98 rooms instead of 110, and a five-story addition in the back of the townhouses that would no longer be visible from the street. This design would only require a special exception from the BZA, rather than the several variances it had earlier sought, and the Office of Planning recommended approval—that decision will come down June 8th.

Today, then, is the second-to-last hurdle before Bender may finally find himself in the clear: A final vote by the Historic Preservation Review Board. This time, things are looking up for the slow-moving project. The Historic Preservation Office staff report found that the architect’s modifications better fit the context of the block, making the proposed massing at the back—which rises to 72 feet at its highest—“not unprecedented” for that area. While advising that the penthouse be reduced in size, the report also recommended approval.

The changes, however, don’t help the Tabard Inn, which has been fighting Bender’s proposal with all its might. In March, the 88-year-old hotel presented a battery of exhibits demonstrating how the massive potential neighbor would block the sunlight in its courtyard restaurant, which received a sympathetic treatment in today’s Post.

“Not only is the Historic Preservation Office being quite arbitrary in its logic for what portions of the building should be torn down, they’re basically sacrificing one of the most unique historic hotels in the United States,” Jeremiah Cohen, the Tabard’s owner, told Housing Complex. “I’m just mystified by the recommendation.”

On May 11th, the Dupont Circle Conservancy decided to support the revised designs, but requested that the eastern elevation—the part next to the Tabard—be stepped down to help with the sunlight situation.

Councilmember Jack Evans has also gone to bat for the Tabard, submitting letters to both the HPRB and the BZA arguing that Bender’s design is out of keeping with the Dupont Circle Overlay, which he helped develop as chair of ANC 2B in the early 1990s. That zoning designation was meant to apply to all significant projects that would be out of keeping with the character of the neighborhood, he writes—but the Office of Planning now interprets it as only applying to large Planned Unit Developments.

For this reason, Cohen finds the implications of HPO’s report troubling in a larger sense.

“There was a sense of protection from stuff like this, because we felt like we could keep investing in the Tabard, turning it in to the great hotel that it is,” he says. “But what’s happened just now, is that the Office of Planning is now challenging the efficacy of the Dupont Circle Overlay. They’ve basically interpreting the statutes in the most minimal way possible.”

Bender was evicting the last of the tenants in the N Street townhouses in 1996. Why has the famously litigious developer been able to take so much time with his designs and appeals? It has certainly helped that he secured dramatic tax relief in 2008 from the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals. Rather than the real value of $3.52 million, documents show, his property is now assessed at $1.4 million, making it a lot cheaper to keep the properties empty.

Meanwhile, the budget for the proposed hotel has remained a mystery.

“Our client keeps his numbers close to his chest,” said architect Anton Janezich. “He just simply told us, if it’s over, I’ll let you know.”

CLARIFICATION, 10:45 a.m. Below is an earlier sketch drawn up by the Tabard Inn’s consultants. Janezich says it is not representative of the current design plan.

N.B., Friday, 2:45 p.m. Janezich’s partner Stan Andrulis has notified Housing Complex that they will not be releasing any renderings of the hotel. “Our client has asked that we not make that information public,” he says.