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On Sept. 1, the residents of 411 New York Ave. NE—a large warehouse that houses arts collective Union Arts, among dozens of other artists—will have to move out to make way for the construction of a boutique hotel. But they’re not going out without a fight.
Last night, the developers of the boutique hotel—D.B. Lee Development and Construction and Brook Rose Development—testified in front of the D.C. Zoning Commission in a hearing to amend the zoning regulations in order for the hotel to be built. Currently, 411 New York Ave. sits in a C-M-1 zoning district, which doesn’t allow for a building higher than 40 feet. D.B. Lee and Brook Rose’s current plans have the hotel at 11 stories, which means they’d need the Zoning Commission to amend the zoning district to a C-3-C, allowing for the construction of a building up to 90 feet. With displacement imminent, last night’s hearing—which was so crowded that Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood scheduled a follow-up hearing to accommodate all who signed up to testify—might be the last chance that the artist residents and supporters of Union Arts have to save their building. And they came out in full force.
Prior to the hearing, a group of about 70 people rallied outside of One Judiciary Square in opposition of the boutique hotel project. “There’s always a bit of anxiety in these situations,” Desiree Venn Frederic, founder of Nomad Yard, a small business incubator in the retail level of 411 New York Ave., said. “[But] it’s amazing to see so many people here tonight standing in solidarity.” Last Thursday, the developers held a meeting with 411 Artists Union—the unincorporated non-profit representing the tenants of 411 New York Ave.—where they revealed a plan to incorporate an arts program within the boutique hotel. It was only the second meeting the developers held with the tenants since purchasing the building last June.
Partnering with CulturalDC—a nonprofit working to “increase the impact of D.C.’s creative community”—the proposed arts program within the boutique hotel plan would include about eight artist studios that could accommodate 20-plus artists, as well as gallery and exhibition space, a community classroom, and a sculpture garden. It’s a sprawling, if not modest plan, but one that many tenants of 411 New York Ave. aren’t happy with.
The hotel is currently estimated to be about 35,000 square feet, with 10,000 square feet dedicated to the arts. But of that 10,000 square feet, only about 2,500 square feet will be for artist studios. Additionally, the collaboration with CulturalDC is only a five-year partnership. After that time, the future of the arts program would be up in the air, but the developers said that they hope it will continue.
With only eight artists studios incorporated into the boutique hotel project, Zoning Commissioner Michael Turnbull expressed concern that competition for studio space among artists will be “cutthroat.” Furthermore, Zoning Commissioner Marcie Cohen said she had “serious concerns” about the artists that will be displaced by the boutique hotel and that many of the current tenants of 411 New York Ave. will be financially “hard-pressed” to pay the $500-a-month rent for studio space. “We don’t feel like we’re displacing, we’re creating arts” Dennis Lee said.
Throughout the hearing, the developers continually claimed that they’d only be displacing about 30 artists: the tenants whose names are on the lease. But 411 Artists Union representative Chris Otten asserted that the displacement would affect closer to 100 artists who regularly use the space but whose names aren’t on the lease—including dozens of musicians who practice at Union Arts.
But perhaps the biggest point of contention in last night’s hearing was when Otten pressed the developers and CulturalDC on the exclusion of musicians in the boutique hotel project. In addition to the practice spaces Union Arts has for many District musicians, it’s also a prominent performance venue, hosting as many half a dozen shows a month. “I don’t understand the developer’s continuation that this is affecting only 30 artists,” Priests‘ Katie Alice Greer said in her testimony. “This is really the only place to host shows like this in the District.”
While last night’s hearing came off like a last-ditch effort to save Union Arts, a few testimonies made it seem as though the fate of the building was sealed and instead posed larger questions about the future of arts communities like Union Arts in the District.
“Many of us here will mourn the loss of Union Arts,” Amanda Huron, a musician and assistant professor at the University of District of Columbia said in her testimony. “But people are upset not just because we are losing this particular space, but because this loss is emblematic of the way the city has been changing in recent years: into a place that, more and more, seems to be solely about making money, at the expense of people and culture and community, and even at the expense of our own history.”
Additional reporting by Morgan Fecto and Quinn Myers
Top photo by Matt Cohen, bottom photo by Morgan Fecto