There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the building on Kennedy Street NW that collapsed in early July after a tornado passed through D.C. A construction worker was trapped in the wreckage for more than an hour, and his sister told NBC Washington that he may never walk again. Four other construction workers were also injured. Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced stricter safety regulations for multifamily residential and commercial buildings, citing the Kennedy Street incident. An investigation into the collapse is underway.
But there is another building, on the 1800 block of H Street NE, that’s gotten less attention. During the same storm, pieces of the top story of the unfinished condo development flew off the structure and crashed into Corey Hamilton and Juan McCullum’s porch across the street. More debris fell on their car. Hamilton was watching TV in his living room when he heard the clatter.
The five-story development in the middle of a block of two-story row houses in the Carver-Langston neighborhood has been a source of tension for residents who live nearby and the developer, Michael Lewis, for some time.
The project has started and stalled multiple times since at least 2018, residents say. Various issues with the development, ranging from rats and construction debris to stop work orders, have irked neighbors. Those issues came to a head when the top literally blew off. Damage to the adjoining house, where a 91-year-old woman lives, is resulting in a lawsuit.
“This isn’t a developer who is concerned about the property and is definitely not concerned about the community,” Hamilton tells Loose Lips on a muggy afternoon a few days after the storm.
Sydelle Moore, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for Single Member District 5D05, which includes the property in question, echoes Hamilton when describing her frustrations trying to work with Lewis.
“This guy, man, I’m tellin’ you, just a hard-headed person who doesn’t have anyone’s best interest in mind except for his own,” she says.
The feeling is mutual for Lewis. He says in his 20 years of doing business in D.C., he’s never encountered this level of pushback from neighbors or an advisory neighborhood commissioner. He recalls a recent conversation with Moore where she told him to move the building two feet so it wouldn’t block the neighbor’s view from her porch or “she was going to ruin my 20-year career.”
“‘You’ve got a choice,’” Lewis says Moore told him. “‘Are you gonna let a two-foot wall ruin your 20-year career of doing construction and development?’ Her exact words: ‘If I were you, I would move the wall.’ Really? OK.”
Moore disputes Lewis’ characterization and says she was trying to point out that with the extra scrutiny he’s under after the storm, it might not be wise to argue with an elderly woman about blocking the sight line from her porch.
The public permits in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ database for 1835 H St. NE start in March 2018, five months before Lewis bought the property. The original plans show a three-story structure, which would have converted the corner lot from a single-family row house to a four-unit apartment building. Lewis’ revisions call for a five-floor, six-unit building, DCRA records show.
Moore believes the structure violates zoning rules for the neighborhood, which cap the height at 50 feet. Lewis insists that the building is in compliance.
Niko Lojanica, who’s lived across the street since 2017, says it felt like the project was cursed from the beginning. He’s watched as various construction crews demolished the original row house, built part of a new structure, demolished that, then erected the current building. In the beginning, he remembers seeing an old mattress and an abandoned car on the property. They’ve since been removed. Lojanica believes a similar development behind his house was sold a year after the project across the street.
“It was completely gutted, renovated, and brought up and sold in the time frame this one has stayed like this,” he says. “Now there’s people living in it.”
Lojanica emphasizes that he’s not opposed to larger buildings going up in the neighborhood. He just wants to see it done correctly.
“If they did everything through the proper channels, great,” he says. “Build it how it’s allowed. For us, it’s not an issue that it’s going to be tall. It’s an issue that it’s not being handled the right way.”
A major point of tension for neighbors stems from the belief that Lewis has violated stop work orders throughout construction. Maureen LaSane, 85, who’s lived in a house next to Lojanica for 65 years, tells LL she’s watched construction workers arrive early in the morning and begin working while she believes the order was in place. She typically calls DCRA to report the violation, but she says by the time an inspector shows up, the workers have left.
Lewis acknowledges that DCRA has slapped the project with multiple stop work orders—three by his count—since he’s been involved. But he denies that his crew has violated any of them. DCRA confirms that it has never cited Lewis for violation of a stop work order.
The confusion appears to stem from DCRA’s online database, which shows stop work orders issued on five separate dates since January 2019. There are two entries for each date in the database. One of the entries for each date is a duplicate and not a separate order.
Until part of the building fell into Hamilton and McCullum’s porch, the resident most impacted was Verlia May, who has lived next door to the building for more than 50 years. The construction has damaged her porch and the flashing on her roof. Mortar from the new building’s red bricks dripped and hardened on her fence, and Lewis’ building now blocks what was once a clear view to the right from her porch. The new structure is also built higher than her chimney, a problem DCRA instructed Lewis to fix.
The agency also ordered Lewis to remove unsecured materials from the site and provide an engineer’s report that details how construction will safely continue until the roof is completed.
Matt Gatewood, a lawyer representing May on a pro bono basis for the past year and a half, says Lewis fixed some of the issues in the spring of 2019 and promised to complete the rest at the end of construction.
“The end of construction seems to be a never-ending time line,” Gatewood says. “Ms. May is 91 years old, and delays have caused her considerable angst.”
Gatewood intends to file a lawsuit this week alleging that the construction has caused May a private nuisance because it deprives her of enjoyment of her property. Specifically, he notes the blocked view from her porch and damage to her home. Gatewood declined to speak more specifically as he’s waiting on a private inspection to reveal the full scope of the damages.
According to Lewis, some of the issues May’s attorney raised in 2019 were not the result of his construction. He says he agreed to fix a loose plank on her porch as a measure of good faith. He tells LL he intends to fix the rest—such as replacing the fence—after construction is complete.
As a possible solution, Moore has suggested moving the front of Lewis’ building back two feet, so May’s view is no longer obstructed. Such a change might have to go before the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and Moore says she would support it as the commissioner for the area.
Lewis won’t agree to that and says just because a commissioner is supportive of a variance doesn’t mean the board will approve it. Instead, he says he’ll pay for an extension to May’s porch so her view is no longer obstructed. Moore says that’s a bad faith offer because zoning wouldn’t allow it.
As for Hamilton and McCullum, their porch is still in shambles while they wait for the insurance companies to estimate the damage. Their car is totaled, too.
“Corey and Juan will be made whole,” Lewis says.
Moore took office in January 2019, and one of her first actions as commissioner was to push for rezoning in parts of her single member district. The new RF-4 zoning for residential flats aims to maintain the look and feel of the existing row houses.
Lewis’ development was approved under the previous zone, RA-2, for residential apartments, which is similar but allows the obstructed view from May’s porch. RF-4 would have prevented the obstruction.
“This gives you exactly why we needed to do the rezoning in a nutshell,” she says. “What has been approved by right, not with any special reviews from DCRA is a dangerous property, and it endangers the property next to it especially in the long term.”
She counts 14 developments in her single member district, and her goal is to prevent residents from bearing the costs of the development surrounding them. In an extreme example, Moore shows LL a row house a few blocks from Lewis’ project, on 21st Street NE. Two three-story buildings tower over a single row house that’s sandwiched in the middle.
“There’s no escape,” she says.
The project on H Street NE has caused some heartburn for Lewis as well. He says he’s done everything DCRA has asked him to do and is legally permitted to build a five-story structure by right. He believes the accusations lobbed against him (which he denies)—violations of stop work orders, illegal construction, negligence, and noncooperation—are rooted in neighbors’ rejection of the project in general. Moore and her neighbors say that’s not the case.
“I want to be a good neighbor,” Lewis says. “I’m gonna do it right, I’m gonna do it fair, and I’m gonna do it in the right process.”