Richard Graham interviewed by Carl Lankowski (November 2013)
On November 23, 2013, HCCDC board member Carl Lankowski sat down with Richard Graham, who has been active in the CNC—Connecticut Avenue Neighborhood Coalition—to discuss the history of the controversy surrounding plans to build a large glass structure on the block defined by Connecticut Avenue, Military Road, Kanawha Street and an alley running parallel to Connecticut Avenue. Though animated by the specifics of the 5333 case, the issues involved transcend it, creating an opportunity to offer insight into the broader characteristics of the Chevy Chase community, its outlook, capacity to act, and willingness to engage.
Q: To set the stage, let’s start with your own history in the neighborhood. How long have you been in DC?
RG: I grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just across the border. If you went to the Pinehurst Tributary and took a left and went just over the border, we were just there. I grew up on the Maryland side, but I attended Chevy Chase Presbyterian Nursery School and then Blessed Sacrament School, so I have been in the neighborhood essentially my whole life.
Q: How old are you?
RG: 40. I should add that my mother and all her sisters attended Blessed Sacrament as well. They grew up on Quesada and Rittenhouse Streets going back to the 1930s. My family has been here for a very long time.
Q: Where did the family come from originally?
RG: Half the family, I think, came from New York, the other half from western Pennsylvania—Pittsburgh. My grandfather came to DC to work for the FBI after law school.
Q: What did your dad do?
RG: He was an attorney for the government most of his career—with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
Q: Are you following in his footsteps?
RG: I am not an attorney. I work in finance.
Q: Where are you living now and what brought you there?
RG: I live on Kanawha Street, 200 feet or so east of Connecticut Avenue, in a very old home, I think it’s 103 years old now. We have been living there since 2004.
Q: How would you characterize the neighborhood?
RG: The neighborhood around the 5333 site—taking in Jenifer, Jocelyn and Kanawha Streets, and Military Road—were part of the original Mount Airy subdivision, which at some point became known as Chevy Chase Terrace. That was subdivided in June, 1910. A few homes were built very soon thereafter. The oldest ones were started in June, 1910.
Q: What kind of homes are they?
RG: The ones built mainly between 1910 and 1918 had a lot of shingle-style homes, like mine, in the mix. On the 5333 site there were originally ten homes, all of which had been torn down in the 1970s, and all of them date from this same period. They possessed a lot of architectural character. Not crazy fancy homes; just what Chevy Chase was like in  the teens. Many mature trees, overall very much in the character of Chevy Chase DC.
Q: What was the relationship between Connecticut Avenue and the surrounding residential properties?
RG: The central fact is that once you get one lot deep off of Connecticut Avenue, it becomes a quiet residential neighborhood. There is an interesting dynamic in that most of the buildings that are currently on Connecticut Avenue were historically, essentially one lot deep. The apartment buildings that line Connecticut, including those to the north of 5333, are one lot deep. The ones between Military and Livingston were historic mansions, so those were very deep lots and so the Kenmore and similar buildings were built of these parcels of land. But that is one interesting feature of Connecticut Avenue that most people don’t realize: the buildings were originally zoned one lot deep for commercial purposes. That then went into the zoning maps of the 1950s, which maintained this definition for commercial or multi-family and did not intrude further into the surrounding neighborhoods. This set the character of the neighborhood, whereby you could have commercial areas and apartment buildings in close proximity to homes without altering the character of the single-family neighborhoods. This is a unique attribute in comparison to development further down Connecticut Avenue, where an apartment building takes up an entire city block. In Chevy Chase you have the unique feature where you have one lot deep, an alley behind it, and a building that was relatively shallow. In that regard, my neighbors and I, and many in Chevy Chase DC like the fact that you can be so close to the action and still live in a neighborhood that still has a pronounced residential feel.
5333 Connecticut Avenue is different in that they actually took ten lots—four lots deep—off of the Avenue. That is a major point of angst in the neighborhood. The building is being set much, much further back in the neighborhood than any equivalent building along Connecticut Avenue. The proposed building would be character-changing in that there would be single-family homes along three sides of the building, as opposed to just one or two, which is much more typical of the Avenue.
Q: Let’s talk about the long development of the 5333 site. The story goes back at least 40 years, does it not?
RG: So, the homes were torn down, we believe, based on photographs of my neighbors, around 1975. There had been ten single-family homes. A developer named George Baer bought all the homes in conjunction with those land-owners, paying them premium prices. They testified before the Zoning Commission that they wanted those lots to be re-zoned. Everything was contingent on re-zoning. In this deal, all were to make out very well financially, clearing the way for a change in the context of the development philosophy of the 1960s, which prized multi-family dwellings. This fit with the plan that the city had for an apartment building on that site for at least the four original lots along Connecticut. The site has been sitting vacant since the mid-1970s. I have a vague childhood memory of driving down that stretch with my father, observing the homes in the process of being torn down.
Q: How was the land used, formally or informally, following the razes?
RG: My understanding is that the land was designated for a time as a community park, a step that probably was sought by the owner in order to minimize property taxes pending development. For many years, the neighborhood children would play on the land and a community garden was set up. Over time, this sort of informal use has fallen off. With foundations of the razed structures still defining the area, it was not the most hospitable place for that sort of use.
Q: A garden was planted?
RG: There were people who used part of the area as a garden in the late 1970s.
Q: Aside from the foundation remnants, the absence of buildings must have been pleasant for the surrounding neighbors.
RG: The neighbors always thought that something reasonable would be developed there eventually. They just did not expect what we are up against currently.
Q: How did the situation evolve?
RG: The zoning documents from the mid-1960s are worth a read. What the developer originally promised was an apartment building that would be situated tightly along Connecticut Avenue with a very large, gardened, green space behind the building, which would offer a good measure of separation from the community. Approximately 65-70% of the lot was foreseen as green space, and that portion would be almost entirely behind the building, connecting it to the neighborhood. In that context, neighbors would be much happier with what is going on and it would fit much more with the character of the community, where there is some separation from the surrounding homes.
In 1985, Calvin Cafritz and his representatives went to the ANC 3G and asked for at least one additional lot, currently at 3710 Military Road, to be re-zoned and included in the site to achieve a larger floor-area ratio, enabling him to put up a larger building than he had been currently entitled to. That was Calvin Cafritz’s initial attempt to develop the land after he had purchased the site in 1973. He approached the ANC in February, 1985. The ANC and neighbors were quick to shoot down the idea of extending the site still further into the neighborhood from Connecticut Avenue. It became clear that he needed to get cooperation from neighbors for the development of the site. Subsequently, he would never ask for re-zoning of parcels adjacent to the land he currently owned. Constraints included deed restrictions on some of the surrounding homes that prohibited an apartment building indefinitely, a common practice in Chevy Chase. That was another interesting feature, part of the history of this site: many of the lots that had been purchased also had these deed restrictions that forever prohibited an apartment building from going up. Calvin Cafritz fooled many of the owners in 1972-1973 when he filed a lawsuit claiming that he was simply cleaning up title on his property, while in fact, the essence of the move was to remove the deed restrictions, paving the way for an apartment building.
Q: Give us some insight on the Cafritz firm.
RG: Calvin Cafritz and his father, Morris Cafritz and Gwendolyn Cafritz were some of the original developers of DC going back to at least the 1920s. They are one of the original development firms in DC. They have done a lot of wonderful things as a family, especially the older generations, for DC, mainly through their charitable foundation. The younger generation has split and has gone their own ways. The charitable and neighborhood mission is not what it once was. Calvin Cafritz is a very wealthy, powerful developer with longstanding political connections.
Q: How extensive are the business interests of the Cafritz family?
RG: They are certainly city-wide. I do not know how far they extend regionally.
Q: What happened after 1984?
RG: In 1985 and onward, the neighbors reached out to Calvin Cafritz and tried to work with him on the development of the site, hoping to get benefits for the neighborhood as well as ensuring a reasonable investment and building for him. They attempted to reach out between 1985 and 1987, without much luck. But the neighbors did file an action to prohibit the use of the alley behind the site for ingress or egress for any future building. They had done this by filing for the alley to be closed. That constituted a major restriction on Cafritz’s development efforts, because he preferred to use the low side of the site along Military Road and alley to Kanawha Street for ingress/egress. In fact, the alley in question was never open in the first place. It was an alley on paper, a stand of trees that, technically, was a public alley. The neighbors did not want it paved; neither did the ANC. The city would not let Cafritz pave it. This situation helped force Mr. Cafritz’s hand.
In addition, back then, the City Council and the mayor had a balanced approach in dealing with neighborhoods and developers. Chairman Clarke at that point in time was a big benefactor for the community and he tried very hard and essentially at the end demanded that Calvin Cafritz negotiate with the neighbors, so that everyone could come to a winning situation. So in the fall of 1987, the neighbors and Calvin Cafritz began to work on a planned unit development. That planned unit development would allow a little additional density, versus what a matter-of-right project would have allowed, and some other flexibilities that would he would not have had in a matter-of-right development. In return, the community would get a laundry list of benefits as far as the massing of the building towards Connecticut Avenue, the stepping down of the height of the building toward the neighborhood—a roughly 20 point list included in the eventual 1990 Zoning Commission approval, with which Cafritz was required to comply. It would have given benefits to the neighborhood, in conjunction with the benefits that the neighborhood gave him by allowing the denser building. That was the content of the zoning order of March 1990, which allowed him to plan a 184 to 204 unit building.
Q: Why did it take so long for him to do anything with it?
RG: The city had seen a real estate boom in the 1980s. The situation reversed in the 1990s; the real estate market was stagnant in DC. Mr. Cafritz and his financiers, apparently, did not consider the timing advantageous to launch the project.
Q: The layman wonders how it is possible to hold onto a valuable piece of property like that.
RG: There is some speculation about whether the terms of purchase resulted in very low tax bills relative to the underlying value of the property.
I would only add to the narrative to this point that the neighbors worked very collegially with Mr. Cafritz from 1987 to 1989 to develop the project in a way that would address their concerns and his concerns. Indeed, the PUD (Planned Unit Development=the agreement between the developer and the neighbors) was considered to be an accomplishment of the neighborhood.
Q: That brings us to the more recent situation.
RG: The PUD expired in 1998. It only had a two or three year term, but it got extended several times. Its expiration meant that the promises made to the community no longer were valid. Nor were the benefits Cafritz got from the community. What many neighbors at the time did not think was that he would potentially go back and build a building that was anti EVERYTHING that was in the PUD. Now he has in mind a building that is very, very tall, very close to single-family homes, with much, much less green space around the back of the building. If you go down the list of the benefits of the PUD to the neighbors, almost every single one of them has been ignored.
Q: Have new neighbors moved in, or are the neighbors today the same people as those who witnessed the beginning of the process in the 1970s?
RG: They are largely the same people. George Gaines is probably the oldest veteran also involved in the current process. He moved into his house in 1969. A lot of the other residents have been there since the early 1970s. There is a longstanding history of the neighborhood, with many here throughout the entire period.
Q: What kind of folks are they? What do they do?
RG: They are normal Chevy Chase neighbors: government employees, attorneys, teachers, the standard profile for Chevy Chase DC.
Q: Basically middle class folk.
RG: Yeah, upper middle class folk.
Q: Let’s turn our attention to the current controversy over 5333. From what you have been saying, I have the sense, which I would like you to confirm or contest, that the current uproar over the site development at 5333 comes from the shock experienced by neighbors about the scale and suddenness of the new development plan. If that is the case, when did it happen?
RG: Neighbors had become used to the appearance of maintenance crews at the site occasionally over the years. They were mowing or tending to trees. A small amount of activity was not uncommon on the site. In the fall of 2012, my wife noticed someone with a small drill, drilling bores on the site, which she found unusual. This led her to Google 5333, which produced the revelation that a soil boring report referenced a potential building.
Q: When was that?
RG: October 2012. In the week or two after that, we found some additional information. Eventually, I appeared before the ANC in November 2012. I asked them if they knew anything about this project. All permits are supposed to be shared with the local ANC, which would have an opportunity to understand what is going on in their community. They all were unaware that applications had been filed for permits for the site; they had no information about that. By early December, we had done some additional research and returned to the ANC with a more formal report of our findings, regarding what had been applied for permit-wise, what was going up on the site, some of the architectural plans we were able to get off the Internet…
Q: When you say “we,” who is the we?
RG: In early December, 2012, I and a few neighbors called a neighborhood meeting, distributing flyers within a few blocks of the site. It was decided at these meetings that we would form a neighborhood coalition to see if we could negotiate with the Cafritzes. We thought it wise to band together also to communicate more effectively with the ANC and overall we wanted to band together to protect the community as best we could, to insure that harmful features of the building were minimized.
Q: That is the origin of the CNC?
RG: Yes. That is the origin of the 5333 Connecticut Neighborhood Coalition in December 2012.
Q: What were your constitutive meetings like?
RG: When we described the scale of the building and the distance it came back off of Connecticut Avenue and its height, people—including those involved in the 1980s—were shocked, because it was the antithesis of the agreement between the community and Mr. Cafritz going back to that time. There was shock over the massing of the building, sitting back into the neighborhood, the lack of green space of the building, that prospect that all the trees would be torn down—not just on the site, but also in the surrounding public area. So, I think we were dumbfounded by the scale—originally it was going to be 184 to 204 units. Now, all of the sudden it was 263 units. How was he able to build a much, much larger building now when he had built a maximum-sized building in the 1980s, which was much smaller. Going around the room, people were dismayed. We all felt protective of our community. We were now confronted by a building twenty feet taller and substantially wider than the building we expected, if there were going to be a building on that site.
Q: Were people also concerned about the lack of outreach and consultation by the developer?
RG: Absolutely. People were very concerned that it was done completely in secrecy and to the point that, again, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs(DCRA), which is required by law to notify the ANC of projects that are in their district, had simply allowed the ANC line on the permanent application to be left blank, so that the project would be invisible to the ANC. And this was repeated the first seven times the DCRA reported permit applications on its ANC report. The ANC district box was not filled out. So, it essentially made the building invisible to the ANC for roughly seven months after the permits were initially applied for.
Q: How did you interpret this? Was it a kind of strategic move on the part of the developer?
RG: We consulted with some people with knowledge of the situation and “yeah, for some of the very connected permitting people and permitting agencies, the permit runners and the very connected law firms, that this type of thing can be done in a way that is strategic. You could essentially avoid scrutiny.
Q: You could buy yourself some time.
RG: You could buy yourself some time until it was very late in the process. And that’s what happened here.
Q: So it does happen. Is it supposed to happen?
RG: Absolutely not. It is very clear in the ANC law that they are to be notified and are to receive a report twice a month for permit applications affecting the ANC’s jurisdiction. So, it is clearly not consistent with the ANC law.
Q: I am trying to place myself in that meeting you convened in December 2012. Some frustration must have been articulated.
RG: Some things we had to cobble together over time. We tried to figure out for a month or more how the ANC didn’t know about it. If it hit the report and said there was a 263 unit apartment building, you would think someone would notice that. But it didn’t hit the report. Moreover, in the note column it said something like “residential.” It didn’t have a description that every other project on the report had, thereby letting the ANC know what was going on. There was just a very vague reference. There was no way that anyone could know what was proposed there from the permit. It was an underhanded way of hiding the project.
Q: When did you finally get a good sense of what was being proposed?
RG: Well, Google is an amazing thing. We were able to Google enough of the architectural plans left on a public website by the contractor, that by early December 2012 we very much knew what they were proposing. Understanding the building was not the hard part. It took us another week or two to look through the plans. We scratched our heads, pondering how they were able to build a building 20% larger this time than last time, when none of the zoning regulations had meaningfully changed. We were led in this way to look at the plans in more detail, with the participation of architects who live in our neighborhood. We came to the conclusion that they were taking exceptionally lenient and absurd views of the zoning regulations to simply not count entire floors of the building that should have been counted toward its size. Because we had access to such a volume of plans, it did not take us long to figure out the games they were playing and what was being proposed. I think it took us longer to figure out that the ANC hadn’t been notified seven straight times regarding permits applied for by the project. It took us a little bit longer to figure out some of the games that had been played, but the gist of the building we knew pretty early on.
Q: One thing that strikes me in listening to you is the concentration of expertise and technical background in the neighborhood available to you for developing an independent capacity to evaluate the project and then share the information and analysis with the neighborhood so it can react in whatever way it desired. One doesn’t find that often in communities.
RG: Right. There is no doubt that being in Chevy Chase with an amazing talented pool of neighbors is very helpful in endeavors like this. There are attorneys and architects and public relations people within a single block of 5333.
Q: What happened next, now that the coalition has been launched?
RG: In December 2012 and January 2013 we did a large amount of research to make sure we fully understood the architectural plans, the legal history of the site, the old PUD documents. As a group, we really dug in on the legal front, on the architectural front and probably most importantly on our relationship with the ANC and with DC City Councilmember Cheh. The culmination of that was an initial meeting at the Chevy Chase Community Center on January 3, 2013. There we presented an overview of the project to the broader Chevy Chase DC neighborhood. There was a heartening turnout and Councilmember Cheh attended. That was the first time we got a much larger swathe of the neighborhood into a room and they were able to get a report on the project from us and what we had learned to that point. Neighbors were able to give their feedback to us and to Councilmember Cheh.
Q: Was that the event at which the Cafritzes were also present.
RG: No. That came 20 days later.
Q: How many showed up at the initial meeting?
RG: My impressionistic count was in the range of 150-200 people. There was some streaming in and out—at any moment there were probably 150 people at most.
Q: That is an enormous turnout!
RG: Yes, but many more attended the second meeting 20 days later when the Cafritzes showed up. Based on the sign-in sheets at the January 23 meeting, we attracted about 400 people.
Q: How did you get from the first meeting on the 3rd to the one on the 23rd?
RG: Councilmember Cheh was helpful in prodding the Cafritzes, who at that point wanted absolutely nothing to do with the community. She had been flooded with emails from Chevy Chase residents expressing dismay that the Cafritzes had been quite stand-offish and had shown no interest in engaging with the community whatsoever. She was helpful in applying pressure on the Cafritzes and their counsel to appear at the Community Center, so that people could comment to them, ask them questions, and get a report on their plans.
Q: I cannot remember any other event that drew as many residents to the Community Center.
RG: DCRA Director Nicholas Majett tweeted from the meeting commenting on the huge turnout.
Q: More than turn out to vote sometimes…
RG: It took a significant amount of legwork by the community to inform their neighbors. We wanted everyone to understand what was going on, as it has implications not only for this particular building, but broader implications for community development going forward. I think the community responded because there is always a sense of right and wrong that is strong in the Chevy Chase community. The idea that developers would do something harmful to the community, without even attempting to mitigate its effect, clearly did not go over well. We have had a huge amount of support within the community registered in petitions we circulated and people have shown up in large numbers to the meetings. If nothing else, it has been a tremendous way for getting to know a lot more neighbors and appreciating the talented pool of people who live in this community.
Q: Bring us up to date. What has happened between then and now? What is the current situation?
RG: Between last January and now we have spent a lot of time trying to apply pressure. We challenged the project with the release of certain legal documents in the spring of this year to apply pressure on the government, which appeared to be rubber-stamping the plans. Ultimately, some minor changes were made to the plans and they were approved by the government in May 2013. Within a few days of that, we filed appeals before the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Office of Administrative Hearings for both zoning and building code violations. Much of the springtime was taken with meeting with ANC members, getting their support, which they did give. They joined both the BZA appeal with the neighborhood and the OAH appeal with the neighborhood. So, they were party to those appeals that were filed in June 2013.
With the ANC joining our appeal, that finally brought the Cafritzes and their representatives out of the shadows. In late June 2013, they actually agreed to meet with us and with the ANC for the first time.
Q: Did the meeting take place?
RG: Yes. The meeting took place in June 2013. Clearly, the Cafritzes were very worried that the ANC had joined the appeal and that summer they agreed to make some relatively minor changes to the building, including more parking spaces underground. There were other minor changes, but nothing relating to the mass of the building or the height of the building, or anything that we in the neighborhood would view as more meaningful. We had two meetings with the Cafritzes. From the point of view of the neighbors, nothing meaningful was accomplished. Ultimately, there was a feeling on both sides that there would not be a resolution amenable to both sides. What the Cafritzes did succeed in doing is getting the ANC to agree to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for a “new building.” Essentially, this new building would have additional parking, would not allow residential parking permits for the residents, and various other provisions. In August 2013, the ANC indicated to us that they were going to enter into this memorandum of understanding with the Cafritzes.
Q: When you say “new building,” you are referring to the same project?
RG: It is the same site and essentially the same building. It is something of a shell game. They say the building is going to be a tiny bit shorter. In the end they removed a railing on top of the building, so they claim it is shorter: but it is not shorter. So there was nothing meaningful changed, except for a little more underground parking.
Q: Is that the current situation?
RG: By coming to that agreement the ANC removed itself from the appeals. They stood down from the BZA and OAH appeals. In late September 2013, we had our Board of Zoning Adjustment hearing. We presented our case, also publishing it on our website (www.5333cnc.org) to make sure we were very transparent with our allegations, so that the matter would not disappear into an administrative black hole. We wanted our community and other communities across the city to understand the types of favorable treatment, the absurdities, the imaginary measuring points that developers can get away with in DC these days. So we did a ca. 175-200 page pre-hearing statement with exhibits that we published on our website. That was the basis for our appeal in late September of this year.
Q: Who drew up that report? It must have been quite an undertaking.
RG: It was indeed. Several neighbors drafted it with some assistance from outside counsel, who polished it up and prepared it technically for submission.
Q: Did they do it pro bono?
RG: Nope. We paid them.
Q: So, you had to raise some money.
RG: Yes. The neighbors willingly invested some capital in this. I think all of us are happy to invest some amount of capital to do the right thing. We think this is the right thing to protect the neighborhood. Even if the odds in this political environment are stacked against you, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do the right thing. We have all been willing to spend some money to bring transparency to this situation and hopefully to modify the outcome of the building.
Q: In a real sense, you are doing pro bono work for the community.
RG: Yes, more or less.
Q: You obviously have a website—another capacity that can’t be taken for granted even in this day and age. How did that come about?
RG: We have another neighbor who lives close by who we had never previously met, K.J. Hannah, who happened to be an amazingly talented web designer. Once she found out what was going on, she emailed the group and offered her services as our technology master. Another talented Chevy Chase resident willing to give a lot of her time. This allowed us to develop a website that had electronic petitions, that had a lot of information—a lot of the documents we published are on there, press releases—a tremendous resource that I think will live for years so that everyone has access to see the history of what’s gone on, the various legal documents, filings and so forth, so that when other community groups have to fight similar battles in the future, they will know what we went through and hopefully can piggyback on some of the work we have done.
Q: Who did you reach out to in pressing the case for transparency and plan modifications?
RG: It’s hard to say, as we have reached out to so many. Through the connections in the community we reached out to every at-large DC City Council member. We reached out to the relevant department heads in the city administration—DDOT, DCRA and otherwise—to lobby, to try to understand what was going on. We reached out to attorneys in the community for pro bono advice. We reached out to our own paid attorneys. We reached out to countless people for what to do. Community organizers, too. We are a broad coalition and we tapped a broad spectrum of expertise and connections.
Q: It is a miracle of our system of governance that people will come together when they are so busy attending to the exhaustively consuming daily demands of life—especially when they are not directly and immediately affected, not living in the shadow of the project. What do you think is motivating people?
RG: If it were simply a group of people complaining about a reasonable building that somebody had a right to build, I don’t think there would be nearly the community support. I think it taps the injustice that a lot of people in the community feel—the fact that the community wasn’t consulted, that it was hidden, that they ignored just every point of negotiation from the 1980s. Many are motivated by a desire to protect the unique, historic community that we live in. It felt like an unnecessary attack on the community. They could have easily built a structure in accordance with the 1980s plans—the same size and massing—and it could have been extremely lucrative for them. Instead, they chose to expand the building all the way back towards the homes at the full height. And I think that just doesn’t sit well with people who are highly protective of their community. This includes people from Barnaby Woods, who live more than a mile from the site. So yes, it hit a lot of people throughout the city. We have had people from the Palisades, from Tenley, and from other wards weigh in, sending emails and coming forth. People from Prince George’s County who are embroiled in a dispute with the Cafritzes out there. There is a lot of educated discontent. There was not a lot of “we don’t want a building there at all.” It was much more wonderment about why they were going out of the way to harm the community, needlessly. That has been our theme all along. I am sure you have seen the lawn signs around the neighborhood. For us, it is more about respecting the community and avoiding needless harm, which would have been easy to do.
Q: When you mobilize like this, there is a constellation of interests resisting, if only passively, your action. In addition to that, have you sensed any backlash to your campaign? Have you been aware of people disagreeing with your stance, perhaps animated by another vision of urban development?
RG: I would say that almost all the opposition that we have had is a very ignorant opposition. It is people from other parts of the city who will tweet “NIMBY”, without knowing any of the details, but willing to weigh in anytime someone opposes a development in DC, they assume it is crotchety old people without a leg to stand on, denying any change, wanting things to stay the way they are. But that is not who we are as a community. So, it has led to very, very little opposition within the Chevy Chase community to our efforts, because it is hard to say that, when you could build a building close to Connecticut Avenue, that instead you should build it next to a 1911 home. We just feel like we have a very defensible position that resonates well, and not just within the community, but throughout the city. The only people who apparently don’t like what we are doing are members of the urbanist tribe who feel that any multi-family housing or condominium complex is good, not matter what the harm.
Q: In the broader scheme of things in DC there are several related conversations playing out. One is the discussion about amending the city’s zoning law. And there are other projects under consideration in which the issue of parking availability is playing a role. These are matters on the radar screen along with 5333.
RG: Right. I think this has caused 5333 to resonate a lot more, because although this is the project that affects our community, it is so very representative of the push in the DC, both on the Zoning Re-write (ZRR) as well as on the Height Act changes. The confluence of these issues meant that each person had to pick their spots and allocate their time, but there is a common thread for many of us engaged in 5333, or the zoning re-write, or the height act. There is a groundswell in DC for a not well thought-out push to change things for the sake of change. Many things in the zoning re-write and the height act are detrimental to single families, because they are thought of much more in the context of neighborhoods further towards the center of the city, or the Penn quarter or downtown areas. They don’t take sufficiently into account the wishes and unique needs of single-family home areas. So it has certainly been an interesting time. I would say the same thing about the Height Act. That is a matter that our community and immediate neighborhood around 5333 feels very strongly about, because we live in very close proximity of apartment buildings. And we can do that because they are mostly 80 feet high with some systems on top and built tightly along Connecticut Avenue. Therefore, it is possible to live in harmony with them. When you start talking about buildings 20, 30, or 40 feet taller that are also much more expansive, the shadowing effects and the effect on trees really have character-changing potential throughout the city. We have had neighbors testify as recently as a few days ago for the Height Act hearing. It really has been an eye-opening experience for people like myself who were very focused on raising children and not activism. I probably would not have known that any of this stuff was going on were it not for getting on list-serves mainly through work with the 5333 project.
Q: Let’s take a moment to talk about aesthetics. 5333 is destined to be a glass building, if I am not mistaken. What role does this factor play in people’s attitudes toward the project?
RG: I think its proposed glass construction doesn’t help. But everyone latches on to their own aspect of the building. Most people associate Connecticut Avenue with masonry buildings with good-sized windows surrounded by large trees. When you walk along the Avenue in the evening, it is a dark, serene place. Light pollution on Connecticut Avenue is very low in comparison to other cities and this is a unique attribute of the Connecticut Avenue corridor that many neighbors appreciate. The glass aspect of 5333 plans brings up a lot of issues people don’t automatically think about. The light pollution is something we are certainly worried about. There are going to be a lot of evenings on which it will be just brighter. It may not be all night long; as the night progresses, some portion of the residents can be expected to turn of lights. But in reality, some people do leave lights on in the Kenmore and other large buildings. So the all-glass aspect of 5333 has issues with reflected light, with light pollution, and my understanding is that a lot of lamp posts are contemplated for the front of the building, although I don’t think they have even submitted a public space plan at this point. But this would project a lot of light up and out, as opposed to the traditional lights for safety, which project down and are limited. So I think you are seeing an attempt to bring an out-of-character glass development that will have a light pollution impact that will have reflected heat limiting trees that can be grown around the building. The height of the building will block light for any trees to the north of it. There are underground parking vaults that insure there will not be permeable soil around the building, because the parking extends out all the around the property line. In short, you are going to see a lot that originally had ten single-family homes surrounded by trees on which for all time you will not be able to plant anything more than small trees. The glass, the lack of trees, the general feel of the building as something that is more appropriate to the Dulles corridor have affected the views of many. Others are most offended by the ridiculous zoning interpretations and the fact that the building sits back off of Connecticut. But certainly the glass has not gone over well. It is something that bothers me, though I understand that under the zoning code there is nothing I can do about it currently. Hopefully that will change in the future.
Q: Is my sense correct that the opposition to 5333 as currently conceived is not a matter of an attitude toward modernity as much as it is about the technical aspects you have described. It has more to do with how the building would function in the actual context. Surveying Chevy Chase neighborhoods, one can find examples of successful modern buildings in the single-family residential areas.
RG: Not like this. This one will stand out. There are no equivalent buildings in the neighborhood. In the evening, anyone driving past will be drawn to the massive light coming off of it, and because there are not trees around it, it will stand out like no other building in the community.
Q: Among single-family homes there is some variation between styles—many are shingle or colonials, but you also see the odd Bauhaus type dwelling. I guess my question is your sense about how much people’s views of 5333 is driving by aesthetics and taste in architecture.
RG: I think there is a lot of that. The vast majority think the building is tremendously ugly. Referring back to the members of the Board of Zoning Adjustment, there was a visceral negative reaction to the design of the building. It was that out of character for people who understand the neighborhood. Even if we succeed in getting a slightly narrower building or a slightly less tall building, a glass building will be built and the neighbors are not going to be happy and I predict that even those who think they might be happy will be visually shocked by the amount of light pollution. It will be similar to the effect of office buildings downtown, lit up like Christmas trees. When you are looking at a building that is 100% windows, it will be bright.
Q: Do you think that an historic preservation district might have made a difference in this case?
RG: I would hope so. I have long contemplated what could have been different. Legally, I don’t know all the minutia. But looking around the city, it is stunning to me that with the number of areas that have zoning overlay districts or historic districts, Chevy Chase has never thought that it could be the victim of bad processes which can result in a 5333. When zoning overlays and historic districts have been brought up, many couldn’t comprehend the relevance for them. They tended to think of these measures as someone meddling with aspects of their home, but they didn’t think of the larger picture—that the entire character of the area around Politics & Prose Bookstore, or the Methodist Home, or Knollwood, or Ingleside, or the entire commercial stretch north of Livingston Street could be meaningfully changed. Many who are not for historic districts or zoning overlays are trusting; they think that DC will somehow magically protect their communities. I think that what we have seen is that if you do not have a zoning overlay or a historic district the DC permit office will not protect your community. They will take the most aggressive interpretation that any developer wants to give to zoning requirements. There is an overall penchant for development. They will look the other way so that the developer can succeed. One thing about the Board of Zoning Adjustment: for people who think it is not easy to go through the BZA for waiver of a zoning rule, experience shows that it is preposterously easy to do this. Something like 95% of the cases that go before the BZA get approval. These are normally people who are looking for waivers of zoning regulations without benefit to the community, often to build something bigger and more economically advantageous to them. The BZA is not a source of protection. It is important for people to understand that it is a mechanism for knowledgeable people to navigate the system to get breaks on zoning regulations. So, with all that said, I am certainly in favor of zoning overlay districts, historic districts, or anything that protects the character of the community in a reasonable way. You can come to arguments as to why you should not have such a district easily and those tend to propagate. You can say I don’t want so and so telling me how to choose my windows. My sense is that there are many people who were against the historic district when it was voted on a handful of years ago who I think would change their tune now that they understand how things truly work in DC. So I think things would be different and the question is how they would be different and that I am less certain about. I know that even city-wide the degree of protection now is not what it once was. The office of planning is very, very pro-development and pro-growth. Once you have the characters of communities change, you can’t really get it back. It takes a hundred years or even two hundred years to build character, but it can go away in a flash.
To return for a moment to 5333, we are now awaiting the outcome of our claim before the Office of Administrative Appeal. In addition to zoning violations that happen across the city and can happen on a smaller scale with individual homes, the building code in DC is something else that has not been enforced. That is the subject of our OAH appeal. We hope if the building code is enforced that this, too, would provide protection for communities like Chevy Chase. Currently, you can look at a giant bay window of the type not allowed and argue that it is three bay windows attached and get away with it and build three times as large as the code allows. With respect to 5333, we are still fighting a lot of Building Code aspects with broader implications for what developers can get away with, both downtown and in neighborhoods like this. We also see it relevant to single-family neighborhoods in determining what people can inflict on their neighbors by, for instance, inventing elevations. Where there is a 40-foot height restriction, can you first build a mound of dirt on which to place the structure and “legally” exceed the limit? There are all sorts of games that are being played these days that we think should be clamped down on to give everyone a fair playing field. Hopefully, between the zoning re-write fight, the Height Act fight, potential future historic districts and zoning overlays we will achieve more ways to protect our neighborhoods.