DC residents oppose apartment construction behind Masonic Temple

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Rendering of the courtyard between the Masonic Temple and residential building. Photo courtesy of dc.urbanturf.com.
Rendering of the courtyard between the Masonic Temple and residential building. Photo courtesy of dc.urbanturf.com.

By: Davis Kennedy

The Dupont Advisory Neighborhood Commission recommended that the Historic Preservation Review Board approve construction of a 125-150 unit apartment building. Commissioner Nick DelleDonne was the single opponent. The apartments would be built at the corner of 15th and S streets behind the Masonic Temple with several modifications to the developer’s current plans. While the site was occupied by row houses 30 years ago, it is now largely a green field.

The review board is scheduled to consider the matter at its Nov. 29 meeting and the commission requested that the board reconsider any changes in plans.

As to zoning, the planned building is “by-right,” so approval can be giving without involving zoning authorities. The Masonic Temple complex, which includes the site of the proposed building, is a national monument. It is located within the 16th Street and the 14th Street Historic Districts. It includes a historic carriage house, which developers plan to use for apartments after they install windows. Architect Jeff Lockwood says it’s “to make it a livable space.”

Numerous members of the public criticized the project. They said 15th Street, opposed to 16th and 14th streets, is historically a townhouse residential area. 16th Street, they said, is made up largely of apartments while 14th Street is more commercial. When numerous speakers criticized the idea of an apartment building on the site, the standing room only at the commission meeting filled the room with cheers and applause.

DelleDonne said the residents fear the project will result in their “losing what makes their neighborhood such a desirable place to live.” A different group of opponents wanted the apartment building to be considerably higher and larger to help keep the area more affordable.

If that occurs, the building would have to go through a zoning review as it could not be built “as a matter of right.” Matt Johnson said many people “cannot afford to live in the neighborhood any longer.” He said there is a real need for more housing. “Building it taller would mean more units,” he added.

The Dupont Circle Conservancy was among the opponents. Richard Busch read its statement which opposed “the scale and the massing.” The conservancy says, “the massing and height are too large and we recommend that the building be reduced by two stories.”

A local resident pointed out that 14th and 16th streets are populated with tall buildings while “15th Street is row houses,” he was greeted by strong applause from the audience.

“I want less density,” he said. Another resident said he has “a problem with where the building is located. This is a national monument, which “is beautiful enough to deserve protection … You’re going to cover it up.”

Lockwood said developers plan to have a green roof atop the historic carriage house. “We’re making it a livable space.” He said the Historic Preservation Review Board wants the overall project to be compatible with the historic nature of the area, not necessarily a copy of the old architecture.

The main building will have a roof terrace with a pool, said Adam Peters, who represents the developer.

When a local resident whose home was damaged by nearby construction asked if the construction work would damage homes across the street from the development, Lockwood simply said, “We are not trail-blazing.”

Lockwood said that the two levels of basement apartments “would be affordable,” although Johnson said that these underground apartments would not receive sunlight.

Richard Ross, another neighbor, said he is worried about garbage and trash trucks blocking the street. Lockwood responded there will be a loading dock inside the building that will be used for daily trash and garbage pick up.

When a resident complained that the developer had not done a traffic study, Lockwood answered that a traffic study typically was not required for a “by-right” building. Were the building not “by-right” zoning authorities would consider traffic.

The commission’s motion mentioned that many residents feel that preserving the views of the Scottish Rite Temple “is more important than the preservation of the current carriage house,” a contributing historic structure. The motion was also critical of the nature of the proposed carriage house windows.

In addition, the motion called the project’s corner treatments of its street frontage and brick treatment “too complicated” and that the latter is “incompatible with existing historic structures.” It also requested “a more muted color tone” than is currently planned.

Should the building be built, DelleDonne said a bill before the City Council could grant it a tax abatement of about $22 million. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mike Silverstein pointed out in an interview that the appropriateness of such a tax reduction is not within the purview of the Historic Preservation Review Board.