Developers scale back grocery proposal at Superfresh site

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The Ladybird project would include a grocery store below apartments on Yuma Street NW. (rendering courtesy of Valor Development)

The redeveloped Superfresh site in American University Park will no longer include a full-size supermarket, developers told the community last week, citing a dwindling interest from grocers.

However, the Ladybird project at 48th and Yuma streets NW will still include a smaller grocery of about 10,000 to 16,000 square feet, Valor Development assured residents at last Thursday’s meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E (Friendship Heights, Tenleytown, American University Park).

At its highest point, overlooking Massachusetts Avenue NW’s commercial strip, the Ladybird project would stand 88 feet tall including its penthouse level. (rendering courtesy of Valor Development)

The divisive project aims to replace the long-vacant Superfresh store and its large parking lot with a sprawling mixed-use complex, featuring two buildings comprising more than 200 apartments atop retail and standing up to seven stories to tall. It’s drawn strong opposition from many residents of nearby single-family homes, who argue that the plans are grossly out of scale with the community, though local supporters see it providing additional amenities and vitality to a current dead zone.

A common thread of support focused on the promised new supermarket, widely rumored as a Harris Teeter and highly desired by residents whose longtime Safeway shut down last year on Davenport Street NW.

“You guys have said time and again that the value proposition for this project was the grocery store,” ANC 3E chair Jon Bender told the project team. “My support is wavering. A lot of this comes down to what you’re going to provide.”

At the ANC 3E meeting, Valor provided a list of grocers that it said could be a fit for the downsized space: Mom’s Organic Market, Trader Joe’s, Balducci’s, Earth Fare, Chevy Chase Supermarket and Whole Foods 360. The firm’s Will Lansing said that three stores in this genre had already expressed “serious interest” in creating a location in the Ladybird and that none had rejected the space, but he declined to specify which ones they were.

Three other Northwest mixed-use developments in the pipeline do include a large supermarket component: the Fannie Mae headquarters at 3900 Wisconsin Ave. NW, which has signed Wegmans as an anchor tenant; the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus in Ward 4; and the Georgia Eastern development, also in Ward 4. But Lansing said Valor’s experience with the Ladybird reflects the norm for urban grocery expansion.

“A lot of the larger box stores, they’re not doing deals anymore,” Lansing said. “In our research and working with [our broker], the grocery business has changed and it’s changed significantly in the two years that we’ve been in this — we’re shocked at the changes.”

The departure of the supermarket does reduce the projected traffic impact on the community, traffic consultant Erwin Andres said at the meeting. “The grocery/retail use is probably one of the more significant uses per square foot in terms of traffic generation,” he said.

The former Superfresh supermarket at 48th and Yuma streets NW sits vacant as the site awaits redevelopment. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

Andres now projects that the project will result in 91 vehicle trips in the morning peak hour and 200 in the evening peak hour — down by 100 and 220, respectively, from when the proposal included a full-size supermarket. However, some residents challenged the idea that any small-format grocer would draw from only a small area, as Andres projected. “Trader Joe’s is a destination retailer,” one meeting attendee argued.

The original project design included 60,000 square feet of retail space, most of which would have been set aside for the supermarket. Its entrance would have been on Yuma Street, and it would have extended underground as Yuma slopes upward toward 48th Street.

The revised plans include a total of about 16,000 to 17,000 square feet of retail, tentatively configured with a grocery store of about 15,500 square feet and a second retail tenant of about 2,100 square feet, Valor’s Felipe Serpa told The Current.

Valor Development tweaked the architecture for the Ladybird, shown here at the corner of 48th and Yuma streets NW, to reduce the project’s visual bulk. (rendering courtesy of Valor Development)

In response to requests from prospective grocers, the project team also redesigned the parking garage, according to Serpa. The underground space along Yuma Street will now be parking for the smaller grocery store, Serpa said, because customers would prefer to park on the same level as the store. In addition to the spaces at the grocery level, Valor plans three levels of underground parking with a total of 370 spaces, Serpa said. The earlier plans called for a fourth underground level and a total of 460 spaces.

At the ANC 3E meeting, Valor also unveiled revised designs that modified the buildings’ facades and pulled back some of the upper stories farther from the street. The changes, aimed at minimizing the project’s visual bulk, reduce the development from 230 units to 219. The project remains tallest in the section adjacent to the Massachusetts Avenue commercial corridor, 23 feet downhill from the section facing residential 48th Street and Windom Place NW.

Shelly Repp of Neighbors for Responsible Development spoke against the Ladybird project at ANC 3E’s July 20 meeting. (Brady Holt/The Current/July 2017)

Opponents at the meeting were unimpressed with the changes. “The envelope of this building is basically the same envelope as before, and our main concern all along has been the massing and scale of the building,” said Shelly Repp, a nearby resident who helped form the opposition group Citizens for Responsible Development.

“The amenity that you were talking about and offering to the community was the grocery store,” Repp added, “and the grocery store has been cut back by 70 percent. So here we have the worst part without most of the best part.”

The members of ANC 3E, who often encourage smart-growth policies, were more supportive than most of the meeting’s attendees.

The Ladybird development is designed to minimize its bulk when seen from 48th Street and Windom Place NW, but many neighbors still object. (rendering courtesy of Valor Development)

“Ultimately, I think it’s not a bad project,” said commissioner Jonathan McHugh. “I don’t think the effects are going to be anything near what [opponents] think it’s going to be.”

Fellow commissioner Tom Quinn said he wished the building contained still more units, but praised the revised facades. “I think the design’s improved with every iteration,” he said.

The project is coming before ANC 3E because Valor needs zoning approval to include a retail component and to build to the currently proposed density. The company contends that it could build a similar project with slightly smaller apartment units and no retail without needing any zoning relief, but neighborhood opponents dispute Valor’s interpretation of the regulations. A Zoning Commission hearing on the project is expected in November.

This post has been updated to clarify Will Lansing’s comments about possible grocery tenants.