Georgia Eastern project hits snag as neighbors appeal zoning approval

The Georgia Eastern project would include a Harris Teeter supermarket at the prominent corner by the Maryland line. (rendering courtesy of Douglas Development)

A major Ward 4 building project that was originally scheduled to begin construction in the second quarter of 2017 has been temporarily waylaid by two D.C. Court of Appeals cases amid neighborhood objections to traffic plans for the site.

Douglas Development has planned since 2013 to construct a mixed-use building with four stories of apartments above a ground-floor Harris Teeter grocery store at 7828 Georgia Ave. NW in Shepherd Park, just west of the Maryland line. Dubbed “Jemal’s Gateway” and “Georgia Eastern,” the project is billed as another opportunity — along with the Walter Reed redevelopment farther south — for commercial growth in an area of the city that’s struggled until recently to secure consistent retail interest.

The development site is bounded by Eastern Avenue to the north, Georgia Avenue to the east, Kalmia Road to the south and 12th Street to the west. Early plans had called for vehicles to access the building’s underground parking garage from an entrance on Eastern Avenue, a commercial strip with businesses on both sides.

But when the application came before the Zoning Commission last July, residents were surprised to find that the entrance had been moved to Kalmia, a narrow residential street with far less activity than Eastern. That block’s residents are now concerned that the building project will pose safety threats to neighborhood senior citizens and children, many of whom walk home to and from nearby Shepherd Elementary, as well as vehicles trying to squeeze through the already narrow roadway there.

The low-rise commercial space at Georgia and Eastern avenues NW is slated for redevelopment. Neighbors are concerned about its planned reliance on quiet Kalmia Road, visible at left. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

Prompted by the entrance change and other traffic concerns, two residents have filed D.C. Court of Appeals cases in an attempt to overturn the Zoning Commission ruling.

Dissent extends beyond those two disputes as well: Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A voted unanimously in April to temporarily withdraw support for the project, and on June 6, voted 5-2 to formally rescind support and request that the developers restore the Eastern Avenue entrance. (ANC 4A includes Colonial Village, Crestwood, Shepherd Park, northern 16th Street Heights and western Brightwood.)

Representatives from Douglas Development indicated interest in commenting for this story but didn’t respond in time for publication.

In a June 2016 analysis of the site, the D.C. Department of Transportation said it had no objections to the Kalmia Road entrance, though it did recommend signal timing improvements at nearby intersections. A traffic study commissioned by the agency last spring projects that more than 300 cars will be entering and exiting the garage during peak afternoon hours.

The next step in the development process for the project team is to secure approval from the D.C. Council to close a public alley on the site, clearing the way for final designs and construction permitting. The latest plans called for a second and final vote on the alley closure at the council’s June 27 meeting.

In the meantime, the ongoing litigation has delayed the design process. At a March 30 council hearing, the developer’s lawyer Kyrus Freeman of the firm Holland & Knight said designs won’t be complete until at least mid-2018, and construction won’t begin until the end of next year or the beginning of 2019.

Despite the slowly progressing plans, more than 100 residents have signed an online petition at calling for the D.C. Council to hold off on passing the alley closure bill introduced by Ward 4 D.C. Council member Brandon Todd until the developer agrees to move the entrance back to Eastern.

“I am signing because it is unconscionable to dump this traffic on Kalmia Road,” one resident wrote on the petition page. “It will be dangerous and debilitating to the quality of life in our neighborhood.”

Still, the council has taken initial action, unanimously backing Todd’s bill on first vote on June 6 and approving emergency legislation on the same day to close the alley. The council’s required second vote on Todd’s bill will take place next Tuesday.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said during the June 6 vote discussion that he advanced Todd’s legislation because the developer is “anxious” to begin work on the project. In an interview, he said the emergency legislation was necessary to ensure the alley could be closed soon, rather than waiting for mayoral and congressional review that could take up to four months.

Mendelson said he became aware of the bulk of neighborhood concerns about the project after the public comment period on the bill ended in April. At this point, he said, the council isn’t in a position to reverse course, as such legislation typically follows the will of the council member in the affected ward — in this case, Todd.

“I recognize that there’s community opposition at this point, but when one looks more closely, it’s a mixed picture,” Mendelson said.

Though Mendelson appeared averse to halting the bill’s progress, he didn’t rule out the possibility of further discussion.

“If folks want to approach me or they want me to come to a community meeting, I’ll do that,” Mendelson said. “But I’m not aware of any such requests.”

Todd told The Current he wanted to move forward given ANC 4A’s prior support of the overall project and the alley closure. “I think that we’ll be able to resolve the traffic concerns,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m very confident in that.”

Late last year, Todd requested that the Department of Transportation conduct a livability study of the broader Shepherd Park and Colonial Village neighborhoods that will provide guidance for traffic mitigation measures before and after the development is complete. He hopes to see preliminary findings for the area surrounding the Jemal’s Gateway within the next 60 days, he said.

The Georgia Eastern project would back to some single-family homes. (rendering courtesy of Douglas Development)

“When you bring development, anything new, you will see change. I’m very sensitive to that,” Todd told The Current. “I want to work hand in hand with neighbors, the ANC, with DDOT and the people that are going to bring this development to Georgia to make sure that we not only get a great project with great amenities, but that the community impact is the least possible.”

Neighbors have scheduled a community meeting with Todd for 7 p.m. Thursday to discuss residents’ concerns. The meeting will take place at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, 1600 Jonquil St. NW.

The proposal for an Eastern Avenue entrance fell through after Douglas Development failed to reach a deal to purchase the adjacent Terra Nova Enterprises building at 7826 Georgia, according to ANC 4A’s Stacey Lincoln, who was elected last November to represent the area that includes the Georgia Eastern project.

Kevin Jackson, the son of the Terra Nova building’s owner, told The Current that after several years of negotiations, Douglas Development declined a year and a half ago to accept his mother’s asking price for the building. According to property manager Nigel Harris, the building has never been listed for sale, but the owners want neighbors to have the Eastern Avenue entrance they seek, if a buyer offers an appropriate amount.

“Mr. Jemal knows what he offered. We know what he offered. He needs to come up with something that is a little more acceptable,” Harris said of Douglas Jemal, owner of Douglas Development. “The owner is willing to sell it, not give it away.”

Meanwhile, Harris Teeter has not yet signed a lease to occupy the site’s ground-level retail space, according to company spokesperson Danna Robinson. The development team is “moving forward through some issues,” Freeman said during the March council hearing.

Ben Longstreth, a Kalmia Road resident with three children, told The Current he and his neighbors are excited about having a grocery store so easily accessible from his home. But that excitement evaporates in the face of traffic concerns that could affect his children’s ability to walk comfortably near their home.

“When you see another car coming down or you’re going up the road, often one driver ends up having to pull over to one side to let the oncoming car get by more easily,” Longstreth said. “Already this is a street that’s experiencing a fair amount of traffic for the width.”

This article has been updated to reflect new information from Ward 4 D.C. Council member Brandon Todd’s office. Todd’s spokesperson had previously said that Todd arranged Thursday night’s committee, when in fact residents arranged it and invited him.