Lawsuit challenges development of Adams Morgan SunTrust site

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Developers have applied for a permit to raze the bank building at 1800 Columbia Road NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

After failing to block project approvals from city preservation authorities, opponents of the redevelopment of the SunTrust branch at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW are taking their battle to a new venue.

When Denis James, president of the Kalorama Citizens Association, saw in May that developer PN Hoffman had applied to raze the existing bank building at 1800 Columbia, he decided the time had come for last-ditch efforts to save the open plaza space on the property.

“Sometimes things do change without any input from the community, like they can’t find investors to finance the building. You never know,” James said in an interview. “It seemed clear that at that point their plans were becoming more likely to be a reality.”

On June 16, the citizens association joined with the ad hoc group Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development to file suit against PN Hoffman. Their D.C. Superior Court filing argues that the developer’s plans conflict with an existing easement that affords the plaza space as a public benefit of a decades-old building project. Despite written testimony dating back to the original deal from neighborhood leaders involved in the negotiations, PN Hoffman has repeatedly denied that the easement still applies. A hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction will come before Superior Court Judge Todd Edelman on July 19 at 2:15 p.m.

The suit’s main contention stems from a 1976 letter from Thomas H. Owen, then the owner of Perpetual Bank, which had proposed at the time to build a three-story structure at the 1800 Columbia site. Neighbors protested due to Perpetual’s history of “redlining,” a practice of refusing to offer loans or insurance to customers if they are perceived to live in a financially risky area.

As reparations of sorts, according to the letter, the bank offered “to develop the property in such a way as to preserve its open quality, attractiveness and accessibility to the vendors that presently use it…[and build] a branch housed in a modest three story building placed as far back as possible in order to allow ample room for vendors and other open-air activities.”

The groups’ attorney — Lanier Heights resident Paul Zukerberg, a 2014 candidate for D.C. attorney general — argues in his request for a preliminary injunction that the public provision still stands today, citing news reports and photographs that show the public consistently making use of the space for nearly four decades.

The developer sees the arrangement differently. In its June 23 response, PN Hoffman’s lawyers contend that Perpetual retained full ownership of the plaza and that the public must seek permission before using it for organized events. At present, they argue, SunTrust cleans and maintains the plaza and faces liability for injuries that occur upon it.

“This claim is so lacking in legal merit that its purpose can only be to impose an improper burden on, and to slow, the development of the Plaza,” the lawyers write of the injunction request.

SunTrust spokesperson Mike McCoy declined to comment beyond confirming that PN Hoffman has a contract to purchase the site from the bank. The developer declined comment for this story due to the pending litigation.

PN Hoffman hopes to construct a seven-story condominium building on the site of the existing plaza and SunTrust bank building. During contentious negotiations with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C (Adams Morgan) last year, architects made several alterations to the size and shape of their building, landing on a design that would retain 25 percent of the existing plaza’s square footage for public use. ANC 1C repeatedly opposed the preservation application but declined to formally weigh in on the easement discussions.

The smaller plaza wouldn’t have adequate space for the heavily trafficked Adams Morgan Farmers Market, which has offered fresh fruits and vegetables to neighbors in that spot since 1972. Market operators have said they would have to move elsewhere if the developer follows through on its plans, though PN Hoffman has assured the community that it will help secure a new market location nearby.

The citizens association and ad hoc group have been considering litigation since last fall, ramping up their efforts when the project earned the go-ahead from the Historic Preservation Review Board in January.

Vikram Chiruvolu of Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development spent weeks digging through the Washingtoniana archives at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown, looking for references of any length to the plaza or the deal with Perpetual. The 1976 letter, he said, was “kind of a needle in a haystack,” buried within a 150-page book.

“I really took a good look at it and having looked at a lot of other stuff around the case, I thought, this is pretty close to a smoking gun,” Chiruvolu said.

After finding that document, Chiruvolu and his fellow group leader Chris Otten sent a 10-page brief to numerous area lawyers. Zukerberg, who lives a half-mile from the plaza, emerged willing to fight.

“We’re in it for the long haul if necessary,” Zukerberg said. “It’s an unusual case because it’s about events that occurred in 1976 and 1977, but hopefully people will agree on the facts fairly quickly and we’ll be able to get a prompt decision. It’s not rocket science, like a patent case.”

Zukerberg is working on the case pro bono, but other expenses throughout the process could run up to $10,000, according to Chiruvolu. The 600-member citizens association has already raised the bulk of those funds from neighborhood residents interested in protecting the plaza. In the event that the groups prevail, any leftover money would go toward a community event to plan the future of the plaza space, James and Chiruvolu said.

The case cites among its sources Frank Smith, a former four-term D.C. Council member who served as president of the civic Adams Morgan Organization in the late 1970s. Smith, who now serves as executive director of the African American Civil War Museum on U Street NW, told The Current that the plaza was part of the agreement with Perpetual, and that he thinks it would be a shame for the community to lose it.

“I think it’s good that people are debating and discussing and arguing about what they call a sense of community, a sense of shared experiences, a sense of civitas,” Smith said. “My hat’s off to them.”

In the past, Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau has asked, to little avail, for SunTrust to enter into negotiations with the community. Nadeau didn’t respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

James said he recognizes that some observers might look at the plaza and dismiss it as an unattractive relic of the past.

“People say, ‘It’s shabby-looking.’ Well, it’s 40 years old. It was built at a different time in this neighborhood,” James said. “It doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a great space if it were redone with better materials. It could be a win-win.”