Trouble still brewing over proposed Sunrise, Baptist Church project

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The proposed project at the Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church site would include the creation of a Sunrise Senior Living facility. (photo courtesy of Sunrise Senior Living)

The lively, sometimes raucous, discussion in Tenleytown about the proposed redevelopment of a church’s property as a Sunrise senior living facility continued last Thursday at a community meeting.

Jonathan McHugh, who sits on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E (Tenleytown, Friendship Heights), wondered if a new building at the site of Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church on Alton Place NW can really serve both as a church and a continuing care retirement community.

“Is it a Reece’s cup?” he mused during the March 15 meeting. “Is it chocolate or peanut butter? You can’t put them together. Is it too much to have these two uses on one site? Can they share the space?”

McHugh said if the massing of the building can be changed and the neighboring residents who oppose the project thereby made happy, he might vote to ask the District’s zoning authorities to grant the variances the developer seeks.

Sunrise Senior Living has proposed a new building that would provide space both for senior residential living and a new home for the Baptist congregation. The redevelopment has sparked fierce opposition from some neighbors of the property, especially a group of homeowners on 39th Street between Alton and Yuma. Their houses are a few feet from the property line and would be most affected by the construction and the proximity of a new four-story building in a district of detached residential dwellings.

Sunrise official Philip Kroskin, who has been the public face of the proposal, spoke at the meeting to describe recent tweaks to the Sunrise plan. He summarized them in an email to The Current.

“The lot occupancy was the major change from 63 percent to 59 percent,” Kroskin wrote. “This was a reduction from 90 units to 85 units. And the church also reduced its overall square feet within the building.”

Kroskin also said he has found a new contractor who would reduce the cost of the building.

The developer and his attorney, Carolyn Brown, answered questions from the commission and the audience.

Brown said for technical zoning purposes, the desire of a religious institution to remain in a neighborhood is an “exceptional or extraordinary condition” and should be taken into account by the Board of Zoning Adjustment. The board is the District’s quasi-judicial body that has power to grant exceptions to zoning regulations. Brown cited the example of a dispute between George Washington University’s (GWU) Hillel and the neighboring St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on 23rd Street NW as relevant for Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church. The “extraordinary condition” argument was successfully used by Hillel in that case.

A neighbor asked why the developer does not settle on a smaller building that would house 47 units, a number that could be built as “a matter of right,” in the words of zoning regulations.

“That is not economically viable,” Brown said. “Eighty to 85 units is the break-even point.”

Bender was intrigued by Brown’s example of GWU Hillel, and said he would look further into the case as having possible relevance to Sunrise.

Bender described arguments against the development based on the cost of living in a Sunrise facility as “a huge red herring.” He said a member of his family had moved to a continuing care retirement community in Phoenix at a cost of $8,000 a month. He said that at-home companion care can cost between $75,000 and $95,000 a year, a figure that does not include property taxes, food and transportation – expenses that are covered in a senior living facility.

Commissioner Greg Ehrhardt also said the cost argument does not resonate with him.

“The cost of housing in [nearby] AU Park and Glover Park is not attainable for 75 percent of the country,” he said.

Ehrhardt asked Kroskin if Sunrise has considered building on the nearby Fannie Mae site on Wisconsin Avenue, soon to be redeveloped.

“They are promoting four to six mid-rise apartment buildings,” Ehrhardt said. “Have you approached them?”

Kroskin said no.

Tom Quinn, another ANC member, made comments that momentarily sparked an angry brouhaha that ended with some people leaving the meeting.

“Our oath [as commissioners] is to take into account the interests of the entire city, not just our ANC or single-member district. We can lament that healthcare is for-profit, but we can’t resolve that. There’s going to be a change in use at this lot. It could be sold to another developer who would change [the zoning] and build 60 or 70 skinny townhouses. It’s a residentially zoned site. [Sunrise] is proposing a residential use.”

One audience member said his mother had lived and died at a nearby Sunrise facility on Connecticut Avenue. He supported construction of the one under discussion in Tenleytown, and echoed Bender’s comments about cost.

“I didn’t see people walking around there in mink stoles.”

Another resident voiced his support for the project in an email, and said his views are shared by some other neighbors.

“I live at 39th and Alton,” wrote Ben Nussdorf. “I support the project because we believe the Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church will struggle to exist in its current building, and the Sunrise proposal will have fewer detrimental effects on the neighborhood than potential alternatives. Further, we believe that Sunrise’s representatives have made a good-faith effort to listen to and incorporate reasonable community concerns.”

Judy Chesser, who lives across the street from the church, said she appreciates the ANC’s efforts but is unpersuaded by arguments in favor of the development.

“The ANC Commissioners, thankfully, are trying to sort through the many issues involved with Sunrise,” Chesser wrote in an email. “Commissioner Ehrhardt asked a very significant question. Who owns the site at 3920 Alton? Sunrise does not, and therefore cannot legally ask for any variances – lot occupancy or increased height – on its own behalf. For this reason, this case should be dismissed.”

A Sunrise website specifies how ownership of the proposed facility would be arranged.

“Upon completion of the building, Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church and Sunrise will each own, in a condominium interest, their respective spaces within the building. Each property will be operated separately and independently,” it said.

Nina Kraut has also been vocal in opposing the development and spoke up sharply at last week’s meeting to contradict Tom Quinn and others sympathetic in any degree to Sunrise. In an email on Tuesday, she said the cost of renting a Sunrise unit does matter. Kraut wrote:

“One of the commissioners said the cost of Sunrise is irrelevant, and that Sunrise in that proposed location will be great for those who live in this neighborhood. Actually the Sunrise price tag is relevant,” she wrote. “Many of us who live here bought decades ago when we were all working full time. Now many are retired and living on fixed pensions, Social Security income, etc. I can’t imagine that many of us could afford Sunrise’s price tag of $10,000 or more a month.

“Even assuming we’d sell our homes, after taxes, realtor commissions and mortgage payoffs, those funds can only be stretched so far. Once you’re out of money, reports are that Sunrise kicks you out – i.e., they do not accommodate residents who rely on Medicaid, unlike other residences for the elderly, such as Lisner on Western Avenue.”