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Residents fight Washington Hilton expansion

(Published January 17, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Facing widespread community opposition, the Washington Hilton and Towers at Florida and Connecticut avenues NW has asked to postpone a hearing on its application for a zoning variance that would have allowed it to build an additional 35,000 square feet of ballroom and convention space at a location that neighbors say is already overused.

Residents of the area voiced objections to existing problems with traffic, parking and safety at a town hall meeting Jan. 5 and said if the expansion were allowed those problems would only worsen.

Some residents also were concerned that granting the Hilton permission to build its additional space would weaken a 20-year-old law that prohibits hotels in residential areas from expanding.

"It could be precedent setting," said Linda Softli, chairman of the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission. "It could affect hotels all over the city."

Softli, in whose single-member district the Hilton is located, said the hotel has been unwilling to fix traffic congestion problems that have worsened over the years.

Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner David King, whose district is across the street from the hotel, agreed with Softli.

"The Washington Hilton had not and has not taken proper mitigation suggestions to heart," he said.

At the Jan. 12 meeting of the Adams Morgan ANC, the commission voted unanimously to oppose the hotelís zoning variance application. When the vote was recorded, a crowd of about 70 people at the meeting erupted in applause. Among the crowd were students and teachers from Adams Elementary School, which is next door to the hotel.

The Board of Zoning Adjustment is scheduled to hear the Hiltonís case at its Feb. 9 meeting. A spokeswoman for the board said the case could still come up at the meeting because the board could refuse to postpone the hearing. She said the case has already been postponed several times.

Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, sent a letter to the commission stating his opposition to the application. In the letter he said he had asked the hotel to withdraw its application and to try to solve its long-standing problems with the immediate neighborhood.

A staff member for Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, said Evans also would oppose the application unless the Hilton resolves the traffic and safety problems.

The Dupont Circle ANC voted to send a letter to the BZA urging the board not to take action until the Hilton resolves the problems.

At the town hall meeting, neighbors complained that the Hilton does not provide sufficient parking for guests and employees as required by law and that the bus and truck traffic on 19th Street creates a hazard to residents and the children who attend the school next door. Residents said they feared if the hotel were allowed to expand, those problems would only get worse.

Softli said a larger issue is that the hotel lies within a residentially zoned area. She said if the variance were granted, other hotels in the area like the Sheraton Wardham Park might try to seek variances to expand also.

"It would set an extremely harmful precedent that would lead to the expansion of other hotels in residential areas," she said.

In 1980, the BZA passed regulations that prohibited hotels in residentially zoned areas from expanding, classifying them as high-density commercial enterprises. The ruling applied to expansion within an existing lot as well as expansion of the lots. That ruling came as a result of the Washington Hiltonís attempts to buy three adjacent apartment buildings in order to expand. The board also ruled that it would no longer allow hotels to be built in residential zones.

In addition to the ANC, the Kalorama Citizens Association, the Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan Residential Action Coalitions and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association oppose the zoning variance request.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator