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Downtown project heads to the courts

(Published February 28, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Preservationists are poised to sue the city over what they characterize as a series of bureaucratic blunders that threaten the last block of the historic downtown business district.

A technicality in city law could allow the Archdiocese of Washington to demolish the block of rowhouse businesses, despite a judge’s ruling against such action. Preservationists say a situation like this could have been avoided had the D.C. City Council listened to them two years ago when they warned the city’s historic preservation laws were being weakened.

Pat Lally, a trustee of the Committee of 100 for the Federal City and the D.C. Preservation League, said the groups’ warning went unheeded two years ago when the council passed a far-ranging regulatory reform bill that he says was rushed through the council without sufficient public input.

Topping the list of the preservationists’ concerns at the time was a requirement that rulings by the mayor’s agent for historic preservation must be issued within 60 days of closing the record on a case. If the decision is late, the application is automatically approved. Because the deadline in the archdiocese’s case was missed, that could lead to the demolition that Williams’ administration officials ruled is not in the public interest.

"I honestly think the bill had malicious intent in areas like historic preservation," Lally said. "I can only conclude that the bill intentionally had weak points to benefit developers."

The archdiocese was issued raze permits Jan. 31 to tear down most of the historic rowhouses along the north side of the 900 block of F Street NW. The church wants to build an 11-story office complex, replacing the last of the low-density commercial strip in downtown that dates back to the turn of the century.

Historic preservationists and a group of artists who rent studios in the buildings fought the development, claiming it violates the intent of the city’s historic preservation laws and the city’s comprehensive plan that designates the downtown area as an arts district.

The mayor’s agent for historic preservation, Judge Rohulamin Quander, denied the church’s application in a decision dated Nov. 9, ruling that the archdiocese did not meet any of the criteria for the "special merit" exception it sought to be able to demolish all but the facades of the buildings. Quander’s ruling was an all-points rejection of the archdiocese’s application for demolition permits.

But the controversial 1998 change in the law, requiring the mayor’s agent to issue rulings within 60 days of hearing a case, meant Quander missed the deadline by two months. In his ruling, he acknowledged that he missed the deadline but blamed the delay on the fact that the Office of Adjudication was short-staffed and had been without a chief judge for nearly four months, a position he filled on an interim basis for two of those months.

However, the archdiocese appealed the ruling solely on the basis of the missed deadline and city lawyers decided they would not contest the appeal. That paved the way for the raze permits to be issued.

"We won hands down on the merits (of the case), fair and square, no questions asked," Lally said. "We were placed at a disadvantage by a statutory technicality."

The issuance of the permits prompted Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, D-Ward 6, to call an emergency oversight hearing of her Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Feb. 14. At the hearing, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director Lloyd Jordan said the raze permits were issued with the condition that final demolition permits would not be granted until all aspects of the application had been approved. At a Feb. 24 oversight hearing, Ambrose also quizzed city lawyers to make sure they had properly reviewed the case before making their decision not to fight the church’s appeal.

The preservationists and artists, meanwhile, sent a letter to city officials setting a Feb. 25 deadline for the withdrawal of the permits or else they would take legal action to block any possible demolition of the buildings. In a Feb. 21 letter, attorney Andrea Ferster, who represents the Committee of 100, the DCPL and the Downtown Artists Coalition, argued that DCRA improperly issued the permits because the D.C. Court of Appeals has not yet ruled on the archdiocese’s appeal. She also alleged the raze permits were improperly issued because D.C. law requires construction permits to be issued at the same time that raze permits are issued.

"In effect, your agency has unlawfully permitted the Archdiocese to demolish the last intact block of low scale commercial buildings in the downtown historic district, with no guarantee that anything will be built in its place, resulting in vacant lots for the foreseeable future," Ferster wrote.

The city did not withdraw the permits, Ferster said, and she said she is planning to file a lawsuit against the city the first week of March to try to protect the buildings.

Michael Berman, who heads the Downtown Artists Coalition, said his group is worried because the church already has construction equipment on an adjacent lot, where the archdiocese is renovating Carroll Hall. He said he is troubled that the raze permits list the buildings as vacant, though several businesses are operating there and the last working artist studios are in those buildings. He said he worries church officials could decide to tear down the buildings in the middle of the night.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator