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Only facades remain as historic

Atlantic Building falls, city fumbles

(Published July 30, 2001)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Staff Writer

Like some great misplaced Hollywood movie set, the brick and stone building facades loom over a long stretch of the 900 block of F Street NW.

Buttressed by temporary girders, the towering building-faces only partially obscure what lies behind them: a half-block-long rubble-strewn lot containing the ruins of the Atlantic Building—a graceful eight-story "proto-skyscraper" built in 1887—and three other historically protected buildings running from 920 to 930 F Street, near the Gallery Place Metro station.

"When they pounded in those girders, the whole street shook," remembered Michael Berman, who is head of the Downtown Artists Coalition and has a studio across the street from the site. "I thought our building was going to come down."

But that was eight months ago. And according to Berman and others in the neighborhood, no work has occurred since.

After tearing down the four historic buildings—one of which formed one wall of Booth’s Alley, down which Abraham Lincoln’s assassin raced in April 1865—the developers have abandoned the site, they say.

Only the buildings’ facades and their temporary supports remain—where they have stood since last November.

So now area residents and preservationists are crying foul. It isn’t just that the city lost four stately 19th century buildings, they say. It’s that after the developers knocked down the buildings, they walked away from the site without putting up anything in their place, as agreed with the city.

"The Atlantic was just a gorgeous building," said Berman. "That these developers could tear it down and then fail to finish the project is more than a loophole in city regulations—it’s a travesty."

In an agreement struck with the city nearly 10 years ago and re-confirmed before demolition started last summer, a pair of area developers—the Clover Co. of McLean and the Bernstein Co. of Washington—were given special permission, originally by an official known as the "mayor’s agent," to tear down the historic buildings on the grounds that they were too difficult to adapt to modern commercial use.

"The developer and their architects made a case that the Atlantic had bad code deficiencies and would be very hard to adapt, " said David Maloney, acting program director of the city’s Historic Preservation Office.

Maloney signed off on the demolition and new construction permits last year.

In return for permission to demolish, Bernstein and Clover would construct a single large office and retail building on the site that kept the original building facades, as well as some original interior details, according to city documents. The developers were also required to reserve space for a "cabaret or dinner theater"—a nightclub—in keeping with the entertainment-orientation of that section of F Street.

But last week a spokesman for the Bernstein Co., Joseph Galli, admitted that the developers are having money problems and are either looking for further financing or attempting to sell the project outright to another developer.

"We’ve had some deals that have fallen through," said Galli. "Well, I wouldn’t say they’ve fallen through, but they haven’t come to fruition. How about that?"

"The building is out on the market," he said.

Galli said he could not say when work on the project would resume.

Maloney acknowledged that the construction limbo is a problem—even a potential danger.

"To a certain extent, it’s a precarious situation," Maloney said.

"There’s no imminent danger" of the facades collapsing, he said, but he acknowledged, "Those facades are being held up by temporary braces. They’re only intended to be used temporarily, during the construction phase. There is the danger of a deteriorating condition of the facades," he said.

Both preservationists and neighborhood business people criticized the city’s handling of the situation.

"It’s unfortunate for everybody," said David Bell, president of the D.C. Preservation League. "First, because the Atlantic Building has been demolished, and second, because nothing is being done to restore it to use."

"And besides that," he added, "the longer (the site) sits there, it has deleterious effects on other businesses in the neighborhood."

"We were expecting (the new building) to be about half-finished by now," said Jean DiPietro, co-owner of the venerable Central Liquor at 917 F St. NW—one of the few businesses left on the block.

According to DiPietro, business is down. "If you don’t have occupied buildings, you don’t have street traffic," she said.

Maloney admitted the city did not know when the project might be completed, or when construction would resume.

"There is no time frame for resolving this soon," he said.

And though Michael Johnson, a spokesman for the city’s Office of Planning, which includes the Historic Preservation Office, called the situation an "embarrassment," Maloney acknowledged that his office had not yet contacted the developers to ask about the suspended construction.

"We have not specifically talked to them about it," he said, adding, "We plan to do that."

However, Maloney defended his decision last year to allow the demolition of the buildings. "Approval for the project was basically made in 1989 when the mayor’s agent granted them ‘special merit project’ status," he said.

Maloney said his office was required by law to accept that finding, as long as the developers showed an architectural plan consistent with the original agreement, and also demonstrated evidence of the financial wherewithal to complete the project.

"They met those criteria," Maloney said. He said that the development team of Bernstein and Clover had submitted evidence of sufficient financing.

He added, "We understand they had a tenant last year when they decided to go ahead with the demolition, but the market has softened since then."

But Bell criticized a process that allowed Bernstein/Clover to receive permission to tear down a landmark building, halt construction before fulfilling its pledges, and then only months later place the site back on the market.

"I don’t believe (city officials) do their due diligence," said Bell. "The city doesn’t have a way to certify that the developer really has the wherewithal to complete the project they agreed to....Just because they have the money, that doesn’t mean they’ll follow through and build."

Other observers also charged that Bernstein/Clover were taking advantage of lax city enforcement of its agreement. Charles Docter, head of the Downtown Housing Now Committee—which opposed devoting the site to office and retail leasing—said he suspects the developers might be using the claim of financial difficulty to pressure the city to let them out of the Mayor’s Agent agreement.

"I am going to oppose with all my power any attempt to change the structure of the original deal," he said.

But Galli insisted that even if the developers sell the right to build to someone else, the project would go forward as planned.

"That’s not a change in the plan, that we might not develop it. Whether it’s us or the next guys, it’ll be done as agreed," he said. "The plan is fixed, but the developers are not."

He also denied that his company had intended from the start to sell out its interest, in violation of its agreement with the city, as some have charged.

"It costs a lot of money to take down a building," he asserted. "No, there was no chicanery here," he said, adding as an apparent joke, "Not that I don’t wish that maybe there could be."

"But no, this deal is going ahead in a straightforward way," he said.

Maloney, too, claimed that even if Clover and Bernstein sell the building, the project will go ahead as planned.

"That’s a legal question," he said of the charge that the developers are violating their agreement with the city by attempting to sell the site rather than build on it. "And I don’t think as a practical matter that’s the city’s main interest--which is to make sure that the original plan is adhered to."

He claimed that under city regulations, "Any buyer would be bound by the same agreement. And that’s the city’s primary interest—to make sure that the benefits are provided."

Ellen McCarthy, a deputy director in the city’s Office of Planning, said she doubts that the developers misled the city. "Doing a façade job is tough," she said. "I’m not sure that even an adventuresome company would try that—going to all the expense of demolition and saving those facades, on the hope that they could sell off a building with a pre-existing mayor’s agent order on it to somebody else."

But Bell pointed to a deal recently struck between the Downtown Artists Coalition and other neighborhood groups and the John Akridge Cos. to save a major portion of 11 historic rowhouses, as well as artists studios in those buildings, at a site directly across from the Atlantic Building site. The terms of that agreement are being placed in the land records of the city to make them legally enforceable.

"On that deal, the Office of Planning agreed to try for a binding agreement, a covenant between the city and developer," Bell asserted. He added that his organization planned to lobby the city to make such covenants a requirement.

"We want to approach this legislatively," he said. "With the Atlantic Building, the developers were able to move forward and demolish a building, without the city being able to enforce anything."

Maloney denied that the city had failed to exercise proper oversight on the Atlantic Building’s redevelopment.

"I don’t think there was any laxness in the way we administered the existing regulations," he said. "This is an anomalous case, where somebody starts a project and has trouble finishing it."

But he admitted, "This obviously does raise some concerns for the city. Whether this means there could be additional controls—we’ll be looking into that."

"What do you do when this occurs?" he asked. "The city wants to have as many tools in its arsenal as possible to deal with these disappointments."

In the meantime, the façades of the Atlantic building and its former neighbors are all that occupy most of the south side of the 900 block of F Street NW. Parking spaces are now scarce in the neighborhood: the building on the other side of the street is also under development, so parking is prohibited on both sides of the street.

That’s bad for business, said the manager of the Red Fox clothing shop at the corner of F and Ninth streets NW. "To buy something for $5, you have to take a chance on getting a $50 parking ticket," said the man, who declined to give his name. "Nobody comes down here anymore."

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator