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City tries to mediate F Street plans

(Published August 28, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

A controversial proposal to replace the last block of the cityís historic downtown business district with an office complex has gone into mediation in an effort to work out differences between the developers and preservationists.

The cityís Office of Planning hired Quill and Associates to mediate the dispute, which has pitted the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, the siteís owner, and their developer, the John Akridge Companies, against an ad hoc group of historic preservationists and artists. The coalition wants to preserve the low-density nature of the commercial district buildings which date back to the turn of the century.

Ellen McCarthy of the Office of Planning said the mediators began meeting with the opposing parties separately the fourth week of August. She said the mediation sessions were brought about partly because the archdiocese filed a lawsuit to try to force the city to clear the way for them to begin demolishing all but the facades of the row of commercial townhouses.

Akridge and the preservationists had been negotiating to try to come up with a project acceptable to both sides, but those negotiations stalled earlier this year.

"We, the city, had not been actively involved in the process," McCarthy said. "We thought it was worth one more try."

Some of the participants view the cityís intervention with a more jaundiced eye.

"Itís the city trying to find a way to weasel out of doing the right thing and defending the mayorís agentís decision," said Michael Berman, who heads the Downtown Artists Coalition, a group of artists that occupies the last working studios downtown at the site where the church wants to build.

"Itís the cityís job to defend the comprehensive plan and keep artists downtown," said Andrea Ferster, attorney for the Downtown Artists Coalition and the D.C. Preservation League.

The proposed project has been embroiled in controversy and litigation since last fall when the Mayorís Agent for Historic Preservation, Rohulamin Quander, issued a ruling saying the archdiocese did not qualify for a special exemption from preservation laws that would allow it to build its proposed 11-story office building in the 900 block of F Street NW.

A provision in the law, however, states that all such rulings must be issued within 60 days of a hearing. Quander missed the deadline by nearly three months due to staffing problems and a backlog of cases. Because the ruling was not issued in time, the churchís application was automatically approved, despite Quanderís rejection of all their arguments.

So far at least three lawsuits have been filed by various parties over the dispute. McCarthy said she hopes the mediation will result in those suits being dropped and the project moving forward.

McCarthy said the city will pay no more than $15,000 to Quill and Associates for their services under the contract they were awarded.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator