That Erie Feeling
Developer Dennis Lee's transforming Champlain Street with million-dollar condos. But where are the buyers?
The inner courtyard of the Erie has a wavy-described as "undulating" in a promotional poster-yellow inner wall. The architecture is reminiscent of Barcelona, says developer Dennis Lee, as he surveys his work. There are turquoise couches seated around a fire pit, and the courtyard's one flat wall has a 25-foot long burbling wall fountain, with slightly discolored water.
"It's green because it has antifreeze in it," he explains.
Once we enter the first model unit, Lee points out some expensive finishings. The floors are made of poured concrete around squares of embedded rugs. The bathroom shower is made of "Gascogne beige" limestone.
A pamphlet for the building indicates the asking price on this two bedroom/three bathroom unit off Champlain Street NW in Adams Morgan will be $1.19 million, including parking and storage space. That's midrange for the Erie's eight condos, the priciest of which is $1.49 million, though Lee has plans for a $2.95 million condominium that combines two units. The first three listed units have been on the market since Oct. 5. After several open houses and more than 110 days, they remain there. None of them has sold.
In the last six months, no units between $1 million and $2.49 million have sold in the Erie's ZIP code-20009-according to a chart by the real-estate statistic clearinghouse Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.
The average price per square foot in Adams Morgan is roughly $500, according to William Rich, vice president of research firm Delta Associates. The unit Lee and I stand in is potentially priced at $661 per square foot.
The view from inside the Erie
Despite the Erie's high-priced stall, Lee is already looking toward his next project-literally. Directly across Champlain Street, a green-and-pink banner stretches across several brick rowhouses to advertise the coming of the Eden, "Extraordinary Living Architecture."
Wilson Reynolds first noticed the banner a few months ago. He lives in the Champlain, a 13-unit co-op building next door to the coming Eden. Most of the windows in his building face south-where the building will go-and provide a "tremendous source of light into the building," he says. (At one point, several units in the Champlain also had views of the Washington Monument, but those were wiped out with the construction of another condo building down the hill.) For months, Reynolds and his fellow tenants have anxiously awaited details about what to expect next door.
"There's been no engagement. There's been no effort on their part saying, 'This is what we're going to do, and we're letting everyone know about it,'" says Wilson, who, in addition to being the chair of his co-op board, serves as an advisory neighborhood commissioner and is a staff member for Ward 1 Concilmember Jim Graham.
Wilson and his neighbors watched the Erie go up and wanted answers about the Eden, so they lawyered up. The co-op hired Con Hitchcock of the Hitchcock Law Firm over the summer to "be able to respond to any zoning applications or changes," says Reynolds. So far, Hitchcock hasn't done much more for the group than stay on retainer.
In the last few months, a few small drawings of the Eden's design have been posted on the Web site for D.B. Lee Development, Dennis Lee's company. They show a multilevel building with several rooftop gardens-plenty of room to soak up what had been the north-side neighbors' views.
To Lee, the existing rowhouses-some of which appear, from peering in the windows, to be gutted-are shoddy and have no historical value: "The quality of construction is very poor. You can take those buildings apart with your hands," he says.
In classic gentrification fashion, that's not how people who live on Champlain see them, and some of them take issue with Lee's additions to both their street and the neighborhood.
"Dennis Lee's projects are the third rail of development in Adams Morgan," says Bryan Weaver, also an advisory neighborhood commissioner, citing Lee's four-unit project on top of 2424 18th St. NW, home to bar/restaurant Leftbank. With that building, Lee blocked others' views of-you guessed it-the Washington Monument.
The Erie followed. To build it, Lee's company tore down an old apartment building, forcing out a number of Latino families who had been there for decades, says Weaver.
"Wiping out the remaining town homes on Champlain to do another one of these multimillion-dollar luxury-loft kind of developments-it's pretty par for the course with him," says Wilson.
In August, an associate of Lee's came before Weaver and Wilson's ANC asking for a raze permit. The ANC vehemently opposed it, and Weaver says it'll continue to fight for the rowhouses.
"This must be one of the things that compels people to become pro-historic district," he says. "To see buildings come in and knock down the physical history of the neighborhood.ŠSome kind of protection to keep the character of that street would be nice."
Lee says he examined the buildings' historical value when first considering development of the Eden. He consulted with Ann Hargove, zoning and preservation chair for the Kalorama Citizens Association, who has worked on Adams Morgan preservation issues in the past.
"The buildings are not eligible for a historic district because too many things have been destroyed in that immediate area," she says. "So in the end of it, that's the problem: What do you do about these historic buildings? I was hoping they could be saved. That was my bias because to me they represent a history of the community who lived there, and they're charming, and besides, why should everything look alike?"
Nick Kiritz lives in one of the few town houses not planned for demolition. He says he wasn't aware of the project until the banner went up.
"Don't get me wrong," he says, "the construction of condominiums on that street has improved it in a big way. It's a much nicer neighborhood now than it was. It's somewhat safer," says Kiritz, who bought his home in 2000. But he's not thrilled to see the next new building pop up. "I mean, I think it would be nice to keep the rowhouses and maintain the character of the neighborhood because it really has become brand new condos of varying quality."
Another neighbor, who did not want to be identified, says one of her concerns after checking out the Erie at an open house is the "ridiculous" pricing. "We wondered, in this economic climate, who would buy places like that....It doesn't have a lot of character-I mean, I wouldn't buy."
So who will buy? Michael Schaeffer, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Dupont, and a 30-year veteran of the Dupont/Adams Morgan/U Street area says there are two things that allow properties to stand out: cheap prices, which the Erie clearly can't boast, and unique characteristics, which the Erie can claim-if undulating walls and a name reminiscent of a Rust Belt town in Pennsylvania are your thing.
"What happened with a lot of builders is they kind of built the same box. They built the two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,000 square foot unit. You know the drill-you see it a thousand times," he says. "Really moving forward, you know, the developers have to differentiate in what they build. You have to tell a story. You have to tell something unusual."
In Adams Morgan, Champlain Street has generally held its value over time, says Schaeffer, who sold two resale condos on Champlain in late 2008. But due to loan standards, he's seen a dropoff in sales of high-end units-more than $625,000-now that people have to put more money down.
For Lee, the still-empty Erie is a departure that way. "We're accustomed to selling out a couple of weeks after we deliver," he says. "There's always a high-quality buyer that's looking for that. Being a boutique building-you know, finding eight people, has generally not been that difficult."
Despite the lack of sales at the Erie, the market trends, the lack of love on the ANC, and the mistrust of neighbors, Lee says he's moving forward. He hopes to break ground on the Eden this spring and has secured financing from Eagle Bank. He estimates the cost of the project to be $5 million to $7 million. The asking prices when he's done? The same as the Erie, he anticipates
Top image by Darrow Montgomery. Other images by Ruth Samuelson