A White-Knuckled Way Forward for Mt. Pleasant Mansion
A few months ago, Grant Epstein from Community Three Development had to walk away from a planned renovation at a beautiful old Victorian in Ledroit Park because of neighborhood opposition and skepticism from the Historic Preservation Review Board about the scale of the addition. Urbanturf reported in October that he had found a new nerve-wracking project: 3324 18th Street in Mt. Pleasant. Several possible hurdles remain, but Epstein is moving through the process expeditiously, and may make it to the finish line this time.
For one thing, Epstein's plans aren't as sweeping as his proposal for the ramshackle mansion: He just wants to add a sunroom/kitchen, some dormers, a few parking spaces, and terraces to let light into the basement units. The completed renovation will have 12 condominium units (one of them in the detached carriage house). The HPRB still quibbled with some of Epstein's proposed changes, asking that Epstein minimize the visibility of any changes from the street and reduce the size of the dormers, eliminating the north dormer completely. But it's not as fundamental a modification as the Board requested for 1822 Third Street, and Epstein will likely still be able to make the project work (he hasn't returned Housing Complex's calls for comment).
Perhaps more importantly, Epstein isn't facing the same kind of neighborhood opposition he came up against in Ledroit Park. Neighbors are worried about crowding and parking impacts, but the ANC has supported the concept design–and since only the sunroom will require zoning relief, anyone worried about at least 12 new residents on that corner have little leverage to work with.
The more nailbiting component might be actually settling the sale of the house, which has been an unpredictable process for many involved. The owners, Ron Lipsius and Martha Ortiz, had been attempting to restore the building for over a decade before deciding to sell it a couple years ago. Property records show a 2007 lien on the house from Lipsius' ex-wife for $332,000, without a recorded release. According to a Northwest Current profile, one prospective sale went south, and sorting out the legal issues took a couple years, before they put the house back on the market in early spring.
Michael Kiefer of Green DC Realty had been marketing the property, and says he had a listing agreement with Lipsius. He even presented Epstein's sale offer to Lipsius in May, and expected a hefty commission when the sale went through (the house had originally been on the market for $1.75 million before coming down to $1.35 million, which would give the agent a $30,000 cut). But then, Kiefer says, the seller's attorney–who happens to be D.C.'s shadow senator Paul Strauss–forcibly cut off contact.
"Now the attorney's putting himself in as the broker, and trying to collect the commission for the work everyone else did," Kiefer says. "I found a buyer, and he hired an attorney, and basically told me to take a walk." Strauss, while claiming attorney-client privilege to avoid saying much about the sale, says that Kiefer hasn't produced the listing agreement, and therefore has no legal right to a commission.
Another agent who had a brush with the troubled mansion is Brandon Green, who made an offer with the hopes of turning it into a bed and breakfast. After meeting with Strauss–which struck Green as odd–the sellers never responded to his letter of intent, before going under contract with Epstein.
"It just felt strange and weird," Green says. "I don't think anything around that sale is customary."
And even though Epstein seems to be working through the process, with such a quixotic cast of characters, Green says he hasn't given up hope. "I wouldn't be surprised if it came back to us," he says.