Housing Complex

Keeping Penn Branch Short

Really not that threatening! (ICG Properties)

Last week, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7B weighed in on an issue now before the Zoning Commission: Whether or not Akridge, in building up to the elevation allowed by the Height Act at its Burnham Place development behind Union Station, should be able to measure height from the top of the H Street "hopscotch" bridge rather than the ground. The ANC supported the National Capital Planning Commission's opinion that Akridge should have to measure from the lower point, which would reduce the height of the buildings significantly.

What interest does ANC 7B have in how high a building is next to Union Station? Not any more than the average D.C. citizen body, really. But the commissioners see the issue applying to a project in their own community: The Penn Branch Shopping Center, where renovations have been in the works for nearly five years now. ICG Properties bought the property back in 2006, and is planning to upgrade and expand the commercial area and eventually build housing on the back parking lot. The surrounding community, in particular the residents of O Street directly behind the mini-mall, want to make sure that it stays as short as possible.

"We want the height of the buildings to be measured from the lower portion of the land, not from some high point," said Commissioner Robert Richards (and husband of Committee of 100 member Laura Richards) who introduced the resolution supporting the NCPC's position.

"We own that property, and we don't want to see a development sitting up above it," an O Street resident spoke out from the back of Ryland Baptist Church. "We've been here too long for this." (She probably was among those protesting a Department of Health Services lease there 13 years ago, too).

According to ICG, the ANC should have nothing to worry about. They've promised from the beginning that they wouldn't build higher than the penthouse on the existing mall–the residential component would only rise four or five stories, fewer than 45 feet–meaning that you wouldn't even be able to see the new housing from the street in front of the building. That's much less than the 65 feet proposed by the Office of Planning in a 2008 small area plan (which itself endorsed measuring height from the lowest point of the property, and which the ANC still opposed as too dense).

The neighbors haven't been the only ones giving ICG heartburn. The Fenty administration held up a renewal of the Department of Motor Vehicles lease–without which ICG couldn't rationally sink $5 million into a renovation–because they wanted a sit-down restaurant somewhere in the shopping center.

"We then read in the Washington Post that the Deputy Mayor's office was not happy with the mix of retail, and was not putting it forward for council approval," says ICG principal Stylianos Christofides. Negotiations started with Ben's Chili Bowl, but a deal fell apart when nobody offered the subsidies Ben's would have liked in order to take a risk on the untested market. "If you've got the government telling you you have to reach a deal, then it's not being done on market terms," Christofides said.

Finally, the Gray administration has signaled that it's ready to re-sign the lease, and ICG plans to start on the commercial phase of the renovation within three months, while sitting tight on the residential component. The residential phase will have to go through the planned unit development process, giving the anti-density citizens of Hillcrest and Penn Branch their own day before the Zoning Commission, with their proxy battles already fought.

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