Can Anyone Develop An Empty Georgetown Lot?
On the quaint, narrow corner of Grace Street and Cecil Place in Georgetown, there's a fenced-off gravel lot that seems out of character with the surrounding townhouses. It's owned by G.M. Steinbraker & Sons, a third-generation contracting firm that operates out of a workshop down the street, and property records don't indicate that anything's ever been built there.
Last year, the firm found a developer for the lot: Willco Residential, which was going to build seven luxury condominiums on the lot, with a height of 45 feet and off-site parking. Nearby residents thought the design was too outlandish, and shot it down. Next came Valor Development, which is active all over the city, with a design for nine small units. They backed out at the beginning of February, saying that they couldn't come to terms with the seller on a due diligence period that would give them enough time to work through resident objections and the Old Georgetown Board, a federally-appointed panel that reviews the neighborhood's development projects. The area's ANC Commissioner, Bill Starrels, doesn't seem willing to budge: "It is better-suited for a few townhouses or a smaller building," he said.
The most recent proposal comes from Capital City Real Estate, another prolific infill condo builder, which has the lot under contract and plans a seven-condo design that at least includes an entrance on Grace Street (the previous ones had a blank wall). Yet again, it ran into objections, getting rejected by the Advisory Neighborhood Commission earlier this week. Capital City hadn't been as good about presenting their idea to the neighbors, who fired off a letter opposing the density earlier this week. A section reads:
During previous conversations over many months, the neighborhood has expressed support for the idea of three or four rowhouses simiar to the ones on Cecil Place (except perhaps higher than the existing rowhouses) instead of a multi-story condominium building for this small site. In addition to the preferred aesthetic qualities of rowhouses and their consistency with the setting, the neighbors feel that the resulting negative impacts would be much less than a large building with seven condominiums that are most likely going to be attractive to at least 14 non-related tenants.
Non-related tenants? Read: Students. The neighbors are afraid investors will buy up the units and rent them to Georgetown's trust fund babies, which recent experience suggests would obviously be untenable.
Capital City's Anthony Bozzi says they're still planning to move forward with the project, and met with the Old Georgetown Board yesterday, but declined to provide project plans, saying they'd probably be changing in response to the ANC's input. Still, while the design might get more "townhouse-y," he says the economics don't work with fewer units.
The silliest thing about this particular NIMBY spat is that the proposed project isn't out of scale with surrounding buildings; on the other side of the neighboring townhouses is the gigantic and much uglier Waterfront Center. Sure, it's possible that some very wealthy person might come along and build a single-family home on that site, like one did in Ledroit Park after neighbors objected to a condo building.
But is that the highest and best use of land in what real estate values suggest is the most desirable neighborhood in the city?