Author’s note: This is part one of a series on the redevelopment of the old Southeastern University located at 5th and Eye Streets SW. These articles seek to provide information for the greater community, and not to take a side on the development debate.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” So goes a line in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, reminding the audience that the names of things do not effect what they really are at their core. Throughout the work on this project, this line was oftentimes repeated. In fact, a sign with similar wording can be found across the street from the old Southeastern University (SEU) site. So what does this line that is hundreds of years old have to do with a development project happening today? To some in the community, quite a lot, it turns out.
This series will explore different sides of a debate over the redevelopment of the old SEU site, officially located at 501 I Street SW. It is bound by Amidon-Bowen Elementary School to its east on the same block, the Southwest Duck Pond across I Street to its south, and townhomes both to the west across 6th Street and to its immediate north on the same block. The large brutalist building, which has since been torn down, was long home to the Hawthorne School, and was an addition to what was once home to the Metropolitan Boys Club. Graduate School USA bought the building in early 2010, but the building has sat vacant since.
The SWNA History Task Force filed an application in July of 2014 to designate the building as a Historic Landmark. The application was later dropped after an agreement was worked out between SWNA and Shakespeare Theater Company (STC). The agreement holds STC to items such as including a minimum of 70 off-street parking spaces on the property; providing communication with a recognized group of residents who live in the immediate houses regarding all aspects of the development process, including demolition and construction schedules; and also requiring STC to hold at least two public community meetings, where it will share their plans for development and the process/timeline for construction. The agreement also looked beyond the project, and highlights the need for STC to be a partner with the Southwest community. Public benefits include invitations for the students at Amidon-Bowen and Jefferson Academy to attend performances, sharing the assembly spaces and conference rooms with the greater Southwest community; and providing free tickets to select “Free for All” performances at Sidney Harman Hall. Finally, STC made a financial contribution to SWNA of $60,000 to help the nonprofit fulfill its mission in the Southwest community.
In May 2014, STC officially announced its acquisition of the nearly one-acre site for $6.5 million in partnership with Erkiletian Real Estate. STC sought to consolidate its current administrative offices, costume shop, rehearsal studios, and actor apartments spread throughout the District. The future site is expected to host approximately 75 STC employees. As a partner, Erkiletian was brought in to build an attached, but separately operated nine-story (eight stories plus a penthouse), 173-unit apartment building. Officially, the combination of STC offices and rehearsal studios and the high-rise residential tower are the mixed-use project called “The Bard.”
This development has sparked debate in both the immediate area and greater Southwest. Most of this controversy is centered on a combination of two major concerns. The first is that the current parcel is not zoned for this type of development. It is zoned as “R-3,” which according to DC zoning regulations means that this specific parcel of land is currently zoned for only single family homes, a church, or a school. If it is re-zoned, the chance to add families to this community dwindles. Many also fear that by allowing a re-zoning of this parcel of land, a precedent will be set and begin a domino effect of re-zoning residential parcels, which could reach even outside of Southwest. Many also question why the planned project site would be purchased to begin with, when the need for re-zoning was a well-known fact.
Bob Craycraft, former ANC commissioner and current executive director of the Waterfront Gateway Neighborhood Association, an affiliation that represents more than 900 homes in the area between the National Mall and I Street SW, said in an email: “I find it perplexing that one would buy a piece of property that is zoned “Residential for Single-Family Homes” with a 40-foot height restriction bordered by an elementary school playground, a park, and three-story townhomes and decide, ‘Yes, this is the ideal spot for my 10-story apartment tower and 70-car parking garage.’ In my limited experience with development issues, I don’t recall such optimism.”
The second major concern is the height of the building, which in the current rendering will range from three stories at the shortest to nine stories at the tallest. This building, plus a few rowhomes of what is being called an “annex,” will be directly on the property line of three-story townhomes to the immediate north and Amidon-Bowen Elementary School to the immediate east.
“The playground will turn into a cold uninviting play space, especially during the winter months and after it rains. Snow and ice will accumulate and the playground will never thaw or dry,” said Martin Welles, president of the Amidon PTA. “Surrounding the playground with a high-rise and an intern actors’ dormitory will create an echo chamber and there are sure to be complaints from late-rising interns. The canyon-like walls of the high-rise will collect and amplify sound. Children arrive on the playground beginning as early as 7 a.m. and kick and bounce balls, play tag, and make noise…certainly, I expect the interns to complain about children using the playground while they try to sleep in,” says Welles.
In addition to their concerns of the project itself, many residents highlighted their displeasure with the way that STC was sharing information and contacting residents about this project. STC held two community events at Arena Stage in July, however many people noted that they only found out about these events the day before, or in most cases, the day of, and the only way that these plans were announced were via the future development’s social media pages.
A more concerning fact for many has been that none of social media or website pages from The Bard include the information about the height of the building, nor that a zoning change needs to happen. Researching social media, the only indication of the nine floors was from a flat overhead rendering of the green rooftop terraces, where various floor levels, including the ninth and penthouse, were highlighted. Even on the Phone2Action page urging individuals to ask DC officials to support the project, no photographs exist of the building, and nowhere on the page is the size or the need for re-zoning highlighted. The only mention that something other than STC’s offices will reside in this building are the words “mixed-use facility” at the bottom of the page. The remainder of the text is reserved to highlight the well-deserved achievements of STC, and what would be housed in its portions of the facility.
Those who oppose The Bard development have taken to unique ways of expressing their discontent—lawn signs, a box of flyers on a lawn immediately across the street, a blog (www.eyeon501sw.com), and an online petition, which encourages STC to “develop the SEU site as a low-rise or sell it.” Many who oppose this development have made it explicitly clear that they welcome STC as a neighbor in Southwest, but they just cannot welcome the large and imposing residential tower that comes with it.
Recently, the City Council approved of the Southwest Small Area Plan, and with it many recommendations on the future planning of the community. In regard to the redevelopment of the SEU site, the concern of the community for the size of the development was duly noted, leading the Southwest Neighborhood Plan not to recommend changing the zoning of the site “until further outreach efforts can be conducted by STC and its development partner to address community concerns.”
Many residents interviewed for this article wanted it to be known that this development has not been solidified yet. With a Planned Unit Development still not public at the time of printing, and the need to re-zone the parcel of land, it will be some time before the Zoning Commission gives the go ahead to this project. The Southwester will continue to follow this story over the coming months.
By: Katelynd Mahoney
SWNA Fundraising Chair