WAMU: ” In Petworth, Residents Fight A Developer — And The Developer Fights Back”


Thanks to all who sent links to the WAMU story:

“A planned renovation of a number of rowhouses in the Grant Circle area of Petworth has sparked a particularly virulent fight between a developer and a group of residents, prompting a $25 million lawsuit in which the developer says residents abused the city’s historic preservation process to delay permits he needed to renovate and expand the homes.

Individuals with knowledge of the situation in Grant Circle say that Woodruff and Wright had been concerned with Gross’s vision for 7 Grant Circle, the house next to theirs, after he laid out his plans to expand it and convert it to two condos. They claimed to D.C. regulators that they were never presented with proper plans for the project, nor did they sign off on Gross’s plan to expand the basement by digging down beyond the existing floor.

In his lawsuit, Gross denies claims that he did not provide plans to Woodruff and Wright as required by law. Still, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs delayed permits for Gross’s expansion of 7 Grant Circle, and also issued a stop-work order for the property. No work has been done on the house since earlier this year.”

Read the full story here.

37 Comment

  • Wow, it’s about time that a developer pushed back on historic preservation abuses. Good job!

    • No. This type of lawsuit is a developer trying to chill public participation with the hammer of costly legal fees, even if the case is frivolous.

      • Why exactly is this case frivolous? They abused HPO laws to stop a developer. Seriously. They filed a petition for a SINGLE house to get landmark protection. For what purpose? Because it’s next to theirs. Shame on them.

      • Absolutely untrue. Did you read the complaint? These people pretty transparently hijacked the historic preservation process to prevent development they personally didn’t like for reasons unrelated to historic preservation. It seems pretty clear they hoped BZA or the ANC would stop it, and when they realized it was by right developed they disingenuously went searching for reasons to preserve the houses, much like the Montgomery county residents seeking to stop the purple line by discovering the mythical endangered creek shrimp.
        Developers are also suing to strike down the popup rules. This bizarre populist anti-developer thing needs to end. DC should work with developers to make it a better place, rather than encourage the few misguided residents who don’t want apartment dwellers in their neighborhood.

        • You realize a complaint is written to cast the plaintiff in the best light possible. I can’t wait to read the defendants’ response.

        • “Developers are also suing to strike down the popup rules.”
          Anyone know anything about this? A lawsuit by developers to strike down popup rules? Can this even be a thing after the Zoning Commission ruled?

      • VarnumGuy

        I think there’s a lot more to the story, so we’ll have to see it play out. One would think that something more than just applying for historic status would have to have happened for someone to file such a lawsuit.

      • west_egg

        No. This type of abuse of the historic preservation process amounts to NIMBYs trying to chill development in their neighborhoods, even if their objections are frivolous. Why on (in?) Earth wouldn’t you allow a developer to dig down–you can’t even see the difference! This is a classic example of “I got mine, screw everybody else.” I’m not some kind of free-market shill but in this case, good for the developer.

    • Please elaborate on all the historic preservation “abuses”.

    • The historic architecture in DC’s rowhouse neighborhoods is something to be valued, not torn down and replaced with vinyl condos.

      • VarnumGuy

        Those houses that the developer bought weren’t going to be torn down. From what I understand, they weren’t even really going to be popped up. Every developer is not out to plop a vinyl sided box onto the top of a row house in DC.

        • Actually they WERE going to be popped up (at least no. 7 GC), and also popped back so people would now have a lovely 30ft high concrete wall extending along their backyard.

          As to the merits of the claim, the citizens can’t designate historic district/properties themselves. Rather, they apply to boards/govt entities. If you’re going to sue anyone, sue the govt board (after designation).

          The developer is taking a dump on this pissing contest.

          • VarnumGuy

            Popped up from the current attic space. There’s one done like this in Upshur and you can barely tell from the front. And for going back 30 feet, it’s by right. You can be cranky all you want about it, but by right, according to DC, you’re allowed to do that addition. To be underhanded with historic designation just to thwart something you don’t like (and other allegations beyond just this property) is abusing the process.

      • seriously, we have to be careful. what are there, only about 2-3 rowhouses left in dc? we better watch out or tomorrow, they’ll be all gone.

  • Scrillin

    The developer filed the lawsuit in Federal Court specifically to get around the District’s laws that forbid such lawsuits, and he’s had stop-work orders handed down on him in the recent past.

    Sounds like a scumbag.

  • If you go back at watch the HPRB meeting, everyone outright said that the Grant Circle Historic District is just a precursor to future nominations for larger Petworth Historic District.

    So be aware that while this lawsuit is about these two man-children fighting, there’s a lot to the preservation issues upcoming in Petworth.

  • Pretty apparent abuse of Historic Preservation status and good for the developer. When you go fishing for historical architecture only after you find out the house next to yours is going to be developed is definitely an abuse of the intent of the law.

  • A lot of knee-jerk support for the developer here. People with access to capital (which is the only requirement to get in on the current hot market) who are looking to turn a profit, don’t always get to decide what “a better place” means.

    It doesn’t take a genius to make money in the current DC market, but it does take a special kind of genius to upset enough DC residents to create the political will to stop pop-ups. If developers want people to trust that making DC a better place is a real priority of theirs, then they’ve got a lot of real work to do that they can’t just hire contractors to paper over.

    • perhaps the extra individuals/couples/familes that get to live on grant circle bc of the condo conversion can be the ones who decide what a “better place” means. plus, the protestors shouldn’t have the sole ability to define what a “better place” means either.

  • Good on the developer? Did you guys read what they are actually alleging in the complaint–That these neighbors formed an antitrust conspiracy, among other ridiculous things. REALLY? The purpose of this lawsuit is spite, and to scare other neighbors in other parts of town from seeking historic designation, not to enforce actual legal rights. They’ll be lucky if they don’t get sanctioned.

  • So two guys, Wright and Woodruff, unhappy that the ANC and BZA didn’t see their had a third guy (Beisert) The historic review board has already rejected two applications this year made by the applicant for properties in Petworth. In one rejection, and I quote from the HPRB “In justifying its rejection, the board noted that the same historic status was not requested for the houses next door to 7 Grant Circle — one of which is owned by Woodruff and Wright.”

    So Woodruff and Wright want to use preservation status against others, but don’t want it used on their own properties. Classic hypocrisy. It seems pretty clear this too is going to be rejected.

    This method is used in DC every day by NIMBY’s furious that they can’t dictate what other people can do to their own property, so they play the ultimate “FU” card and try to get it registered.

    The transparency of the play wouldn’t be so obvious if its the “first” move NIMBY’s made, but it never is. They whine and moan for months and months, THEN in a last ditch effort try to play the preservation card.

    I don’t even care if the developer was going to build some ugly monstronsity, I hope he is able to sue these three back into the stone ages. The ego and gall of them, and people like them deserves fair play every once in awhile.

    • “I don’t even care if the developer was going to build some ugly monstronsity, ”

      That is a really sad statement for Grant Circle, and the neighbors who are trying to protect it. If you don’t live in the immediate neighborhood, can I invite you to sit back, and not involve yourself in the issue? Whenever I see the word “NIMBY” in a post, I usually substitute “local preference” or “local self-determinism” instead. And what, exactly, is wrong with that?

      • unfortunately for you, this is a DC wide issue, not a grant circle specific issue, so it totally makes sense that others will be interested in how this plays out.

        and the problem with “local preference” is that often a select few, vocal individuals can cause results that are against the public interest. of course, local preference should be a factor, but not determinative.

  • Here is a perspective from veteran designer/builder; active since 1980; completed more than 60 residential projects for owners; many of those in historic districts: -Building is a highly regulated activity- The regulations, from building codes to zoning restrictions exist by formal consensus. Professional designers and builders respect this consensus, do not have projects shut down by stop work orders, and openly communicate with neighbors affected by building activities. By definition, any structure, building, landscape, or neighborhood more than 50 years old is eligible is for historic nomination, and any interested party can make that nomination. That is the regulation, and that is a right under the current regulatory consensus. Open communication is preferable to lawsuits, but on occasion, an owner may put profit out of balance with other values, and there is a conflict. Nothing new here.

  • There must be something else to this lawsuit besides just the developer trying to silence these two guys. If it were BS it would just be thrown out immediately. I look forward to seeing where this one goes. One of the parties is lying through his/their teeth.

    Second, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the developer was going to put up a crappy vinyl-sided house. He may or may not. But even if he did it’s legal. Again, it will be interesting to see what he builds if he builds it.

    Lastly, how has no one mentioned the Holocaust comment? Tom Woodruff thinks the Holocaust was legal… and somehow relevant to the conversation about the house next door. And he didn’t actually deny saying it! He just said the claim of anti-Semitism was a “misunderstanding.” Classic.

  • Just stop by to support the developer! Neighbors are causing too much unnecessary work for DCRA and developers, who are doing their work according to regulations and their rights. The opposing neighbors mostly are really into their own personal interests vs the city. But they use excuses like historic, or notification to block the development from moving forward. This is causing the city to stagnating, and being more expensive to live in!

    • Surprised at all the uninformed reactions that ignore the wishes of the neighborhood and the process our city has set up to protect fairness. There’s a reason we don’t allow lawsuits to intimidate individuals who go through the open democratic process — and this attempt to circumvent the city’s judicial system is obviously frivolous.

      The process for creating historic districts depends on support of the neighborhood — and builds in rules to balance everyone’s interests. Creating the Grant Circle district was the outcome of this process — the developer made his case *and he lost*. You can’t create a historic district in secret, and you don’t get stop work orders on a whim.

      Hopefully this case will shed light on developers’ shady practices.

    • Sadly, this is not true. *Many* of the issues caused are because DCRA is not doing its job of enforcement and that’s where much misunderstanding comes from; grants, permits and permissions are being rubber-stamped left and right and DCRA can’t keep up with compliance.

      Because it’s:

      … or some combination of all the above.

      When DCRA can’t do its job, it’s up “NIMBY”esque types to pick up the cause and that’s when things get very testy and messy.

      If the city was able to assess and enforce reasonable regulations, a large part of this legal nonsense would be abated.

  • clevelanddave

    Wondering how the developer came to a figure of $25 million. Seems abusive in and of itself. You could buy the entire circle two or three times over for $25 million. The houses he is proposing to expand are worth, what three million? Maybe he’d make a couple million at the end of the day? Just saying if you were a judge, just based on the value of the properties at stake, how could you take a $25 million lawsuit seriously for this matter?

  • Given all the illegal construction that has taken place in my neighborhood, which has been highlighted in a recent series by WAMU/NPR, I think I am fully within my rights, and fulfilling my duties, to request to see copies of the plans and permits for any property or development in my single member district. Without knowledge of any of this lawsuit I recently asked Mr. Gross for a copy of his plans to redevelop 1201-1203 Kenyon Street, NW and, although he responded to me (after not responding to numerous requests from concerned neighbors), he still declined to provide the plans. So,I asked the Zoning Administrator and the Director at DCRA directly to ask for the plans and to ask how the process might be impacted by the new zoning regulations… and AGAIN I received no plans, just delays, despite repeated follow ups. Since those requests to the developer and DCRA, the lawsuit broke and –by pure coincidence I’m sure– our ANC has received a Freedom of Information Act request for all documents and internal communication pertaining to all of Mr. Gross’ properties. Private property is a sacred and constitutional right, and I understand that. But I also know I was doing my part in protecting the public trust against illegal construction. It’s a shame that it’s come to this. I certainly hope that DCRA hasn’t been spooked by the lawsuit and that is why they still haven’t produced the plans for me and my constituents. Even as an unpaid elected official, I will find the time to go down to DCRA and request them in person because the public has a right to know that what is being built is within the code and the letter of the law. And if it IS in fact in the minority of construction that is built within the letter of the law, then it should be left alone. But if the developer doesn’t have anything to hide, then why didn’t he produce the plans when asked and why hasn’t DCRA either? — Patrick Flynn, ANC Commissioner for SMD 1A06 in Columbia Heights.

    • Patrick —

      So let me get this straight, you’re supposed to provide all records to DCRA as part of FOIA, but they haven’t provided documents to you? Have you filed a FOIA with them?

      Sadly, it’s now come to discovery (I’m guessing) and so it should be a two-way street …

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