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Controversy over “proposed re-development of the lot where the SunTrust building and plaza currently sit at the corner of Columbia Road NW and 18th St, NW”

by Prince Of Petworth March 8, 2016 at 3:00 pm 68 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user Thomas Dooley

Ed. Note: This is the location of the former Knickerbocker Theatre – if you’ve never seen the video below – it’s chilling:

“Dear PoPville,

Thought you might want to cover this – could be a huge change to a central part of the neighborhood.

Below is from ANC commissioner Billy Simpson on the Adams Morgan list serv:


As some of you may have already heard, PN Hoffman has submitted plans to ANC1C for the proposed re-development of the lot where the SunTrust building and plaza currently sit at the corner of Columbia Road NW and 18th Street NW. The plans that were provided to ANC1C show a substantial building that almost completely eliminates the plaza. The plans are now posted on ANC1C’s website.

Although the plaza is largely located on private property, the various owners of the property have, for many decades, worked with the community to leave the plaza available for community use. Our weekly farmers market is located there, it has often been used for events such as Adams Morgan Day, and more generally, the open space helps to create the sense of “town square” that exists in the geographic center of Adams Morgan. To many of us, losing the plaza would be an unacceptable outcome of development on the site.

To PN Hoffman’s credit, upon hearing strong negative reactions to the plan, they have agreed to cancel coming to ANC1C’s Planning, Zoning, and Transportation Committee in March while they assess alternatives. They have indicated that they will connect with Commissioners later in March. So for now, we will wait to see what we hear back. At that point, I will provide a further update on the Listserv.

Billy Simpson

  • neighbor

    On the one hand that’s a really nice plaza. On the other hand, preventing the owners of the property from getting market value for their land seems like a sh!tty way to thank them for years of allowing public events on their private property.
    If the neighbors want the land they should pay for it.

    • nevermindtheend

      That is the first time I’ve ever heard someone describe this location as “a really nice plaza.” …unless you were being sarcastic?

      • prgkmr

        Seriously, it’s ugly AF and inhabited primarily by homeless and pigeons…

  • anon

    This was a few years ago now, but I used to live around the corner. I rarely saw the plaza used for anything other than drug deals and public drinking. I always crossed the street to avoid it when walking at night.

    • ExWalbridgeGuy

      What, like 15 years ago?

      • anon

        Nope, about 6.

    • DC Lover

      “rarely saw the plaza used for anything other than drug deal” – BS – if you are afraid of your own shadow, you shouldnt leave the house

      last thing that corner needs is a 6 story building with a penthouse

      • anon

        +1 for each statement (so +2?)

    • anon

      the renderings look incredible. this would be a great addition to the neighborhood. there’s gotta some place nearby to relocate the farmer’s market right? what about just blocking off 18th street on sundays for a few hours?

      • Anon

        That would require an expensive permit and probably isn’t possible for a smaller farmer’s market. It could potentially move across the street? Or maybe to the triangle across the street from the First Church of Christ/luxury hotel? It will definitely be nice to have that space redeveloped, but it is a shame that they can’t preserve more of the public space. The openness of that intersection is unique and it is used pretty frequently throughout most days.

      • ChillyDC

        Incredible? Did you mean “incredibly awful”? It’s hulking and completely out of character for the neighborhood. Ugh. Belongs on K Street, perhaps. Not in a row of early 1900s buildings.

        • anon

          but it’s not the early 1900’s anymore. i’m glad you’re not in charge.

          • ChillyDC

            I’d be the first to promote something modern and different; my issue is with the scale. The proposed building is ugly, unimaginative, and it dwarfs the surrounding neighborhood.

          • JS

            Huh? There’s an 8 story building literally across the street from this lot.

    • Anon

      Everyone is entitled to their own experience and interpretation of it, so I am not trying to negate your concerns. But I have to say that I lived in the neighborhood for 16 years until I moved just 4 months ago, and never felt concerned about the plaza or the people in it. I’m saddened by the thought of it being built up.

  • anonymous

    It honestly saddens me that the proposed building design is so uninspired. This was a vibrant theater, and then a tragedy, and after that a travesty. The lot deserves something bolder. The neighborhood deserves something more interesting.

    • Like the monstrosity that’s there now?

      • INDC

        Exactly…I love that people are protesting a “lovely” concrete plaza that often serves no purpose other than the farmer’s market on the weekend (which will be relocated to the other corner). I live in the neighborhood and am all for developing this key corner in the neighborhood. Not super excited about the proposed building aesthetics, but they look like a vast improvement over the junk turd architecture currently there.

    • DC Lover


  • Anon

    If this is a by-right development, I’m surprised that Hoffman is balking at the community outcry (though my guess is that Hoffman is hoping to gain some zoning/parking concessions, hence the turtling).

  • Emmaleigh504

    Oh no, I like the farmer’s market. I wonder if they will relocate somewhere else in the neighborhood.

    • INDC

      The schematics propose moving the market to the other corner where the bikeshare rack is located.

  • stacksp

    I find it funny that the some individuals want to “preserve” whatever cultural experience that they deem important in DC yet have no issue railroading against someone elses in the name of Capitalism, modernization etc. Its ok for property owners to do what they will with their property UNLESS it directly impacts you….

  • Anon

    From my perspective, it’s a fine upgrade; nothing transformative, but better than the status quo. Way more efficient use of that space. I too get creeped out by the space.

    Can’t they move the farmers market to Marie Reed? That seems like a more logical space anyway.

  • Rich

    The idea of a building with housing on that corner is just ludicrous–noisy and w/o buffer.

    • alpinepaq

      Someone always posts a comment like this whenever a new building is proposed in a busy corridor – U St., 14th St., H St, NY Ave! There are busier corners in this city, with housing sprouting up like mad.
      Other points of reference for people willing to live in high-activity areas: large swaths of NYC, for starters.

      • Anon

        Agreed. Also, 18th street is not as crazy as it used to be.

      • Dan

        Nearly bought a house on top of Georgia Ave across from a fire station. Decided against it. But someone else did eventually buy that house, and I’m sure enjoys it.

        People are free to complain about the development. But, increased residential density in the “core” parts of DC is nothing but helpful to this city. Move the farmer’s market catty-corner across the street, or move it to the Euclid triangle park. DC’s gaining residents 1000/month, and has to put them somewhere. Density in the core keeps everyone from living in Chantilly and motoring in.

        Bravo for high-density residential development at this corner. I wouldn’t mind it if it were 40 stories tall.

    • nevermindtheend

      I agree with alpinepaq and would like to add that modern buildings have excellent soundproofing. I was at a friend’s a few years back during an extremely loud parade and you couldn’t hear anything until you opened the balcony door.

      • Ward One Resident

        Which is great, but when PNHoffman built the lofts behind 18th St. they did a crappy sound-proofing job and the people that then moved in made life hell for the 18th St. bars. Hopefully PNHoffman has learned their lesson on that one (they had to buy back at least one unit from a disgruntled owner).

  • Steph

    While I would love for any development to include some type of public use space/plaza, I think housing on this location makes perfect sense. That said, the proposed building, like much of the buildings going up all over the city, is rather bland and boring. Perhaps the ANC, could work with the developer to come to a solution that would satisfy all parties? I suspect most Adams Morgan residents would support a residential development on this property. The current “plaza” is a bit of an eyesore and rarely utilized. If I had my way, the entire space would be redone as a lovely public space with an outdoor cafe component and live music. Alas, DC does not own this land so the property owner should develop it as he sees fit, with reasonable consideration given to the surrounding neighbors.

    • Anon

      “rather bland and boring. Perhaps the ANC, could work with the developer to come to a solution that would satisfy all parties?”

      This ANC work with developers? Really?

  • alpinepaq

    1. This is a big deal for Adams Mogran, as this plaza is indisputably central.
    2. There is no question that the plaza could be better designed and more “activated” (as they say)
    3. Between this space, and the similarly large and underutilized “plaza” in front of the BB&T (Adams Mill and Columbia), there should be ample room to create a well-designed public space: benches, fountain?, tables, space for events, etc.
    4. Well-run community input process will go a long way here, so good for PNH for doing that, but the proof is in the pudding.

  • anonymous

    I used to live nearby until a couple of years ago. While I didn’t usually cross the street to avoid the plaza, it was rarely used except for the farmer’s market hours. It was an ugly little plaza, not really worth saving. Which isn’t to say that a nicer plaza, with greenery, wouldn’t be nice in that spot, one others would use. That would be nice to have worked into a design. Though I’m not sure that a residential building would want that in front – you see public plazas more in front of commercial buildings, where they are more appropriate.

    It would be nice to have a building that echoed some of the architectural style of the theater. Though that apparently came right up to the sidewalk. A setback of some sort with greenery would be nice for the corner, even it wasn’t a public plaza.

  • Lisa

    it’s private property and a dreadful space when not in use by the farmers market. They can find a new home and should not thwart someone’s rights to develop their property.

    That said, the design is terrible. Another generic design by Eric Colbert. And those DC flag stamped railings? Wow. Is a pre-school occupying that space?

  • anonymous

    This is private property. Full stop. It’s nice of PN Hoffman to ask the public’s input, but they own the land. I don’t understand what this resident means that the development of the site would be an “unacceptable outcome.” This resident seems to be confusing things (s)he enjoys with things s(he) has a right to.
    That said, for PN Hoffman’s own sake and for the sake of the community, I hope they pick a more interesting design.

    • dcd

      Agreed. If the city wants the “plaza” to remain a plaza, they are welcome to purchase it and make it so.
      That said, this guy isn’t just a resident, he’s an ANC Commissioner (aka someone who SHOULD be just a resident but has latched onto a ridiculous position that should be abolished, or substantially revamped at a minimum).

      • Anon


      • prgkmr

        Thank you. I hate how what is essentially a glorified HOA thinks they can exert control over private property in “their” neighborhood.

    • Anon

      Or, the private owners neglected the property and it has been a blight on the neighborhood for years and they’ve finally decided that they can get enough out of developing it. It’s nice that they let people use the plaza, but they haven’t exactly been great neighbors.

    • jcm

      That’s only true if they’re going to build it matter-of-right. If they are going to go through the PUD process or request variances then the public has a say in the matter, and the ANC’s opinion is legally due “great weight”.

      • textdoc

        JCM makes a very good point.

        • Admiral

          Not quite…..actually the ANC has input but there’s no actual weight to their input. It’s just an opportunity for them to voice their opinions which in the case of this ANC and a couple others have always been quite the opposite of how the city/zoning commission/public want to see the neighborhoods develop. Successful ANCs use their input stage as a bargaining chip and get great amenities for their immediate neighborhood such as park improvements, sidewalks, public space improvements, bike racks, landscaping, etc.

      • Anonymous

        The documents that PNH provided to the ANC didn’t include the standard zoning tabulations, but it does seem likely that they would need a PUD (which requires approval of the Zoning Commission).

        The site is 16,271 square feet in size and is zoned C-2-B. With inclusionary zoning, it is allowed as a matter of right a zoning height of 70 feet, a residential lot occupancy of 80% and a total floor area of 4.2 times the land area, or 68,338 square feet. By measuring the height on Columbia Road, rather than 18th Street (which is allowed in the regulations), the proposed height is exactly 70 feet. They also added a 12 foot tall habitable penthouse (set back from the edge of the roof by about 12 feet) with a 6 foot 6 inch mechanical penthouse above (set back from the edge of the roof of the habitable penthouse). The text amendment allowing this additional habitable space was added to the zoning regulations in November 2015. (Expect to see more developers exploit this very generous provision and also add habitable penthouses to their existing buildings or approved PUDs.) The new penthouse regulations include a provision where only part of this habitable penthouse counts toward the calculated floor area, about 6,500 square feet is not included.

        There are 60 housing units plus ground floor retail. The current parking requirement is one space for every three units, so they are required to have 20 spaces for the 60 residential units plus some parking is required for the commercial space (which I can’t calculate without knowing the actual area). They are providing 37 parking spaces, with 19 of those spaces being for compact cars only. I don’t know if zoning approval is necessary for the large number of compact spaces, or if 18 full size spaces plus some compact spaces is sufficient for this project.

        While they have not included information on the floor area of the building, it appears as though the calculated floor area would be significantly more than the 68,338 square feet that would be allowed as a matter of right. It might exceed the matter-of-right square footage by as much as 10,000 square feet. But without the actual square footage, I cannot be certain.

        If PNH has to go before the Zoning Commission to get a PUD approved, the public will have a chance to weigh in, and the ANC’s opinion of the factors that are relevant to a planned unit development will be due “great weight.”

  • ST21

    I gotta say. I completely disagree with this Mr. Simpson on this one.

    I live near the area and that “plaza” that is there now is basically a gathering place for bums and skateboarders 90% of the time. Sure it’s nice once a week for Farmer’s Market’s and “community events” every once in a while but that’s the exception to the rule.

    A development like this could be a HUGE improvement to the area. That corner and the McDonalds across the street is in desperate need of upgrades.

  • mmm

    this seems like a knee-jerk reaction to development. While there could be a well-designed and well-used plaza on that corner, what exists today is neither…Farmer’s market could fit in front of BBT (and it’s a nicer space imo) at the park, Marie Reed, etc. Smart development is a good thing for that corner, but there is not much worth saving imo.

  • Marty

    If the owners want to put up barbed wire and sell used tires from that spot, more power to them. As long as it comports with zoning, then I have no problems with it.
    Why should a landowner not be permitted to maximize their profit on a parcel?

  • TropicBird

    I rarely saw the plaza used for anything except a weekly farmers’ market and capoeira performances, and ladies sunning their babies, and people waiting for a bus. When it was the Knickerbocker there was no plaza. A lot of things about Adams Morgan were actually cooler back in the day. But as long as we are volunteering private property to be used for public space I volunteer we knock down the McDonald’s.

    • AMDCer

      I know you’re being facetious, but the building that the McDonald’s is in is fantastic.

  • a local

    I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 6 years, and I think the current building is an eyesore and the plaza is nothing special. That being said, I really hope that they shave at least one story off of that design. It’s going to be a sore thumb on 18th St. and, more importantly, it’s going to kill a lot of sunlight. Other developers in the neighborhood (and there are MANY!) have done a better job of keeping the building height in line with the environment — The Adamo, for example.

    I hope the ANC doesn’t derail this development, though. There are a lot of development issues in Adams Morgan, but this just isn’t one of them. On top of the fact that it’s private property, there are a lot of other spaces nearby that could be utilized more and easily take over the farmer’s market (Unity Park would be perfect). Also, the Envision Adams Morgan framework the ANC has adopted (at least I think they’ve adopted it?) calls for turning a lot more unused space into green spaces, including the alley cutting from 18th to Columbia on the other side of this building.

    I’m guessing that the same people who want to block this development are the same who wanted to “preserve” the derelict, hideous Ontario Theater.

  • textdoc

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought the Knickerbocker Theater was on the corner where the Starbucks is now — not the corner where this plaza is located.

  • Los

    I live on 18th near the plaza and I oppose this development, not because I want to preserve the plaza, but because it is very bland and wastes an opportunity to do something transformative on that intersection.

    Sure the farmer’s market is nice, but it is only there for a couple of hours a week. The rest of the time, the plaza is just an empty, cold cement and brick lot.

    Like someone mentioned earlier, I would much rather have something that would echo back to the Knickerbocker theatre. I much rather have something along the lines of a Beaux Arts/Second Empire/etc. rather than this really unremarkable design was looks more like a copy-paste from all the recent development. This lot has the opportunity for a landmark development, which combined with the hotel and the payless shoe store block can really make something of my neighborhood.

    Finally, I’m really offended that the author of the letter feels that his speaks for all of the residents of the block. I live there and there’s nothing I would like more than to have Adams Morgan become more upscale.

    • prgkmr

      “I live on 18th near the plaza and I oppose this development, not because I want to preserve the plaza, but because it is very bland and wastes an opportunity to do something transformative on that intersection.”

      Um, ok we all agree but that’s not really your perogative to oppose someone developing their private property in a bland/non-transformative way.

  • hma


    That plaza/building is ugly. It could really use some redevelopment.

  • Trippin’

    I love learning new things from PoPville posts. Reading about the blizzard tragedy, I learned entrepreneurs in DC once had this dope business idea — “The Psychedelic Power and Light Company” !! I plan to now open a grow shop with that name!

  • Adams Morgan Resident

    …I don’t really see where the problem is. Having a plaza available for use is nice, but if I’m reading these correctly it looks like they took the current use into account and made a plan to incorporate it, putting some benches out front, measuring out space across the street for the market, and noting that the info kiosk needs to be retained somehow. Who knows, they seem to be trying to engage the community so maybe the developer/owner could be convinced to join in on neighborhood events like Adams Morgan Day or Porchfest. The building itself could be prettier (that DC flag pattern on the balcony railings is awful), but it’s still an improvement design-wise over what’s there currently. I’m not scared to walk through the plaza, but it isn’t really a place I’d go to hang out.

  • Gene

    This is why you can’t ever be the nice guy and let people use things. They get accustomed to free stuff, or a service that they don’t pay for, then whine and moan when you dare try to use the property you are paying taxes on.

    “How dare you use your property, I demand to use it in the way I see fit, for free!”

    The point is, this plaza is used what, 2% of the time for a farmers market.

    There is a perfect, better place across the intersection that isn’t on private property to house the farmers market for the 2% of the year its there. Either pay the owners for this plaza, or chill out.

    • Anon

      Shades of St Thomas Park!

  • AMDCer

    I see no reason why this site shouldn’t be redeveloped, and think that ground floor retail (perhaps some non-bar/restaurant – please!) and residential make sense there. The farmer’s market can easily relocate to the plaza across the street or Marie Reed. That said, the renderings are pretty meh – what’s with that stupid spire on the top? Also, it would be nice if the corner was either squared off or concave instead of rounded to offer a more open corner/gathering spot. Even if you don’t like the current plaza, it is a feature that makes that intersection unique and and does contribute to the character of the neighborhood.

  • AdamsMorganRocks

    This plaza has always felt like left over space to me. Not very well designed, and not very inviting. I understand folks like the idea of a plaza in this location, but perhaps there is some design solution that allows the property owners to benefit from the value of the plot, and still give something back to the community.

  • Pam Cartwright

    Hmmm. Looks a LOT like what appears to be going up on the corner of 13th & U — building-wise. But in this case my thought was ….”so now it begins … not EVERY neighborhood needs the massing that 14th Street now has…whew. Sorry about this.

  • Train North

    I’m surprised I like the design. That current building and plaza are ugly and semi-useless.

  • TallGuy

    That corner is an eyesore as it exists today. I’m sure there’s a way to keep some of the plaza and still put up something nice in place of the Suntrust bank.

  • reality

    The development looks fine to me. The plaza is really worth saving? Moving the farmers market to the soccer fields.

  • OP Anon

    The plaza sucks, but so does the building design. It’s the same ugly schlock that popped up at Ontario & Columbia Road. The construction induced traffic is going to be horrendous. Expect major delays for buses that come down Adams Mill, Columbia Road, and 18th. I’m more concerned about what the developer will do to alleviate traffic congestion.
    Also, the SunTrust already has an underground garage which probably holds 30 cars (mostly personal cars of MPD officers who are on-duty). I wonder if the developer will re-purpose the existing garage and foundation? Also, will the cut through alley behind SunTrust still remain (i.e. public property)? Or is that within the private property line?

  • right-to-the-city

    what woodwork did all of the property rights advocates in this comment thread emerge from? Oregon? Yes, yes, we all know it is sacred private property and the owners can do what they wish, but no need to try to shut down mere opinions about what may be constructed there. Plus, as some commenters have mentioned, the developer may be looking for a zoning bonus/variance/whatever, which would allow your more urban design and community-minded neighbors to perhaps say their piece in an official capacity.

    A related note: I’m a life-long DC resident and used to live not far from this corner. While I witnessed the occasional illegal activity, it was mostly poor and working class people using the space to hang out. It disturbs me that the latter seems to be what most folks here are complaining about. Call me an old(ish) socialist, but let’s all have a Lefebvre book club and then talk neighborhood change.


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