A raze permit was filed by the Graduate School USA for 501 I Street in May, which is the former Southeastern University campus building. The raze permit was filed to see whether any historic preservation groups would try to landmark the building; however, at the June ANC meeting, the commissioners voted to oppose the permit because no plan had been formally presented for what would replace the building.
Spurred by the raze permit application, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) filed a historic landmark application for the property in July. According to the landmark application, the building was first constructed in 1948 for the Metropolitan Police Boys Club No. 4 with a brick exterior in a smaller footprint than its current state. The building was one of the few that survived urban renewal. Then in 1961, The Hawthorne School (a private co-ed high school) purchased the building, expanded it to the north & south, and clad it in concrete in a brutalist design done by Charles Goodman, the same architect that designed River Park Cooperative Homes. The school was the first private school to be built in an urban renewal area. Eventually, declining enrollment and financial difficulties at the school caused the sale of the property to Southeastern University, which operated at the site until 2009.
Currently, the campus is owned by Graduate School USA and is vacant. Upkeep of the grounds around the building has been deferred with tall weeds sprouting around in spots. The campus is under contract to the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) who has plans to joint venture with developer Erkiletian to build a nine-story building with approximately 155 residential units (a portion of the units will be set aside for actors, interns and affordable housing under Inclusionary Zoning), as well as rehearsal space, a black-box theater, a costume and set equipment fabrication shop, and the administrative headquarters for the Company. Most of STC’s operations will be located below-grade. STC has been looking for several years for a location to consolidate its back-of-the-house operations, which are scattered across leased space in the District. After several false starts with other proposals, the Company came across 501 I Street and placed it under contract. A zoning change would be needed for the property in order to build what STC and Erkiletian have initially planned. A historic landmark designation for the property would scuttle STC’s plans.
SWNA hosted a neighborhood forum on the project on July 28 at Arena Stage. At the forum, Cecille Chen from SWNA gave a presentation on the history of the building, followed by additional remarks on the social implications of the Hawthorne School and SEU by Dr. Marjorie Lightman. Afterwards, STC’s managing director Chris Jennings explained the Company’s plans for the project and current involvement in the community, which was followed by a question and answer period.
Less than two months after the forum, SWNA and STC signed a Neighborhood Cooperation Agreement on September 17 whereby SWNA will immediately withdraw its nomination of 501 I Street and in exchange, STC has committed to engage the Southwest community during the development process, limit the maximum density of what will be built on the property, and provide an extensive amount of community benefits, along with payments to SWNA to help fund projects in the neighborhood. According to the agreement, STC will need to keep the townhome neighbors abreast of all aspects of the development process and host a charrette to show massing concepts for the development, as well as host at least one meeting with townhome residents to present development plans. Two community meetings are also mandated prior to submitting a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application and STC will need to keep SWNA and ANC 6D updated on their plans.
Some restrictions have been placed on the development as a result of this Neighborhood Cooperation Agreement. For instance, since a minimum of 70 off-street parking spaces will be built, tenants or owners in the residential building will not be qualified to obtain Residential Parking Permits, so they will not be permitted to use on-street parking spaces. Also, the maximum amount of density on the site will be limited to a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 4.5, or 164,142 square feet of enclosed space above grade. Building uses have been limited to those described above.
Effective immediately, STC will participate and support the annual SW ArtsFest; offer free tickets for special STC events that can be raffled off at Southwest community events; distribute free tickets to Ward 6 Night Free for All performances at Sidney Harman Hall; and advertise in The Southwester newspaper on a quarterly basis for the next year. Once a Planned Unit Development (PUD) has been approved for the project, STC will start providing other community benefits, including: provide Jefferson Academy Middle School and Amidon-Bowen Elementary School students and faculty with access to certain STC events and activities; offer discounted tuition to Southwest residents for Adult Master Acting Classes and Camp Shakespeare; free tickets for Southwest residents to the Academy of Classical Acting showcase performances; provide arts event programming at the Southwest Duck Pond; advertise in The Southwester at least once a quarter for four years; make an annual contribution of up to $2,500 for five years to SW ArtsFest; and host tours of STC facilities for local schools and community associations. After the development has been built, additional community benefits start to kick in, including: allow the free use of assembly spaces/conference rooms for community meetings when they are not in use by STC and host an Open House in coordination with SW ArtsFest.
As a part of this deal, SWNA will receive two cash payments of $30,000 each – the first payment after SWNA withdraws its nomination of historic status for the property and the second once the raze permit has been granted. SWNA will have unrestricted use of the funds – one potential use will be to help establish a historic district in Southwest. SWNA has been responsible for the historic designation of several properties in Southwest, most recently Town Center East, Capitol Park Tower, and Randall Recreation Center. It has been trying to build momentum for the creation of a historic district – aside from individual building landmarks, SWNA recently commissioned a study of the history of Southwest and is planning a study of mid-century modern houses of worship in the neighborhood.
Although SWNA plans to withdraw its historic nomination for 501 I Street, this does not mean that opposition to the project has disappeared. A number of residents in the townhomes adjacent to the proposed project are opposed to the project, partially due to infrastructure problems in the area – for example, a sinkhole formed at the intersection of 6th and I streets a few years back. However, the main reason for the opposition is the proposed building height, a “Monstrosity” as one neighbor put it. The proposed building will be tallest along I Street at nine stories, but will step down in height along 6th Street as it gets closer to the townhomes. A shading study of the proposed building will be completed by the developers, which neighbors will closely scrutinize to see how the project will potentially cast shadows on their homes.