Community Activists Take on Goliath Developer in Adams Morgan

Photo courtesy Adams Morgan for Sustainable Development

by Jacob Wallace

Community activists in Adams Morgan are raising money and support for the SunTrust Plaza in order to prevent the long-used public space from being razed for new development. Following plans released by PN Hoffman last year to create a seven story condominium complex on the site at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, neighbors in the area organized to demand a plan that included the same amount of plaza space in any new development.

“It seemed like an unreasonable idea at very first blush that you would try and put a building on that plot,” said Vikram Chiruvolu, a co-facilitator of the Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development’s Save Our Plaza Initiative.

The neighborhood first began to organize in March of last year, when ANC 1C Chairman Ted Guthrie and community activist Chris Otten first invited their neighbors to weigh in on the plans for development.

Chiruvolu, a resident of Adams Morgan for 12 years, first heard about the project through a flyer in his laundry room.

“I was doing laundry and my ANC Commissioner lives in my building and he though I should know about it,” said Chiruvolu.

Today, Chiruvolu is a co-facilitator of the official Save Our Plaza Initiative, an offshoot of the Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development citizen’s association. He felt passionately about the need to get involved.

“It just really got me in my gut on a justice level that this was wrong,” said Chiruvolu.

The group won a major victory on Aug. 5 when Judge Todd Edelman granted a preliminary injunction against PN Hoffman’s raze order, effectively barring the developer from touching the site until a jury can decide the facts of the case in March.

In a video posted to their Facebook site in August, Chiruvolu and lawyer Paul Zukerberg celebrated their win.

“The plaza will be preserved and protected and will not be destroyed until the court can decide on the merits of the case,” said Zukerberg. “We’re looking forward to protecting and preserving the plaza now for future generations.”

The plaza could still be developed by PN Hoffman. The validity of the activists’ case rests on a letter sent to Adams Morgan residents in 1976. Perpetual Trust bank then owned the site, and its owner, Thomas J. Owen, granted the plaza to the community as a way to get permission to build his bank, in part because the community opposed the bank’s alleged discriminatory lending practices.

“SunTrust Bank has essentially argued that that concession doesn’t apply to them anymore, which is just nonsense,” said Chiruvolu.

The activists view the plaza as a public easement that they have access to in perpetuity. Neighborhood residents have in fact been using the space continuously since it was granted to them in the 70’s for their farmer’s market and other public events.

Terry Tyborowski, a resident of Adams Morgan since 1991, was appalled when she first heard about the plans. She wishes the developer would work with the community on the space.

“It seems to me it’d be so much easier to just work with the neighborhood,” said Tyborowski. “[PN Hoffman] is spending for 3000 square feet of concrete all this money on legal teams.”

Tyborowski, a former professor and government employee, first got involved in the cause through Otten as well. In spring of last year, she received an email from Otten seeking input from community members, and she leapt at the opportunity.

“I worked in the government in my career looking at national issues,” said Tyborowski. “This is the first real local issue I’ve been involved in and it’s surprising how passionate about it I am.”

She first decided to speak at an early ANC meeting to solicit feedback about the proposal.

“I love the open space of the plaza because it’s part of my neighborhood,” said Tyborowski. “I couldn’t believe it was happening in my backyard.”

The local ANC would eventually vote unanimously against the proposal, 6-0, but that didn’t stop PN Hoffman from proceeding forward with their plans anyway. They argued a 300 square foot space at the front of their new proposal would function as an equal community gathering space, despite the fact that the space was roughly 2000 square feet smaller than the current plaza.

“It’s essentially just a big entryway,” said Chiruvolu. “They themselves had to acknowledge it wasn’t big enough to replace the plaza.”

The court’s recent Preliminary Injunction order has shocked PN Hoffman and made the activists opposing the development giddy.

“It’s exciting to see a local activist group stop the huge contractor,” said Tyborowksi.

Tyborowksi has attended several events to support the plaza, starting with the initial ANC meetings and leading up to more recent benefits such as a concert held in Madam’s Organ last Tuesday to raise funds. She’s been impressed by the mix of people she’s seen as a result.

“Most of the people I’ve met aren’t activists, they’re just people like me,” said Tyborowsky.

Those involved have donated money and time to come together as a community. Their work is not over – the group posted that they had a little over 50 dollars left in their bank account following the court’s preliminary injunction order in August. Still, the level of community engagement has already surpassed many people’s expectations.

“I’ve met all kinds of people from all over the neighborhood,” said Tyborowski. “I think it just raises a passion in people.”

Chiruvolu is still confident about his group’s chances of defeating PN Hoffman in court. He believes the group has what it takes to win influence over the spot, and get the input he argues should have been “the basic thing that should have happened all along.”

“We just want a neighbor-friendly [developer] that engages with the community and wants to engage with the public,” said Chiruvolu.

The group will find out if they can win that developer in court in March.

 

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