by Marlene Berlin
When PG and Bobby Gottfried purchased 3101 Albemarle Street last year, they endorsed the historic landmark nomination submitted by the Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance and proposed higher density development along 32nd Street as a means of maintaining the house on a large portion of its original lot. A highlight of their proposed development, and the centerpiece of the required public amenity package for a PUD (planned unit development), was a five-year lease-to-purchase offer to the non-profit Rock Creek Conservancy, providing this steward of the park with a permanent home in the landmarked mansion, overlooking the very park they serve.
At the September 19th meeting of ANC 3F, the Gottfrieds presented updated plans for their proposed PUD at the former home of the Polish ambassador. PG Gottfried opened the presentation and announced with much regret that the Rock Creek Conservancy had pulled out of the deal.
The 3101 Albemarle presentation begins at 1:57:15.
(What’s a PUD? Here’s a plain-English explanation from Greater Greater Washington.)
Conservancy Executive Director Matt Fleischer told us in an email that they parted on “amicable terms.” However, he said, “we were not able to come to an agreement that was satisfactory to both parties, and so Rock Creek Conservancy will not be moving into the Forest Hills neighborhood at the 3101 Albemarle Street property.”
“We truly appreciate all the support that the neighborhood has shown to the Conservancy and know that we will continue to work together to make Rock Creek and its parks a more vibrant and healthy place for our wonderful city,” Fleischer added.
The end of this deal is part of broader community pushback against a concept that has significantly changed since it was first proposed to neighbors a year ago.
Marjorie Share and Jane Solomon approached PG Gottfried with the initial concept, which included the following elements: 1) landmarking the Polish residence; 2) occupancy by the Rock Creek Conservancy; 3) adding townhouses facing 32nd Street; 4) preservation of open space elsewhere on the site; and 5) inclusion of environmental sustainability features. (Solomon is the president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance but was not operating under this formal role.)
Preservation of trees and the open sight line of the landmarked house as viewed from the corner of Albemarle and 32nd Street also were key objectives.
This is the 32nd Street side of the property. Click and drag to look around and click the arrows to travel around the block.
This plan would require significant zoning relief, and therefore required a PUD. The initial concept was taken to 3101’s neighbors. They responded favorably. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, some residents were even excited at the prospect of moving into the houses, downsizing within Forest Hills with its great proximity to transit and shopping. The Office of Planning supported the proposed lease-purchase concept with Rock Creek Conservancy as the linchpin of the benefits package. The Gottfrieds went on to purchase the property.
At the June ANC 3F meeting, Christian Zapatka, the architect for this project, presented some rough sketches of a very different concept for development on Albemarle and Appleton. This took all parties by surprise. Gone were eight townhomes facing 32nd Street. Instead, three townhouses, each with 3,300 square feet of living space, faced Albemarle at 32nd Street.
On the north side of the lot along Appleton, a duplex appeared at the corner of 32nd Street and a 5,200 square foot single-family home was placed at the rear of the mansion and next to a residence owned by Paul and Rita Arendal. Read more about the plans.
At the September ANC meeting, Zapatka presented more refined plans for the development and explained the constraints of the site, namely protecting two heritage trees and preserving sight lines to the residence from Albemarle and 32nd Streets. This, he said, would provide for the creation of a small public park with seating, accessible from 32nd Street.
The PUD would require zoning relief for various elements of the plan. First, they need the city’s permission to build on this non-conforming lot (less than the required 7,500 square feet). They also require permission to build the single family house closer to the curb than zoning allows. Called the setback, it’s determined by other houses on the same side of the block. In this case, the only other house is the Arendals’, which sits much further from the street. After the September ANC meeting, Bobby Gottfried further explained in an email that the zoning requirement of 25-foot rear yards for both the house and the mansion was one of the considerations in moving the house closer to the street.
The comments from ANC commissioners were neutral with requests for more information on the zoning relief sought, the benefits package, and environmental mitigations.
A neighbor across the street on Appleton, Cyrus Freylinghusen, told commissioners that he opposed the development. He explained that additional hard surface would exacerbate already existing water runoff problems in the area and into Soapstone Valley at one of the area’s lowest points of topography in the neighborhood. He said he prefers the addition of two single-family houses, which what is allowed under “matter of right” zoning at 3101. There is sufficient space to create one lot at the corner of Albemarle and 32nd Streets and another at Appleton and 32nd. Read more about zoning in Forest Hills.
Rita Arendal also spoke in opposition to the PUD because of the change in orientation of development to Appleton Street and the addition of a house next to hers.
And Andy Orlin and Jean Jacques Dethier, who lives next door to the property, requested that the final PUD plans first be sent to neighbors before they are submitted to Office of Planning, which would be the next step in the process.
Both PG and Bobby Gottfried reiterated their determination to move forward even without the Rock Creek Conservancy. The ambassador’s residence will be refurbished and sold as a single family dwelling. PG presented what he believes is a strong benefits package, even without this key component:
- Public park with benches
- Sidewalk on 32nd Street
- Converting the fountain to a rain garden
- No street parking and hidden garages
- Existing driveway, new driveways and walkways replaced with permeable materials
- Working with DDOT to landscape the entrance to Soapstone Valley Trail with maintenance the responsibility of the home owner’s association
- Lobbying for crosswalk at 32nd Street
- Use of gray water for a sprinkler system
When a developer goes for a PUD, the process is opened up to community input. This gives the community, especially neighbors within 200 feet, considerable leverage.
What is this process like? Marjorie Rachlin, a former ANC commissioner, was involved in the negotiations as a neighbor over a lot subdivision on the 2900 block of Albemarle in the 1980s.“Everything is up for grabs in order to make the use of the land what the neighborhood wants,” Rachlin said in an email. “We negotiated over the placement of the houses, how many houses on the site, and the amount of pavement. These issues pertain to 3101 as well. Landscaping, drainage and environmental impact are also issues that should be front and center in negotiations with the developer.”
The Gottfrieds can always decide to drop the PUD and go for “matter of right” development, which, again, would add two large houses. And the community can also decide that this would be preferable.
Distinguishing elements of the original concept began to slip away with growing house footprints, the turn away from 32nd Street and finally with the departure of the Conservancy. Another change is that the land at the rear of the landmarked mansion did not receive historic protection, freeing it up for development. View the landmark map.
Marjorie Share, whose work includes creating new museums and cultural centers, thinks this project can still be a win for everyone involved.
“The Gottfrieds can be the neighborhood heroes who save the mansion and build houses in scale, and with materials compatible with the mansion to maximize tree preservation and the property’s stature as the gateway to Forest Hills – and adjacent Rock Creek Park,” she said.
“When Marjorie and I started working to save the property, nothing stood in the way of a developer cutting down every tree,” Jane Solomon added. “They simply had to pay for the privilege. It was the Heritage Tree law, which only went into effect a year ago, that forced the redesign of the layout. As a result, even though I believe more trees remain standing with the current plans, many large trees behind the mansion will have construction near their root zones, most likely compromising their health. It’s an ironic and unfortunate outcome for a tree preservation law.”
“Perhaps an alternative hybrid scenario can find fertile ground, which blends the best elements of a PUD and matter of right construction. This can happen if everyone truly listens to one another’s concerns and embraces an organized, collaborative process,” said Share. “I can’t overstate the importance of the design for the corner of Albemarle Street and 32nd Street. It will be the first house everyone see and will set the tone for our entire neighborhood.”
The community and the Gottfrieds are still talking. The developers agreed to send the PUD application to the neighbors who live within 200 feet of the property before they file. This part of the ANC meeting came to an end with an offer and request by PG Gottfried to meet with the neighbors who are not happy with the plan within the next few days.
Once the Gottfrieds file the PUD application, the PUD process starts in earnest. Here’s more information about the timeline for this application and how the community can provide input.