The Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) has taken to running an advertising broadside in a local community newspaper berating the Embassy of the Republic of Congo for removing trees and shrubbery from the lawn of its new 16th St., N.W., Chancery location and paving over the lawn with concrete.
The controversial group last weekend announced a sidewalk demonstration for this past Tuesday evening protesting the “willful destruction of the front lawn and several large trees during renovation of [the] new embassy.”
“Be careful what you wish for” should have been painted on each of their protest signs.
It would be comical if it weren’t emblematic of a city that continues to allow the voices of so few to wield oversized influence in matters of economic development and the disruption, or even disallowance, of popular neighborhood amenities.
Businesses such as the gay-owned B&B previously operating for several years at the site were vehemently opposed and hindered by these same characters.
The backstory is less about a lawn gracing the oversized and beautifully intricate manse and more about the unintended consequences created by shortsighted small unrepresentative groups and ad hoc neighborhood obstructionists constantly battling local community enterprises.
That is exactly what happened long before the embassy purchased the five-story, 18-room limestone and brick 12,000-square-foot Flemish Revival style Toutorsky Mansion on the Avenue of the Presidents earlier this year. The building, located at 1720 16th St. and the corner of Riggs Place directly across from the majestic Temple of the Scottish Rite at S Street, was originally built in 1894 by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown. The property subsequently enjoyed an illustrious and grand history under varied usages.
The current quixotic green space dust-up reaches back to a bitter regulatory fight initiated by the usual suspects — DCCA, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), and two of those “gang of five or more” regulatory protest groups for which the neighborhood has become infamous in the region as an example of citizen participation run amok.
The small B&B operation endured a multi-year regulatory fight during an expensive restoration process and prior to opening. The battle was fought over merely increasing the guest room count from the automatically allowed six to 10, having more than one employee on-site at any given time to manage the inn, and hosting up to one special event of no more than 110 guests per month.
A two-year D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) adjudication process resulted in a decision denying these variances to the small hotel operation owned by successful gay Washington real estate agent and entrepreneur Humberto Gonzalez.
The opponents’ complaints? Shockeroo, neighbors! Fear on the part of a couple handfuls of residents near the densely populated urban boulevard that the minor allowances to enable the modest-sized community lodging business to survive and thrive would suddenly result in a deluge of delivery vehicles, noise, traffic and parking congestion.
This despite the fact that two other inns within a few hundred feet and with 38 and 48 rooms, respectively, have not caused any problems of the sort that gay Dupont Circle ANC area commissioner Jack Jacobson, who was elected after the regulatory fight, has ever heard complaints.
It got chalked up as another victory for the darling denizens of Dupont. But, according to Gonzalez, the actual result was that the well-regarded business was denied the second phase of a renovation loan based on the BZA rejection, as the bank feared the restrictions would preclude financial success.
Undeterred, and remaining committed to both preserving the property with which he had fallen in love and operating a B&B, Gonzalez sold 12 other properties to finance the project and what would be its nearly four-year operation. Ultimately, the operating restrictions caused the B&B to shut down, forcing Gonzalez to sell the property.
“It’s a shame what I had to go through,” Gonzalez laments, a sentiment shared by community activist and gay former DCCA board member and past reform-minded president Joel Lawson.
Lawson, who was not involved in the earlier regulatory opposition to the business and had sought to mitigate the organization’s anti-business posture before resigning in frustration in 2008 after serving at the helm, says, “Sure, everyone should protest the paving now, but you could christen it a memorial garden to the short-sighted protests against the B&B.”
If only they cared as much about local small businesses — and fairness — as they do those trees.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at [email protected].