Must-See ANC: Russert Amps Up Prospect St. Protest

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Luke Russer. Photo by Jeff Malet.

It was an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting that looked like it might be worth missing — the day after Memorial Day — but it had it all. At least for Georgetowners and other Washingtonians.

Whether because of those in attendance or the issues discussed, this three-hour meeting was a keeper.

There was the Metropolitan Police Department officer talking about crime rates remaining more or less the same, the head of Georgetown Heritage giving an update on the C&O Canal, Washington Fine Properties executives opposing a backyard neighbor’s balcony plans, some guy touting Douglass Country, Maryland, as the answer to D.C. statehood, Commissioner Ed Solomon assuring all about contractor parking for Ellington School reconstruction (again), a presentation on the Latham Hotel project (again) and applause for Medstar Georgetown University Hospital’s plans and general good-neighborliness (again).

And there was Luke Russert speaking of a possible catastrophic collapse of a Georgetown hillside.

Repetitions are standard in any community activity — and one more was about to get dramatic. It is worth reporting a few details.

Condominiums are planned for the property occupied by Key Bridge Exxon at 36th and M Streets. The area is next to the Exorcist Steps and the Car Barn. It was an EastBanc project for years, but Anthony Lanier bailed. The 22-unit project is owned by Altus Realty Partners. The new company is moving ahead with the same designs as those in 2014, but there are a few minor revisions.

The site is familiar to all arriving from Arlington on Key Bridge. It is part of a vista that shows off Georgetown’s buildings and greenery and is part of its southern gateway.

The project has agitated those who live up the hill — which was once a ravine but was filled in with dirt from Georgetown University construction projects over the years. The houses on Prospect Street between 36th and St. Mary’s Place (37th Street) have magnificent southern views from their backyards and decks of the Potomac River, the Kennedy Center and the monuments. Prospect Street property owners came to the meeting with lawyers, architects, artists and journalists, some of whom are, in fact, those very homeowners.

What do you do when you think nearby construction could cause a landslide?

Commissioner Rick Murphy got to the crux of the issue, calling the land next to the proposed condos, which is owned by those up on Prospect Street, an “unstable hillside.” Developers plan a midslope retaining wall (which will go through the homeowners’ property).

Lawyer Stephen Marcus, a lawyer representing five homeowners, called for time to discuss the problems involved. “Let the neighbors and Altus negotiate for 60 days,” he said.

Speaking for the Prospect group, Roger Lewis, architect, retired professor and Washington Post columnist, graded the condo design as “adequate,” saying that aesthetically the building “belongs in the suburbs … or Houston.” As it is the southern gateway to Georgetown, he said, the site demands a more iconic building — something “architecturally more distinguished.”

The building does not fit, he concluded — and, by the way, there’s that geotechnical challenge.

Homeowners have pounded in vertical metal beams to shore up the backend of yards and homes. Now they fear a catastrophic collapse of the earthworks.

Prospect Street homeowners Maureen Orth and her son Luke Russert also offered comments.

Sporting “that retirement beard” (as someone tweeted), Russert offered a strong argument about a possible collapse and read from an assessment of the topography by Neubauer Consulting Engineers. He noted the developers’ poorly marked designs, with a would-be retaining wall going too close to backyards.

“Risking an entire block of historic Georgetown homes?” he said. “Do we risk an entire block on a building that is too large? No survey was conducted with the updated site plan in mind.”

Now, that’s something to think about. Welcome back, Luke.

Oh, yes, zoning was discussed, too, along with various restaurants’ Settlement Agreements. The commissioners sort of liked the “Kung Fu Tea” blade sign and passed it on.

And that Mother’s Day crime, involving a gun, at the cash room of Dean & Deluca? MPD says: “It is solvable.”

Why was the June meeting held May 30? The Georgetown-Burleith ANC always has to meet on a Monday or Tuesday before the Old Georgetown Board meets on Thursday, that’s why.

It is important to remember that the OGB does not comment on structural issues — such matters are reserved for a District agency.

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