A developer sues Petworth residents

Grant Circle (courtesy of Google Street View)

Grant Circle (courtesy of Google Street View)

WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle published an article today about Grant Circle residents being sued for $25 million dollars. The developer, Jay Gross, is accusing residents Oscar Beisert, Thomas Woodruff and Stephen Wright of "conspiring to stop him from renovating and expanding" three rowhouses located on Grant Circle (7, 14 & 15 Grant Circle).

These three residents were among many who worked with the District's Historic Preservation Review Board to protect the buildings around the Circle from being either torn-down (much like the recent razing of 16 Grant Circle) or turned into "pop-up conversions" and destroying the facade of a 100 year old designed traffic circle. A majority of the Circle received a historic landmark designation back in April 2015. (See my post from April.)

Martin Austermuhle's WAMU article, "In Petworth, Residents Fight A Developer — And The Developer Fights Back," details the accusation the developer is making against the three gentlemen, and points out that the developer is using a federal court instead of a DC court to file his lawsuit, because this type of lawsuit is prohibited in DC.

"SLAPP [strategic lawsuit against public participation] lawsuits are prohibited under D.C. law, but in April the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. ruled that the city’s law did not apply to lawsuits filed in federal court — where Gross's lawsuit will be heard," writes Austermuhle in the article.

The lawsuit (which you can download to review) alleges that Wright and Woodruff had "secret" meetings to persuade the "exclusive" ANC and residents to support the historic designation: 

"...[Wright] suddenly began covertly arranging neighborhood meetings and banging the drum of preservation, inciting feelings of NIMBYism within his neighbors and fomenting neighborhood animosity towards Mr. Gross and his businesses. Wright and Woodruff hosted secret, exclusive Advisory Neighborhood Committee (‘ANC”) [sic] meetings to demonize Mr. Gross and his business, and spurred a group of their Grant Circle neighbors to support their application to designate Plaintiff’s property as an historic landmark and their application to designate the homes and structures along the periphery of Grant Circle as an historic district." (Section 3, page 3 of the complaint.)

I assume the ANC meeting being referenced is the March 2015 public meeting at the Petworth Library. (My notes and photos are on Facebook.) Here's the section from my notes about the historic designation portion of the meeting:

"Then in the last half hour, a group of Petworth residents got up to talk about their push to have Grant Circle designated as a Historic Landmark. Long story short here… there are a couple of developers looking to tear down some homes on Grant Circle and build larger condos. The residents around the circle are really unhappy and were told that their only real hope to stop the process for permits to getting issued is to have the area designated as Historic.

Resident Oscar Beisert discussed how Petworth was the first outside area to be developed following the L’Enfant plan (hence the big circle and grid streets). Residents Paul Logan and Steve Wright also spoke about their desire to have the Circle designated as a Historic Landmark, and the crowd did a lot of clapping in agreement.

Residents Oscar Beisert, Paul Logan and Steve Wright talking at the March ANC 4C meeting.

Commissioner Maloney ended the conversation by saying, with some passion, that at first he “didn’t want to support the effort for Historic Landmark consideration,” but that after listening to the problems that John Stokes and Ms Abrams were experiencing with developers, and the lack of power citizens had against bigger, more well-funded companies, and how ANCs were so easily brushed aside, he wants ANC 4C to stand up and be a voice for residents."

It will be interesting to see if this lawsuit gets thrown out or goes to trial, and what the final impact upon our neighborhood will be. Will Grant Circle stay a historic landmark, both by designation and resident desire, or will developers win the right to teardown or completely modify the structure of existing buildings and perhaps changing the ambience and feel of Grant Circle?