Artists Clash with Developers at DC Zoning Commission Hearing

By Phil Hutinet on February 9, 2016


Outside the hearing at Judiciary Square. Photo by Jan Aucker for East City Art. 

The Hearing

Over 100 people sought entry to a DC Zoning Commission Hearing on Monday, February 1, 2016 to testify against evicting artists from a four story warehouse located at 411 New York Avenue NE, commonly known as Union Arts.

Developers D. B. Lee and Brooke Rose, who purchased 411 New York Avenue NE in 2015, have proposed transforming the current art space into a “boutique art hotel” several stories higher than what the current C-M-1 zoning allows. As such, the developers seek a C-3-C zoning designation to realize their project as part of a Planned Unit Development.

Supporters of preserving 411 New York Avenue as an artist workspace line up in the lobby in an attempt to attend the hearing. Photo by Jan Aucker for East City Art.

When an applicant brings a case before the DC Zoning Commission, the Commission may confer “party status” to a person or party opposed to the application who “demonstrate[s] that their interest would likely be more significantly, distinctly, or uniquely affected by the proposed zoning action than others in the general public.” In this case, the commission granted party status to the tenants of 411 New York Avenue NE represented by Chris Otten. In addition, the Commission allows public participation of “witnesses” during cases brought before them.

During the February 1 hearing, the developers presented their proposal for Planned Unit Development to the Zoning Commission which included zoning change requests, architectural renderings and a proposed arts programming component. D. B. Lee Development has selected Cultural DC to run and operate 2,300 square feet of artist studios, several exhibitions spaces and rooms designated for classes or other arts-related activities. Tanya Hilton and Vikki Tobak spoke on behalf of Cultural DC. Hilton, Cultural DC’s Interim Executive Director, discussed the organization’s 18 year history of managing art spaces and cited the Arts Walk at Monroe Street Market in Brookland as a recent accomplishment.

After the developers discussed their proposal and made their public case for Planned Unit Development, Chris Otten, as party representative, had the opportunity to cross-examine the developers including D. B. Lee Development President Dennis Lee. During this period, the exchange between Lee and Otten remained extremely contentious. While Lee contends that only 30 artists work at 411 New York Avenue NE, Otten insists that over 100 artists work in the building at any given time, often in collaborative settings. Several sources close to East City Art have confirmed that neither the developer nor the tenants have conducted a formal “census” to determine how many artists actually work in the building. Among the artists who have leases, many sublet or share their space with other artists adding further confusion to the exact headcount of working artists located at 411 New York Avenue NE.

In addition, Otten claimed that D. B. Lee Development has not done sufficient outreach with the existing tenants, many of whom feel slighted, according to Otten, that the developer selected Cultural DC, an outside third party, to manage the boutique hotel’s proposed art programs rather than working with the existing group of artists already present at 411 New York Avenue NE. In response, Lee replied “We don’t have enough artists in the city to fill this program” which drew a loud collective gasp from the audience.

Protesters hold up “A Gentrified DC” and “I Will Not Be Moved DC” signs. Photo by Jan Aucker for East City Art.

Since the Zoning Commission could only permit a finite number of people into the hearing room per DC fire code, a large crowd remained outside holding up signs against displacement and gentrification. Inside, the Commission heard testimony from a number of individuals pleading for the preservation of the 35,000 square foot artist space. After the last witness testified, Zoning Commission Chair Anthony Hood set February 23 as the date for the next zoning hearing in this case at which time Otten will present a counter-proposal; witnesses in opposition to the boutique art hotel will be divided into two groups as follows: tenants of 411 New York Avenue NE and non-tenants speaking on behalf of preserving the warehouse as an artist workspace.

None of the witnesses present spoke in favor of the proposed art boutique hotel.

What is at Stake?

If the Zoning Commission approves the developers’ plans, all of the artists will have to move out of 411 New York Avenue NE by Wednesday, September 21, 2016. Neither the developer nor Cultural DC have any plans to help relocate the artists to other workspaces either in DC or the surrounding area according to Hilton. While Dennis Lee stated in his testimony that “there are grants and programs available to artists [to assist in their relocation],” an online survey of DC Government grants offered by the Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Department of Small and Local Development and, the Department of Housing and Community Development reveals that not a single DC government agency offers artists any type of relocation grants, services or assistance in case of eviction.

According to information provided by Cultural DC at the zoning hearing, a selection panel of five to seven jurors comprised of “artists, community members, [and] local business owners” appointed by Cultural DC, will determine who has access the proposed 2,300 square foot studio spaces which represents a 96% reduction in the existing workspace at Union Arts. The jurors will use the following criteria to select artists interested in leasing the space: any artists including groups, collaboratives and “creative entrepreneurs” of varying artistic disciplines who are based in the DC metro.

In addition, according to testimony given by Hilton during the hearings, preference will not be given to 411 New York Avenue NE tenants who would have to compete with regional artists for 2,300 square feet of workspace.

Opponents to the developer’s Planned Development Unit remained outside throughout the duration of the Zoning Commission hearings. Photo by Jan Aucker for East City Art.

Next Steps

The February 23 hearing represents an opportunity for tenants of Union Arts and their supporters to present a counter-proposal to the developers’ request for Planned Unit Development. According  Chapter 24, section 2403.2 of the DC Zoning Planned Unit Development Procedure, “The applicant [i.e. the developers] shall have the burden of proof to justify the granting of the application […]” and meet certain standards which according to section 2403.3 include “[…] developments that provide public benefits.” Now it will be up to the DC artist community to prove that the developers’, proposed Planned Unit Development application does not meet the standards set forth by the DC Office of Zoning.

Zoning Commission References

Participating in an Existing Case:

Chapter 24 of the DC Zoning Planned Unit Development Procedure: