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Editorial: Even in light of the city’s Green Code, there needs to be room for flexibility on Elmwood

There is a unique quality to the Elmwood Village in the architecture, mom and pop shops, restaurants, walkability, bikeability and friendliness among both residents and visitors.
It is worth preserving and protecting but not always to the exclusion of new ideas and proposals.

One of those is Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.’s Reverie project that would build a four-story mixed-use structure at Elmwood and Potomac. The proposed project would include 51 apartments, several retail storefronts and 129 indoor parking spaces on two levels.

This project has been two years in the making and has met fierce opposition by those who believe it will damage, if not destroy the village’s fabric. Those protesters have raised their voices, as is their right, at most, if not all of the couple hundred public meetings.

One such meeting took place Wednesday night with more than 150 people in attendance at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood Avenue. More than a few people made clear that the developer’s latest attempt at appeasing naysayers – reducing the height of its proposed project by an additional 3 feet and renovation instead of demolition of a second building on the site – is not good enough.

The overall height of the proposed building is now 50 feet, 3 inches, down from 67 feet. This follows a reduction in the number of floors to four from the original five, when the developer revised the project in January.

Yet, that is still 75 inches higher than the new city Green Code’s 44-foot maximum height and three-story limit for Elmwood Village. The developer will still need zoning variances and is reportedly seeking at least two, with a third currently under discussion with city officials.

Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. envisions a building with apartments, retail space and parking and a façade of brick and other traditional materials to blend with the neighborhood.
The developer has made concessions, including saving as many of the existing structures as possible, going back to an earlier agreement to preserve the Skate Shop building. It will also retain a two-story apartment building at 588 Potomac Ave., across the street.

It has not been enough to sway those opposed to a project that they believe does not fit in – height or scale – with the neighborhood. Moreover, it does not fit within the Green Code. Never mind that when it was a “proposed” code, as late as September, as the developer’s lawyer pointed out, it allowed a five-story building on Elmwood.

But the questions include how much change Ciminelli can make and keep the project financially viable. Even within cohesive communities, change cannot be the automatic enemy. Indeed, successful cities combine respect for the past with a thirst for the new. Cities that don’t change ultimately wither.

The project has its advocates who give well-deserved credit to the developer for listening – more than 260 stakeholders in more than 45 meetings during a public outreach campaign in the last 18 months – and adjusting the building height from its original five stories and 67 feet.

The proposed project has brought an emotional response, on both sides. The trick is finding a middle ground on which to stand.
Everyone, not just Ciminelli, needs to be willing to compromise.

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