Council OKs townhouses on Duke Street, residents push back

Council OKs townhouses on Duke Street, residents push back
An illustrated rendering of the South Union Street townhouses.

By Olivia Anderson |

City Council approved a development special use permit for the construction of six townhouses on Duke Street during a public hearing on Saturday, over strenuous objections from eight residents who spoke against the project.

Located at 101 Duke St., the South Union Street Townhouses will include an attached two-car parking garage and four stories for each 1,452 square foot home. The design, as proposed, includes brick and masonry bands and punched windows for the lower three floors and a more modern fourth floor with cement siding.

The approved DSUP will also allow for an increase in floor area ratio for each townhouse.

The project was discussed at various Board of Architectural Review meetings and a waterfront commission meeting earlier this year. The Planning Commission approved the project 5-1 at its Sept. 9 meeting, sending the permit to council.

Residents expressed opposition to the project’s height, scale and potential parking impacts during the public hearing.

Duke Street resident Anna Gomez-Acebo argued the project is inconsistent with the mass, height and style of the surrounding neighborhood. Gomez-Acebo spearheaded a petition that garnered more than 150 comments and signatures from residents on Duke and Union streets in the days leading up to the hearing.

“Every single person we have spoken to is against the special use permit of extra density, extra height and double the FAR,” Gomez-Acebo said. “Local citizens believe the character, the quaintness and the appeal of Duke Street will be demolished if this project is approved.”

Other neighbors made a case for the preservation of the historic district and incompatibility of the project with the neighborhood. They also shared concerns that the townhouses would obstruct views of the Potomac River and create parking problems.

Steven Peterson, who lives at 109 Duke Street, said his street already sees an immense amount of traffic almost all hours of the day from Waterfront Street overflow. He argued that the six proposed townhomes would only exacerbate this dilemma and ignore long-term repercussions.

“The council needs to take more of a worldview rather than just [looking at] six townhouses, and look 50 years out … you have very limited opportunities to provide parking in the future. This is one of those and yet we’re taking it down,” Peterson said. “From a parking standpoint, especially, the city is going in the wrong direction.”

Kenneth Wire, the attorney for the applicant on the 101 Duke St. project, said the special use permit request is “identical” to the majority of the neighboring SUPs.

“If you live in a house, having someone living in a house next to you wouldn’t be fundamentally adverse to your use. … We’re proposing extremely high-end townhouses next to extremely high-end townhouses,” Wire said.

Wire argued that the proposed project did not break any zoning laws outlined in city code.

“It’s their right to object to [this]; it’s our right to push forward a project we think aligns with the ordinance,” Wire said.

During the discussion period, council went back and forth on the neighborhood compatibility argument. Councilor John Chapman highlighted the fact that the general area of the proposed townhouses is more commercial than residential. For context, Hotel Indigo is located across the street.

“The hotel was supposed to be an anchor for commercial use; I think we are getting away from the opportunity to put commercial here that’s going to be vibrant and be connected to the hotel when we had an anchor right here in this site,” Chapman said, noting that although residential use is permitted in the area, it would “lose a little bit of the character” due to the new project.

Council also discussed the concern around potential parking impacts raised by neighbors but generally agreed the project wouldn’t pose any significant problems, especially in comparison to commercial use projects.

According to Stephanie Sample, an urban planner for the city, the project will include high-quality architecture; remain consistent with the 2019 Green Building Policy; feature streetscape improvements and additional site plantings and contribute to the Housing Trust Fund, Urban Forestry Fund and Public Art Fund.

“While there are a number of benefits associated with the project, the most significant is the waterfront amenity contribution,” Sample said.

This $219,750 waterfront contribution will go toward off-site improvements to existing and future public spaces in the waterfront plan area. It will come as either a monetary contribution or an in-kind project.

Mayor Justin Wilson pointed to the zoning code, noting that it technically allows for the Duke Street site to engage in “much more intense” by-right uses regarding the coming and going of traffic, including multi-family housing.

“I think this is probably a good balance of that. Residential of this kind is probably the least intense use from a neighbor perspective than any other use,” Wilson said.

Councilor Del Pepper said that while she supported the project, she did so begrudgingly and “sympathizes” with those who live in Old Town.

“I’m not very excited about this project; it’s just that on all the grounds I might have rejected it, I didn’t feel they were really something I could defend, so this was the route I felt at least I had to go,” Pepper said.

Pepper made a motion to approve the DSUP, which Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker seconded, and council approved the permit 7-0.