& Pizza Caught Trying to Pull a Fast One on Barracks Row
by Larry Janezich
Capitol Hill residents who welcome & Pizza’s opening on Barracks Row – scheduled for last August – have been wondering at the lack of activity since a “Stop Work Order” was posted on the site last summer.
Michael Niebauer of Washington Business Journal raised some eyebrows on March 17 when he tweeted “some serious issues with the & pizza buildout of its barracks row building. Back before the BZA now.”
As it turns out, & Pizza had proceeded with construction on the site, not only without permits, but in disregard of the restrictions in the BZA order incorporating “best operating practices” reached after months of negotiations with ANC6B and nearby neighbors. The ANC and neighbors were able to wrest those concessions from & Pizza in exchange for providing & Pizza with a 7 year exemption from the ban on additional fast food outlets on Barracks Row. In its final form, the agreement was considered by ANC6B to be the gold standard for operating practices for future restaurants opening on Barracks Row, and a desired goal for existing restaurants. See here: http://bit.ly/1SpRDWE
The “Stop Work Order” took & Pizza back to the drawing board after neighbors and the ANC took a close look at what & Pizza was up to. Over the next six months, ANC representatives and concerned neighbors met with CEO Michael Lassiter and & Pizza representatives to reach an agreement which satisfied the spirit of the BZA order and which would allow & Pizza to move forward.
On March 10, & Pizza requested a modification of the BZA order to reflect the new agreement. The request came apologetically:
“And pizza regrets the confusion and miscommunication that resulted in our beginning construction without the requisite permits and not in accordance with the terms of the original order. We have moved past working with those associated with that decision and have paid the fines related to the infraction.”
Calling the modification to the BZA order minor, & Pizza was apparently hoping for a quick administrative review and approval. BZA scheduled a hearing on the matter, and since & Pizza had failed to notify ANC6B in a timely matter, the hearing was scheduled before ANC6B would have an opportunity to weigh in.
Commissioner Chander Jayaraman, unhappy with the lack of transparency, pushed for an ANC6B review prior to the BZA hearing. He wanted & Pizza to explain to the ANC and the community why they began construction without permits, and why their construction differed from the BZA order. At his prompting, ANC6B Chair Kirsten Oldenburg appeared in person before DCRA and pressed for a delay in the hearing date so that the ANC could publically review the process. Jayaraman followed up with a letter of his own to BZA, which reads in part:
“I want to express my concern and dismay at the lack of transparency with respect to the pizza case. I strongly object to the BZA taking any action on this case before ANC 6B has had an opportunity to opine on the revisions to the BZA order.
We have not been notified of the latest request and have not been consulted nor provided the opportunity to comment on the changes they are seeking to the BZA order. In fact, the applicant has not contacted or met with current ANC commissioners on this case since a stop work order was placed on their establishment for illegally beginning construction without permits and without adhering to the specifics enumerated in the BZA order. I’m certain, however, the changes the applicant is proposing are not minor modifications but rather substantial changes to the existing order [g]iven their actions in violating district regulations and attempting to circumvent the regular process of the ANC.”
The hearing was postponed, and last Thursday night, ANC6B’s Executive Committee placed the case on the agenda for the April meeting scheduled for April 12. Before that, however, the issue will come up for a preliminary review before ANC6B’s Planning and Zoning Committee which meets at 7:00pm, next Tuesday, April 5, at St. Coletta’s of Greater Washington.
So. What is actually going on here?
Someone at & Pizza authorized proceeding with illegal construction which flouted the BZA order. And while DCRA will issue a stop work order if prompted, the fact is, that once illegal commercial construction is complete, DCRA seldom requires that it be torn out. The usual procedure is for the offender to pay a fine and then conduct business as usual.
Former ANC6B Planning and Zoning Chair, Francis Campbell, who was asked to help negotiate a new agreement, said regarding construction without a permit, “This was a mistake. There is no excuse for that.” He gives credit to & Pizza for admitting they were wrong and for working to come into compliance with the intent of the BZA order, even to the extent of agreeing to his suggestion that as a show of good faith they renew their exemption from the Barracks Row fast food ban after five years instead of the seven as stated in the original BZA order.
In support of & Pizza’s claim that the modifications are minor, the BZA’s on line case file shows two word-for-word identical letters of support for & Pizza. Both letters – one from Pure Barre and one from Metro Mutts – who are the tenants of the building adjacent to & Pizza on the south side, contain the sentence: “I regard the &Pizza request as extremely minor and I commend them for agreeing to the new terms.” One of Capitol Hill’s major commercial real estate holders – Maurice Kreidler – owns the building housing the two tenants, the & Pizza site, and the adjacent Barracks Row Starbucks.
Adding a layer of irony to the story, Jayaraman says he learned in talking to the Office of Planning (OP) that the agency uses the & Pizza case as a training example illustrating how ANCs can use a BZA order to mitigate the impact of restaurants on nearby neighbors.
Update: Editor’s Note: The previous version of this post contained some inaccuracies regarding BZA procedures. CHC regrets the error.