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A battle over an Adams Morgan plaza gains new life with court ruling

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A long-standing legal battle over a neighborhood gathering spot in Northwest Washington was extended Thursday when the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered a trial to determine whether the parcel should be preserved as a public plaza.

The court’s ruling injected new life into a campaign by two Adams Morgan civic groups to preserve as a public plaza a 4,000-square-foot concrete parcel at the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. The groups have contended that decades ago the property’s former owner dedicated the plaza as a “public easement.”

Until the property’s owner, Truist bank, fenced it off in March, the plaza for decades had functioned as a convenient, if not universally appreciated, town square that featured a Saturday morning farmers market. During the pandemic, it became a gathering place for vagrants, some of whom pitched tents.

The court’s ruling adds another delay to Truist’s long-standing hopes of selling the property to a developer who had plans to build 54 condominiums on the site and greatly shrink the size of the plaza.

Paul Zukerberg, an attorney representing the Kalorama Citizens Association and Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development, called the court’s decision “a huge win” and demanded that Truist remove the fencing it had put up around the property.

“The Court of Appeals has ruled that ordinary citizens can stand up to big banks,” Zukerberg said.

A Truist spokeswoman said the bank is “evaluating the ruling and next steps.”

Zukerberg has argued that the property’s former owner during the 1970s had entered into an agreement with the neighborhood to preserve the land as a plaza. Truist has challenged the validity of the agreement.

The legal battle began in 2017 when the community groups sued the property’s owner, then known as SunTrust, to stop it from demolishing the plaza. By then, the development plan has been approved by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board.

In its 27-page decision, the three-member appeals panel overturned a Superior Court judge’s ruling that the community groups did not have legal standing to claim that the parcel was public space.

The appeals court ruled that community groups — not just the government — can seek to enforce a public easement because their quality of life could be “harmed” if the plaza is demolished.

At the center of the dispute is a Nov. 2, 1976, letter to the neighborhood from Thomas Owen, president of what was then known as the Perpetual Savings & Loan Association, which was seeking to build a branch on the parcel.

In the letter, Owen promised that the bank would design a building that would preserve open space for vendors that had used the site. Frank Smith, an Adams Morgan community leader at the time, subsequently said that his organization would drop opposition to the project.

The community had opposed Perpetual’s project after alleging that the bank did not offer mortgages to minorities seeking to buy homes.

In its decision, the appeals panel wrote that a “genuine dispute of material fact exists” over whether the bank’s commitment to preserve the parcel as a public plaza was intended as permanent.

The ruling returns the case back to Superior Court, which will set a trial date.

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