Any number of clichÉd superlatives could be used to describe the Washington development team of Jim Gibson and Sam Dunn: heroes, white knights, last-minute saviors, men among men. The terms would all be appropriate for a duo who recently wrapped up a whopper of a NIMBY saga.
Gibson is a Washington builder and Dunn a local architect/developer. Their involvement with the infill development of Rosedale, a six-acre property located in one of Washington's most prestigious neighborhoods, is nothing short of miraculous. What was once a story of a beloved park, some run-down dormitories, Washington's oldest home, and hundreds of very concerned neighbors is now a happy tale involving a three-acre land trust, six new houses—all with spectacular views of the Washington National Cathedral—and scores of contented neighbors. And keep in mind: These are the kind of neighbors who normally would make developers run for the hills.
“Just about everybody who lives near here is a lawyer,” says Gibson in a stage whisper as he stands in one of the new houses he built at Rosedale. “But we all went into this together. It was like going up in a plane with hand-packed parachutes that may or may not open.” In other words, a huge risk.
Add “leap of faith” to their list of heroic efforts.
NEIGHBORHOOD INVOLVEMENT Rosedale's storied history goes way back. Its first structure, a stone cottage that would evolve into a clapboard farmhouse, dates to 1740 and is believed to be the oldest home in Washington. The property went through many hands until 1959, when the National Cathedral School (NCS) bought the grounds and built three dormitories there. It was during this time that neighbors began using the open space that surrounded the dorms as a park. When NCS stopped accepting boarding students, the school sold the property to Youth For Understanding (YFU), an international student-exchange program. Part of that deal was a covenant that required continued neighborhood access to the open space and, should YFU ever sell the property, gave the owners of some 18 neighboring properties a 90-day right of last refusal.
Fast-forward to 2003. YFU ran into money trouble and started talking about selling. Gibson and Dunn entered the picture and proposed buying the property for $12 million and putting up townhomes. More than 80 neighbors, who had organized themselves into a group called Friends of Rosedale, objected strongly to the Gibson/Dunn plan. The offer was rescinded.
In 2005, after YFU declared bankruptcy and was entertaining an offer of $12 million from an independent school, Gibson was called by Friends of Rosedale, which had been scrambling to match the school's offer. (Decrepit dormitories and the threat of townhomes were bad enough; the last thing these neighbors wanted was a 200-student school in their midst.) The group had raised $4.1 million to buy half of the site to keep in trust as a public park, but it was far short of the funds necessary to exceed the school's offer.
“The neighborhood group contacted us on the 63rd day and said, ‘We can't put this together. Can you help?' ” says Gibson. With just 27 days left, Gibson and Dunn swung into action. They were joined by Bob Holman, a Washington investor; Jonathan Abram, a lawyer (and neighbor) who would later buy the historic farmhouse; and Roger Pollack, another neighbor/lawyer who heads up the Rosedale Conservancy, a later iteration of the Friends of Rosedale. Eventually, seven neighbors and Dunn himself made commitments to buy lots on the land not occupied by the park.
A SPECIAL PLACE “There were literally hundreds of neighborhood meetings over the years,” says Abram. “Through that, Rosedale was transformed into an incredibly tight neighborhood, which was a great thing for Jim [Gibson]. He became part of a neighborhood effort to save an asset rather than what often happens with builders, which is an effort to stop the development of a neighborhood asset. Jim was great. He did what he said he was going to do.”
But there were still more hurdles, most notably the Historic Preservation Review Board, which had to accept the hastily crafted preservation and financing scheme, and an administrative law judge, who had to approve the proposed subdivision.
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