Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Residents in Dupont Circle are opposing the Phillips Collection’s plans to expand its facilities while supporting its purpose to preserve and display works of fine art.

The proposed 39,000-square-foot center would increase the Northwest art museum’s square footage by 70 percent, adding a 60-seat cafe and 255-seat auditorium. To make room for the center, the gallery would need to buy an adjacent 15-unit apartment building and demolish it.

Some residents fear buses, valet parking, catering trucks and other vehicles would further clog narrow streets and alleys and add to the nighttime din.

“Most of us are members,” said Vincent Hurteau, one of the community leaders engaged in a war of words with the gallery that houses works by Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe.

“We love the art,” Mr. Hurteau added. “It’s not the art that we’re opposed to.”

The Dupont Circle Citizens Association and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B want the city to preserve the character of their community and halt the museum’s plans to build the Center for the Study and Appreciation of Modern Art.

Residents will testify on the issue today when gallery officials appear before the D.C. Bureau of Zoning Adjustment.

The residents argue the changes would “destabilize” the neighborhood’s residential character and insist those who would be displaced by the expansion are the same young professionals the city has been trying to lure for years.

If the gallery wins the right to expand, corporations would be able to rent some of the new space for receptions and dinners, as they do now, but with greater capacity. The museum would be able to accommodate 500 people at a cocktail reception and 350 at a sit-down dinner.

Gallery officials tout the expansion at 1600 21st Street NW as “a place where carefully selected scholars, teachers and artists, as well as the general public, are welcomed and encouraged to participate in the dialogue about modern art.”

But the residents who united after one of their own literally hugged a tree on 21st Street NW last year to prevent crews from chopping it down are well organized in their opposition, having gone so far as to hire a public relations firm to spread word of their cause.

Last night, they barraged Mayor Anthony A. Williams with complaints during a citizens association meeting at St. Thomas’ Parish on Church Street NW.

Mr. Williams said he has no right to stop the construction but said he will meet with neighborhood representatives to hear their concerns.

“We can try to negotiate differences. We can try to honor neighborhood interests,” he said. “One thing I cannot do is, if somebody has the right to build something in the zoning law, I cannot, as mayor, say ‘You are not going to do this.’ ”

The city is trying to find a balance, said Andrew Altman, the mayor’s planning chief, on issues such as type of events, number of events and parking.

“What we’re trying to do is listen to what all the concerns are,” he said.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, expressed his support for the citizens association through a representative at last night’s meeting. “He’s very aligned with the community,” said Evans spokeswoman June Hirsh. “He believes it’s a fragile neighborhood.”

The Center for the Study and Appreciation of Modern Art “renews the museum’s emphasis on the educational mission of the museum,” according to a Phillips statement.

The center would provide teacher training and create electronic-based forms of sharing the art collection with the D.C. school system, gallery spokeswoman Lynn Rossotti said in the statement.

“We feel there is a misconception… . Our long-term vision is education,” Thora Colot, director of marketing and retail operations for the gallery, told the assembled residents last night. “We’re doing everything in our power to work with the neighborhood.”

To which one man in the audience screamed, “That’s nonsense.”

Conservation and storage facilities would be improved and enlarged under the expansion plan, and the library would be upgraded.

The cafe and auditorium would replace the existing cafe in the museum basement and the need to rent auditorium space in the nearby Cosmos Club.

“Neither proposed amenity is intended to increase traffic to the museum, but rather increase the quality of service offered to its visitors,” Miss Rossotti said in the statement.

An underground parking garage is in the plans to handle the majority of nighttime parking for gallery events and daytime employee parking.

The Phillips Collection expanded in 1960, 1984 and 1989.

Philanthropist Duncan Phillips, desiring to create what he called “a small, intimate museum,” housed his collection in his home on 21st Street, which in 1921 became the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery and since 1961 has been known simply as the Phillips Collection.

“He never envisioned a humongous museum stretching halfway up the block,” said 25-year neighbor Morton J. Schussheim.

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