Ben’s Chili Bowl Changes Preservation Plan for New H Street Location

Jonathan Neeley

The site of Ben’s Chili Bowl shows the building demolished. The facade of the old George’s Place (Photo: Google Maps) will be reconstructed according to the Ben’s Chili Bowl owners, using as much of the old materials as possible.

In exchange for an extra .5% Floor Area Ratio allowance at its upcoming 1001 H Street NE location, Ben’s Chili Bowl agreed to maintain the historic façade on the larger of the property’s two buildings. The extra space would allow Ben’s to operate a second establishment on the property, and the preservation of the façade would guarantee DCRA that the buildings—which used to be home to George’s Place, a men’s clothing store that was an H Street institution— kept with the neighborhood’s historic look and feel.

But on October 18, the buildings were gone. What had been a two-story brick corner store with a smaller addition behind it had been reduced to a pile of rubble.

OnOctober 22, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A chair DavidHolmes sent a letter to Matt LeGrant, the DCRA zoning administrator, asking why the buildings were no longer standing. While Holmes had expected partial deconstruction, it appeared to him as though the buildings had been razed, which was illegal without a permit. “Why was razing not presented to the ANC?” he asked LeGrant.

“I was outraged,” said Holmes, pointing to Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria as local examples of why historic preservation is essential to H Street’s ongoing revitalization. “If you want the benefits that come from preserving an existing historic façade, you cannot demolish that façade.”

LeGrant repliedthe next day, assuring Holmes that his office had not issued a raze permit. LeGrant said that he would send building inspector Rabbiah Sabbakhan to check out the property as well as ask Ben’s Chili Bowl— owners Sage, Kamal, and Nizam Ali, lead developer Frank White, RAM Contracting Services and FORM Architects— for an explanation. Once the matter had been reviewed thoroughly, LeGrant would determine whether or not Ben’s had done anything illegal.

A change of plans, but not a violation

On November 19, LeGrant informed Holmes and the rest of the ANC that Ben’s had not violated its agreement with DCRA to preserve the facade; it had simply changed its plan for doing so. Instead of bracing the brick and building around it, Ben’s had disassembled it with the intent to store and reconstruct it using both what could be salvaged and “in-kind” brick; the façade would be part of the final construction product. 

Ben’s made the adjustment because the buildings were found to be in worse condition than anticipated, with corroded and crumbling brick on the outside and rotted wood, deteriorated grout, and water damage on the inside. Anwar Saleem, who owns the neighboring 1005 H St. NE, said that 1001 was in awful shape: there was water up to his waist in the basement, some of which had started leaking into his property.

“If they hadn’t taken it down it was going to fall down, no question about it,” said Saleem. “Deconstruction is different from tearing it down.”

Communication between Ben’s and ANC 6A

Ben’s Chili Bowl’s mistake was in its failure to communicate with ANC 6A about the changes to its construction plan. Midway through LeGrant’s investigation, Ben’s sent a letter of apology to all of the ANC 6A commissioners that included a detailed explanation of the safety issues they encountered in the buildings, the new plans, and a statement of continued commitment to a strong relationship with the H Street community.

In the letter, Ben’s reported that the preservation aspect of the project has cost over $124,000. After LeGrant’s decision, Nizam Ali emphasized that Ben’s wants to be part of the neighborhood rather than an imposition. “It was our goal from day one to maintain as many of the architectural features of the existing building as possible,” he said.

Holmes is still disgruntled. “I’m not convinced that they had no other option,” he said. “They should have informed the ANC. It’s clear that the alternatives are not good, [but] I really hate the fact that George’s was torn down.”

On the whole, however, Holmes said that he is both ready to move forward and excited to have Ben’s in the area. “[LeGrant’s decision] was the best that we can do in the circumstances,” said Holmes. “The ANC is excited to have [Ben’s Chili Bowl] on H Street. They’ve been very open and helpful. We’re happy with them.”

The finished product

When the project is complete, the bottom floor of 1001 H St. NE will be the second stand-alone Ben’s Chili Bowl location in DC— there are also outposts at Nationals Stadium and FedEx field, as well as a coming location in Rosslyn.

“It’ll be a little taller, and it’ll look like a better building,” said Nizam Ali. “Same features, but with strong integrity.”

In efforts to ease entry into the neighborhood, Ben’s adjusted its plans for outdoor dining along 10th Street NE to enclose seats and trash cans and move them closer to the building. Ben’s also purchased 729 10th St., the house directly behind the coming establishment, to serve as buffer for neighbors during construction and to help shield noise once the restaurant opens.

“You want to fit in wherever you go,” said Ali. “You don’t want to be a sore thumb.”

Ali expects the project to be completed in late May or early June. “But there are always challenges,” he said. “It’s never easy.”

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