Almost 10 years ago, Mohammad Esfahani leased 1329 Wisconsin Ave., historically an ice house built in the mid 1800s. During renovations, part of the roof collapsed, reducing the building to an unsupported facade.
At the time, Tim Dennee from D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office wrote a letter to the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) calling the incident "one of the most frustrating cases I can recall in Georgetown."
“How does someone turn some minor interior work and roof replacement into the demolition of nearly an entire building? As I understand it, by bringing a tar machine onto the roof of a fragile 1850s building. After a collapse that apparently resulted in no serious injuries, the tenant then took it upon himself to remove the damaged parts,” Dennee wrote.
Esfahani was fined $1,000 for his negligence. The diner he had hoped to put in place never came to fruition and eventually the property was sold.
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In an interview, Esfahani denied having anything to do with 1329 Wisconsin Ave. and he denied he was ever fined. (.)
“I was not involved. I wanted to buy that building and the next-door building. My deal did not go through,” he explained.
Yet news accounts from The Georgetown Current in 2002 frequently indicate that he was involved, quoting him claiming to have had proper permits for the work performed (and later admitting he did not), and quoting him saying the property was “the worst building in Georgetown.”
Additionally, the DCRA permits issued for work on 1329 Wisconsin Ave. in September of 2001 listed the owner address at 3015 M St., which at the time was Esfahani’s Mon Cheri Cafe.
When the property was sold, architect Steve Vanze, now a member of the Old Georgetown Board, helped with rebuilding and redesigning the property in a historically sensitive manner. He remembers the sad state it was in, “There wasn’t anything left of the building. There wasn’t anything there. There was facade there, and there wasn’t anything behind it.”
Two current ANC Commissioners were on the commission the last time Esfahani ran into permit issues: Commissioner Bill Starrels and Commissioner Tom Birch.
Starrels recalled the frustration and anger from 2002. He said dealing with Esfahani was “just awful” because he showed a “disregard for the city.”
Birch said, “Given the reaction that the ANC had back in 2002, I think we found that we were getting sort of shifting explanations of what was happening and what was proposed there.”
In light of the incidents at both of Esfahani properties, Birch said he has been frustrated by the city's inability to enforce codes and punish violators.
Starrels was less diplomatic. “When you have a man here with a 10-year track record of abusing the historic preservation rules of Georgetown, why does the city keep granting permits? Is it a God-given right that somebody gets a permit?”
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs lacks the authority to deny permits simply because the person had previous issues, spokesman Helder Gil said.
“We don’t have the resources to station an inspector in a particular neighborhood to watch every property,” said Gil, who explained that his agency issues 40,000 to 60,000 permits annually. “It becomes an issue of resources. We do what we can with the resources that we have,” he added.
“We really are very dependent on community members letting us know when they have concerns about specific property.”
For now, the tools that DCRA and the Historic Preservation Office have are limited. Until the laws change or agencies are given more tools and resources, not much more can be done, Gil concluded.
For Starrels, that’s not enough. “One of the responsibilities that they have in this city is to keep Georgetown, Georgetown.”