Buildings linked to Armenian Genocide museum to be razed

The owner of three vacant commercial buildings in the heart of downtown D.C., all tied inexorably to the sputtering Armenian Genocide Museum project, has applied to knock them down.

What’s better, a 5,700-square-foot vacant lot or three vacant buildings? Pick your poison.

The Cafesjian Family Foundation of Minneapolis has submitted a request to raze 1338, 1340 and 1342 G St. NW, all of which back up to the historic but vacant National Bank of Washington building at 14th and G, which it also owns.

Representatives of the foundation, recorded as the owner of the properties in July 2011, did not return calls for comment. All three buildings were briefly classified by the District in 2012 as blighted, until the foundation successfully appealed.

The properties to be razed are worth a combined $8.2 million, according to D.C. assessors, but the value is entirely in the land. I’m not aware of any proposals to build anew.

The bank building has long been planned as the future home of the Armenian Genocide Museum, a memorial to 1.5 million Armenians killed in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The G Street properties, too, were to be part of the project.

But the foundation and the nonprofit Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial are tied up in prolonged litigation (another appeal was filed March 25 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit) over a relationship and donation gone bad, a lawsuit a federal judge once described as “very bitter and very unforunate.”

Here’s the gist.

The bank building was acquired by the Armenian Assembly of America early in 2000 for $7.25 million, using funds provided by multiple donors, most notably $4 million from the Cafesjian Family Foundation, according to court documents.

Gerard Cafesjian, a wealthy former publisher and Armenian philanthropist, separately purchased the G Street properties the same year for about $5.5 million, with the idea of turning them into a contemporary art museum to complement the genocide museum. But the art museum was built in the Armenian capital of Yerevan instead, and Cafesjian conditionally agreed to donate the G Street buildings to the Assembly for an expansion of the genocide museum.

The grant agreement between Cafesjian and the Armenian Genocide Museum nonprofit, an arm of the Armenian Assembly, set Dec. 31, 2010, as the point at which the properties would be returned if they weren’t developed. And that’s exactly what happened.

Between 2002 and 2007, when the first of many lawsuits was filed, the relationships between the various parties soured, badly. Fundraising efforts for the estimated $100 million museum project stalled, as did attempts to hire an architect or develop a business plan, according to a 190-page federal court ruling issued Jan. 26, 2011.

“The Court sincerely hopes that after years of fighting legal battles, the parties can put aside their differences and accomplish the laudable goal of creating an Armenian Genocide museum and memorial,” U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote in her exhaustive opinion.

It’s certainly not looking that way.

The 50,000-square-foot museum complex is in limbo, and based on a brief conversation I had with a museum representative, I’m less confident than ever that a museum will open in the bank building on 14th Street, two blocks from the White House.

The raze, as I understand it, has little to do with the museum. More likely, it is related to the District’s attempted “blight” classification, which would come with with a property tax rate six times the standard commercial rate. Get rid of the building, get rid of the tax bill.

The permit applications are under review by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Workers were inside 1340 G on Friday clearing it of asbestos in preparation for the demolition.


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