Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category History

Architecture


What will become of D Street once the FBI moves?

With the FBI planning to move out of the J. Edgar Hoover building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the possibility of restoring D Street so it runs all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue has come up. But it's unclear whether or not that'd be a good idea, or even if it'd actually be doable.


D Street currently ends when it reaches the FBI building at 9th Street. Image from Google Maps.

In DC, each city block is called a square, and each has a number. Square 1, the block between 26th, 27th, Virginia and K Street NW, is the westernmost square in the L'Enfant City, and the numbers continue to to the east. D Street used to extend all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue, creating the two squares where the FBI building now sits—378 and 379—as well as a small triangle north of the Avenue where the Ben Franklin statue originally stood.

In the 20th century, D Street was closed, square 348 was enlarged, and squares 378 and 379 merged.


Plat map of the FBI HQ site in 1932

Undoing this would reconnect the street grid, extending a road that goes all the way to Oklahoma Avenue NE in Rosedale. That would make getting around easier for everyone, add redundancy to the road network, and add new space for storefronts that could bring added life to the area. But it would also come at the cost of greater density.

A connected grid is nice, but at what cost?

Restoring D Street would obviously mean less space for buildings. More specifically, it'd be the equivalent of removing a building 60 feet wide, 530 feet long and 160 feet high—and it would do so in the core of the city.

Another way to view the possibility: a loss of nearly $7 million per story, as Loopnet reports the average price of office space in DC at $217 per square foot at the time of print.

It's not clear how much having D Street run through would help cut down travel times. For those traveling between 10th and D, or between Pennsylvania Ave and D, it would create a slightly shorter route, trimming a couple hundred feet from a trip. But we don't know that the change would noticeably reduce congestion. Perhaps a traffic analysis could shed light on the actual impact.

The District won't be the one to decide what happens

In the end, whether or not D Street opens back up isn't even DC's decision.

The National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) will, with GSA and NPS, be developing the new square guidelines that will then have to approved by Congress. NCPC is considering reducing the current 75 foot setback from Pennsylvania. If it were to stay at 75 feet, it would be difficult to open D street without limiting square 379 to a plaza. If the set back were reduced to something closer to the property line, which is 25 feet from Pennsylvania Avenue, the block would be large enough to open up D and still build a commercially viable building on square 379.

The NCPC usually leans toward reopening streets from the L'Enfant Plan, which is viewed as a national landmark. But it's in the federal government's interest to restore the setback and keep D Street closed, because a closed D Street and smaller sidewalk would result in the highest sales price.

If the federal government does sell the property, will the buyer want assurance that D Street will remain closed? It is entirely within the federal government's power to simply make it illegal for DC to reopen D Street.

Perhaps a more palatable alternative would be for D street to pass underneath whatever replaces the FBI headquarters, similar to the way M Street goes underneath the Convention Center. This would undoubtedly reduce the value of retail along D, but would retain much of the building space while providing the transportation benefits of a restored D. The current courtyard could even be retained as a gap above D Street.

It would be hard to make an argument that Pennsylvania Avenue needs another plaza, but easy to assert that downtown needs more residential and commercial space. A restored D street, with air rights given in exchange for an affordable housing set aside might be able to address all the competing needs.

History


Learn about Spa Spring, a lost Bladensburg park

Our region is chock full of parks with histories as magnificent as the settings they created, but some have been forgotten. Land that's now part of the Anacostia Tributary Trail System used to be Spa Spring Park, a place with close ties to Washington's history as well as one of the city's most curious historical characters, engineer and reputed con-man James Crutchett.


Anacostia River Stream Valley Park, formerly Spa Spring Park. Photo by the author.

Bladensburg is an 18th-century Prince George's County town that hugs the east bank of the Anacostia River. Just outside of the original town limits there was an undeveloped and frequently flooded tract with free-flowing springs. Today it includes property within the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission's Anacostia River Stream Valley Park and Bladensburg's light industrial fringes. But 200 years ago it was part of Henri Joseph Stier's 729-acre Riversdale plantation.

By the first decade of the 19th century the springs had been dubbed "Spa Spring" and they were becoming a popular early tourist attraction. Stier's daughter, Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778-1821), wrote some of the earliest surviving descriptions of the springs in letters to her father, a Belgian expatriate who had returned to Europe. "The waters of Spa Spring have suddenly gained such a reputation that Dougherty's house is not large enough to handle the crowds of the fashionable who come to drink the waters every day," wrote Calvert in 1803.


1804 Bladensburg tavern ad touting nearby Spa Spring. Photo credit University of Maryland Libraries.

Though Calvert's father encouraged her husband, George Calvert, to develop the property and be vigilant about "inconsiderate and tiresome" visitors, the spa spring property remained undeveloped for much of the 19th century.

Washington newspapers regularly ran advertisements for local pharmacies that were selling the spa spring's famed water. In 1890 a Virginia newspaper published an unflattering description of Bladensburg that included a section on the spring. "A spa spring of chalybeate water flows uselessly away at one end of the only street of the village," wrote the Fredericksburg Freelance. "And the picture of gloom is completed with two or three taverns, rendezvous for negroes."

Spa Spring changed hands, to a fabled owner

In 1852, Washington resident James Crutchett bought ten acres of the former plantation, including the spa spring site. Crutchett (1816-1889) arrived in Washington in the 1840s with plans to light the city using a gas manufacturing system he patented. His resume includes mounting a gas lantern on top of the Capitol in 1847 and selling objects carved from wood harvested at Mt. Vernon to fund completion of the Washington Monument. Accusations of fraud followed Crutchett from Massachusetts to Washington throughout the 19th century.

Controversy followed Crutchett throughout his life. Newspapers frequently wrote about his questionable reputation and, in 1861 when the Union Army seized his Capitol Hill property, Crutchett was sitting in a Massachusetts jail cell on charges of failing to pay a debt after being taken into custody in Washington.

Crutchett never exploited the spa spring or its water during the 30 years that he owned the property. In March of 1886, in failing health and into his third decade seeking restitution for the Union army occupation of his Capitol Hill property, Crutchett gifted the spa spring property to the federal government. "The use of said spring and land has for these many years not been developed," Crutchett wrote in the deed transferring the property to the United States.


1879 map of Bladensburg. Arrow indicates Spa Spring Park location. Credit: Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington by G.M. Hopkins.

Bladensburg in 1854 had annexed the Crutchett Spa Spring tract. Maps published after the Civil War illustrate the private property as "Bladensburg Park." Despite a clear chain of title, visitors and Bladensburg residents used the property as a recreational site, though it didn't become public property until Crutchett's donation.

Folklore misplaces Spa Spring Park

Today, a lot of people say that the spa spring site is where the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission built a sewage intake facility in the 1940s. Local historian Dick Charlton said in a 2008 interview with the Gazette newspaper that he believed that the spring was capped and that WSSC built a circular brick building on the site. "I suppose you have to do something with [the sewage], but to us, it's kind of a sacrilege," Charlton told reporter Elahe Izadi.


Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission building long believed to be built on Spa Spring site. Photo by the author.

That actually isn't true, though; the WSSC site was was constructed in the area historically known as Spa Woods, a tract situated east of the Spa Spring. The utility bought the property in 1935 from T. Howard and Josephine Duckett. Over the next several years, WSSC bought additional properties and rights-of-way to complete its sewage facility. The brick building constructed there first appears in a county real estate atlas published in 1940 and subsequent Sanborn fire insurance maps.

The actual Spa Spring location ultimately was transferred to the City of Bladensburg around the turn of the 20th century. In 1940 it was one of two parcels Bladensburg sold the M-NCPPC; the other was the city's former jail site (west of Baltimore Ave.). Both parcels were incorporated into new county parklands that flank the Anacostia River.

Development


After the FBI moves, Pennsylvania Ave could be reborn

The FBI is decamping from its headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building, leaving the deteriorating 1974 brutalist building and its site on Pennsylvania Avenue up for reinvention. You can weigh in on what comes next for the site.


What should replace the Hoover Building's moat? Photo by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

The FBI has decided that the poor state of the existing building, claustrophobic offices, and extensive security requirements make this urban site a bad location for the police agency. The FBI has asked the General Services Administration, the landlord to federal agencies, to replace it. To keep costs down, the GSA is trying to negotiate a land swap in either Landover, Greenbelt, or Springfield.

Whether the FBI building becomes apartments, offices, or an institution depends heavily on special rules for the properties lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Called "square guidelines," the ones for the Hoover building's site are specific to the FBI, so the National Capital Planning Commission is is revising them for whoever occupies the building in the future. Meetings on Tuesday and Thursday are the only time the public will be able to give input before NCPC drafts the new guidelines.


The guidelines have to go through a lot of review. Schedule graphic from NCPC.

To execute the deal, the GSA has to make a clear offer for what can go at the downtown site. They're doing that through these square guidelines, created in the 1970s by a congressional organization, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

The work of the PADC, like Pershing Park and Market Square, was a dramatic shift away from the grandiose official spaces that planners pushed in the first 70 years of the 20th century, into mixed uses and intimate spaces. To balance private development and public space, they created the guidelines. (A "square" is just a real estate term for a block; every lot in DC is part of a "square.")


The FBI Hoover Building site and the area controlled by PADC rules. Image from the NCPC.

The Hoover building will be a hot site for developers no matter what. But when it comes to how the building is use, the stakes are even higher for the public.

What kind of activities could happen there?

Under the new zoning code, the site will fall under the D-7 downtown zone district. That means a hotel or office space would be allowed to take up 10 times the amount of ground space the building covers, but that residential units could take up even more.

Because of that D-7 classification, residential development on the site wouldn't be subject to affordable housing requirements or bonuses. Maybe this should be an exception. Similarly, the swanky location could lend itself to development as investment properties, but those wouldn't lend themselves to street life. Are there ways to avoid that?

Perhaps there are other uses, like theaters, social organizations, or cultural programs that could be encouraged.

What will the actual building look like?

The square guidelines dictate a lot about urban form. One big decision is whether to divide the site. Technically, it's already two blocks: the much bigger Square 378 north of D Street, and the triangular Square 379 along Pennsylvania Avenue. The site will probably end up being multiple buildings, but what about rebuilding D Street to Pennsylvania Ave?

On one hand, that's an opportunity to add connectivity and increase the amount of retail. It might also limit the opportunity to build the northern square to the unusual 160' height permitted along Pennsylvania Avenue.

What percentage of the space should be open space? A public market used to stand nearby; perhaps Is a semi-private court like CityCenter the answer? Should the Pennsylvania Avenue side be more formal, and set back, while the E Street side might be more informal an commercial? Does the site need a commemorative space, like the nearby Navy Memorial?

How sustainable should it be?

Sustainability wasn't covered by the 1974 rules, but they could now. Given Climate change and the region's water quality issues, it's definitely one now. Whether it's requiring a low carbon impact, cleaning the air with plants, or managing runoff effectively, there are a lot of issues.

An opportunity to go beyond the easily gamed LEED system, and to ask for a measurable sign of sustainability, like some portion of the Living Building Challenge, or a concrete goal like net-zero energy use

On the other hand, there's a risk of adding tokens of sustainability that cost more than they're worth. The density and high energy efficiency the District requires may be enough of an environmental benefit.

Another possibility is preserving portions of the existing building, to save on expending new energy and carbon emissions? That will only make a difference if the energy to heat, cool, and light the building is dramatically lower than it is today. What parts of the building can be saved?

How the site connects to the rest of the city

The project also has implications for the Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building, which the GSA is also looking to exchange. Integrated into the I-395 highway running beneath it, it also faces its surrounding streets with high walls and gloomy overhangs. Worse, even though it covers the highway, it blocks both C St. and Indiana Avenue.


The Francis Perkins buildings sits on a high plinth. Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

With the massive Capitol Crossing development over the highway two blocks north, the replacement of the Perkins building presents similar potentials for adding downtown residential density, enlivening the generous public space near Judiciary Square, and reconnecting downtown to the Union Station area.

While the square guidelines are just one part of a very long approvals process, the earlier the approvals agencies hear support for an walkable, inviting urban design, the better the outcome.

You can attend the meetings 6-8PM on Tuesday and Thursday, or watch it live and submit comments.

Architecture


Five great Art Deco buildings in DC

DC's wave of Art Deco architecture was short lived, but its influence is still all over the city today. The five structures below show the extent to which Washingtonians embraced the modern architectural style.


This Art Deco building was formerly the Home Theater, at 230 C Street NE. It's now a church. All photos by the author.

Art Deco developed in a more conservative manner in DC than other places, with architects compromising between radical modernists and traditional classicists.

In vogue when DC was expanding to accommodate federal workers in the 1930s, Art Deco used geometric shapes and bold colors, as well as machine and ancient motifs-- in particular, it drew inspiration for its more abstract details from non-western influences, especially Egyptian and Mesoamerican ones. Plastic, glass, and concrete were used in novel ways.

Federal buildings mixed Art Deco with classical design to make "Greco Deco." Commercial buildings were the most enthusiastic with Art Deco designs, though the city failed to preserve most of them. Garden apartments showed Art Deco origins on entrances and rooflines. Vertical lines along buildings give the impression of height. Pyramid-like ziggurats break rooflines. Floral and transportation motifs were popular, and the "streamline" style used minimalist lines for exaggeration.

The Deco style preserved a stubborn belief in progress through the Great Depression: the economy was ailing, its thinking wet, but the United States would recover, industry would surge, and culture would bloom. A modern inferno raged in the future, but Art Deco propagated an elegant, jazzy style, grasping the past to forge the present.


The entrance of the High Towers (1530 16th Street NW), designed by architect Alvin Aubinoe in 1938.

Around the DC area, more than 400 Art Deco structures went up between 1925 and 1945. The best-known examples in the city are the Kennedy-Warren Apartments in Cleveland Park and the Hecht Warehouse Co. building (refurbished into loft apartments and retail space) in Ivy City. For less-popular examples of Deco, the following list pulls out subtle, but striking, Deco buildings.

1. The Chambers Funeral Home, Eastern Market

For those who wanted to be buried in Art Deco, the Chambers Funeral home was built in 1932 in Eastern Market. Designed by Leroy H. Harris and developed by W.W. Chambers, it's since become an office for a rental company and features a chrome awning with metal floral motifs on its lights and facade.

2. 2412 Minnesota Avenue SE

Originally offices and stores, Frank Martinelli designed this building on Minnesota Avenue in Fairlawn in 1949, and A.G. Carozza developed it; it doesn't have an official name. The slick curves in the building resemble the Hecht Warehouse, and glass block above the entrances were a common motif in Art Deco.

3. The Majestic, 16th Street NW

One of the most appealing Art Deco apartment buildings, the Majestic apartment building on 16th street is striking. The double rows of curved bay windows, recessed entrance, and ziggurats along the roofline demand attention.

4. The Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge, Calvert Street NW

The district also has an Art Deco bridge that connects Woodley Park and Adams Morgan. The Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge, built in 1935 and designed by Paul Cret, includes sculptures by Leon Hermant on its corners that combine ancient deities and modern technology. In one, a goddess races a car, and the bridge railings were done in Deco style.

A second Art Deco bridge, the Klingle Valley Bridge on Connective Avenue, includes Deco floral motifs. It was built in 1931 and designed by Paul Cret and Frank M. Masters.

5. The Library of Congress Annex, 2nd Street SE

For federal buildings, none can rival the Library of Congress Annex. Art Deco design is evident on its exterior, but its interior bursts with floral designs and painstaking ornamental design brings the building to life.

Other examples are less bold. The buildings were numerous enough to scatter across most neighborhoods in the city and pockets in Alexandria, Arlington, and Silver Spring. In the district, clusters can be found near 14th Street in Brightwood, Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan near Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, east of Glover Park, and downtown spreading east from the White House between New York and Pennsylvania Avenues.

DC's Art Deco architects

A handful of architects dominated the DC. Art Deco scene. George T. Santmyers specialized in garden apartments, designing almost 50 of them in a 14-year period. The majority of them remain in use. Joseph Abel, like Santmyers, focused on apartments and designed a dozen. John Eberson designed 13 movie theaters, but only the Silver theater in Silver Spring still functions as one. Eberson narrowly triumphed over John J. Zink, who had 11 theaters to his credit. Only one, the Uptown in Cleveland Park, remains in use as a theater.

"For many of the architects active in Washington, Art Deco represented a series of decorative elements to be combined with traditional and radical approaches, from Renaissance revival to classical to the International Style," Hanz Wirz and Richard Striner wrote in Washington Deco: Art Deco in the Nation's Capital, an excellent resource for information on Art Deco's development.

A map of Art Deco buildings, past and present, shows the reach of the style. Other highlights include an Art Deco influenced amusement park in Glen Echo, Maryland, the public schools of Greenbelt, Maryland, and an "America on Wheels" roller rink in Adams Morgan, now functioning as a grocery store and fitness center. D.C. isn't known for Art Deco, but when residents learn the motifs, they notice buildings cropping up in unexpected places.

The Art Deco Society of Washington also promotes the style's influence and offers tours, events, and a map of some notable (and metro accessible) Art Deco landmarks.

History


Check out this DC bike map from 1896

Did you know our region had bike lanes all the way back in 1896? This map shows the best way to get around DC and parts of Maryland and Virginia on two wheels before the start of the 20th Century.


Image from the DC Public Library.

The map is one of 70 that the DC Public Library recently added to its Dig DC collection.

These newly available maps are part of DCPL's ongoing effort to digitize the Washingtonia Map Collection, which includes material from various sources dating back to 1612. So far, the collection on Dig DC includes maps from 1768 through 1900.


Image from the DC Public Library.

According to the note above, the direction and frequency of triangles along paths indicates the slope and incline of hills. If topography is your top concern, this map could still be helpful in choosing your best route: The gentle decline of Bladensburg Road as you travel southward into the city could certainly offset traffic considerations.

It's also interesting to note that certain roads—7th St. NW, Connecticut Ave. NW, Pennsylvania Ave. SE, among others—are as preferable now as they were then. One detail begs the question: was Virginia Avenue SW/SE once a preferred bike route?

What else about this map do you notice?

Links


National Links: Hillary talks housing

Hillary Clinton is articulating her vision to help Americans with housing, what happens when people making decisions about transit don't know what it's like to depend on it, and a look at where row houses fit into the national landscape. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Veni on Flickr.

Hillary's housing hopes: Hillary Clinton wants living near quality jobs, schools, and transportation to be easier, and she's making affordable housing part of her agenda. Her proposal would boost funding for both programs that help people buy homes as well as public housing. (Virginia-Pilot)

Get the board on the bus: Given how much they influence how people get around, perhaps transit board members should ride the busor at least know details about the system they work on. Some recent applicants for the DART Board of Directors in Dallas are clueless when it comes to transit-oriented development and taxpaying riders. (Dallas Observer)

Reliant on row houses The row house is the workhorse of dense older cities around the country, but it's becoming less popular. It's possible that row houses could be the "missing middle" that can help address the country's housing needs. (Urban Omnibus)

Questioning King Car: Cars are a large part of American culture, like it or not. But they also cost a lot of money, time, and lives. Since September 11th, 2001, over 400,000 people have died in automobile collisions. Is that a worthwhile price to pay for convenience? (The Atlantic)

Bridges of Amsterdam city: Amsterdam has far more canals and bridges than the average city, but only one bridge runs across the large river that separates the more industrial side of the city from where most people live. There is a tunnel and a number of ferries, neither of which is idea for walking or biking. But as more development happens and free ferries are overwhelmed, a bridge may be the next step. (City Metric)

Struggling city streams: In the midwest, streams in urban places are rare. Detroit, for example, has lost 86% of its surface streams. That worries ecologists because streams regulate water flow and keep wildlife healthy. (Great Lakes Echo)

Are we building boredom?: Buildings designed like boxes are bad for us. Research shows that human excitement wanes on streets with boring facades, causing stress that affects our health and psychological wellbeing. (New York Magazine)

Quote of the Week

"I think it's important to remember that these are serious crimes with emotional consequences. It's interesting nonetheless to watch how burglars use architecture, but that isn't enough reason to treat them like folk heroes." - Architecture writer Geoff Manaugh discussing his new book, A Burglar's Guide to the City in Paste Magazine.

Sustainability


See how much more land is paved now than in 1984

In 2010, there was much more pavement covering more of the region than 26 years earlier. These images from the University of Maryland, highlighted by NASA's Earth Observatory blog, show the change.

The region has grown, in population and in economic activity, and some new impervious surface is a consequence of that. However, the region can grow in ways that minimize impervious surface, by building larger buildings in the core and transit-oriented development around Metro stations. Or it can grow in more environmentally destructive ways, through sprawl.

Some of this new impervious surface reflects already urban places getting denser. That's a good thing; by adding a little impervious surface in Arlington or along Connecticut Avenue, for example, the region saves a greater amount from being built outside the Beltway.

But much of this new surface isn't responsible development. The NASA post points this out, saying,

In addition to the widening of the Beltway, notice how pavement has proliferated in Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia and Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland. The District of Columbia was already densely developed in 1984, so the changes there are less noticeable.

The map also doesn't even zoom far enough out to show places like Frederick, Howard, Prince William, Fauquier, and Stafford counties, where the change is even more dramatic, and where even less of the new pavement is in places that are walkable or oriented to transit.

This is an effect of "height-itis"

Week after week, local boards in many jurisdictions make decisions, like taking housing away from the Georgetown Day School project in Tenleytown, which remove a little potential housing in the core. Those choices don't keep even one square foot of land unpaved (and even if they did, it wouldn't be worth the tradeoff), but they do push a little more growth out to where it affects maps like this.

Our region can protect natural resources, but not until people are willing to make them a priority. Until then, this trend will continue.

Development


More housing is now banned from Lanier Heights. Organizing is what won the day.

A group of neighbors in Lanier Heights are fighting to downzone their rowhouses, hoping to restrict the ability to convert them into denser, multi-resident units. Monday night they won, and they did it by out-organizing the opposition.


Lanier Heights. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Earlier in March over 50 residents packed the zoning board hearing room, holding orange "For R-4" signs quietly under their seats (under orders from zoning Commissioner Anthony Hood—"there will be no demonstrating in the hearing room"). For the next 3-plus hours, advocates from the neighborhood laid out the arguments to change their current zoning level from an R-5-B to an R-4, bringing tighter building constrictions to their blocks that would effectively bar the development of multi-unit buildings and pop-ups.

Proponents started organizing long ago

This March 21st meeting has been over four years in the making. A growing number of owners in the neighborhood have sold or converted their single family units into denser, multi-unit dwellings.

Some reacted strongly against this trend, and began to organize to stop it, seeing zoning as tool to halt the work. Denis Suski, a local resident, began to gather his neighbors together around these issues as early as 2012. The group knocked on doors, began to engage their ANC, and hosted numerous community meetings to educate and persuade others to join in the downzoning movement. They cited a number of arguments: parking problems, loss of the character of the neighborhood, cheap construction techniques, and removing family-sized units from a family neighborhood.


Lanier Heights Row houses next to a rehabbed "pop-up" on the left. Photo by Dan Malouff.

They encountered resistance, and that resistance started to organize as well. Opponents created an online group, Neighbors Against Downzoning (NADZ). They argued that Lanier Heights is already full of apartment buildings; that restricting further development in their neighborhood only was the very definition of NIMBYism; and that many of the stated concerns did not reflect the realities of the city, or even a majority of the affected neighbors.

Opponents also noted that this change would downzone everyone's homes in the area, no matter how they felt or what changes the future would hold. The debate has gone on for years, and it all came down to this final hearing, late Monday night in March.

How it went down that night

Given the length of this fight, it's not surprising that almost everyone in the room knew each other. Proponents and opposition shook hands, talked amongst themselves and spoke directly to each other in testimony. During the opening presentation, given by Mr. Suski, the crowd rumbled in approval and disapproval at appropriate moments, earning admonition from Commissioner Hood on a few occasions ("We don't demonstrate in the chamber. Let's keep it civil"). Suski opened with a long presentation that summarized all the downzoners' concerns and arguments. Afterwards, the floor opened for testimony, the overwhelming majority of which was in favor of the zoning change.

Many rallied against the loss of "air and light" suffered because of these new 50 foot walls on their back door steps. Others spoke of the city's need of a "diversity of housing" and to preserve the character and family culture of the rowhouse neighborhood. A few came out on the defense—"We are simply not a NIMBY neighborhood"—but rather insisted that this was about their rights as homeowners and neighbors.

A fraction of the attendees spoke out against the downzoning, saying that some of the home-types in this area no longer suit the needs of the city and should be split up into smaller units. What is more, they argued downzoning infringed on their rights as homeowners to be able to sell, profit and build on their own land.

This affects you, too

What was missing from the meeting was a larger discussion of how downzoning affects our city as whole. In a adding 1,000 new residents a month, more housing and more housing density is desperately needed. Proponents at the meetings set up this issue as a battle between personal homeowner rights and developers, but the larger issue of incoming residents needs to be part of the discussion.

As Ron Baker, an organizer with NADZ, said in an email, "[T]he downzoners are always complaining about "greedy developers" but this isn't about the developers. There is a huge wave of young people moving to DC who need housing that fits their needs and budgets."

This trend of increased restriction block by block is not new to DC, and hurts the city's current residents and future ones. If small cohorts of neighbors across the city similarly fight to restrict more dense development, our problems will only get worse. Zoning commissioners and the Office of Planning know this, but when faced with the overwhelming show of downzoning support in the room, the officials seemed to lean towards the change.


NADZ Neighborhood sign. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Organizing counts

No matter which side readers come out on in this argument, we should take away one lesson: don't ignore power of organization.

Both sides were organized; the downzoners were organized better.

As Billy Simpson, ANC 1C commissioner offered in support, "In my 3+ years of service, I have never seen a proposal as thoroughly community led and community vetted as this one." Mr. Suski and his team had spent years handing out fliers, personally talking to each neighbor, hosting forums, and giving out surveys. They arrived that night with clear arguments and presentations, aligned talking points and a strong sense of team and community.

The opposition was organized as well; their website is informative and thorough, and they too have been active in canvassing and posting neighborhood signs. But on one night in March their organization did not translate into as many butts in the seats, strength in numbers and testimony.

On Monday night the Zoning Commission took a final vote was taken on the matter, and the downzoning proposal was approved 5-0. You can see just how effective the organizing was in the side-switching that occurred. The Office of Planning in March took a neutral stance and offered no recommendation. Now, it submitted documents in favor of the downzoning.

Commissioner Rob Miller said that while he is typically "skeptical of downzoning in this city where we have critical demand for housing, and over 1,000 residents arriving a month," he was convinced by the show of support and argument presented in the March meeting. Marcie Cohen agreed, saying she "is concerned with downzoning" but was impressed by the "clarity and completeness" of this case.

National Park Service representative Peter May most directly attributed the downzoning win to the organizing work. He said the vote is "a testimony to the thoroughness of the work that was done before it was brought before us."

The hard work of community organization won here, and stripped away potential units in a city suffocating for more housing. Are we, Greater Greater Washington, ready to organize for the city and issues we care about?

Preservation


Saving the planet is a good idea, say preservation board members, but don't do it here

A scientists' organization wants to generate enough solar energy atop their building for all its needs. Despite enthusiastic support from neighbors and the DC government, a historic preservation board rejected the plan. One member suggested large solar panels are appropriate in "some remote part of Seattle" but not Dupont Circle.


Rendering of the proposed building seen from along Florida Avenue. Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects unless otherwise noted.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is an association of geophysicists, or "earth and space scientists." AGU has a building at 2000 Florida Avenue NW, at the corner of 20th and Florida, next to Glen's Garden Market. This is the very edge of the Dupont Circle Historic District, and surrounding buildings are both larger and uglier than this one.

AGU wants to make the building "net zero," which means it consumes zero energy on balance. (It would pull from the grid at night and on cloudy days, but give back to the grid when it's sunny). To do this requires a large canopy of solar panels.


Views from the west now (left) and proposed (right).

Preservation board members, however, called the canopy "too large and overbearing" while effusively praising the net zero effort.

Who gets to decide?

Any change to a building in a historic district has to go through historic review. First, the property owner meets with historic preservation staff in the DC Office of Planning. After getting feedback and potentially revising the plan, the owner presents it to community groups and ultimately to a hearing at the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a group of citizens including architects and historians.

If HPRB gives the green light, it can move forward; if not, the applicant has to either revise it or appeal to the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation in a more legalistic and time-consuming process.

Neighbors and city officials applaud this project

For this project, the Dupont Circle Citizens' Association was enthusiastically in favor. President Robin Diener (who's opposed many other buildings in the area), testified for DCCA. She said, "The project will reduce AGU's energy costs, but AGU is also assuming costs that will ultimately redound to the good of all, not only by reducing consumption but by setting an example for others to follow. We very much need this environmental leadership in thinking about architecture for historic districts."

Diener had some specific complaints about design changes for the building. For example, the current building has a small triangular glass projection at the corner which evokes a ship's prow. The new design enlarges it, creating more glass and bringing more light to the interior, but Diener (and many members of the preservation board) want to see some changes to that. Likewise, the renovation would remove some of the window mullions, and a number of people disagree with that choice.


Windows and façade detail now (left) and proposed (right).

This isn't a "contributing building" to the historic district, however. In a historic district, some buildings are called "contributing" if they were built during the main "period of significance," while other, newer buildings are not. The latter group gets more leeway in renovations; preservation officials are supposed to only consider the building's impact on the historic district. A change to window mullions may or may not be wise, but it probably doesn't affect the historic district.

Especially because this building is not in the middle of a cluster of historic buildings or anything like that:


Rendering of the proposed building in a photograph of the immediate area.

City historic preservation staff also enthusiastically endorsed the project in their report, calling the canopy "uniquely compatible in this location."

The report adds, "While obviously different in character and scale, the roof top feature would provide a distinctive profile that could be seen as a contemporary response to the historic roof towers and turrets that are common in the historic district, such as on the President Madison Apartments across the street."

No neighbors testified against the plan at the hearing. The Dupont Circle Conservancy also voted in support (disclosure: I am a member of the conservancy, but didn't attend that meeting.) The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission did not take a formal vote, but comments were positive.

Put it in Seattle, says one preservationist

Amid all of this enthusiasm, how did the members of HPRB themselves respond? Not well.

Graham Davidson, an architect with Hartman-Cox and a constant opponent of taller buildings, roof decks, and pretty much everything, said that this project sacrifices too much of the "neighborhood character."

Anything that we can do to make our neighborhoods more sustainable, we are eager to support. However, to do that at the expense of the way the neighborhood looks and feels is not something we can support. ... I think most of us are very supportive of a net zero goal, but if this is the way that we have to achieve it, then this neighborhood is not the place to go about expressing it in this way.

About two years ago, when it was built in a brand new building in some remote part of Seattle, maybe it's okay there, but I don't think that in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that this fairly substantial piece of equipment should be installed on top of a very delicate building that has a very nice scale to it.

Davidson is talking about the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which has an even more prominent solar array. That's far from a "remote" part of Seattle; it's close to downtown Seattle and right near the Capitol Hill neighborhood, one that has a lot in common with Dupont Circle.


The Bullitt Center, Seattle. Image from Google Maps.

(Interestingly, this isn't even the first time Davidson has suggested some architecture should stay in Seattle and far away from DC.)

Other HPRB members Joseph Taylor (Georgetown University) and Capitol Hill activist Nancy Metzger all criticized the canopy as well.

Rauzia Ally, a Dupont Circle resident and architect, questioned this bandwagon effect of taking sustainability less seriously. "I worry about some of the things Mr. Davidson is saying about overall huge canopy structures to achieve net zero goals. I think it's a very laudable goal to try to make this a net zero building."

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler (Beyer Blinder Belle) took a somewhat middle ground, supporting the idea of the solar panels ("I am all for this idea. I think it is great; I commend you on it," she said) but asking AGU to redesign it "to look at the way the array could grow from it in a more organic fashion."

Climate change can't be a problem for someone else to solve

Climate scientists recently concluded that they'd been too conservative in predicting what greenhouse gases would do the planet; the sea level may rise twice as much as previously thought.

That could decimate New Orleans, Miami, and Boston, and cause huge displacement in many other coastal cities, not to mention disaster for millions around the globe. To forestall this requires everyone to do their part, not to suggest that historic districts are exempt, especially from projects that neighbors support (though HPRB ought to be willing to support such things even when neighbors are more divided).

DC's 2012 sustainability plan calls to "retrofit 100% of existing commercial and multi-family buildings to achieve net-zero energy standards" by 2032. While that's ambitious and perhaps unlikely, it certainly can't happen if HPRB says no the very first time someone tries.

Seattle, in fact, now allows extra variation from zoning for buildings which go unusually far to reduce net energy or water usage. Buildings which aim to hit sustainability targets deserve more leeway, not less.

Support Us