The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts from February 2013


Brown bombs on ethics; Silverman edges Frumin

Only 2.5% of voters gave Michael Brown positive marks for his response on ethics this week on Let's Choose DC (a partnership of Greater Greater Washington, DCist, and PoPville). Elissa Silverman took the top spot in your judgment, with Matthew Frumin second.

We asked the candidates to give their positions on 6 ethics proposals:

  • Ban or limit outside employment
  • Eliminate or constrain constituent service funds
  • Ban corporate contributions to campaigns
  • Ban "bundling" from multiple entities controlled by same person
  • Ban contributions by contractors and/or lobbyists who do business with DC
  • Forbid free or discounted legal services, travel gifts, sports tickets for councilmembers
Silverman touted her work on Initiative 70 pushing to enshrine the third of these into law. She, Frumin, Patrick Mara, John Settles, and Michael Brown all also endorsed public financing of elections. Paul Zukerberg explicitly opposed it; while we don't know why voters chose as they did, perhaps most of you disagreed and that contributed to his 6th place finish.

Michael Brown, meanwhile, opposed banning outside employment and changes to constituent service funds. He also did not address the proposals involving monetary or in-kind campaign contributions. As a consequence, 47% of you said he did not answer the question while giving him the lowest finish of any candidate on any question thus far on Let's Choose DC.

This week, we're asking about school truancy. See the responses and vote now!


Georgetowners seek to overturn Glover Park traffic calming

Upset Georgetown residents are challenging a 2012 traffic calming project in Glover Park. They say it has lengthened their car commutes through that adjacent neighborhood. Monday, these residents will air their frustrations at an extraordinary Georgetown ANC meeting with Councilmembers Jack Evans and Mary Cheh and DDOT Director Terry Bellamy.

New left-turn lanes in Glover Park. Photo from DDOT.

The idea for traffic calming project began years ago. The Glover Park ANC, after hearing constituents bemoan the state of retail in Glover Park, complained to the city about their commercial district's struggles.

The Office of Planning studied the area in 2006. That report found that cars speed through Glover Park, particularly going downhill on Wisconsin, which makes it dangerous to the pedestrians who patronize Glover Park businesses.

2-3 pedestrians are struck each year on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. In fact, after a driver hit a Georgetown woman and her dog in Glover Park, commissioner Ed Solomon of the Georgetown ANC said, "I would hope that this accident would result in a comprehensive review on the safety concerns that this community has about this section of Wisconsin Avenue."

It's precisely this hostile pedestrian environment, concluded the Office of Planning, that reduces pedestrian traffic to retailers in Glover Park.

DDOT concludes median could reduce congestion and boost pedestrian safety

The Glover Park ANC then asked DDOT in 2009 for a follow-up study about making Glover Park more welcoming for pedestrians. DDOT collected tons of data on traffic at all times of day and days of the week, and reached some interesting conclusions.

The data showed that Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park actually suffers from both congestion and speeding, due to the many left turns. When drivers are turning left they block the lanes and cause congestion; when they don't, people speed and pedestrians are at risk.

DDOT's engineering models showed that adding a middle left-turn lane would both reduce congestion and also speeding. It would calm traffic (with a single through lane) and eliminate left-turn lane blocking (with the turn lane). The models estimated that the project would not change the time to drive though Glover Park.

Officals presented these results at numerous public meetings. Anyone who was remotely involved in civic affairs by reading public meeting notices, attending ANC meetings, or talking to their ANC commissioners knew about it.

Changes aren't complete

DDOT then began the construction, and some residents in Glover Park and Georgetown complained about traffic spilling over into adjacent neighborhood streets. That was a legitimate complaint, and there is a poorly-designed intersection at 37th & Tunlaw that invites drivers to cut through adjacent neighborhood streets.

Fortunately, DDOT's study had a recommendation for that. It suggested reconfiguring 37th and Tunlaw to calm traffic and reduce cut-through traffic. That project is not done yet; it's scheduled to be completed in March.

The construction on Wisconsin, however, largely finished early this year, but the center median containing the left-turn lanes is only painted for now. That's because DDOT is spending a year measuring the results and tweaking different things like light timing, enforcement, and so on.

Changes already help some pedestrians, frustrate some drivers

Pedestrians are already feeling the benefits. It's far less stressful crossing and walking along Wisconsin Avenue. Families with children in particular report less anxiety about walking around Glover Park to popular destinations like the Guy Mason playground and area restaurants.

When the year of tweaks and study ends, DDOT will replace the painted medians between the left-turn areas with raised medians. This will be even better for pedestrian activity, because crossing Wisconsin Avenue will be safer and less threatening with a central raised median.

However, a vocal minority of drivers who prioritize a few seconds of driving time over pedestrian safety have won their first battle to reverse this project. They have secured an audience with two Councilmembers and the DDOT Director at Monday's Georgetown ANC meeting.

DDOT Program Manager Paul Hoffman says that "early returns" of data collection indicate that through time is the same for drivers headed north through Glover Park, but 30 seconds longer on average going south.

If the opponents are successful in repaving Wisconsin Avenue to add the lost through lanes, DC will not only have to pay for the repaving. We will have to pay the federal government back for the money it contributed to the project.

Use the form below and attend Monday's meeting to ask the councilmembers and Georgetown ANC commissioners to give the Glover Park traffic calming project time to succeed. The ANC meeting takes place on Monday, March 4, 6:30 pm at Georgetown Visitation School on 35th Street and Volta Place. The meeting is on the 2nd floor of the main building, in the Heritage Room.

Speak up for safety

This petition is now closed. Thank you for participating!


Do we need a Southeast Boulevard at all?

A study is underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway between the 11th Street bridges and Barney Circle with a new road. But is a new road even the best use of the space at all?

The freeway segment under construction in 1972. Photo from DDOT.

A 2005 "Middle Anacostia Crossings" study recommended a 4-lane boulevard to replace the freeway segment. That freeway was initially designed as part of a network of inner-city freeways, but DC thankfully stopped those plans before they divided and damaged any more neighborhoods as the freeway did to Southwest and Near Southeast.

Map of the area. Image from DDOT.

Now, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is starting a formal study of this as well as ways to rebuild Barney Circle. Communication about the "Southeast Boulevard" project often presumed that this project would indeed build a 4-lane boulevard.

Early concept sketches showed how some of the land could accommodate tour bus parking, but those sketches all also showed a 4-lane boulevard.

Is that the right way to use the land?

Is a boulevard the answer?

The 11th Street Bridge has added car capacity across the Anacostia and given drivers a direct connection between DC-295 north of the bridges and the Southeast Freeway. Today, the road is closed, so no cars are using it at all.

Think of it this way: What if there were no boulevard here and it were just empty space, perhaps a decommissioned railyard or some abandoned warehouses. Would DC build a road?

Houses adjacent to the construction. Photo from DDOT.

Craig Lenhart and Sanjay Kumar, who are managing the project for DDOT, say that they are indeed willing to study whether there need not be any new road at all, or a narrower one than 4 lanes. Based on feedback from a number of residents on this issue, they say they will study just that.

One of the objectives for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, which includes this project, is to strengthen connections to and across the river. While the 11th Street bridges have provided better connections for car traffic around the neighborhood and across the river, bicycles and pedestrians also need better connections.

Rebuilding Barney Circle will be an opportunity to stengthen and make safer the Anacostia River trails' connections to Capitol Hill, the Sousa Bridge (Pennsylvania Avenue), and subsequently neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. The study will also look at ways to connect the neighborhood to the river with bridges over the CSX tracks, the DDOT representatives say.

What is the best way to use this land?

The land between the southernmost homes on L Street SE and the CSX is zoned for commercial/manufacturing currently, and the District of Columbia owns it. It could also be rezoned if the city determined other worthwhile uses to pursue here.

As one of many possibilities, David created a mockup in 2010 of how the land could house more residents (some with pretty impressive water views):

Click on the radio buttons to toggle: Previous   Potential

Or, DC could build many other things. Playgrounds or sports fields, a mountain bike park, a community theater or an art museum, public buildings, or much more. What do you think DC should do with this land?


Breakfast links: A better ride

Photo by EmilyHaHa on Flickr.
A sick route: The 80 bus serves 3 hospitals and many patients on its long route. It should run every 15 minutes but often leaves riders waiting 30 minutes. WMATA is looking for ways to speed up the route, but has no funding to do so. (Post)

Reliable railcars: Metro's railcars are not as reliable as WMATA would like, with the 4000-series breaking down most often. Fortunately, the agency has made great strides and in the last three months, meeting its reliability goals. (Examiner)

Kubicek leaves WMATA: WMATA's number two, David Kubicek, is resigning next month. Kubicek headed operations during the Red Line crash and more recently pushed for the greater weekend shutdowns to speed repairs. (Post)

War on non-cars continues: The Examiner editors continue their quest to enrage drivers (and drive up their advertising revenue) with another inflammatory cover and "war on cars" article that's riddled with errors. (WashCycle)

US drives less: Americans drove fewer miles on average in 2012 than 2011, continuing an 8-year trend. Experts think baby boomers retiring, gas prices, millennials' apathy about driving, and the rise of walkable neighborhoods all play a role. (Streetsblog)

Hampton Roads only gets roads: A rider in the Virginia transportation bill prohibits Hampton Roads from funding anything other than roads from its regional transportation fund and specifically bans that fund going to "public or mass transit." (Pilot)

Brown in the clear: Michael Brown says he's no longer the subject of a federal investigation on $100,000 missing from a previous campaign. (Post)

Check out the new library: DC's libraries are more than just places for books; they are community hubs, computer centers, and even refuge for the homeless. (City Paper)

A hero to save us: One man in Mexico dresses up like a wrestler and defendes pedestrians from vehicles encroaching on the crosswalk. (Atlantic Cities)

And...: A Boston architect wants to build apartments without parking, but will the city let him? (Atlantic Cities, Gil) ... Developers revise plans for McMillan. (bloomingdale) ... The list of possible developers for Shaw's Parcel 42 is down to 3. (UrbanTurf)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Little-known quarry played a big role in DC's rise

The city's historic structures were built from materials as unique to their age and as varied as the architectural styles used to mold them into buildings. Those materials often have their own rich stories to tell, as Garrett Peck ably demonstrates in his lively new book, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry.

Seneca sandstone has a lot going for it. In addition to its rich, dignified color, it also has the unique property that it is relatively soft and easy to cut when it is taken out of the ground but hardens after the cut stone is set in place, making for an excellent building material. It's a wonder that more DC buildings are not made from it.

The first quarry to be used heavily in constructing early Washington was the Aquia Creek quarry near Stafford, Virginia. Peter L'Enfant purchased that quarry on behalf of the government to supply stone for the Capitol and White House, but the pale Aquia Creek sandstone discolored easily (one reason why the White House was painted white in 1798), and better sources of stone were sought out. The cliffs along the Maryland side of the Potomac at what is now the small village of Seneca offered superior stone.

Robert Peter (1726-1806), a Scottish immigrant who became a prosperous Georgetown tobacco merchant, purchased a large tract of land in Maryland, including the sandstone cliffs, in 1781. The first small amounts of stone were quarried there some time in the late 18th century. Peter's son Thomas built the regal Tudor Place mansion that still stands today in Georgetown as one of the city's best house museums. Thomas also built a distinguished country house on the land at Seneca, but it was not until Thomas's son, John Parke Custis Peter (1799-1848), inherited the property that the Seneca Quarry started to figure prominently in DC construction.

South side of the Castle. Photo by the author.

John P.C. Peter made a daring lowball bid in 1846 to supply the stone for the new Smithsonian Building to be constructed on the Mall. The iconic structure could have been made of pale Aquia Creek sandstone, white New York marble, or gray granite, but at a below-market 25 cents per square foot, Peter's Seneca red sandstone got the nod from the building committee.

The eccentric Romanesque Revival building, designed by James Renwick, set the stage for the Victorian era of red Washington architecture. While many red Victorian buildings would be made primarily of brick, Seneca sandstone was prominent as well, often used in water tables because it was considered waterproof.

The water table and belt courses on the old Agriculture Building are of Seneca sandstone. Image from the author's collection.

Renwick used the stone as trim for the original Corcoran Gallery of Art building (now the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery) as well as the chapel at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Just to the west of the Castle, the original Agriculture Department building, designed by Adolf Cluss and completed in 1868, had a Seneca sandstone water table and belt courses.

Other Seneca buildings past and present, as cataloged by Peck, include a number of C&O Canal locks and houses, the McClellan Gate at Arlington National Cemetery, the Luther Place Memorial Church facing Thomas Circle, and many private houses. Although he hasn't found evidence to confirm it, Peck tells me he suspects the trim and belt courses on the striking National Security & Trust building at 15th Street and New York Avenue NW may be Seneca sandstone as well.

It's possible that the trim on this building is Seneca sandstone. Photo by the author.

But Peck's book goes beyond the buildings to delve into the fascinating stories of the people behind the stones. John P.C. Peter died unexpectedly in 1848 after scratching his thumb on a rusty nail and contracting tetanus, but the quarry continued to prosper without him. It was the site of a skirmish during the Civil War and a scandal afterward, when it fell into the hands of robber barons during the corrupt years of the Grant administration. Peck fills in all the details of these episodes and paints a vivid picture of quarry life, including the role of African-Americans who did much of the stone-cutting.

Ruins of the stonecutting mill. Photo by the author.

The quarry shut down around 1901, having exhausted the best of the redstone that was readily available. By that time Washingtonians had decided the city's old red architecture was bad-bad-bad and should be replaced by the imperial white marble and limestone piles envisioned by the McMillan Commission.

The forgotten quarry site gradually fell into ruins. Today it lies in densely overgrown parkland just east of the C&O Canal at Seneca. In winter months, when the undergrowth is dormant, Peck leads tours of the site.

Though the quarry and its various related structures stand on parkland, none are marked with interpretive signs, and there is no marked trail through the site, so Peck's extensive knowledge of the old quarry is essential. The ghostly ruins of the old stonecutting mill, with initials carved in the sandstone by workers of yore, are particularly poignant.

Quarry master's Seneca sandstone house. Photo by the author.

It would be a great addition to the cultural resources of the Washington area if the Seneca Quarry site could be turned into an historical park, as Peck envisions. He closes his book with an engaging discussion of the individuals who have saved parts of old Seneca, like the Kiplingers, who own Thomas Peter's country mansion Montevideo, and the Albiols, who have restored the old quarry master's house.

Peck argues for a modest investment to clear the brush from the stonecutting mill site and other key spots, lay out a marked trail through the park, and install a few key interpretive signs. It would make for a unique memorial to a distinctive aspect of 19th-century culture. With publication of The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry and fresh interest in the site, perhaps the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission might take action.


DC finishes streetcar.... website

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is stepping up its communication around the streetcar project, with a new website, a meeting to update residents last night, and better efforts to engage neighbors on issues like the maintenance facility on Benning Road.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

A lot of work is actually going on to get the streetcar ready, but most residents don't see it. That's because one of the most visible pieces, installing tracks, happened first. It also happened extra early because DC was already planning to rebuild H Street.

It made sense to simply install tracks at the same time the city already rebuilt the road. However, this timing also meant that the tracks went in, followed by more behind-the-scenes work.

DDOT will be testing streetcars on a certification track on South Capitol Street, as well as finishing the designs for the car barn, starting studies on extending the line east and west, and much more.

Residents might be more able to keep up on what's going on with a website DDOT launched today for the project.

Oh, and does the above screen capture mean that DDOT has selected "District At Your Doorstep" as the streetcar tagline?

The website includes a presentation from last night's meeting. It includes updates on the work to construct the western turnaround at Union Station, a power substation at 12th and H, a pocket track on Benning Road, and the eastern turnaround at Oklahoma Avenue this year.

Also on the matter of communication, DDOT has withdrawn the car barn designs from tomorrow's HPRB meeting. In a letter to preservation staff, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy writes:

It came to our attention over the weekend that several individuals, including Area [sic] Neighborhood Commissioners and other key neighborhood stakeholders were unable to view the presentation/application submitted by DDOT to the Board. In immediate response to the inquiries received we posted the concept drawings on the DDOT and DC Streetcar Program websites for review on Monday, February 25. We feel that appearing before the Board on Thursday, February 28, will not provide the stakeholder community with adequate review time.

Therefore, in an effort to allow for sufficient review time, we respectfully request that a hearing on the concept drawings be moved to the next regular Board meeting currently scheduled for March 28, 2013. Our goal, as an agency, is to be forthcoming with our community partners as we move through this process and we believe postponing our review date will assist with these efforts.

It did seem odd that DDOT has shown two sets of renderings to the federal Commission on Fine Arts and HPO but had little public outreach about the designs. They have met with a number of ANCs and community associations, though. The new design looks fine and should go ahead, but public input is an important component as well.


A building can look smaller without losing a floor

The architects of an 8-story apartment building at 13th and U streets, NW have tweaked their design after the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) came close to asking to remove a whole floor. Instead, they've aptly demonstration how it's possible to make a building feel less large without actually making it much smaller at all.

Image from JBG.

In December, HPRB heard from JBG, the developer who owns the site, and their architect David M. Schwartz about their plans to replace the low strip mall complex containing Rite Aid, Pizza Hut, and other stores with an attractive apartment building.

Historic preservation staff favorably recommended the building, which they said "has many of design characteristics that are found in traditional apartment building design and which would result in a compatible relationship with its surroundings in this location."

The composition has been organized with three vertically-oriented towers so that it doesn't look squat or horizontal; the corner balconies and paired windows help reinforce the vertical emphasis. The rhythm and proportions of fenestration on the residential floors is consistent with historic apartment buildings, while the first floor is designed and articulated to reinforce the street's pedestrian scale and retail character.
A number of nearby residents, however, objected that it was too large compared to nearby townhouses. The board split fairly evenly, with a number of members suggesting deleting a floor. Graham Davidson, who calls buildings "too tall" with great frequency, praised the building as beautifully designed, but still felt compelled to come down on the side of lopping a floor off despite the fact that it would disrupt the elegant proportions.

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler convinced the board to simply ask JBG and Schwartz to try to do something on the 13th Street side, farthest from other large buildings. This week, they will go back to the board with a revised design that makes some small tweaks, but ones that staff believe have addressed the board's concerns.

Previous (top) and current (bottom) designs for the front of the building.

The rounded corner at 13th and U is one story shorter, and there is a more pronounced cornice line at 7 stories that runs along the whole side of the building. Balconies along the top floor in "hyphen" spaces between the center, left and right "tower" elements are deeper as well, and on the back side facing Wallach Place, there are more balconies to break up the solid mass of the building.

Previous (top) and current (bottom) designs for the front of the building.

The staff report says:

The revisions illustrate how relatively small changes in massing can substantially change the perceived height, weight and bulk of a large scale building. While harder to appreciate in photographs of the model ... these changes result in a very different reading of the building. ... The result is a building which reads lower, lighter and more varied at its roofline, and which relates more compatibly with its surrounding context.
I thought the last design related compatibly enough, but this design ought to placate the board, if members can look beyond the simple number of floors.

This change also clearly illustrates how developers and architects can address concerns without actually shrinking the building very much. Neighbors unhappy with a proposal often focus on its total height, but a fairly short building can look imposing while a much taller one does not (just look at some of the beautiful apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue, for instance).

Rather than pushing for fewer floors, neighbors should push for better design and small changes at the corners that can make a difference in a neighborhood's look and feel. HPRB, meanwhile, should praise the architect for these changes and get the project on its way to being built as soon as possible.

Update: HPRB voted unanimously to support the revised design.


Breakfast links: On the waterfront

Photo by cliff1066™ on Flickr.
Who wants the FBI?: Prince George's officialy has picked Greenbelt as its preferred site for the FBI. (Examiner) ... CFO Gandhi will study the financial effects of the FBI at Poplar Point. Jack Evans and David Catania want the FBI even if it takes prime waterfront land off the tax rolls, while Tommy Wells and Mayor Gray are more skeptical. (Post)

Gondola to Georgetown?: Someone has "not unseriously" suggested a gondola between Rosslyn and Georgetown. Overhead wire objections, not to mention cost, would likely kill any such plan. (Georgetown Metropolitan) ... How about a bus lane first?

Camera camera works: After Prince George's posted a security camera to watch for people vandalizing its speed cameras, nobody has tried to destroy the cameras. Police also say residents constantly ask for more cameras. (WTOP)

The Warren Quarter: Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has bought a condo in the Penn Quarter to live the urban life (when she's in DC). (Post) ... Though as she holds of Ted Kennedy's seat, the Kennedy-Warren would have been way more apt.

Narrow thinking on "safety": Some New Jersey commuter rail riders can walk right from home to a station, until NJ Transit puts up a fence in the name of "safety" forcing them to walk a mile on a busy highway just to go around the station. (NorthJersey)

Jury excuses killing cyclist: A Massachusetts grand jury refused to indict a truck driver who killed a cyclist, despite video, witnesses, and the truck driver fleeing the scene. This may show a continued bias against cyclists in society. (Boston Globe)

Eyes on the street, not?: Jane Jacobs taught us that "eyes on the street" make a neighborhood safer, but is that really true? Research shows adding residences to commercial areas reduces crime, but all-residential areas have even less. (Next City)

And...: Is Gray's sustainability plan part of an international conspiracy? (City Paper) ... Why raising the ICC speed limit may be a bad idea. (Patch) ... Are DC's commercial rents too high for cool stores? (RPUS) ... Want a $2.5 million treehouse? (City Paper)

And and...: Fung Wah takes most of its buses out of service after finding cracks. (Post) ... A hit-and-run driver killed a woman crossing Connecticut Avenue in Wheaton. (Post) ... VRE will make it cheaper to ride Amtrak trains. (Potomac Local)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Metro map makes it on a hat

The latest addition to our occasional series on "cool items people make that include the Metro map" is a hat! Michael Perkins knit a few and gave one to Veronica Davis:

Left: The hat on Veronica Davis. Right: The hat on a table. Photos by Veronica Davis.

If you want to make your own, Michael Perkins provided a chart of the design and an explanation:

Just create a knit hat with an even stockinette block of at least 30 rows high by 25 rows wide. I knit 12 rows of k2p2 ribbing and then about 40 rows of stockinette, then decrease (k2tog) every other round in 8 parts for the top until half the stitches remain, then decrease every round until 4 stitches remain.

My hats are knit on #6 needles for the brim and #8 for the body. 88 stitches around. Yarn is Vanna's Choice Worsted Acrylic by Lion Brand Yarns.

He also has a page for the hat at Ravelry.


Park Van Ness will fill in Connecticut Avenue streetscape

Developer BF Saul plans to replace its Van Ness Square, a low retail complex that contains a Pier 1 Imports, Office Depot, and a number of other stores, with a 273-apartment building and ground floor retail.

This is the second large matter-of-right proposal on Connecticut Avenue right now, but unlike the other, the glassy Cafritz building at Connecticut and Military, this will not only add housing opportunities and activate the street but has an attractive design as well.

Architects Torti Gallas and Partners designed the new building, 2 blocks north of the Van Ness Metro station. It's called "Park Van Ness," mirroring the Park Connecticut, an Archstone apartment building immediately next door. Park Van Ness will rise 7 stories from Connecticut Avenue, the same height as the Park Connecticut.

This building is right at the end of Yuma Street. The plans show a large arched opening between two halves of the building that lines up with Yuma Street, so drivers or walkers on Yuma will be able to see through to Soapstone Valley Park, a branch of Rock Creek Park, immediately beyond. Past the arch, the opening turns into a large plaza overlooking the park below.

View from Yuma Street.

The rendering shows a security gate across the archway. It's not clear whether this will be open during the day and just control access to the plaza at night, or will block off the area beyond for residents alone 24-7. The floor plans show a "club room" for residents opening onto the plaza. It would be far better if this overlook can serve as a semi-public space where people can sit and perhaps enjoy a coffee they might purchase from one of the retail spaces.

Representatives of BF Saul did not yet return calls asking for more details about this part of the plan.

Area ANC Comissioner Adam Tope says that BF Saul plans to make the building some level of LEED, but hasn't yet specified what level. The owner also hopes to put up to 4 restaurants in the ground-floor retail spaces of the north half and other types of retail on the south side.

This project could take a big step toward activating the streetscape in this area. Here, there is surface parking in front of the existing Van Ness Square, which does not create an appealing pedestrian environment. The same is true for many of the buildngs at Van Ness, constructed during a period when many architects and developers weren't trying to create appealing, walkable places; therefore, Van Ness has too many large voids, street-fronting parking, or buildings (like Intelsat) set far too far back from the street.

The building will have 226 parking spaces for the 273 apartments (which will range from studios to 3-bedroom units) plus the retail. That means that while many residents will bring cars, not everyone can or will have their own car. The parking will be underground in the front, while the back of those floors will have apartments overlooking the park several stories below Connecticut Avenue.

Aerial rendering of the Soapstone Park side of the building.

Will residents support or fight this?

The Art Deco style should fit in well at Van Ness and please residents of the area, in addition to the benefit they gain from new restaurants and more patrons for area businesses. Still, some people may try to fight more density along Connecticut Avenue just on principle, even though this is not taller than the adjacent building.

Saul representatives claim the building is matter-of-right, said Tope, so they will not need to go through formal public hearings for any zoning exceptions or variances.

Some people in neighborhood are up in arms right now about matter-of-right projects, not because of this one, but because of the much less attractive glass building Cafritz is proposing farther up Connecticut at Military Road. There, some people want it to be smaller and others just want it to look less glassy, but the building conforms to zoning, so DC officials and Councilmember Cheh have no legal power to force them or block the project.

The Cafritz proposal at 5333 Connecticut.

Chevy Chase listserv moderator Mary Rowse recently posted a message calling for a historic district along Connecticut all the way from Tilden Street (the northern edge of the current Cleveland Park historic district) to Chevy Chase Circle. She wrote,

This stretch would include the three remaining undesignated low-scale commercial pockets along Connecticut Avenue at Chevy Chase, Nebraska & Fessenden and Van Ness. ... Having a Historic District provides a framework for managing new construction that respects the scale, design, siting and compatibility of existing structures.
The preservation office would likely not oppose the BF Saul Van Ness project, beyond perhaps dictating some design elements. It's harder to know what the appointed Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) might do; they often go along with staff reports, but in several cases this year, some members pushed to remove a floor or two from a building despite a favorable staff report when enough opponents show up.

A historic district would address two impulses. First, many people want to be able to push for a better design. That could mean different architecture, or better detailing at street level, or more ground-floor retail. Others want to simply increase pressure to limit the size of new buildings.

I sympathize with the first impulse. The Park Van Ness design seems good, but not so much at 5333 Connecticut. On the other hand, the belief that smaller is always better seems to dominate too many preservation debates these days. HPRB has used its powers much more often to shrink projects versus to improve other elements of their design.

In fact, the question of what makes a "historically compatible" design varies widely. Ron Eichner wrote in response to Rowse's email:

I have never been a fan of this idea of creating an historic district where nothing historic happened and neither the neighborhood layout nor the architecture is remarkable. Even as a back door way to give ANCs design review, it is a flawed idea, since all the HPRB reviews for is whether a project contributes to an historic district or not, which allows for lots of leeway—just look around town in the historic districts. In the 5333 case, I suspect that regardless of the ANCs assessment, HP would see the 'historic pattern' as big apartment buildings on the Avenue and single family houses on the side streets, and approve the project massing.

As for the facade design of the [glassy] proposed building, as much as we don't like it, HPRB is pretty friendly to the outmoded and sorta dopey idea that glass 'expresses our time' (as opposed to expressing the Mad Men time of the 1950's when glass walls were actually new and special) and they like contrast between periods so I wouldn't assume that historic district status and HPRB review would have changed a thing.

Residents understandably want some say in development projects, but the existing processes that give them a say, like historic preservation, often don't focus on the real factors that affect how a building interacts with its surrounding area. We end up with some cases (like 5333) where residents have no ability to push a project in a better direction design-wise, and too many others where review ends up harming our overall housing supply more than it improves a building's design.
Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City