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Anti-height frenzy dominates preservation meeting on Hine

A few Capitol Hill residents gave long and sometimes angry speeches yesterday against allowing mid-rise buildings at the Eastern Market Metro at a hearing before the Historic Preservation Review Board yesterday.

View from Pennsylvania Avenue. Image from the developers.

But the Historic Preservation Review Board avoided letting height hostility co-opt historic preservation, and instead adopted The Historic Preservation Review Board has still to decide many issues, while an excellent staff report focused on other issues with the project's design.

The project will create four separate buildings, some residential and some commercial, on the block between 7th and 8th Streets SE north of Pennsylvania Avenue, including a public piazza. It will also reconnect C Street across the site, which can be closed on weekends as 7th to add even more public space.

The buildings will range from 4 stories across the street from townhouses to 7 stories right on Pennsylvania Avenue. On some residential façades, ground-floor units will have separate entrances to resemble the townhouses nearby. On the commercial streets, the buildings will have ground-floor retail and possibly some retail on the floor immediately below ground as well.

Opponents of the Hine project focused on a key word in the historic preservation law: "compatible." Any project in a historic district must be compatible with the neighborhood. But what does "compatible" mean?

To many people, a project is only compatible if it's no larger than any other buildings. One resident, in fact, argued that no project in a historic district should be allowed to be more than a single story taller than any other building nearby. Since Eastern Market is 2 stories, that means he opposes anything more than 3.

But that's not what "compatible" really means. Already on Capitol Hill are some 2-story buildings across the street from 5-story buildings. There are some 6- and 7-story buildings. Another resident argued that those buildings aren't compatible either, and shouldn't be built if they were proposed today. That's not how the historic district rules work. Compatibility takes into account all the conributing buildings in a district, not just the shortest ones.

The man also argued said this would become the tallest building between the Library of Congress and around 11th Street, SE. That is based on the building's tallest point, which is only a small piece of the building, but even so: it'll be the tallest between the next Metro station to the west and the next Metro station to the east.

That's how an urban form ought to look. Buildings right on commercial corridors and at transit nodes should be the largest, with smaller buildings like townhouses in the spaces between.

Fortunately, the Historic Preservation Office agrees. In an excellent staff report by Amanda Molson and Steve Callcott, HPO argued that the height of a building is not the only criterion for compatibility, and that at this prominent corner, something taller may be just what belongs in the historic district:

The Board's design guidelines for new construction do not explicitly lay out an acceptable ratio of the height of new construction to surrounding buildings. Instead, the guidelines state: "Perhaps the best way to think about a compatible new building is that it should be a good neighbor, enhancing the character of the district and respecting the context." As has been shown in historic districts throughout the city, this can be done with taller new construction if careful attention is paid to the design, proportions, materials and other characteristics that collectively work to achieve compatibility. ...

The Pennsylvania Avenue office building will be the project's "beacon" as viewed from the avenue, attracting the attention of riders emerging from Metro and drivers on the avenue. It will also likely be the tallest building on Pennsylvania Avenue. However, being the tallest building doesn't necessarily mean that it will be incompatible with the historic district. This location facing the commercial corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street is certainly the most logical place to locate taller construction.

Historically, the Wallach School, while not as tall as the proposed office building, provided a similar punctuation on the avenue with one of Capitol Hill's most important civic buildings. Given the breadth of the wide avenue, the relative hierarchical importance of this building in the totality of project, and the site's frontage on a L'Enfant square and adjacency to a Metro station, additional height in this location is not inappropriate provided that the
building is otherwise designed to "enhance the character of the district and respect its context."

The staff report had plenty of specific quibbles with design elements. It suggests angling the top floor of the office building to provide visual interest and reduce a bit of the perceived massing. (One thing height opponents often don't realize is that small changes to a roofline can greatly affect how tall a building looks, without changing how tall it really is.) Likewise, they suggest shrinking some of the retail bays or adding projections.

HPO staff also recommend rethinking the design of the northern residential building, which was designed as a "single pavilion" to evoke elements of Eastern Market. The staff feel that Eastern Market shouldn't get a "companion" and remain distinctive, and want to replace horizontal architectural elements with vertical ones, a common request HPO has also made elsewhere.

After much debate, the ANC came up with a resolution that also supports the overall density, though they do also ask to lower the heights of several buildings, creating two somewhat incompatible requests. Maintaining density while decreasing height might be possible if the developer can move some more retail and mechanical equipment to basement levels, though this is probably only feasible to a small degree.

The ANC made several other reasonable recommendations, including keeping the central courtyard open to the public instead of just to residents, and rethinking some of the architectural aesthetics that yielded negative reactions from residents.

There are plenty of architectural elements that could change for this project, and the design review that comes with historic preservation regulation as well as community involvement often makes buildings look much better than the initial proposals. Preservation the and ANCs are filling a valuable role when they focus on these elements.

If preservation instead gets hijacked by those who simply oppose new residents or don't want to look at any moderate-sized buildings, it not only starts to stretch beyond its mandate but risks politically alienating the majority of residents who think more neighbors and more stores to patronize would be lovely.

HPRB has deferred some of the decisions to next month. They should be very restrained in those to avoid cutting down on the overall ability of the project to bring in new residents and stores.

Update: The original version of this article suggested that the HPRB had fully adopted the staff report. Instead, they made comments in support of many elements but deferred other decisions. I've updated the post to reflect this.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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"That's not how the historic district rules work. Compatibility takes into account all the buildings in a district, not just the shortest ones."

David, that's not true. And I surprised you don't know that given your involvement in our historic district. There are contributing buildings to a historic district and there are non-contributing buildings. It's the contributing buildings AND the defining characteristics of the district (as defined in the application for the district's historic designation) that define 'compatability'.

by Lance on Apr 29, 2011 11:02 am • linkreport

Yes, Lance, all the contributing buildings. Not just the shortest contributing buildings.

by David Alpert on Apr 29, 2011 11:04 am • linkreport

I think residents need to not focus on the height of the building as out of character, but instead focus the discussion on how the bad design is out of character. These renderings are abysmal, and I would be pretty ticked myself if I moved into Capitol Hill and this was built a few blocks from where lived. You would think that being in such a valuable location next to Eastern Market, a park, and the Metro entrance would inspire the developers enough to try to make something interesting looking that actually respects the character of the neighborhood. I mean, lord, would a simple decorative cornice be too much to ask?

by Nick on Apr 29, 2011 11:07 am • linkreport

That's how an urban form ought to look. Buildings right on commercial corridors and at transit nodes should be the largest, with smaller buildings like townhouses in the spaces between.

So, you're saying that in a city designed to be monumental, it should be buildings near the metro that are the tallest and stand out the most? And not the monuments? ... The broadest definition of which includes public buildings like the Capitol and the Library of Congress as well as churches.

If you really believe that we should be emulating, for example the Metro corridor through North Arlington, you're advocating something that Washington is not designed to be in its role as the nation's capital. There's nothing wrong with the way that works for Arlington, but there's a reason more people prefer to live in and visit Washington ... And it's not that we can more efficiently stack people in buildings near mass transit.

by Lance on Apr 29, 2011 11:11 am • linkreport

Yes, Lance, all the contributing buildings.

David, thanks for acknowledging that it's the contributing buildings and not all the buildings.

If the unnamed person you quote says 'they wouldn't be allowed today' it sounds like we're talking about non-contributing buildings. Do you know for a fact that they ARE contributing buildings?

by Lance on Apr 29, 2011 11:15 am • linkreport


I must have missed the detail from this proposed project where the height is taller than that of the Washington Monument or the Capitol Dome.

by Alex B. on Apr 29, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

I am curious to know where the Capitol Hill Restoration Society came down on this issue. One of their board members, Nancy Metgzer, has been nominated to the HPRB.

She has routinely suggested a strict and sometimes irrational interpretation of preservation law. If you agree with the staff report and believe that the current HPRB made the right decision, then you may want to look into this appointment and see if this is the type of voice (as a Citizen Member) you want representing your voice on the Board.

by William on Apr 29, 2011 11:24 am • linkreport

William: CHRS I believe was not as strident about it as some and praised many elements, but still wanted it shorter.

Metzger actually hasn't yet been nominated. Apparently she was on a list to be nominated and it got reported in the press, but then the nominations didn't come down. I wonder if Gray got some blowback and held off to reconsider.

by David Alpert on Apr 29, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

Personally, as a resident of the Eastern Market area, I couldn't care less about the height of the building. The design, on the other hand, is absolutely terrible. A far cry from their earlier renderings, if i recall correctly. As Nick said above, the design is completely out of character with the neighborhood.

by kvn_hntr on Apr 29, 2011 11:28 am • linkreport

"piazza"? Really?

by Greg on Apr 29, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

I mean, lord, would a simple decorative cornice be too much to ask?

I agree with Nick. The presentation made by the architect about the project's "influences" correctly noted many of the design elements that make the area of Capitol Hill surrounding Eastern market architecturally interesting. Decorative cornices, intricate brickwork, tastefully-designed bay windows, entrances directly onto the street.

To match these influences and design paradigms, the architect suggested using 4 different colors of brick.

That's it. 4 colors of brick. That's not even one of the design elements that she originally noted.

Tall buildings are fine, and so is modern architecture. However, you need to make them look nice, and make them interact with the street.

Modern design's fine too -- even though I've got complaints about the building, I don't think that anybody along H Street has complained about Senate Square's facade. Even though it's modern, and far taller than anything around it, it does blend with the neighborhood.

Eastern Market is one of the city's greatest treasures, and the area around it is simply fantastic, and deserving of some very nice buildings and architecture. This project needs to be sent back to the drawing board and redesigned from scratch. Height is absolutely fine, but these designs suck for a great many other reasons.

by andrew on Apr 29, 2011 11:36 am • linkreport

This author has a long history of dismissing citizen involvement in harsh terms. Here again: "anti-height frenzy" and "long and sometimes angry speeches."

We heard this same kind of ad hominem attack before regarding plans by the same architect to reroute Pennsylvania Avenue(ironically, ad hominem attacks from the owner of this sandbox and author of this post who prides himself on not allowing ad hominem attacks on this site)--those attacks ended when CM Wells also chose to oppose plans to reroute Pennsylvania Avenue. That would certainly be an instance where citizen involvement led to a good result, no?

Nothing is added to the debate by describing well-dressed, well-prepared witnesses who show up on time for the HPRB hearing and keep their polite and well-researched statements within the 3-minute time limit as perpetrators of long and sometimes angry speeches.

No one who spoke yesterday "opposes" this development or this developer. They'd like to make the development better.

As the author points out, ANC-6B has made a solid contribution to that effort with its resolution. Ironically, ANC Commissioners GGW endorsed in the last election (Oldenburg, Metzger) refused to help and voted against the praiseworthy ANC resolution on specious grounds. ANC Commissioners that GGW urged voters not to support, predicting they'd be obstructionists, were the adults contributing to ANC-6B's incredibly hard work and excellent work product.

HPRB did not "adopt" the HPO staff report and HPRB specifically said more work needed to be done addressing problems with height and massing.

The process goes on. It would be nice if GGW would address the issues raised, rather than waste the opportunity by engaging in ad hominem attacks. Otherwise, GGW just makes itself irrelevant to the discussion, which is fine with me, but too bad.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 29, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

I've seen this building somewhere- like, a thousand times from Towson to Tysons. Typical bland suburban mid-rise. And I'll bet the chains get most of the retail. Maybe it'll be a Burger King instead of a McDonald's or a Walgreen's instead of a CVS. Ah, the suspense.

DC could do better.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 29, 2011 11:46 am • linkreport

Can we get a clarification on what Ad Hominem means? A lot of people throw it out in instances where its not an ad hominem attack. Saying someone gives an angry speech isn't attacking their character to expose a flaw in their message but rather saying this person gave an angry speech. If David said "he gave an angry speech and is stupid for doing so and thus his arguments can't be considered valid" that would be ad hominem. Again, noting someone's vehemence at something is not impugning that person's character.

by Canaan on Apr 29, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

@ Lance, when you say, the Capitol and the Library of Congress as well as churches, I'd add schools and libraries to that list, as this site and its environs used to have.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 29, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

@Trulee Pist:
Nothing in David's post constitutes an ad hominem.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, an ad hominem is "A Latin expression meaning “to the man.” An ad hominem argument is one that relies on personal attacks rather than reason or substance."

So, to give an example, an ad hominem attack would be saying something like, "Joe Schmoe is a dumb redneck, so don't believe anything he says".

You see, that's a personal attack. It doesn't rely on substance or reason to refute the argument. A proper argument would be to say something along the lines of, "Joe Schmoe's position is incorrect based on studies conducted by... Furthermore, in a decision last year, the Town Council decided... so his argument is irrelevant."

See the difference?

You take issue with "anti-height frenzy" and "long and sometimes angry speeches".

Frenzy is defined as "a state of wild activity or panic."

The word might be strong, but it does not constitute an ad hominem. While I wasn't at the Historic Review Board meeting myself, I've certainly been to public meetings where testimony can be described as "frenzied".

I'm not sure how you can take issue with "long and angry speeches". Were there long speeches? Were the speakers angry? If so, reporting that doesn't make it an ad hominem, it makes it true. And if that reflects poorly on the people who were longwinded and angry, perhaps they should have thought of that before angrily running off at the mouth.

by Matt Johnson on Apr 29, 2011 11:53 am • linkreport

Sometimes I wonder why I come back to GGW over and over. After reading a long, angry comment from a commenter who identifies himself as "Trulee Pist" decrying the term "long angry speeches" as ad hominem is not one of those times.


by oboe on Apr 29, 2011 11:55 am • linkreport

I'm looking forward to when the video goes online so everyone can hear the way that hearing sounded. I was being very restrained in my rhetoric.

Witness after witness got up and was practically shouting that the project is TOO BIG!!!!!

I heard very, very few comments from residents about ways to improve the design. I agree with the comments here about the design. That would have been great to bring up (and will be, since the board only gave conceptual approval and will be tweaking design lots of design elements going forward).

Instead, it was all, this will DESTROY THE NEIGHBORHOOD because it is WAY TOO GIGANTIC and while it's be great to have something on this site it should be no larger than the market.

EMMCA's testimony was similarly vehement and in this very vein. If you don't want to be characterized as being angry and just being about height then don't shout exclusively about height.

And as Canaan said, there were no ad hominem attacks. I didn't even name any of the homines in question.

by David Alpert on Apr 29, 2011 11:56 am • linkreport

Nothing is added to the debate by describing well-dressed, well-prepared witnesses who show up on time

You forgot to mention that they've never been to jail too and that they also have moisturized hands.

by aaa on Apr 29, 2011 11:57 am • linkreport

No one spoke for more than 3 minutes.

No one shouted, or "practically" shouted anything.

No one who spoke opposes the development or the developer.

HPRB did not give the conceptual approval the developer sought, and on the contrary, required the developer to come back with revisions that address problems HPRB sees with height and massing.

So, I withdraw the term ad hominem, with apologies. This report is simply innacurate.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 29, 2011 12:08 pm • linkreport

Trulee: Were you at the same hearing I was listening to? For almost every witness, Catherine Buell asked them to wrap up, and then they kept talking for a while. One person was warned about 3 times by Buell.

Maybe the volume was turned up on the microphones? It sure sounded vehement.

The staff report asked for changes. I was told that HPRB agreed with the staff report and asked for the same kinds of changes. Is that not right? I just called a few people at HPO to try to get the exact wording right but they are not at their desks at the moment.

by David Alpert on Apr 29, 2011 12:11 pm • linkreport

Some people aren't professional witnesses.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 29, 2011 12:28 pm • linkreport

I was told that HPRB agreed with the staff report and asked for the same kinds of changes. Is that not right?

David, read this for an accurate description of what HPRB voted to do and not do yesterday. HPO staff itself was no longer in complete agreement with everything they'd written in the HPO staff report once the hearing reached completion.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 29, 2011 12:35 pm • linkreport

yes the design is bland- and lacks any of the grace that the old Wallach School had[this was the incredibly beautiful Cluss-designed school that was destroyed by the Board of Commissioners in 1949 to make way for Hine a decade or two later]
the designers could at least include some kind of finial or interesting roof instead of the typical developers cheap flat roof.
The problem with many in the immediate neighborhhod around Eastern Market - and likely with those who testified- is that most of them are older, and most of them are car oriented and have a sense of entitlement about their so-called or preceived "parking rights" and any new businesses or density is seen as a threat to free and easy parking- this is the single most critical arbiter of the Capitol Hill NIMBY crowd. They are either old or they are car-centric. There are more than a few residents who live near the EM Metro station that have more than 2 cars and are seldom seen to be using Metro or even willing to take transit. these people should not be heard- they are always going to be dismissive and reactionary- and hostile towards ANY & ALL change no matter how progressive or laudatory it may be. There is an incredible hostility rampant towards the younger people moving into Capitol Hill and anyone who has been a resident here a long time hears this all of the time. The same people who themselves were "on the edge" 40 years ago are now the stodgy old folks that stand in the way and make it harder for any investment to happen in DC. This is really really sad. These folks need to forget it and just move out to Centreville or to Saint Pete Florida.

by w on Apr 29, 2011 12:40 pm • linkreport

Trulee: Thanks for the details. It sounds like the original argument is still true that the staff and HPRB are supportive of the general size but they didn't officially decide yet. I've corrected the article to reflect that.

by David Alpert on Apr 29, 2011 12:45 pm • linkreport

Oy, I love "historic" arguments from folks who have no problemo with road widening and adjustments to accommodate "Ye Olde Colonial GMC Yukon".

by John on Apr 29, 2011 12:46 pm • linkreport

Forgive me, I am not trying to get into a rat-a-tat-tat here, but

@w, the only person who spoke about cars and parking was one of the two witnesses who spoke in favor of adopting the staff report and giving final HPRB endorsement without further HPRB hearings.

Not one of the 12 witnesses who asked HPRB to require more work from the developer on issues of style, height, massing, etc. were there to defend the almighty right to drive and park.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 29, 2011 12:48 pm • linkreport

@truly pist-

Perhaps you are correct to speak about this particular meeting- but to dismiss parking as a HUGE factor is a mistake- it is and WAS just under the surface of the complaintants do not doubt this for one second. The basic premise that the low density advocates have in common is that more people automatically means less parking- more businesses means less parking, more investment means less parking. Free and easy parking is the single reason for most of these people to bicker and bitch even if they are not going to bring it up specifically at this meeting or make it a big deal every time. Parking is ALWAYS the 1000 pound gorilla in the room with any and all Capiol Hill NIMBYism.

by w on Apr 29, 2011 12:57 pm • linkreport

@David, suit yourself.

HPRB expressed some substantive reservations about each and every building proposed in the development, as well as the interior courtyard, the plaza--really, kinda everything. At the end of that hearing, did you feel HPRB's instruction to the architect was more on the lines of "We'll get back to you with questions about things in your drawing we don't understand," or more on the lines of "Back to the drawing board"? The message was some of both, not they didn't officially decide yet.

Good for HPRB. The easy thing is to adopt the staff report so the item does not come back on the agenda and require more work of them. Instead, HPRB voted to require a lot more work of themselves, their staff, the developer, the ANC, and all the resident organizations and business organizations that have a right to be involved in the process.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 29, 2011 1:01 pm • linkreport

@w, you've been around a lot longer and know more than I do, but I think this development is scrambling some of the usual lines of battle.

Those who want no additional scrutiny of the project feel they got what they want--hundreds and hundreds of parking spaces at this site, across from Metro.

Those who support the project but want more discussion about style, height and massing could care less about parking, or want less parking.

Those who oppose the whole project--well, honestly, I have yet to meet anyone who opposes the whole project. Everyone is in favor of it. Most people think these plans are not good enough.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 29, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

Good chance that others have mentioned this in the comments, but by "no project in a historic district should be allowed to be more than a single story taller than any other building nearby" I don't hear a flat 3-story limit... I hear a more terraced limit, with 3-stories adjacent to the untouched buildings, then 4-stories, then 5-, then 6-, then 7-... and back down again as one approaches the perimeter.

by Bossi on Apr 29, 2011 1:20 pm • linkreport

From HPRB "Guidelines for New Construction in an Historic District":

Typically, if a new building is more than one story higher or lower than existing buildings that are all the same height, it will be out of character. On the other hand, a new building built in a street of existing buildings of varied heights may be more than one story higher or lower than its immediate neighbors and still be compatible.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 29, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

Did even one single person among those who constantly clamor for less parking in new buildings object to this project in order to negotiate less parking with the developer and the city??? (Or to negotiate any other details to make the plan better?)

To get any real changes you have to be a protestant. Constantly testifying in favor of every project every developer wants (even with caveats) doesn't contribute to the negotiations.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 29, 2011 1:57 pm • linkreport

To get any real changes you have to be a protestant. Constantly testifying in favor of every project every developer wants (even with caveats) doesn't contribute to the negotiations.

This creates an incentive to be dishonest by creating a laundry-list of false claims regarding "harm" to the neighborhood that a building will cause. Furthermore, this incentive system attracts those willing to be dishonest and the sort of people who object on principle rather than honest brokers.

If these guys knew anything about building and development, they'd be builders, planners, and developers. Instead, they are typically community gadflies.

by JustMe on Apr 29, 2011 2:21 pm • linkreport

David, thank you for this excellent report. I care deeply about this neighborhood; however, I also care deeply about my sanity and attending these meetings stands to compromise that. This entire discussion makes me "truly pissed" that I'm neighbors with such whiners (not a typo meant to be "winners"...) And thank GOD that people at these meetings are well-dressed, because surely the less fashionable have nothing meaningful to contribute. Who says civility is dead?

All the bickering seems to steer clear of two obvious points: 1. The existing building (Hine) is already an eyesore. It's not as if some beautiful landmark is being destroyed. We are trading up, no matter how this building turns out. And 2. The number one priority of this pocket of Capitol Hill should be to make the plaza of the Eastern Market metro less disgusting. Then maybe the neighborhood would attract the elusive retail both in this building and on Barracks Row that many--and I would contend probably the same naysayers as on Hine--are always calling for.

by MJ on Apr 29, 2011 3:50 pm • linkreport

@ Coumaris: That's good advice.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 29, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

JustMe- I would say intellectual dishonesty comes in when one publicly says they think, for example, that a place is over-parked, but then shows up to testify as a proponent. And when the same people always show up at many hearings as proponents even though they're only marginally affected and somewhat unfamiliar with the issues they get a reputation as community gadflies.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 29, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport

I very much appreciate this report on the Hine meeting.

It's regrettable that such meetings are held during the business day; it seems to encourage the participation of people who are angry and have time on their hands.

I live a block from the proposed project, and I wish it were larger. This location is a rare gem -- an open parcel immediately adjacent to a Metro station in an established neighborhood. A larger project would benefit all of us locals by supporting more and better retail options.

Perhaps more importantly, building large projects near Metro stations is the right choice for the broader community. Opponents of this project are supporting suburban sprawl and all of its attendant evils. I would guess that many of them consider themselves environmentalists. I consider them hypocrites.

by Crispin on Apr 29, 2011 4:41 pm • linkreport

I just wish the building could be beautiful. Peaked tile roofs, friezes, curves, really any kind of gingerbread. The Board didn't seem to be too concerned or forceful about it. The design needs to start over from scratch, probably with a new architect, but the board made it sound like the design just needed a few tweaks...I'm so sad.

by mc on Apr 29, 2011 4:52 pm • linkreport

The most curious thing about the hearing was the complete absence of the smart growth or environmental advocates in the conversation. They have been absent from the ANC process as well. This is one of the largest and most important smart growth sites in the region. The development plan responds to a wide range of smart growth principles that affect the neighborhood, city and region: it's walkable; 6-8 different uses (daytime and evening, weekday and weekend); multi-modal transit options, reduced parking; mixed income housing; local and incubator retail; outdoor market, programmed open space, etc. Yet almost every voice at the hearing came from 8th Street, across from the site, and was primarily concerned with its own private interests. The hyperbole used to describe a four story building as "overwhelming" was never challenged.

I would think they would be out in force insisting on both the highest appropriate density and the highest quality of architecture possible. Smart Growth advocates have made great progress in the District in the last 10 years and proved that higher density and better architecture can make better places. Why are they largely absent from the Hine debate?

by Curious on Apr 29, 2011 5:36 pm • linkreport

@ Coumaris - Excellent point about those "marginally affected" in this debate. If the determination is based on, what? Home address? - we could probably clarify that by writing our street and block number after our posts on blogs like these. (1300 block of A NE is mine.) The pseudonyms in these comment sections are destroying the comity and the sense of honesty here. (Is "Trulee Pist," next door neighbor to the site, or hired troll, it's fair to wonder....).

by Read Scott Martin on Apr 29, 2011 6:47 pm • linkreport

@Curious As mentioned earlier, you're only going to get the really passionate people at a meeting in the middle of a work day. So you get a skewed response. It probably means you get either a complete capitulation to minority complaints, or a complete dismissal typically. It's bad revue methodology.

While everyone in the area cares, no one cares enough to take a day off of work. The planning commission needs to update their website to allow a portal for feedback. Too bad they are too behind the times to update their methods. It would really help local residents, like my family who live within walking distance and frequent the strip throughout the week, to allow our voices to be heard.

by eb on Apr 29, 2011 7:06 pm • linkreport

eb- You can always write a letter to whichever board, even an email. Either or a 3-minute testimony will receive, uh, "due consideration".

But to be really involved in the process you have to become a party. That means over a period of a year (more in this case) going to dozens of hearings and meetings. Sitting through interminable ANC meetings. Preparing many copies of written submissions several times. If anyone does have time on their hands they don't after they get involved in one of these things. It's not for the weak.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 29, 2011 8:05 pm • linkreport

A few points, from one who's long waged the preservation wars here in Mount Pleasant:

1) I don't know about this historic district, but in Mount Pleasant, everything built before 1950 (which is nearly everything) is designated "contributing", no matter how modest or architecturally dull.
2) "Compatible" is indeed the driving criterion, and might be understood as "not incongruous". If it blends it, it's compatible, and that doesn't mean that it's got to match anything already there.
3) Hearings such as this draw out the preservationist community, so of course one hears their inherently aggressive views, and not so many more moderate points of view.
4) Nobody calculates the cost to the public of historic district "compatibility". How much future property tax revenue is lost through the imposition of, in this case, a height limit? We, the people, pay that price, and it ought to be a factor in the deliberations; but it's never even mentioned.

by Jack on Apr 30, 2011 9:48 am • linkreport

I am on ANC6B, helped to draft our resolution and manage that process, have been at all the interminable meetings (and will be held responsible for more than a few), and Hine is in my single member district.

Glad to have this conversation happen here, and I encourage folks to check out our resolution and provide feedback on that as I do believe HPRB took it seriously.

@eb - you made the point about process and day time meetings and the time demands required to have input. There is a lot of truth in that, but the ANC took a lot of written comments, posted our resolution for coverage and feedback from the blogs for a week before we considered it formally, and I have spent hours talking, emailing and meeting with people outside of the meetings whenever approached with thoughtful and substantive feedback or opinions. This kind of process will go forward and while it will never eliminate the dynamics you write about I believe it was a huge step forward in how our ANC has handled these things.

@w - your perception of the parking dynamics here seems totally wrong to me. During the election I talked to people about the excess of parking on this site more than any other issue. More parking = more cars = more traffic, and the original Hine proposal was a colossus of parking. It may not fit with your narrative on this, but there in my experience there is a direct correlation between the love of more parking and the boosterism for the development. The critics rarely bring it up, and when it does come up it is only about WHERE the entrance is. I am sorry, but you have this all wrong.

I encourage the debate to continue, the improvements to continue and hope that folks will take the time to read our resolution and to reach out to the commissioners who will be central in driving this process forward.

by Ivan Frishberg on Apr 30, 2011 12:19 pm • linkreport

@Jack How much future property tax revenue is lost through the imposition of, in this case, a height limit? We, the people, pay that price, and it ought to be a factor in the deliberations; but it's never even mentioned.

Well, you're right it should. But your underlying assumption is wrong. It's been shown over and over that areas that take on the protections of historic preservation districts go UP relative in value to adjacent areas that don't. And that means MORE tax revenue due to the increases in property values. Don't believe me? Then ask yourself why Georgetown, Dupont, Logan, etc.(all designated as historic districts) are all MORE expensive to buy in today than most areas. And why these very same areas were actually cheaper to buy into before.

It's not complicated ... people like stability when they buy a house in the same way they want stability when they buy investments. They want to know what they put their money into (and in the case of a home, what they're putting their daily lives into) isn't going to get changed under them.

by Lance on May 1, 2011 9:34 am • linkreport

@Read Scott Martin -- the pseudonyms allow us (me in particular) to express an opinion without fear of backlash. I once signed my name and email address in my posts about certain subject, and I got into serious trouble because somebody complained about my opinions to my work supervisors. In a few topics I have worked on, anonymity is essential. This strips it down to only the strength of my arguments.

Besides, an address can be spoofed -- I live on the 700 block of Pennsylvania Ave SE. ;)

Regarding the Hine project, while the other buildings are coming along, the frontage on D Street is pretty bad, and obviously "doesn't blend." Trulee thinks not, but I think retail would work well there, and would make a good contribution to the street life. Is that against the zoning? If so can that be changed?

by goldfish on May 1, 2011 11:00 am • linkreport

I would posit a slight revision to Lance's note from 9:34 -

It isn't that there will be no change, but rather than any proposed changes will be reviewed by a professional staff to ensure that changes which do take place are compatible to the historic district.

by Andrew on May 1, 2011 11:52 am • linkreport


I doubt that you would care, but height limits have played a big part in making the city unaffordable for many. I believe that this city should be for all, but too many are forced out because of these rules.

by Jeff on May 1, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport


Are you aware of basic economics? Prices in those historic districts go up because they are in demand and it is very difficult to add new supply. This is basic econ - if you artificially restrict supply, the price will go up.

And it doesn't necessarily mean more tax revenue to the District. The real winner for DC revenues is getting new residents paying income tax, not getting higher residential property tax assessments. You can't add new residents in those areas without adding new supply to the housing stock.

by Alex B. on May 1, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

Alex, judging from Lance's other comments, I don't see much evidence that Lance cares much about the plight of people that make less than him.

by Jeff on May 1, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

@ goldfish

All of the Hine Site is zoned R-4, residential. Of course that can, and will, be changed. Once the developer gets the OK from HPRB, they will start the zoning and Planned Unit Development process to determine zoning on the site. There are at least 3 options I can think of:

(Option 1) The block north of the Hine site (where, BTW, the "North Building" in this development will sit once C Street is re-established) has a very "Capitol Hill" kind of zoning: Commercial on the west half of the block, facing Eastern Market, residential on the east half of the block, facing 8th Street, so that commercial and residential abide cheek-by-jowl in a neighborly way, sharing the block. I'd recommend carrying that same zoning pattern through this block, so that the southern border will be zoned commercial where the southern border is Pennsylvania Avenue, residential where the southern border is D Street.

Option 2 would respect the history of the site, by recommending that portion of the southern border that fronts D Street be used for building a model services for children facility here. For 150 years, this entire site was a school site, and that's how the residential areas to the east and north were buffered from the commercial areas to the south and west. On a footprint somewhat smaller than the current Hine auditorium could be something custom-built for services to children. That way, this corner of 8th and D would serve the purpose the whole block did in the past, buffering residential from commercial while providing a service to the city's children.

Option 3, which you like and the developer likes, would allow retail to wrap around all of D Street and on up 8th Street north of Pennsylvania for a bit. I don't see how a handful of commercial street-level storefronts on D Street and up 8th Street deliver much marginal revenue to the developer or taxes to the city, and I don't think that minimal financial gain justifies changing the residential nature of 8th St and D Street north of Pennsylvania Avenue.

That's all fair grounds for debate.

I am sorry to learn that you are homeless, goldfish (I live on the 700 block of Pennsylvania Ave SE. ;)) but that does explain how you have found the time to participate in these discussions.

by Trulee Pist on May 1, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

Alex B. and Jeff-

High rises do not make housing more affordable. Far from it; high rise buildings are very expensive to construct and units in them cost much more than lower buildings.

Density has to do with zoning and building codes, not height. Europeans have always known that 4,5, or 6 story frame or block buildings are the most economical to build. And they have a lot more density than we do. The entire city of Paris has a 6-story building height limit, even in the CBD. (Except for the Tour Montparnasse, which they hate, and La Defense which is a well-planned office high-rise on the perimeter.)

Not only are high-rises much more expensive but they require a huge underground foundation which always becomes a garage for hundreds of cars.

In DC our zoning already allows for 3 units in townhouse buildings in R-4 and 4 units in R-5. Yet most of those townhouses are single units of 2-3 thousand square feet and a single occupant or a couple. Conversion of these houses into multiple units is fairly easy and small developers can do it. Plus it doesn't change the overall character of the neighborhood, which is exactly why most people are attracted to certain neighborhoods. People attracted to Crystal City, Ballston or Rosslyn high rises have plenty of choice already. People in central Paris don't want their center to look like that and Washingtonians don't want their historic center to look like Crystal City either.

DC's density could be tripled just by converting single townhouses into the number of units zoning allows. And DC should encourage those conversions.

by Tom Coumaris on May 1, 2011 8:04 pm • linkreport

@ goldfish Those are the benefits of the pseudonyms. The benefit of a name and a paired block on each post is a stab at transparency without which the entire debate (online anyway) is of questionable value, particularly since, as Ivan mentions, these comments are considered in the final judgment. I can only wonder as several posters mention and I will tie together - what is it about D Street that is common to so many of the objections to this project, and other proposals on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue before it. Not that there's anything wrong with that, so why not make it clear?

by Read Scott Martin on May 1, 2011 8:59 pm • linkreport

@Trulee -- Regarding option 2, the "model services for children facility": are there any charter schools trying to get in? I have not heard a peep from DCPS. Absent a school, a daycare would fit this requirement.

A daycare would certainly help satisfy critical need of the neighborhood, but they are always on side streets, I guess because of the lower rent and the fire code requirements, e.g., ground-floor wheel-out access for infants. A daycare is a good idea but it would be better if the place was on C or 8th Street.

by goldfish on May 2, 2011 8:05 am • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris

Then why do I hear about neighbors complaining about rowhouse pop-ups changing the character of their neighborhoods?

I agree, we could get much higher density by bulldozing all those rowhouses and building modestly higher - I just don't think that particular outcome is either likely or the best way to achieve greater density.

And please - let's not call what's proposed here (a max of 90 feet) a high rise.

by Alex B. on May 2, 2011 8:36 am • linkreport

@ goldfish, I agree on the critical need for daycare. The 8th and D location would have a lot of advantages--15 minute drop off out front on D Street, dedicated parking underground--but no doubt at great expense. I dunno who'd pay for it, but if I were an education reform foundation accustomed to tossing around $million$ on demonstration projects, I could think of worse places to publicize my reform ideas than a custom-built facility at a location Congress, the White House and national child development organizations and reporters would be sure to visit to see for themselves. Read the WaPo archives and you will see that visits to schools at this site have been a staple for national politicians for a long time now...

by Trulee Pist on May 2, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

I'm not talking about bulldozing. I'm talking about converting existing single family townhouses into units. Say a 3000 sq. foot 3 story becomes internally 3 1000 foot units (better yet 6 500 sq foot units but zoning comes into play).

The cost is minimal and it still appears a single unit. In my block of 50 houses it's been done to 3 I know of but no one even notices. It doesn't change the block's character at all. And it appeals to people who don't need parking.

Some roof additions have been pretty horrible. But 90% go unnoticed because they confirm to the very lenient DC rules:a minor setback to show what was the original house. In an R-4 that means an additional story on a 2 story, and in R-5 an additional story on a 3 story. Also rowhouses without a basement can excavate and add one.

When I speak of high rises I mean concrete and steel buildings of a height that requires a big underground foundation excavation that becomes a large parking garage. That seems to be about 6 stories. Frame or block buildings can go up to 5 or 6 stories. They are very fast and cheap to build. The big new Brentwood project is a beautiful example. They can be built in a few months while any concrete/steel building disrupts the neighborhood, the street, and the sidewalks (a lot) for two years.

All the current 7 story clones being built on C-2 strips are the worst of all possibilities. Limited additional space over frame/block with all the nightmares (parking, disruption & cost) of a high rise.

Developers will usually build to the limit even if the marginal profit is small. But the marginal benefit to DC is tiny compared to the negatives.

by Tom Coumaris on May 2, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

last comment was @ Alex B.

by Tom Coumaris on May 2, 2011 11:56 am • linkreport


Sorry, I just don't agree on the negatives.

And yes, we can add density via chopping up big houses into smaller units, but that alone isn't providing a net gain of space. Residential areas are naturally quite resistant to large scale changes, particularly in short periods of time. There's a reason that large scale changes to places like Ballston occurred in what was once a commercial area. Likewise, established residential areas have not seen massive redevelopment - redevelopment instead is much smaller scale infill projects on a slower timeline.

My larger point is that I don't think the alternate scenario you present is actually an easier road to travel in terms of NIMBY opposition. And I'd agree on stick-built construction, but the Hine site is a case study - neighbors along 8th St SE are flipping out over a building that's 45 feet tall.

by Alex B. on May 2, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

would love to see more consideration of the north residential building -- in particular eliminating the alley adjoining 7th and 8th St in favor of an alley entrance off C St. I know this could be an issue with weekend street closures, but there will likely be a C St. entrance to the complex south of C as well. Eliminating the alley would allow for better scale for the north portion. Right now it looks like it sits on an island.

by anon on May 2, 2011 12:39 pm • linkreport

Not sure I agree that the height is the only issue to 8th street residents. In addition to the height, the 8th street building offers a much smaller setback than the current Hine property, which amplifies the height effect. I don't agree with a number of opposition points argued by the adjoining neighbors', but if I currently lived on 8th I'd hate to have a wall of anything in my face. But ultimately whatever gets built is going to be larger than these residents like, even if done carefully and within scale and reason.

by anon on May 2, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

@Alex- I've heard zero complaints about townhouses around here that changed to multiple units. 3 or 4 units in a house are usually no more intrusive than 1. People loathe 7 or 8 story buildings on their corner that make a mess for 2 years and bring in a garage with 200 cars.

Going after increased space without concern for density is pandering to the people who want urban versions of McMansions, complete with parking.

Conversion of townhouses is cheap and a good way for small investors, contractors, architects and others to make a living. It's an excellent way for clever people to be able to afford their first home. It affords much more affordable housing to the renters or buyers.

Out-of-town developers are totally uninterested in such small projects but that presents a wonderful opportunity for average people and it weeds out the Pay-to-Play crowd. Young people and retirees often find the joy of free housing plus income in the 3 or 4 unit. Unlike other areas they are completely legal in our close-in neighborhoods.

We're not going to get triple density out of a few controversial mid-rises.

And remember, the stock of housing we have here that was built before 1950 housed 800,000 people.

by Tom Coumaris on May 2, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport

We're not going to get triple density out of a few controversial mid-rises.

Nor are we out of converting rowhouses.

The whole point is to make the case that midrises shouldn't be controversial at all. Because I don't think they should be controversial - and without controversy, we could easily have more than just a few of them.

Regarding DC's peak population - the vast majority of that decline can be explained by the shrinking of the average family size. The number of persons per household has been steadily dropping for decades.

Check out this report from 2005:

DC's average household size dropped from 2.72 in 1970 (when the total pop was still above 750k) to 2.16 in 2000. Census methodology on what is a household has not been constant since 1950, but a large portion of the population decline can be explained by decreasing HH size.

Again, I think your ideas are great, I just don't think they're sufficient. I'd also add alley dwellings and granny flats as potential ways to increase housing supply.

by Alex B. on May 2, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.- Appreciate your points but:

People in 1950 expected smaller units. Europeans expect much less. Americans now expect about twice as much. Their expectations have to change. (One-bedroom apartments built pre-1950 have square footage half what new ones do and no parking).

DC could encourage conversions to higher density in existing townhouses a number of ways, including how property taxes are calculated. But there's no Pay-to-Play there so the DC Council, OP, developers, and other special interests have no interest.

Facilitating doubling, tripling, or quadrupling density in every close-in block is significant. My block has 50 houses with 60 units. Going to 200 units would be significant. And most close-in blocks are just like mine.

A new mid-rise adds maybe 100 new units. But the crucial point is how many marginal new units a concrete/steel mid-rise adds over what a frame/block building a couple stories shorter adds and the side effects. (In DC it's only a couple stories additional that can be added).

For the say 20 additional units, the mid-rise disrupts the neighborhood streets, sidewalks and bikeways for 2 years instead of a few months, adds a garage with over 100 cars, displaces local business and replaces them eventually with chains, and not only provides much more expensive housing but in turn raises the housing costs nearby through the market effect.

Because of the historic districts, but more so the incredible difficulty assembling large parcels, there are very few spots mid-rises can go. Hines was a large parcel because it was a school.

If we were talking about a 1000 unit complex of high-rises on top an unused Metro stop on a near-in perimeter, I'm all in. It's more clearly worth the trade-offs for that kind of development.

by Tom Coumaris on May 2, 2011 2:55 pm • linkreport

People in 1950 expected smaller units. Europeans expect much less. Americans now expect about twice as much. Their expectations have to change.

I think we've already seen "diminished" expectations among middle-class folks who decide to move into the city (or stay, and buy a place). It used to be extremely compelling to move out of the city into a "real" house as you left your 20s. Given the effects of sprawl and population increases in the greater metro area, that is becoming less and less attractive an option. You see more and more DINKs and single-child families who weigh the options of moving out to the burbs and dealing with the terrible thing that most of our suburbs have become, or staying in the city (avoiding rush-hour) and making do with less space.

That trend will only continue as the combined effects of sprawl and population growth get worse.

by oboe on May 2, 2011 3:05 pm • linkreport

@Tom and @Alex B-I appreciate the reasoned discussion about density.

Too often the debate boils down to polemics like, "Higher, higher and higher" or "not in my ossified backyard." Neither position is helpful in judging new developments, especially when the development resides in an area deserving of special consideration, i.e. a historic district.

As I reviewed the Hine development plans and the myriad related complaints, endorsements and concerns, I looked for quantifiable benchmarks by which to judge the plans, especially for height and density considerations.

Brown, Dixon and Gillham's "Urban Design for an Urban Century" provided some useful thinking: "Residential densities in transit oriented development nodes vary widely but generally range from 7 to 60 dwelling units per acre. These densities do not mean high-rise development: More typically, they blend row houses (about 36 units per acre) and mid-rise apartments (which can reach 160 units per acre). The transit station and mix-use, relatively high-density development, however, defines the heart of the village."

The Hine development density currently stands at roughly 54 dwellings per acre (including the Shakespeare Theater Studios and dorm rooms). The height reductions the ANC proposed, if not offset by recommendations to add or recoup space elsewhere, would would reduce this to about 50 dwellings per acre--still at the high-end of densities considered reasonable. Certainly this is just one measure...I'm curious how others might think about how to quantify the "goodness" of density.

Also, the literature on smart development in historic districts is surprisingly sparse. A trip to the AIA bookstore yielded only two obliquely relevant titles. Capstone documents for the USGBC and Congress for the New Urbanism offer little more than short statements and succinct observations that historic considerations must be included in planning. Assuredly there is more developed thinking on the issue?

by B Pate on May 2, 2011 10:43 pm • linkreport

BTW Alex B- Many of the townhouses that are now single units close-in, were multiple units of 2, 3 or 4 in mid-century. After renovation began they were converted back into a single unit because wealthier people wanted large spaces like suburban houses had made the norm.

It was the outer DC neighborhoods that changed from large family houses to less occupancy.

by Tom Coumaris on May 3, 2011 2:22 am • linkreport

@B Pate

I appreciate the background research, though I wouldn't consider the upper end of that TOD housing density range to mean much of anything - consider the context of most TOD they're talking about. Most of it is not in areas as dense as DC, nor are they discussing infill projects on sites like Hine. I would consider the current residential density of the Hine project to be about the minimum acceptable for a project on such a transit-accessible infill site.

@Tom C

I don't know suburban influence, but I'm well aware of housing converted into larger units - I live in one!

Let's not confuse it with a McMansion, however. Nor should we forget that the initial suburban houses (think Levittown) were not all that large, either.

Again, I absolutely support more English Basement apartments, Granny Flats, Alley Dwellings, or subdivisions of existing space - but I don't think that's going to add enough housing stock to have a strong influence on rents, for example - nor does that kind of policy obviate the need to add dense infill on sites like the Hine school at Eastern Market.

by Alex B. on May 3, 2011 9:22 am • linkreport

@Trulee -- Yes a daycare on 8th & D will cost more than most such places can afford, although a franchise might able to pull it off. A smaller outfit probably would prefer space in (say) the north residential building, which would allow more profitable retail use of the corner of 8th & D. OTOH a charter school might be able to afford the 8th & D location.

@B Pate -- any word about that hotel?

by goldfish on May 3, 2011 11:03 am • linkreport


No, nothing since the meeting. The last firm word I had was that two candidate hoteliers were under consideration (I'll take a Kimpton please) and the development team was "crunching the numbers" to see if a hotel is still economically feasible.

by B Pate on May 3, 2011 11:25 am • linkreport

@B Pate -- Wow a Kimpton, quite swank. Reminds me of a place I stayed in Vancouver -- in the shop across the street, the neckties cost $150. Can the low-key EM neighborhood be up to that?

Thanks for all your work on this.

by goldfish on May 3, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

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