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On Hilton, HPO takes broad view of historic compatibility

The Historic Preservation Office is recommending that HPRB wait to approve the Hilton's proposed renovations until the hotel can work out an agreement with the community over loading docks. Once that is done, the staff report recommends moving ahead with the project.

From the Hilton development team.

Loading is a severe problem along 19th Street. When the Hilton was first constructed, planners anticipated a freeway running along Florida Avenue west of Connecticut and then eastward between T and U. The Hilton was to sit at the edge of the freeway, and 19th Street would have been primarily an access road on and off the freeway.

Instead, thankfully, 19th stayed a neighborhood residential street, but instead of sitting under a freeway, the loading docks now impact the neighborhood. The bays are not deep enough for many of today's trucks, which stick out across the sidewalk, blocking pedestrian traffic and creating noise.

Neighbors and the ANCs of Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle have consistently brought up this issue, often to deaf ears. At the landmark hearing in July, HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg repeatedly cut off witnesses who mentioned the loading problems, claiming they had no place in the landmark decision. But, at least according to the staff report, they are appropriate to discuss when reviewing the proposed modifications.

One of historic preservation's controversies revolves around how broadly preservationists should evaluate each project. Is their mandate simply to consider the aesthetic appearance of the building in the context of a historic area, or can they address other concerns? How do we define what factors go into determining if a change is 'compatible'?

ANCs such as Dupont's have regularly clashed with HPRB over this very issue. For the building at 1433 T Street, the allegations of tenant abuse fell outside HPRB's mandate to approve or disapprove the proposed alterations on historic grounds. When rejecting the raze permit for Third Church, HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg repeatedly stressed that the Board could not consider the religious liberty arguments made by church officials.

The impact of loading docks, however, represent a grayer area. One could argue that loading and traffic impacts a historic district in more direct ways than tenant abuse or religious liberty, and therefore that it's appropriate for HPRB to insist on a satisfactory solution to the problem as part of a historic review.

The report, primarily written by Historic Preservation Office director David Maloney, states,

From its initial discussions with the applicants, the staff has stressed both the importance of achieving compatibility with the historic landmark and the need to address long-standing community concerns about the impact of the hotel design and operations on its neighbors. Some of these concerns relate more to urban planning than historic preservation issues, but in the context of a multi-year project representing the most substantial change to the building since its completion, a thorough consultation on these issues with all interested parties has seemed the only appropriate course of action.
What to do about the loading docks? Neighbors have asked the Hilton to move the loading docks into the garage, creating a passageway where they would enter on T Street and exit on 19th Street. According to the staff report, the owners' analysis shows this to be cost prohibitive. Instead, the Hilton has proposed reducing the two lanes of traffic exiting the garage to one lane, making room for wider and deeper loading bays. The trash compactor would also go in a deeper bay with room for a truck to completely park in front without sticking out.

Images from the Hilton development team. Click for a larger version.

Neighbors have panned the Hilton's loading dock suggestions, arguing they don't do enough to alleviate the issues. 19th Street is narrow, and trucks often have to back up several times to get into the spaces. Since the Hilton stands to make a great deal of money, they argue, they should do more to fix this problem rather than push negative impacts of the expansion onto the surrounding streets.

Tomorrow: The rest of the Hilton's plan, including the urbanism issues along the Connecticut Avenue, T Street, and Florida Avenue faces.

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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"Instead, thankfully, 19th stayed a neighborhood residential street, but instead of sitting *under* a freeway, the loading docks now impact the neighborhood."

How? The freeway near Connecticut Avenue was to be depressed; it was elevated only east of New Jersey Avenue

by Douglas Willinger on Sep 30, 2008 2:44 pm • linkreport

This drawing has it elevated over New Jersey Avenue.

The illustrations in my preceding post are from the 1955 Inner Loop report.

by Douglas Willinger on Sep 30, 2008 2:54 pm • linkreport

That is a truly scary set of images, regardless of the detail - sunken, elevated, whatever. I have a great idea for a Halloween costume now.

by Alex B. on Sep 30, 2008 3:11 pm • linkreport

I recall seeing mention of constructing it as a cut and cover tunnel, though that still would have roemoved alot of desirable buildings.

One of the more prominent opponents of the Florida Avenue - U Street I-66 North Leg was Elizabeth Rowe of US NCPC, who proposed the alternative I-66 plan of a K Street Tunnel, significantly shorter and almost entirely beneath existing right of way.

by Douglas Willinger on Sep 30, 2008 3:26 pm • linkreport

... all of which were bad ideas. Urban freeways are just bad.

by Cavan on Sep 30, 2008 4:05 pm • linkreport

Rowe later came to that view by latter 1973 under the idea that we would run out of petroleum by the 1990s hence supposedly rendering the concept of private automobiles obsolete- just as running short on whale oil did that to the concept of artificial lighting :-)

The K Street Tunnel remains an excellent concept that the Feds should fund, though perhaps with different design revisions at each of its ends.

by Douglas Willinger on Sep 30, 2008 5:25 pm • linkreport

my first reaction to Douglas' comment about a K St tunnel was yuck! but after more thought about it, and thinking about David's ideas on cheap technology for boring holes, I can't help but thnk "why not bore tunnels AND parking lots far under the city ... like our Metro tunnels? ... with occasional exits for cars to surface, bit far more elevator shafts for people to get to the surface after parking their cars underground ... and out of sight! We could even do away with above ground parking on streets with all th available subterranian paking possible wherever needed!

by Lance on Sep 30, 2008 11:19 pm • linkreport


One word: Ventilation. There's a lot of toxic stuff in car exhaust searching for your lungs(example: Carbon Monoxide can be fatal at 400ppm) - long bored tunnels for auto usage need serious amounts of energy and extra tunnels devoted to simply keeping the air breathable. Electric transit underground just makes sense.

There are other reasons - excavating large caverns (as opposed to narrow tunnels which we have efficient TBMs for) is incredibly expensive, and verging on impossible if you have to guarantee the safety of topside buildings and can't use mining industry rock stabilization tools. Any such cavern in downtown DC stands vulnerable to a cascade flood effect when we get a large storm (either surge or just the Potomac) that breaks down some of our weak flood barriers. Metro could evacuate very quickly compared with an underground access road to a large lot of cars that's being flooded/torched. Major collisions would be very ugly to clean up, and if you do build & ventilate the hell out of an auto tunnel, you're literally fanning any flames that may occur.

That's not to say that underground auto development can't improve the city - it's just a bad idea from every angle to build a deep-bore tunnel or a deep centralized parking solution.

I'd like to hear more on this K street tunnel idea - is there anything in particular that makes K st attractive?

Douglas - We did run out of oil. Alaska's Prudhoe Bay staved off major declines for five or ten years, but the US is deep, deep into oil depletion. Accompanying that, three generations of built-up US resources & national financial strength are being drained in order to continue importing most of our oil in a manner that we cannot possibly sustain for long after the global production peak.

by Squalish on Oct 1, 2008 12:45 am • linkreport

Cleaner burning alternative fuels, such as biomass alcohol from hemp and other higher yield crops then politically favored corn and soy, or even from algae (which allows multi level farming)- the attitude against highway tunnels does serve the petrochemical status quo in taking away perhaps the best daily advertisement for such alternative modes of propulsion particularly electric.

Look at a map- K Street is the shortest and straightest cross town route and ties right onto NY Avenue.

by Douglas Willinger on Oct 1, 2008 1:19 am • linkreport

In addition to all those technical considerations, you would be suburbanizing the city. You would increase the car traffic, thus increasing the demand for wider roads and more car friendly signaling. Also, by making it easier to drive, and putting so many people below ground, you're simultaneously inducing many discretionary trips AND taking eyes off the street, making the urban environment less safe. As you widen the roads for more cars, you make it increasingly dangerous to walk.

As far as electric cars and whatnot, I've argued until I'm blue in the face that "alternative" cars will not be the magic bullet that lets our nation preserve its 20th century car-fetish lifestyle. However, I can't know the future. I can only predict.

Finally, we're going to have enough trouble maintaining all the car-centric infrastructure we've already got. We need diversity in our infrastructure, specifically electric (heavy, light, and streetcar) trains not MORE multibillion dollar stuff so that people can continue to place convenience over practicality.

by Cavan on Oct 1, 2008 10:39 am • linkreport

Such as the eye on the street through the windshield of all of the vehicular traffic along such places as NYC's Canal Street.

Going underground would leave more room on the streets for pedestrians, and even for slow speed street cars with needless tracks in the street that in most instances accomplish nothing that is not accomplisheable with electric buses.

Why argue until you are blue in the face about petro being so replaceable? What is your expertise that we will not have viable alternatives to petroleum?

If adding levels of human activity underground are necessarily going to require wider streets, then what about multi-level buildings?

by Douglas Willinger on Oct 1, 2008 11:58 am • linkreport

The Morlocks rule.

by William on Oct 1, 2008 12:17 pm • linkreport

In response to arguing 'till I'm blue in the face about our car-fetish environment being unsustainable...

Just look at how much energy it takes to power an automobile. Then, look at how battery technology for large amounts of power has not changed for over a century. It just so happens that a hydrocarbon is an excellent method of storing chemical energy. But, it takes a lot of energy to produce one. Where are you going to get the energy to produce sythetic hydrocarbons? From coal? Hmmm... It is a similar problem that faces biofuels. It takes more energy to create them than you get back. Not just that, but is it possible to produce sythentic/alternative fuels in enough quantity to power all these cars and trucks we're currently driving around? If we're lucky, there will be enough for freight trucks and maybe buses.

Moving to electric cars. Let's play a game of Let's Pretend. Let's pretend that a battery will exist soon that allows 200 miles of driving on a single charge. Great, right? Now, where's all that electricity going to come from? What happens when diesel fuel gets so expensive that it's no longer profitable to truck coal to power plants. How do you generate enough electricity so that all those cars can go get stuck in traffic? How do you do that and keep the lights on and computers running? Wind and solar power, while promising, will not be enough. They might (hopefully) be enough to keep the lights on and the computers running. Maybe some heat too. But, all those cars, too? Heck, even air conditioning will probably be prohibitively expensive for small power customers.

As for electric buses, that can work... as long as they're powered by overhead wires... just like a streetcar. Do you know of any battery powered buses? How about battery powered tractor trailers? There are no batteries that can discharge enough electricity in a short enough time span to move such a large object. In that case, just do the streetcar. They last longer, plus spur development because of the psychological reassurance of the tracks in the ground.

The Jetsons and other modernist science fiction of the '50s and '60s is far more reflective of that time period than of what the future will actually be. We will have to use our diminished energy resources much, much more wisely. There just won't be as much. We won't have the luxury of using it for mundane daily chores. We'll need places where walking is safe and convenient and efficient (per passenger mile because of the amount of people they carry) electric trains. We don't need more car infrastructure. We've got plenty. We need to maintain what we've got and use our resources to diversify our transportation.

by Cavan on Oct 1, 2008 3:54 pm • linkreport


"Cleaner burning" is primarily a euphemism for the entire set of renewable fuels. It's only literally true in particular fuels like biodiesel for particular pollutants (particulates), and for engine wear&tear. All combustion creates CO2 which one needs either many surface vents or a complex powered ventilation system to eliminate. Also, the "Hemp is a magical uber-plant" stoner meme is getting kind of old - it's a decent source of strong natural fibers which is easy to grow, and that's it.

I outlined several reasons that deep-bored tunnels(rather than cut-and-cover constructions) are a bad idea to use ICE automobiles inside. While an individual-vehicle EV-only tunnel can be interesting from a technical perspective (and small-bore tunnels might even be practical in narrow situations)... it's kind of difficult to justify.

Thanks for the links. I begin to better grasp your viewpoint, even if I don't agree in most cases. There are several problems with out-laning our way out of congestion, & obstruction to pedestrians is only one of them. I think plenty of people here resent your implication that people like us sabotage highway projects and support mass transit in order to ferry the poor off 'our' streets. Many of us simply see urbanism as a viable landform - the best way to fit 400 million Americans into a sustainable living situation with a minimal environmental footprint and a high quality of life. The social aspects of concentrated humanity can be attractive, not repulsive. I've seen the environmental devastation posed by suburban development, the social paralysis of a car-only culture (where you're not a real person until you get your driver's license, and you don't know your neighbors), the precarious energy situation we've allowed ourselves to fall into. A city dense enough that walking and mass transit are practical, without being dense enough to require express elevators or eliminate the last vestiges of the natural environment, simply appeals to us.

Re: your attack on streetcars / light rail - "Electric buses" (trolleybuses) are indeed little different from single-unit streetcars, and are usually either mentioned in the same breath or left out for brevity. The primary differences are: that they have a lot more wiring involved, they are dangerously silent on approach, they come dewired more often, intersections require more infrastructure to support turning, and they tear up roads much faster than in-bed rails wear out.

A conventional trolleybus network has very few advantages over a light rail network. I have argued that a new transit mode involving rubber tires, selective on-street signaling, on-vehicle batteries, overhead wires over select portions, & robotic trolleypoles would have enough benefits to merit designing new systems & using them where we currently envision the on-street BRT variants, but as of yet it doesn't exist.

I believe that no matter what happens to our energy infrastructure long-term, we'll always have a place for individual personal transportation - particularly in the interim period while we're still burning some oil. Everything is constructed around the road network, an investment of tens of trillions of dollars. Making the 'daily commute' easier is by far the cheapest way to improve our situation... and spending $10 billion constructing an extra two lanes of express road(growing the road network 0.001%) that allow a few thousand commuters to shave a few minutes more of their day outside their automobile is trifling compared to spending $10 billion connecting five hundred thousand people to an electric transit network(growing it 100%) with light rail.

re: Cavan - nitpicking:

In the last 20 years, we've developed the battery tech and the high-power solid state switching to make electric vehicles practical. At the same time, we've made wind cheap enough that its limiting factor is growing the steel industry & made solar cheap enough that it has surpassed the previous bottleneck in monosilicon and found a practical thin-film technique. These things are not quite competitive with dirty coal - but as soon as a reasonable price is put on externalities like mercury poisoning, mountaintop removal, fishery collapse, lung cancer, acid rain, drinking water poisoning, dam collapse, etc etc etc... We Have the Technology. Scaling it up inevitably brings advances.

by Squalish on Oct 1, 2008 7:17 pm • linkreport


Thank you for picking up the mantle with trying to explain to Douglas why it's not a good idea to pave over our cities with freeways. One only needs to go to Atlanta or Kansas City to see that outcome. I'm just tired of going back and forth with him. I'd just be repeating myself from previous comment threads.

As far as your take on energy, I agree with most of what you say. I genuinely hope that is the future. It seems like the best we can hope for, short term. I still question whether we'll be able to generate enough electricity to power cars across miles and miles and miles of suburbia, but then again, I'm not a fortune teller and there's no way to know for sure which way it'll go. I do agree that cars won't go away but they won't be so fetishized, either.

I admit that I was describing a scenario that was on the negative side, but I wanted to point out to Douglas that it's not so wise to spend billions on infrastructure that runs a chance of being worthless when we've already got so much of it. I personally see this negative scenario, but obviously reasonable people can have different predictions on this one since no one knows for sure.

Suburbia is as much about the dominance of the convenience of the car as it is about anything else. I've gone back and forth with Douglas on these comment threads to point out that building freeways through cities is suburbanizing them through a thousand cuts. The result is more sprawl, both in the core as it gets hollowed out for cars, and on the fringe.

by Cavan on Oct 1, 2008 9:10 pm • linkreport

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