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


Cafritz presents Chevy Chase building to skeptical neighbors

"This neighborhood doesn't need any revitalizing," said one resident who lives near 5333 Connecticut Avenue, NW, throwing back into developer Jane Cafritz's face a newspaper quote where she said the proposed glassy, 9-story, 263-unit residential building would revitalize the neighborhood.

Photos by the author.

Hearing this, the crowd of Chevy Chase DC residents, most over 50, erupted into applause. Over 200 residents packed the Chevy Chase Community Center Wednesday evening to hear about the project firsthand from Jane and Calvin Cafritz and their team.

One side of the parcel abuts Military Road, the major east-west corridor across the top of the District. The other borders Kanawha Street, a very narrow residential street featuring mostly mid-sized bungalows.

At the outset, Mrs. Cafritz promised the skeptical audience that the glassy design that had been circulating widely was, in fact, not the building they planned to construct. She promised a forthcoming website to collect input on design and other concerns, which would give architect Eric Colbert, one of DC's most prolific residential apartment designers, an opportunity to revisit the design.

Not what Cafritz plans to build.

Zoning permits the building as of right

A group of residents has been actively organizing against the project, but their influence is limited because the Cafritz proposal will be completely "as of right," or fitting into the existing zoning without needing any special approvals.

Attorney Whayne Quinn explained the area's zoning and noted the building conforms to all requirements. It will cover only 45% of the lot. Quinn said that the project would be only half the size of the Kenmore building, 2 blocks to the north, with half the floor-area ratio and half the units, although one neighbor commented that the Kenmore itself ought not to be something the Cafritzes would be proud to emulate.

The building will be 90 feet, the height allowed under zoning, Quinn explained. However, one neighbor questioned whether they should measure the height from Connecticut Avenue or Kanawha Street. A representative from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) confirmed that the Cafritzes could measure the building from either, and it looks like the they will choose the method that will provide the greatest height.

Jane Cafritz.
The height issue was one that resonated with the neighbors, many of whom complained about the sun shadow the building will create during the winter. None of the Cafritz team rebutted or discussed this complaint.

In one of the livelier and more bizarre exchanges, the owner of several abutting residential apartment buildings admonished the Cafritzes for building a 9-story building on a block of 8-story buildings, saying to do so is taking advantage of the neighbors.

Another neighbor raised the common complaint about school overcrowding, and argued that those moving into the development would cause additional strain on the system. In a prior meeting, Councilmember Mary Cheh had taken another neighbor to task for a similar statement, letting him know that it was the right of any resident to have the city school their children. Certainly, school overcrowding is a real concern, but Cheh was correct to point out that this is not reason to prevent anyone from living where they want in our city.

Design tries to reduce mass along Connecticut, Kanawha

Colbert said he designed the building to have more mass along Military Road. A break and driveway on Connecticut Avenue will make it appear less massive from the front.

The Cafritzes' landscape architect said they plan to provide mature trees and as much of a green buffer as possible between the building and homes on Kanawha Street, and to the rear of the building. He argued that the smaller lot occupancy would permit more trees. Despite this, some complained that mature trees would need to be cut down, as these trees lie in the proposed building's footprint.

Grainy photo of proposed footprint.

The development team's presentation emphasized that the building would embrace green elements, in construction, use of materials, energy consumption, and rainwater management. However, when pressed on the environmental benefits, the architect admitted the building was not seeking any LEED certification, because the process of doing so was "too expensive."

Almost the entire crowd applauded a neighbor who asked why the building could not be brick instead of glass. She said the glass made it look like a building at 9th and K Streets.

Mrs. Cafritz seemed open to changing the glass, although in continued questioning it did not appear Colbert, the architect, had yet started to think about this change. Also, the Washington Post reported today that Mrs. Cafritz told subsequently Councilmember Mary Cheh they plan to stick with glass

Colbert spent considerable time explaining how a glass building would be energy-efficient and that interior light would not shine on neighboring homes, although he admitted there would be considerable sun reflections from the glass.

Traffic analysis doesn't please opponents

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented a traffic assessment which found the building would not have a significant effect on traffic. Zimbabwe explained to the crowd that they should expect traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue to get worse over the next decade, with or without the building.

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented information about the current traffic levels in the area. Traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue has actually declined slightly between 2006 and 2011 according to DDOT's traffic counts, Zimbabwe reported, which drew derisive laughs from the audience.

The traffic analysis predicts that the new construction would add 97 cars to morning rush hour and 127 cars to evening rush hour, but DDOT does not view this as likely to have a significant effect on traffic.

"any intersection where one has to wait more than one light cycle is a failed intersection"
This drew murmurs from a skeptical audience. One neighbor, describing the traffic backups each rush hour on Military Road as it crosses each intersection from Western Avenue to Rock Creek Park, pointed out the classic traffic engineering rule of thumb that if drivers need to wait more than one light-cycle, the intersections are all "failing."

Zimbabwe argued that this is precisely the type of project that will help cut down on area traffic. Residents will have a shorter commute downtown, and could would walk the ¾ mile to Metro. At this, the crowd erupted into laughter.

Later in the evening, one of those laughing at this statement shouted out, in complete sincerity, "why isn't the building installing geothermal heating?" Perhaps I was the only one who found that ironic.

Can the building avoid straining the alley?

One of the main issues neighbors raised, and one that might be easy to solve, is the project's intent to use the existing residential alley for both a 197-space parking garage and delivery access. Currently, only the 20 or so homes that are on the alley tend to use it, so there would be a marked increase in traffic.

However, DDOT policy does not permit additional curb cuts into to the property. Zimbabwe explained that DDOT wants to minimize the number of separate entrances off a street, each of which create the opportunity for conflicts between turning cars and other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, just as in an intersection.

A solution came up that could satisfy both DDOT and residents: widen the curb cut for the alley, so that the building vehicle entrance is not directly off the alley but immediately next to the alley entrance.

DDOT can't forbid residents from getting parking stickers

If traffic flow issues drew a skeptical response, the increased impact the project would have to on-street parking brought even more consternation. One neighbor handed DDOT his own parking assessment of Kanawha Street, where he said it is already difficult to find parking after 10 pm at night, He estimated he'd need to walk 4 blocks to find a parking spot after the building is completed. This fired up several in the audience, one of whom shouted, "bad parking rules."

Zimbabwe explained that while the block was not zoned for Residential Permit Parking today, DDOT would permit residents to obtain RPP stickers if they petitioned DDOT to do so, as is its policy for other blocks.

The DC Council considered a bill last year that would have let building owners work out a deal with DDOT where their building would never be eligible for RPP, or not for a set period of time. However, a group of councilmembers, led by Chairman Mendelson, voted the bill down.


Calvin Cafritz.
It appeared to me there that the neighbors expressed a few very valid concerns. It should be possible to address each, at least to a certain extent.
  • It would be nice for the Cafritzes to work on ways to minimize the building blocking sunlight for nearby residents. However, I would imagine them reluctant to relent even a bit, because the neighbors might seek a far greater reduction in height than they may be comfortable with.
  • The glass façade seems to be one where the Cafritzes are ready to listen to alternatives. Red brick was the consensus of the audience.
  • A parallel driveway immediately adjacent to the alley entrance would seem to address the concern about alley access.
  • The parking/traffic conundrum seems difficult to solve. Neighbors who want more underground spots would then see more traffic in the neighborhood, and might then complain about more cut-through traffic on other streets.
  • LEED certification ought to be in the cards. Or, at least, the Cafritzes should consider doing what Douglas Jemal did at the Babe's site, which was to design the building to LEED standard but not actually undergo through the expensive certification process.
  • How the property sits on the land will continue to be a bone of contention. The site plan did appear to have as much of a buffer as possible to the rear and along Kanawha Street, although much of the open space it devoted to a rear garden area for building residents.

    It would not appear the Cafritzes are willing to have a smaller footprint and more massive building sited closer to Connecticut Avenue, as such building would not permit him to have the same number of smaller units that he contemplates.

Mrs. Cafritz said a website would open soon for the community to offer comments. Beyond that, it is hard to know how willing they are to have more meetings with interested neighbors, given that the project is as-of-right.

Correction: The original version of this article erroneously reported that Sam Zimbabwe had said that traffic would increase in the future, when in fact he said that it had decreased (slightly) in the past. It also said that DDOT had conducted a traffic study for the building; DDOT instead reported some information about traffic in the area, but does not do its own traffic studies for matter-of-right buildings.

Steve Seelig is a long-time resident of Ward 3 interested in preserving its charms while expanding its reach along the transit-rich corridors to help make driving to more far-flung commercial districts a rarer occurrence.  


Add a comment »

I feel for the neighbors. This isn't TOD - this is $600,000+ condos going up for NW 1%ers. Everyone who lives/buys there is going to have a car, or maybe even two cars. It's hilarious how 1%ers hate other 1%ers.

by Steve on Jan 25, 2013 10:12 am • linkreport

I think she means it's not what they plan to build anymore. The one point I can agree with residents on is that design doesn't belong there.

by Alan B. on Jan 25, 2013 10:19 am • linkreport

Alternate story: neighbors complain about a bunch of problems the developer can't fix or isn't responsible for.

But it's good it will have a different facade. That glass is ugly, the size is fine. Any opportunity in the zoning for a retail space?

by drumz on Jan 25, 2013 10:27 am • linkreport

First world problems.

by William on Jan 25, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

I'm not terribly sympathetic to complaints about what a building looks like, unless we're talking about a historical district or whatever. That's a purely subjective opinion and comes down to personal taste. Neighbors are entitled to voice their opinion, but that's it.

And the two complaints about potential school crowding and RPP's are also bogus. Trying to keep people out of "your" schools is a hideous position. Furthermore, trying to create a group of second-class citizens who aren't allowed RPP's because they're newcomers to the neighborhood is a vile idea.

by Potowmack on Jan 25, 2013 10:42 am • linkreport

I think there is a very clear design aesthetic in far NW especially along Connecticut. Glass is boring and overdone and inefficient energy wise. Plus there is the whole glass building blinding mirror/ super laser effect that can happen.

by Alan B. on Jan 25, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

I just looked this up - this project is .7 miles from the Friendship Heights Metro station.

Which is the same distance Logan Circle is (and I used the actual circle) from the Mt. Vernon Square Metro station.

It is also on Connecticut Avenue which has pretty decent N-S bus service (though it could be a lot better) and also served by the M-4 which is an east west bus route that goes across town to Sibley Hospital via Tenleytown, Ward Circle and the Palisades.

This location is also within a couple of minutes walking distance to 2 commercial areas on Connecticut Avenue both of which feature CVS and multiple restaurants & other retail and one of which is anchored by Politics and Prose and the other by a grocery store.

So I ask why can't this be TOD and be considered a highly desirable walkable location?

One questioner at the meeting rather derisively dismissed the high walk score at this location (I think he said it was an 85) but I think some folks in this community confuse form (a neighborhood with some suburban style housing and density) with function (a neighborhood with multiple high frequency transit options and the ability to get to 3 metro stations quickly and 3 commercial areas within a short walk).

by TomQ on Jan 25, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Former democrat on Jan 25, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

"Revitalization" of a very functional prosperous neighborhood was perhaps not the best frame for this and I could see them just going down hill from there with the neighbors.

by Rich on Jan 25, 2013 10:48 am • linkreport

Also LEED is bull****.

by Alan B. on Jan 25, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

A wider alley isn't a safer alley, it just creates a bigger conflict point for pedestrians to deal with as they use the sidewalk.

Plus, DDOT's Design and Engineering Manual mandates that any driveway/alleyway 24' or more in width needs to have a 6' pedestrian refuge island in the center (DEM 31.2.3), so that proposal would essentially be creating two separate alleys. In my experience, that's not something DDOT's likely to go for.

by Peter K. on Jan 25, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

"Mindless Obamatons". God I love the rhetoric of the right.

by thump on Jan 25, 2013 10:55 am • linkreport

Just reading about this meeting gave me a stomach ache and reminded me of why I got out of planning years ago. As planner in both public and private sectors, I've been part of too many meetings like this and am happily free of it.

What's the point of having a rule book (zoning) and playing by the rules (a by-right project) if new rules are imposed by random fiat of those who yell the loudest:
I think it's too tall; build it shorter than the rules allow.
Don't cut down that tree, even if it's otherwise permitted.
I don't like glass - use brick instead, although no design review is required.
Use MY traffic/parking study - your experts are wrong, mine are right.

Of course, the Cafritzes own actions should have lead them to expect a strong reaction. They let the land sit available to the neighbors for a long time, which allowed the perception that it was public open space and that this project was taking that away from them. And no doubt the aggressive all-glass design would invite reaction just about anywhere in DC. (If that wasn't meant to be the final design, why release those images?) But Cafritzes seem ready to deal - clearly this will be a lucrative project no matter what gets built, so I am not shedding any tears for them. Still I am glad I am not invlved in this battle, on any side.

by AICP on Jan 25, 2013 11:00 am • linkreport

While the development is 'of right' these meetings and neighbor opinion can be useful if the owner listens carefully. Why? Because if the neighbors object about design, are they not a 'read' on the market? Similarly, the question about LEED can give the owner a sense of what potential buyers will ask.

by Dan D on Jan 25, 2013 11:00 am • linkreport

I hope they break ground soon. I agree, they should change to Red Brick, but outside of that no changes should be made. Density is needed, and this is a great spot for it. Bus service on Connecticut is high quality, and it truly is (despite the neighbors laughing) walking distance to metro. I used to drive on Military to Bethesda for work, and saw a lot of people walking to the metro every day.

by Kyle-W on Jan 25, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

Thank god it's by right, but why the hell do these developers continue to show illustrations of proposed buildings that are "not the building they planned to construct."? This only increases the mistrust people have about developers. I'm almost convinced that this is a bargining tool to put out something so outrageously ugly, that any modicum of design improvement would be seen as a win by the community when the whole thing cold have been so much better. Colbert is a bit of a hack, but he could do a lot better than this ice cube. I almost sympathise with the nimbys on this one except it's too important of an issue to spread out the growth along these corridors, expecially near transit. I hope DC backs the "by-right" aspect but this is a perfect case for some form based zoning becasue only a blind person would think this aesthetic is appropriate for that location.

by Thayer-D on Jan 25, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

I think that was exactly what they planned to build. They miscalculated based on what flies further downtown. I'm kind of surprised they didn't look around the site and say oh there is a different design aesthetic here, maybe we should follow it.

by Alan B. on Jan 25, 2013 11:17 am • linkreport

@ Peter K
Thanks for that DDOT update. Perhaps this is why this was not suggested by DDOT as a solution. Yet despite the histrionics of one neighbor who claimed he sits in the alley in his lawn chair because traffic is so light, the alley entrance issue was to me the one that was most sympathetic. But two alleys next to one another seems to be better for traffic conflict abatement than a second, mid-block driveway. Last time I venture into the traffic manual!

I've been told this is not zoned for commercial at all. Further, it may be the case that if they asked for a zoning variance, then the entire project would be subject to a tract review by the zoning commission, something Cafritz would like to avoid. Someone will correct me, but I understand that if you have a commercial development over 50,000 square feet, it must get a ZC large tract review, while residential projects only get that same review if over 300,000 square feet.

The local ANC has howled about this rule being unfair to neighbors and that it should be changed to permit them to weigh in on virtually any new residential project over the 50,000 foot threshold. I understand this rules IS NOT to be changed in the proposed zoning rewrite.

by Steve Seelig on Jan 25, 2013 11:18 am • linkreport

Sadly this is typical for any high-density project in DC, especially NW (west of Rock Creek). Unlike in most of Maryland (older, inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods being exceptions) and in Northern Virginia, any time a developer even dreams of building anything over 3 stories near to existing residents in DC the wacko NIMBY's come out of the woodwork claiming how the new building would "destroy" the neighborhood's "character."

Chevy Chase and other nearby neighborhoods (on both sides of the DC/MD border) are especially bad since the residents are all wealthy and selfishly believe that they're entitled to every square inch of their neighborhood. Most of the residents also all old, longtime residents that clearly have nothing better to do with themselves than to prey on developers, complain about their neighbor's grass height, enforcing their property boundaries, pretend that they have the best looking yard in the neighborhood, and call the police if a minority strolls into the neighborhood.

by K Street on Jan 25, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

I like this quote from the WaPo article:

“We are not opposed to a building being built there,” said George Gaines, a Friendship Heights resident. “We just want a building that doesn’t completely ignore the interests and the rights of the buildings that have been here for 100 years.”

So, you're saying "buildings are people"?

by ah on Jan 25, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport

Zimbabwe argued that this is precisely the type of project that will help cut down on area traffic. Residents will have a shorter commute downtown, and could would walk the ¾ mile to Metro. At this, the crowd erupted into laughter.

Truly, a raucuous evening at Downton Abbey! Now, someone fetch our valets!

by worthing on Jan 25, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport


Didn't you know? Nobody rides the metro. All those people that I fight for space are figments of my imagination.

by drumz on Jan 25, 2013 1:25 pm • linkreport

I am in favor of this building as someone who lives in the neighborhood and think that this will be good for both the neighborhood and the city. It is walking distance to a bunch of restaurants on Connecticut ave and Nebraska (which we need more of it seems like.) However outside of rush hour the L2 is hardly adequate (I use it at ALL times of the day everyday but for people with less time it is highly inconvenient to wait 20 minutes during the day and 30+ sometimes at night. There is OK bus service on Military and I use the M4 a lot because I do live 200 feet from Nebraska and Connecticut but it only runs every half hour or 15 minutes during the peak which really isn't sufficient to draw people who would live in the new Cafritz project. Walking to Friendship Heights at almost every time of day would be either faster or the same amount of time. There is no doubt however that we need more residential building in the city and especially in upper northwest where there is pretty high demand for THIS kind of development (although not exclusively of course)

by Ryan Keefe on Jan 25, 2013 1:27 pm • linkreport

Though not obligated, it might help if they offered to pay for a CaBi station once one is added to the Friendship Heights Metro. That would push Metro (and bike) use up a bit and bring a new amenity to the area.

by David C on Jan 25, 2013 1:31 pm • linkreport

Buildings ARE people, my friend! The Supreme Court said so!

by Kyle G on Jan 25, 2013 1:59 pm • linkreport

worthing - Spoiler alert please? - I haven't seen that episode yet.

by Alan B. on Jan 25, 2013 2:19 pm • linkreport

Maybe they shouldn't have rejected being a historic district 3 years ago.

by crin on Jan 25, 2013 2:28 pm • linkreport

Interesting that Mary Cheh seems to be taking the neighbors' side here on what is after all matter of right project (albeit one that is tone-deaf to the neighborhood context). When other 'hoods in Ward 3 have tried to engage her to broker a compromise om projects with greater impact, and which required zoning review, she's been indifferent to the point of hostile.

by Bob on Jan 25, 2013 3:27 pm • linkreport

Steve Seelig -- fwiw, Large Tract Review isn't done by the ZOning Commission, it's done by the Office of Planning. And the regulation isn't about "approving" or "not approving" a project. For one, it is only triggered when it's a matter of right project that normally wouldn't get review, but gets reviewed because of the size. Second, the LTR regulation is about "coordination" and almost not even mitigation of possible negative effects. It is not, again, about changing a project in significant ways.

Except when the review finds problems. Most of the things raised by the neighbors, if not all of them, wouldn't trigger significant changes, judging by my involvement with the Walmart LTR for Georgia Ave., and development at that site has much worse effects because of the problematic geometry of the Georgia-Missouri Avenues intersection.

Anyway, we argued that economic impact should be considered a legitimate factor in the LTR and OP disagreed. We weren't in a position to contest the determination in Court.

Anyway again, LTR wouldn't change anything about this project.

by Richard Layman on Jan 25, 2013 7:32 pm • linkreport

my opinion is that the building is butt ugly but otherwise fine as a project. And wrt AICP's points, this problem is an illustration of why DC should have design review as a matter of course, at least on "Great Streets" (read the Urban Design element of the comp plan), whether or not an area is designated historic. E.g., Baltimore has broader requirements for urban design and review than DC.

and yes it is sad that the opportunity to identify and rectify gaps in DC planning and zoning regulations such as the lack of better design guidelines and review procedures is otherwise being missed.

Colbert has done some decent basic brick buildings (the Gables apartments on Blair Road in Takoma are decent enough, and there is a building on the 800 block of 6th St., very plebian, but fine enough, I don't have the address off hand).

- Gables building, now apartments, but designed to be condos, one long block to Takoma Metro,

Cafritz should have known better. Had they done a great design from the get go, they would have undercut most any possible opposition to the project.

wrt the subway, obviously, many people in W3 don't believe people ride transit. Yes 0.7 miles is an easy walk to the subway and an even simpler bike ride. But I think more marketing needs to be done so that people consider this to be more natural outside of the core.

by Richard Layman on Jan 25, 2013 7:41 pm • linkreport


Maybe that is because she knows it is a matter of right project where her involvement here has zero impact on the result. The basic problem here is the self-entitled opinions of the residents who are up in arms over this proposal.

Agree with crin, if the residents want this sort of oversight, then maybe they should support becoming a historic district.

by William on Jan 25, 2013 9:05 pm • linkreport

That they are reconsidering the design of this project makes it even more of a no-brainer than it already was.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 26, 2013 2:52 am • linkreport

Also,let's be real: DC's regulatory structure already drains architects' and clients' resources. We do not need generalized design review. It will only make DC more milquetoast architecturally. It wears designers out. Developers just want a building that will get approved.

When people propose this, they seem to be imagining the board as staffed with people who share their particular taste. But there's no guarantee.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 26, 2013 3:00 am • linkreport

@Ryan Keefe: Agreed on all counts.

I also live nearby and I support the development of the land, but the north-south L2 is hardly adequate, not only outside of the rush hours, but also if you are heading the "wrong" direction in the morning or evening. I have waited 40 minutes at 5 p.m. for a bus heading south on Connecticut, while a multitude of "Not In Service" buses drive by on their way to the Van Ness Metro to pick up more northbound passengers.

I need to research WMATA's numbers, but it seems to me that Connecticut Avenue ridership could support Wisconsin Avenue level frequency. It would also make going car-free (or leaving the car at home) more feasible and cut down on vehicle traffic.

by TJ on Jan 26, 2013 12:43 pm • linkreport

@ Richard Layman

That is why I profess no knowledge of the subject; to seek the right answer for those like you who know. Not being facetious at all - being deferential.

But the ANC seems to think that having a large tract review would make a BIG difference in the process because they would get to weigh in. Just telling you what they think on this.

I am interested though in what you meant by "when they find problems." I assume you must mean that OP would be looking at potential violations of the zoning code rather than aesthetic issues. Which is likely why you have stated you see no problems with the project.

In any event: wondering what you think of permitting a large tract review for residential projects of 50,000 or more rather than of 300,000 or more?

by Steve Seelig on Jan 26, 2013 9:06 pm • linkreport

Steve Seelig -- with regard to LTR, there is only one section that provides material guidance--

2300.2 The goals of this chapter shall be the following:

(a) To minimize adverse environmental, traffic and neighborhood impacts;

(b) To avoid unnecessary public costs in terms of new services or facilities required of city agencies; and

(c) To carry out the policies of the District Elements of the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital (D.C. Law 5-76 and D.C. Law 5-187).

Note that the OP determination is that "economic" impact isn't considered an element of "neighborhood impact." I think this could be successfully challenged in court, but then, I am not a lawyer.

In the context of the text of the regulation, the size of the consolidated lots, the context of Connecticut Avenue vis-a-vis the abutting residential streets, the typical building stock of apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue, I don't see how anything in an LTR review would change from the standard process. The zoning allows it, etc. (One additional floor is seen as outlandish by a competitor, that's ridiculous.)

Anyway, adding a handful of more cars ("traffic impact") isn't significantly material. The roadway network is pretty robust.

2. With regard to having input, ANCs forget that the input is supposed to be material. You can say anything you want, but in this case, only points relevant to 2300.2 are given great weight. Design, sadly, doesn't count.

3. WRT your other question, 50K s.f. to 300K s.f. isn't necessarily unreasonable, if you think of a house lot being a minimum of 1000 s.f. in a rowhouse district (R4) and upwards of 7,600 s.f. (that's the size of our lot) in a single family (R1) district.

The point being that 50K s.f. is to 1K s.f. as 300,000 s.f. is to a square block (around 90,000 to 100,000 s.f.).

I would probably increase the number myself.

4. But it does matter in terms of design. I disagree violently with Neal Flanagan that design doesn't matter. The decisions about design last for generations. A developer for the most part is only in the project to build it and sell it. The neighborhood and the city are left with the design forever.

Who gives a damn about a developer wanting a slightly faster review period? The process doesn't incentivize them to deal with long term negative impacts of design.

Note that there are portfolio investors like BF Saul (Kennedy Warren), Calomiris (Cathedral Mansions).

Look what BF Saul did at the K-W (or in Anacostia, the practices of the WC Smith Company, including the design and construction of Sheridan Station). But that is not behavior typical of a goodly number of developers active in the DC market. Hence the need for design review.

by Richard Layman on Jan 27, 2013 6:03 am • linkreport

P.S. with regard to the economic impact of better design, and/or the importance of "first in to the market" developers leading with high quality design and the subsequent impact on the projects and designs of others, see Donatelli and their entry into the U Street, Columbia Heights, and Petworth markets, and maybe, Abdo and their entry onto H St.

In Petworth, after the Donatelli project, the guy doing the Safeway redevelopment (ex Lowe Partners, can't remember the name of the firm) is doing what appears to be a great project. (The NDC projects are decent but not as well designed as the Donatelli building, and the design for the retail at the Yes is bad from the standpoint of traditional retail design precepts.) Way better tends to generate better more than sub-better ever generates better.

You can argue this doesn't matter on Upper CT Ave. because there are only a couple of other development opportunities (like the Safeway site). But it matters not just for that neighborhood but for the city, and Connecticut Ave. is a major entrypoint into the city and the quality of the design on streets such as it should be at a higher standard.

This is from the UD element:

Policy UD-1.4.1: Avenues/Boulevards and Urban Form
Use Washington’s major avenues/boulevards as a way to reinforce the form and identity of the city, connect its neighborhoods, and improve its aesthetic and visual character. Focus improvement efforts on avenues/
boulevards in emerging neighborhoods, particularly those that provide important gateways or view corridors within the city. 906.6

by Richard Layman on Jan 27, 2013 9:37 am • linkreport

But it does matter in terms of design. I disagree violently with Neal Flanagan that design doesn't matter.

Please show me where Neil wrote "design doesn't matter."

Neil argued that generalized design review will not produce better outcomes.

by Alex B. on Jan 27, 2013 1:00 pm • linkreport

Alex B./Neal Flanagan -- I stand corrected. And disagree again. While standard design review will not product the Taj Mahal, it's likely to improve abject crap, so this project would undoubtedly improve.

Certainly, buildings in areas of the city subject to design review tend to be better design wise than buildings in areas of the city not subject to design review.

by Richard Layman on Jan 27, 2013 4:25 pm • linkreport

This situation is another great example of why when you own property that yields a certain matter-of-right building, and you have determined it is time to maximize, just proceed. Cafritz has no requirement to involve the surrounding property owners, they seem to be doing it out of respect, and all it is doing is backfiring.

See, zoning is a public process. It looks like back as far as 1989, the neighborhood was involved in looking at the zoning of this parcel. And in 2002, downzoning was done to some parcels south of it. In other words, the neighborhood had plenty of opportunities to address the concerns that are coming up today. So if any other these objectors lived there over the last 25 years, they should've done something. And if objectors are recent home buyers, they should've looked at zoning in their due diligence and known their surroundings.

And if someone argues that home buyers don't look at or understand zoning, then this is just another example of how buyer's agents work for the seller, and/or they provide limited, if any, value.

by Ryan B. on Jan 28, 2013 8:55 am • linkreport

I think this is what Richard was refereing to when he paraphrased Neil, who said..."DC's regulatory structure already drains architects' and clients' resources. We do not need generalized design review. It will only make DC more milquetoast architecturally. It wears designers out"

The implication is that design review is unnecessary, therefore Richard's characterization that it dosen't matter. I too disagree, but not violently. Historically there have been many instances of design review or standards or whatever you want to call it that have ensured beautiful outcomes, but Richard's point is that design does matter, and in this case it's obviously a matter of taste.

Neil holds the often held view amongst architects and academics that modernist aesthetics are of "our time" such as this all glass minimalist building, therefore casting architecture that might seek to harmonize with it's often historic surroundings in a bad light ie;milquetoast. Whatever one's personal feelings of an all glass building in this context, we all seem to agree that the density is good and that design matters.

I would also disagree with Neil's assertion that design reviews "wear designers out". If the rigor of producing something of quality has a deletirious effect then maybe working as an artist would suit him better than architecture as one is more private while the other is more public. But working under a mirriad of constraints including the opinion of the public which will have to live with one's creation has often been the catalyst of great work. Again one need only to turn to history to find many examples where this is born out.

I'd venture to guess if design review committees guaranteed buildings of Neil's personal preference, he wouldn't see them as a "drain" any more than the effort expended in negotiating a difficult site. These commitees have usually arisen to protect the public from work that they see as indifferent to neighborhoods that hold strong emotional attachments for their residents. This is a fact of human nature that modernists have long battled as they are taught to be the arbiters of what constitutes "out time". Unfortunatly for them, they will always run into some element of this phenomena as human nature evolves much more slowly than architectrual fashion.

by Thayer-D on Jan 28, 2013 8:59 am • linkreport

The "good" developers understand that design review and other "outreach" processes are part of the cost of doing business, risk analysis, etc. They often complain about it, but the reality is that's the nature of public processes.

WRT the "design" for this particular project, it's another consequence of the ANC's short sighted decision to cut off debate and consideration of the creation of a historic district, which would have "as a matter of right" provided an additional process for community input.

It would have only addressed design for the most part, because that's all that HPRB is enabled by statute to address.

I agree with Thayer-D's characterization of the general argument, that density isn't a bad thing, especially on Connecticut Avenue, especially as apartment buildings of this type are very much typical along the Avenue, almost for its entire length (certainly from around T Street NW).

Had OP been smart about it, in the Comp. Plan, they would have called for design review on the "avenues." They did not.

But yes, I don't see problems with the general MOR provisions for this project, and I wouldn't see how adding the LTR process would change anything that OP would recommend either.

But yes, no one wants development near them. (cf. the Current article I just read, a back issue, where people in Adams Morgan-Kalorama castigated the approval of a project to build housing on an otherwise vacant lot, which had been a de facto green space.)

I don't have any solutions for that.

by Richard Layman on Jan 28, 2013 10:24 am • linkreport

But does design review actually lead to better/more beautiful projects? I agree that this glass box thing is terrible but it seems like Cafritz realizes people hate it and will do something else. Are there any examples of projects in DC where design review led to a good outcome?

by MLD on Jan 28, 2013 10:28 am • linkreport

The implication is that design review is unnecessary, therefore Richard's characterization that it dosen't matter.

Of course design matters. That is not the question. The real question is two-fold: first, does design review actually improve design outcomes? I think that is an open question.

The second question gets at this point you ask about:

I would also disagree with Neil's assertion that design reviews "wear designers out". If the rigor of producing something of quality has a deletirious effect then maybe working as an artist would suit him better than architecture as one is more private while the other is more public.

Wearing them out has two consequences - one is creative, and the other is financial.

Using historic preservation review as a guide, we can assume that design review will involve many iterations of designs before getting approval. This means more cost. That cost adds to the cost of building, all of which must be passed on to the consumer for a developer to even attempt to build. This will drive up the cost of space.

So, the second question is: is design review worth it?

I think both of those are open questions because it would depend a great deal on how the review is structured, what is required for approval, what kind of limits there might be on the timeline for approval, etc.

At the same time, it's not hard to envision a scenario where design review simply adds to the cost of building in DC without actually improving the built environment at all. And that would mean harm to all of us.

by Alex B. on Jan 28, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

"Using historic preservation review as a guide, we can assume that design review will involve many iterations of designs before getting approval."

If you unpack some assumptions in this sentence, you will find part of the problem. Are architects unaware of the kind of confrontation they will recieve when they put up a building of this design in most neighborhoods, be they historic or not? Of course the answer is yes, becasue one learns from experience, and this happens time after time. Then why do they produce designs that require several itterations before they get the approval of a majority of residents, and presumably a final approval from the government whos charge is to serve them?

Ideology is the short answer. Years ago, I worked for a very good firm that while eclectic in it's output, held strong ideological/aesthetic views of what constituted a good design. We were working on an apartment building in Old Town and as such, were obliged to go through several design reviews including working with the neighbors. He kept desiging glassy buildings to the point he once told me we were going to "shove this glass box down their throat." We were about to lose the job becasue of these delays (design iterations) when out of desperation/economic necessity he turned to me to produce something "historicist". I did so with pleasure as I value harmony with whatever context new work is to be inserted. The community accepted the new design and it's currently built in the neighborhood. I would have liked the final details to have been more reifined, but the final building fit's in nicely and everybody got paid.

Back to the question Alex B. raised about the creative and financial consequenses. There where no creative consequences for me becasue of my agnosticism with regards to aesthetics, although my boss would continue to grumble about it for the rest fo my stay there. But there is no doubt that the financial consequenses where almost entirely unnecessary had my boss understood the community's desires and had he not held to his modernist ideology that insists on a modernist aesthetic despite context or the users interests. So while one might inevitably run into a shit kicker (Nimby) in a communitee meeting you might be obliged to hold as terms of approval, the function of these meeting is to keep narcissist architects/developers from impossing their vision at the expense of the people who live there and the integrity we as a larger communitty have decreed of cultural value, for better or for worse.

by Thayer-D on Jan 28, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

Then why do they produce designs that require several itterations before they get the approval of a majority of residents, and presumably a final approval from the government whos charge is to serve them?

The assumption here, of course, is that the problem lies with the design, rather than the process.

I would submit that review often exists to perpetuate itself. Hence my discussion of the need to define the terms of the review well in advance.

We see this all the time, not just with design: consider ANCs, who often use this as a point of leverage with liquor licenses and 'voluntary agreements' even for approvals that would otherwise be given by-right. In the absence of explicit criteria that can ensure approval of the reviewers at first glance, the presence of the review will inevitably add to the already-thick layers of approvals and iterations.

by Alex B. on Jan 28, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport


Your story is a perfect example of why design guidelines are a solution and not just putting more layers of review into place with no guidance attached.

by MLD on Jan 28, 2013 12:42 pm • linkreport

MLD, you make a very good point, but until there are design guildelines in place (and enjoy that argument!) design reviews are the only mechanism for communities to ensure they grow in a manner that isn't antithetical to the majority.

I agree that Chevy Chase screwed themselved for opting out of historic status, only in terms of not having a review mechanism, but it's a classic case of not being able to have it all.

As for the fact that we need to grow, I can't help them with that.

by Thayer-D on Jan 28, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

design reviews are the only mechanism for communities to ensure they grow in a manner that isn't antithetical to the majority.

Two things:

I disgree that design review is the only mechanism able to achieve this goal, yet alone the best mechanism (if it even can achieve that goal). And, as noted, at what cost?

What does "antithetical to the majority" mean? What majority?

by Alex B. on Jan 28, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

Fine Alex, it's A mechanism, not the only one. As for the cost, I'd just be repeating myself, this "cost" in my case and many others was self inflicted. As for the majority, I could refer you to data from ULI to the National Association of Home Builders, or you could conduct your own survey, as long as you avoid the Romney model. Most people acknowledge that abstract minimalism isn't usually the stuff home sales are made of, but if you don't believe me, just ask a realtor.

by Thayer-D on Jan 28, 2013 2:27 pm • linkreport

this "cost" in my case and many others was self inflicted

I'm sure it was - I don't doubt your anecdote. However, I see no evidence that at least some cost can be avoided. And avoiding that cost is a key consideration. You can argue that architects can design to meet review, but I seldom see designs that get past review as if it were simply checking an item off the list. Therefore, compliance with resign review adds time and cost to any new project, forcing developers to pass that on to the consumer.

Most people acknowledge that abstract minimalism isn't usually the stuff home sales are made of, but if you don't believe me, just ask a realtor.

Ok, so by 'majority' you only mean in very broad stylistic terms and not for small-bore, detailed things.

I ask because even more classically inspired buildings get put through the ringer on design review in DC for historic preservation. Even presuming your majority opinion, it's not clear that the weight of that opinion matters in terms of the expidiency of the approval.

by Alex B. on Jan 28, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

Thayer, I have never endorsed glass boxes. I don't know where you're getting that from.

I would never dictate other people to adopt my personal style. I know it's not popular; I don't pretend to think other people all think like me.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 28, 2013 2:47 pm • linkreport

There's a 'cost' to everything, but sometimes the costs/effort does redound in improvement, so it could be argued that it's an investment. I also wouldn't encourage architects to go down any checklist, rather to simply consider how the average person would react, in other words, with out ideological blinders. And your right about traditional designs being put through the ringer by some preservation boards, I was refering to local residents.

Ironically, I had an addition on a Cleveland Park Victorian delayed becasues my addition blended in too well for them. Strangely enough, some of them have a modernist mind set that the addition should clearly reflect "our time" (The modernist interpretation of the Venice Charter of 1964) and not mimic the original building, never mind that pre-modernist architects usually strove for harmony (see the additions to the Capitol building over several decades as an example).

Fair enough Neil, but I wouldn't hold it against you if you did like glass boxes. For me, it's more a matter of context. It actually can be quite striking to play a dissonant note, if done right, I just seem to remember you getting out the baseball bat om me when I would argue for sympathetic insertions. Eitherway, it seems like we can all agree that no one would like to dictate to others what's good and bad.

by Thayer-D on Jan 28, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us