Greater Greater Washington

Park Van Ness will fill in Connecticut Avenue streetscape

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

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

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

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


View from Yuma Street.

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

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

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

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

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


Aerial rendering of the Soapstone Park side of the building.

Will residents support or fight this?

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

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

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


The Cafritz proposal at 5333 Connecticut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Residents understandably want some say in development projects, but the existing processes that give them a say, like historic preservation, often don't focus on the real factors that affect how a building interacts with its surrounding area. We end up with some cases (like 5333) where residents have no ability to push a project in a better direction design-wise, and too many others where review ends up harming our overall housing supply more than it improves a building's design.
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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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The link from the images in this article to the "parkvanness.pdf" file appears to be broken.

by Peter K on Feb 26, 2013 1:52 pm • linkreport

To truly integrate with the landscape and architecture of CT avenue, it needs a 500 foot setback with no retail.

by JustMe on Feb 26, 2013 1:53 pm • linkreport

Peter K: Oops, fixed now. Thanks.

by David Alpert on Feb 26, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

At first glance, this appears to be a very exciting project! Improvements to the pedestrian experience in Van Ness are sorely needed. It will be interesting to see how the plaza will be integrated with the park as details are honed.

The post notes that as a by-right project, a public hearing isn't required. Does that mean there won't be a community meeting prior to filing of the development application? I would like to show my support!

-Van Nessy

by Van Nessy on Feb 26, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

Very nice! It seems like what's needed is some kind of form based codes to ensure developers won't do a cheap glass box and pass it off as "of our time". Having historic districts is to important a tool to be cheapening with attempts to use it just as a design review, or to stall by right development.

by Thayer-d on Feb 26, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

This is a dramatic improvement to the existing condition.

by Andrew on Feb 26, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

Regardless of the merits of the new design, it is important to consider the historic value of the existing building, the former Chevy Chase Ice Palace and WMAL studio, where significant bits of the city's cultural history took place. My summary of the building history is at:

http://www.streetsofwashington.com/2010/01/chevy-chase-ice-palace.html

The planned new building is in no way an art deco building, whereas the existing building is. The existing building has both historical and architectural significance.

by John DeFerrari on Feb 26, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

The existing building is Art Deco, but of the most banal type. It's 1938 date shows the last gasps of design and decoration before modernism snuffed it out entirely. There's none of the grace one associates with art deco, to say nothing of it's miserable pedestrian experience. And how is the new building not Art Deco?

by Thayer-d on Feb 26, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

Can't tell if I really like the design based on the graphics, but it is certainly an improvement over the existing building and a great location. Now all the need to do is provide decent bus service on Connecticut.

lol @ 500 ft setback

by Alan B. on Feb 26, 2013 2:31 pm • linkreport

Regarding the historic value, wasn't the existing building significantly renovated? Doesn't the extent and nature of renovations undermine whatever historic value remains?

by Van Nessy on Feb 26, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

Van Nessy - We will be having the developers make a presentation and answer questions at one of our upcoming ANC meetings, probably in March or April. Hope to see you there.

by ANC 3F on Feb 26, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

@John-Wow I had no idea there used to be an ice rink in there. Thanks for the link. The old building is cool, but it has no windows, a parking lot on Conn. Ave., and its a lot smaller. I'm all for the new building especially near the metro. My only concern is where will the new residents send heir kids to school? We are running out of space in the neighborhood schools.

by Turtleshell on Feb 26, 2013 2:36 pm • linkreport

Thanks ANC3F! I will try my best to attend.

by Van Nessy on Feb 26, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

Bummer. Every time I drive past Van Ness Square I think how cool it is that such a classic building is still standing and in use for commercial space so close to downtown.

Looked even better back in the day of course...
http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4032/4258261400_f3c3efa0c6_b.jpg

I'm not sure what the problem is with having street parking in front of stores. Seems like a nice gesture to customers.

by Chris on Feb 26, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure what the problem is with having street parking in front of stores. Seems like a nice gesture to customers.

A large portion of people who shop at these stores aren't coming by car, and having parking in between sidewalks and the stores means a less pleasant pedestrian environment, which means fewer pedestrians, which means less business.

by MLD on Feb 26, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

Building looks fine. Let them build.

by Jasper on Feb 26, 2013 2:47 pm • linkreport

This reminds me of the Camden Potomac Yard project in Arlington:

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-KdLztpe57i8/T3yhO4cZAhI/AAAAAAAA2Xc/De6kKb1FJbs/s708/Camden+Potomac+Yard

The architecture is fine, if a little uninspiring.

by Alison on Feb 26, 2013 2:54 pm • linkreport

I'm kind of shocked people like the current building. I think it's pretty ugly. It's barely a step above a strip mall as far as I can tell.

Re: parking: for a building on a major road it's best to have parking in the back or it presents a challenge to pedestrian continuity.

by Alan B. on Feb 26, 2013 2:56 pm • linkreport

wow the thread is all over the place.

1. Yes, the building is worth considering for historic designation because of its historicity. It doesn't have to be the equivalent of the absolute best art deco building in the world to be worth preserving.

a. and whether or not there is a historic district on CT Ave., there should be design review for CT Ave. given its prominence as a major thoroughfare in the city (e.g., this is the same reason that the Cafritz building needs design review, even though it also is a matter of right project).

2. Yes, for urban design, intensification, and leveraging the investment in transit infrastructure, it's worth consideration for building a new building that takes advantage of the location, adds housing, etc.

a. and it isn't necessary to denigrate the value of historic preservation to make this argument.

b. I'd be sad about the loss of this building complex, but can understand why the change is necessary.

c. but in return for the acceptance of loss, a way better design than this would likely be in order.

d. given the fact that BF Saul owns the Kennedy-Warren, a truly great art deco building on the corridor, they are capable of better...

3. Yes, the architecture for the proposed design could be better. (see previous statements)

4. Yes, parking lots in front of stores are convenient to customers, but no, that building form doesn't best leverage urban conditions. That being said, this part of the city developed differently than the core, but that being said, it's now the 21st century and going forward, the city needs to take strengthening urban conditions rather than diminishing them, into account when deciding on such questions.

by Richard Layman on Feb 26, 2013 2:58 pm • linkreport

This looks like an ideal project for the spot. Having lived in this area for 4+ years I would have appreciated more food/retail. I'm sure these units are going to be very expensive. I hope they create a semi-public spot for coffee etc. that overlooks the park.

by Nicoli on Feb 26, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

If they bring back the bowling alley and ice rink I'm in.

by Chris on Feb 26, 2013 3:02 pm • linkreport

The new building could definitely be Art Deco-ier. I love Art Deco and the current design feels more university campus to me than Urban/Connecticut Ave. But I still think it looks better than a lot of nearby buildings including the existing one.

by Alan B. on Feb 26, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

THe Vistana in San Antonio is a new construction building using art deco architecture.

http://chrisschramm.com/portfolio/web/buildingofamerica/news/articles/mudmur/0810/thevistana/index.html

it's pretty fabulous, at least from pictures.

by Richard Layman on Feb 26, 2013 3:12 pm • linkreport

these renderings btw look pretty typical for "new" such buildings in DC. It has a bit of "the gables in Takoma" look to it, although the gables is better and was designed by Eric Colbert.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/2929823150/

for a building in that location, I would prefer a light yellow brick comparable to the current building.

by Richard Layman on Feb 26, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

The building will have 226 parking spaces for the 273 apartments (which will range from studios to 3-bedroom units) plus the retail.
-----

I know the current rage is reduce or eliminate so-called "parking minimums" with the idea that not providing parking will somehow "discourage car ownership" and make existing cars magically disappear.

And maybe this new project will attract mainly people who don't drive (fat chance). But what about the effect on the surrounding area? What about visitors? And in the case of retail, what about customers?

Maybe it is an old-fashioned ("a 1960's way of thinking" as some say) to have developers provide off-street parking for their tenants and visitors but unless prospective tenants at this project will be required to sign a promise to neither buy a car nor associate or do busniness with anyone who drives, not providing adequate off-street parking is simply ignoring reality.

by ceefer66 on Feb 26, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

Richard,

Did you open the PDF? The material for the proposed building is very clearly brick if you look at the higher resolution image.

Also, maybe you like the detailing, but the massing of that San Antonio building is horrendously imposing. They couldn't have broken up that facade with some bays or some other kind of projection? Yeesh.

by Alex B. on Feb 26, 2013 3:20 pm • linkreport

I'd much rather just deal with street parking vs. the one row of parking you see in a lot of 60's era commercial strips. There is one a block from me and there are always cars stuck in it anyway not going anywhere.

by drumz on Feb 26, 2013 3:23 pm • linkreport

In response to Chris at 302PM it would be nice to find ways to squeeze in recreational amenities in some of these projects.

Why not go up to 9 stories here (this building borders on no homes on any side so if there is a place for density with no neighbors to complain this is it) and remove some of the units in the substructure inside the southern courtyard in the back and put in a public swimming pool there instead?

How nice would it be to have an outdoor swimming pool in upper NW that overlooked Rock Creek Park?

Is there a reason we should have to go to a private swim club in Bethesda to sit outside at the pool in the summer with some trees in view?

Let's go up here and create some more space on the ground that could be used for something for the community.

I'd certainly be curious if the developer is again choosing to do a Matter of Right project because it is the course of least resistance even though if ever there was a location for some more height this would be it.

by TomQ on Feb 26, 2013 3:24 pm • linkreport

Hi Tom- A public swimming pool overlooking the park sounds great to me, but developers are rarely so generous. They'll plant a couple of bushes, put out a couple of benches, hang a garish painting or sculpture and call it a day as far as public amenities go.

I mentioned ice rink/bowling alley because this building used to house both.

by Chris on Feb 26, 2013 3:28 pm • linkreport

The concept at that location is fine, but the building design itself looks like a generic office building, not a residence (with retail). It would be better suited as a branch office of an accounting firm, not as an apartment building on Connecticut Avenue!

by Creative Urbanist13 on Feb 26, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

Chris- hence my suggestion that they go up and do a PUD - they get more units with the taller building and the amenity is a public swimming people that would also be available for the residents and assuming they handed it off to DPR would be a possible long term cost savings for the developer as they don't have to build/maintain/insure the pool - also having worked as a lifeguard in many of these rooftop pools in DC 20 years ago I can tell you that they are almost completely unused during the week so it is just a wasted resource.

So looking at the overhead shot and seeing a pool on the roof in a part of the city that lacks an outdoor pool it strikes me as a bad investment and a lost opportunity.

But the bowling alley could be a private for profit venture and it is another example of the type of thing that folks in the city typically have to leave the city to find (and yes I know about Strike or whatever it is called).

by TomQ on Feb 26, 2013 3:36 pm • linkreport

My guess re: the pool is that it's economically rational. Residents will value have the exclusivity for the pool when they want it even if that's just 20 days a year for optimum usage because they will feel confident that they can use it when they want to. Community facilities will probably (and sadly) be seen as a nuisance by many.

by Alan B. on Feb 26, 2013 3:41 pm • linkreport

I have spent a good deal of time in that area, and although removing the small parking lot isn't a bad thing, the pedestrian environment in that area and along the ful length of upper Connecticut Ave won't be improved until the avenue traffic is somehow tamed. The way the cars race and roar along currently it's about as pleasant for a pedestrian as walking on New York Ave, NE, or the GW Parkway. This one project alone can't control the speed or volume of traffic, but let's not pretend that the removal of one small parking area is any kind of triumph for the pedestrian.

by DC202 on Feb 26, 2013 3:41 pm • linkreport

This building could defiantly be more refined, but look at it this way. It wasn't too long ago when you'd get your modernist box and be told to like it. Now, we are debating the finer points of aesthetics. Imagine how we'll be talking in 20 years! These debates are as it should be, rather than apathy in the face of nothingness.

by Thayer-d on Feb 26, 2013 3:43 pm • linkreport

ceefer66 : "And maybe this new project will attract mainly people who don't drive (fat chance). But what about the effect on the surrounding area? What about visitors? And in the case of retail, what about customers?"

Well, there's always Metrorail, bus service, walking, bikeshare, etc. If people wanted tons of free parking they'd have moved to Sterling or Laurel.

by Allen S. on Feb 26, 2013 3:52 pm • linkreport

Park Van Ness/Gables comparison. I'm not getting it.

by spookiness on Feb 26, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

While the sentiment is nice, it's naive to think that, if this were an augmented PUD, a developer would build a public swimming pool for DPR as an amenity. For anyone who has followed PUDs in recent years, the amenities seem to be getting thinner and thinner. Whereas in the past single apartment building PUDs had community arts/theater space for example, much larger PUDs seem to get approved with much less recently. About a mile from this site, Cathedral Commons is going up, and its principal amenity seems to be a small decorative fountain on the corner of Wisconsin and Idaho. So if a two-block mixed use PUD complex gets by with a "foot fountain," y'all are dreaming if you think this developer would build a public swimming pool. Unless perhaps it's the size of the Cathedral Commons fountain.

by Creative Urbanist13 on Feb 26, 2013 3:58 pm • linkreport

Attaching the Cafritz name to a cheap glass building with no character or charm seems fitting. There should be a special rung in hell for such architects.

I hope BF Saul uses the latest innovate environmentally friendly practices -- well beyond the District's low ball LEED standards. Reducing energy/utility costs to as close to zero as possible, is the smartest thing for owners and property managers. Low energy costs make housing more affordable -- even for rich folks.

by arch on Feb 26, 2013 4:02 pm • linkreport

Like I said, the community is not high on the list of the average developer's priorities, beyond whoever is actually paying for space in the building.

by Chris on Feb 26, 2013 4:05 pm • linkreport

Cafritz has managed to bungle every step of their project and it deserves to die.

The Van Ness building is just plain ugly and architecturally insignificant. It's life as an indoor entertainment venue seems limited. The parking garage is more of a headache for surface Parker's than pedestrians, but it would be great to change the orientation to Conn Ave.

by Rich on Feb 26, 2013 4:13 pm • linkreport

I wish both of these apartments/condos had balconies, even Juliette balconies.

by Tina on Feb 26, 2013 4:27 pm • linkreport

@ Richard Layman

When you discuss a design review, I wonder exactly how you'd have that work? I hope you don't mean an HPO-style review, where a few megalomaniacs determine which things they like and don't like about a project, and then send to the HPRB whose next act is to lop off a story. That takes care of that.

My most recent example is having HPO weigh in on the shape of the lawn for the new AU Law School Tenley campus, where they decided the stone fence must stay in place even though it is not part of the application nor is the date it was installed even known.

Of course, if I could have folks staff it like me, that would be great. Cafritz site = stinky. Van Ness = okay. But seriously, how exactly would this work?

To make matters worse, what kind of public input would there be? Of course, having more hearings is exactly what the NIMBYs and ceefer66 would want to have, so they could comment on the car parking and the front door and the, well you get the picture.

Please elaborate on how this would work.

by fongfong on Feb 26, 2013 4:29 pm • linkreport

ceefer66 - BF Saul is probably overdoing it with the parking. I live a block north of 4455 Connecticut. At least a third of my high-rise neighbors do not own cars, and half of the spaces in my building's parking garage are not being used by anyone.

As for retail, I'd be surprised if BF Saul did not make parking accommodations for retail customers. And if they don't, there is another severely underused parking garage just one block away, at the Giant.

Turtleshell: My only concern is where will the new residents send heir kids to school? We are running out of space in the neighborhood schools.

So should we then lock up the neighborhood to new residents and throw away the key? Anyway, 4455 Connecticut is currently within the boundary for Hearst Elementary, where in-boundary students are currently a minority. Overcrowding is not a problem there.

by TJ on Feb 26, 2013 4:49 pm • linkreport

I lived for a time in the adjacent apartment building (the Park Connecticut). It has a pretty big parking garage and at peak times (weekend nights) it would maybe get 75-80% full. During the day it was mostly empty. There were a lot of embassy staffers who lived there and they all seemed to own cars.

That stretch of Conn. Ave is ripe for more development and replacing Van Ness Square is a good first step. I used to spend most of my nights walking down to Cleveland Park for restaurants or bars(would have loved to take the bus but the L-lines on Conn are among the worst I've experienced as far as dependability). I think it's only a matter of time. Next big target: the intelsat monstrosity.

I will say that I moved away as soon as I could--that area is such a wasteland. It's a shame, too, because its metro stop and proximity desirable neighborhoods give it some good natural advantages for urban living.

by ald on Feb 26, 2013 5:53 pm • linkreport

hmm.

1. Alex, it wasn't the brick but the design. The building renderings looks pretty much like lots of similar buildings constructed in the city.

2. wrt "a pool," all the more reason to have a citywide parks and rec plan, with sector subplans. Who knows what the priorities are for that area, what UDC does (e.g., an inventory, etc.). But yes, other comments that this would be a high risk low return contribution by a developer are apt.

3. Gables, the buildings look alike, just sized differently. But the gables building uses brick more creatively. I'm not saying it's the best building in the world, just a little less cookie cutter.

4. wrt creative urbanist13's point about community benefits, yep, the system is broken. For one it doesn't assign a monetary value to density bonuses. For another the process isn't very open or rigorous. I've argued that is intentional, to reduce the outlays on developers.

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2008/06/community-benefits-agreements-revised.html

5. fongfong, the way DC does design review isn't the only way. There are hundreds of such bodies across the US. Some work well, others don't. Typically, if you look at how it's done elsewhere, there are local design review committees, with people with expertise appointed, and they have relevant experience.

I think the big thing is based on the architectural significance of an area, to set design expectations along those lines. DK the AU situation you described, but I'd call in a landscape architecture historian to weigh in.

I wouldn't say this is the greatest, but this is a nice webpage, http://planning.city.cleveland.oh.us/designreview/applicantsGuide.pdf

Baltimore has a good system too.

http://www.baltimorecity.gov/Government/AgenciesDepartments/Planning/UrbanDesignArchitectureReviewPanel/DevelopmentProjects.aspx

Today, I came across an incredible publication by Roanoke, the Residential Pattern Book. It also has a section on Neighborhood Patterns --Downtown, Urban, and Suburban, which offers relevance to DC.

http://www.roanokeva.gov/85256A8D0062AF37/vwContentbyKey/N2862HC6939BTFKEN?open

Similarly, for DR on the Avenues, at least CT, MA, and 16th Street, which are particularly known for large apartment buildings, I'd develop guidelines based on that kind of typology. I don't know of a good district elsewhere as a model, but it must be out there.

One can start too, as a resource, with Goode's book _Best Addresses_ and some of the basic architectural history books on apartment buildings--if there are any.

by Richard Layman on Feb 26, 2013 5:59 pm • linkreport

@Creative Urbanist13 -- I think the biggest community benefit (at least a community benefit that project opponents wanted, and got) is 560 underground parking spaces.

These should more than cover the usage needs of the 145 housing units, Giant, and other retailers in the project, as well as all of the existing retail and restaurants in the neighborhood that used to have their customers park in the (way-too-big) Giant lot.

by Jacques on Feb 26, 2013 6:08 pm • linkreport

@Rich - Why do you say the current building is "architecturally insignificant"? I'd say the design is unique for the area. Too bad the new design does little to emulate it.

by Chris on Feb 26, 2013 6:09 pm • linkreport

... some of the basic architectural history books on apartment buildings--if there are any.

There are thousands. But no amount of research is going to make design review any more sensible. It's still going to be the view of one group over another, beholden to fashion, mixed with personal preferences, and caught up in definitions of style, and dragging on with ever-changing demands. How is that any better than letting the developer and her architect do what they like with a set of simple, proven rules that allow for originality within proven constraints. In most of the city formal design is not one of the government's interests.

As far as this design is concerned, it's fine. Its flaws show a pitfall of thinking with style. Sure, we'd agree that both this and the existing building are "Art Deco," but the architects who built in that style had different roots and were trying to accomplish different kinds of architecture. The massing and patterning are more classical than the buildings from that period, so the art deco lines that emphasize linear motion, like in the existing building, don't exactly match, to my mind.

The line of pylons at the property edge add a nice rhythm to the street and contain the outdoor restaurant. That's something new to the area, and it's definitely the kind of detail that review boards love to kill.

Let them build it, and let's learn from it.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 26, 2013 6:49 pm • linkreport

Neil, when you say, "letting the developer and her architect do what they like with a set of simple, proven rules that allow for originality within proven constraints," are you thinking form-based codes, or just what the market will tolerate.

by Jon on Feb 26, 2013 6:56 pm • linkreport

I'm also curious about what these "proven rules that allow for originality within proven constraints" might be. Please elaborate.

While we're at it, what are these flaws that "show a pitfall of thinking with style."? Should architects avoid thinking "with style"? (Not sure what that means.)

"the architects who built in that style had different roots and were trying to accomplish different kinds of architecture." Again, what roots are you talking about? And how were they trying to accomplish different kinds of architecture?

"The massing and patterning are more classical than the buildings from that period, so the art deco lines that emphasize linear motion, like in the existing building, don't exactly match, to my mind." Fair enough, but in case you are unaware, every style has as many iterations as there are personality types. The site below shows just a few, but there are as many combinations as one's imagination can dream up if one frees oneself of "rules".

http://www.invitinghome.com/art-deco/art-deco-modern.htm#3

by Thayer-D on Feb 26, 2013 8:39 pm • linkreport

Thayer, I think architects should spend less time worrying about the difference between sludge metal and doom metal and study the form and ornamental patterns. Categories are post-hoc organizations.

Do you think that designers were worried that they might be producing Moderne instead of Streamline? No, and this is exactly what design review will get caught up in.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 26, 2013 9:52 pm • linkreport

Jon, I was thinking of a modest form-based code, pushing the building to the edge of the site, etc. I don't think it needs to be so specific to produce great urbanism. I think there is enough variety of density and rhythm that beyond a few nudges, the designers can figure it out.

With a design review panel, you don't necessarily know how a building will be received, or how political influence and personal opinion might pop up.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 26, 2013 10:05 pm • linkreport

I really like the connection between the two "wings" of the building where Yuma Street ends. Not only is it set back from the rest of the building, the opening/passage is high and wide and feels like an actual "space," not just a tunnel. This is exactly what I wish was being done at Studio Plaza in Silver Spring but, alas, it wasn't meant to be.

by dan reed! on Feb 26, 2013 10:12 pm • linkreport

I don't think people "worry" about categories, but they are how the human mind organizes information as all of life is post hoc (as you say). It would be impractical not to use categories, or in this case stylistic labels unless we go about describing every detail.

As for review panels, public opinion is actually what you're looking for. Most people's opinion here seems to favor the BF Saul building over the Cafritz building. Modernists might not agree, but it's understood they operate within a narrow stylistic (I mean formal language) spectrum, therefore the review panel might ask for a little more than the placement of a building, which can be handled with zoning regulations.

A design review won't necessarily get caught up in what style a building is but rather the quality of it's composition and wether it adds or detracts from the character of the street and the neighborhood. It won't always work perfectly, but if it keeps upper Connecticut Avenue from becoming another glass canyon like K street or Crystal city, then I'm all for it. Until architects learn some manners, their egocentrism should be balanced with the public's desire for good urbanism, whether you like "sludge or doom" architecture.

by Thayer-d on Feb 27, 2013 8:36 am • linkreport

Having grown up 3 blocks away, and set to move back to the neighborhood next month, I'm quite pleased with this project. For the past 40 years, this has always been a pretty dead space. The neighborhood is brimming with people and would gladly visit a pleasant space if given the chance.

I liked Van Ness as a kid because nobody was around. My friends and I could do whatever we wanted. While that's cool for a 14-year old, it's a sign of lousy architecture.

by TLL on Feb 27, 2013 9:23 am • linkreport

Why are they not building it taller?

by H Street LL on Feb 27, 2013 9:49 am • linkreport

As a Van Ness area resident, I'll miss the architecture of the existing building sans the un-urban front parking. That said, the Saul proposal looks pretty nice and will be a big help in maintaining neighborhood retail and more people to support that. I would say there is way too much parking given that the building is two blocks from the Metrorail station and the L1, L2 and H2 bus routes.

Buildings along the east side of Connecticut Avenue take advantage of the grade change to add several floors below the Connecticut Ave. street level facing the Park.

by Steve Strauss on Feb 27, 2013 10:55 am • linkreport

"A design review won't necessarily get caught up in what style a building is but rather the quality of it's composition and wether it adds or detracts from the character of the street and the neighborhood."

I'm not sure I follow. If, hypothetically, a building's style is not a good match with its surroundings (and any structures it replaces), than how can it add to the established character of the street in question? Seems to me that would alter rather than enhance the character.

by Chris on Feb 27, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

I said not necessarily because some neighborhoods are so eclectic as to make the issue of style irrelevant. See the most recent post on GGW about the U street building where HPRB deals with this issue directly. Unfortunately with aesthetics one has to accept a certain level of subjectivity, which is why these reviews are important to air these issues.

by Thayer-d on Feb 27, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

Richard,

Alex, it wasn't the brick but the design. The building renderings looks pretty much like lots of similar buildings constructed in the city.

I mentioned the brick because you specifically asked about it:

for a building in that location, I would prefer a light yellow brick comparable to the current building.

Which is exactly what those renderings show.

As far as design review goes: at what cost? Can the same public benefits be achieved with a modest form-based code guidance that provides for a much simpler and expidited approvals process?

TomQ asked above:

I'd certainly be curious if the developer is again choosing to do a Matter of Right project because it is the course of least resistance even though if ever there was a location for some more height this would be it.

Height without density is not of great use. The advantage to this site is that you can have several floors of apartments below the grade of Conn. Ave that open up into the valley, allowing you to get that extra density without fighting the battle of height.

Matter of right zoning almost certainly plays a huge role into the developer's decision. Any alteration of those rights introduces risk to the project. Sometimes, you want to take those risks. However, if the underlying zoning entitlements are sufficient for you to deliver a good project, why take that risk?

by Alex B. on Feb 27, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

Alex B - I would disagree with your premise here that density trumps height or that you can have one and not the other.

And it is a particular issue in DC because we get lots of square buildings with high lot occupancies.

Why not go up here, get the same density or I guess to be precise a similar number of units and perhaps higher depending on what they actually do, and retain some usable square footage at ground level that can be used for something else?

I think these arguments should be site specific and for this site I see a building literally hundreds of feet from any nearby residences (and very few for that matter and also buffered from them by RCP and other buildings) on a corridor with many 9 story buildings.

But we have a high lot occupancy which precludes what could be better uses at the ground level - something more substantive on the back overlooking the park which would be cool - whether my swimming pool idea or a larger outdoor seating area for possible restaurant tenants etc.

I see less than optimal or even good trade-offs with a Matter of Right project instead of a PUD with more height and perhaps a lower lot occupancy.

But perhaps this is an indication of just how high the cost of doing a PUD is in Ward 3.

And at any rate this building should have a couple of more stories on it.

by TomQ on Feb 27, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

One possibility re: height, and I'm not an expert, is that after a a certain height structural safety/ building codes might required costlier material such as more reinforced concrete. Also from an ROI point of view it's usually hard to beat a box unless you're talking iconic architechture or a really special location.

by Alan B. on Feb 27, 2013 6:13 pm • linkreport

I love the proposed open arch with a view of the park, but the architecture is pretty boring--typical of Washington. At least the Cafritz building takes a risk.

by DRW on Feb 27, 2013 10:00 pm • linkreport

Now here is a great modern Art Deco building in Los Angeles. I wish there were some of these built in DC.

http://tcaarchitects.com/wp-content/themes/tca/assets/images/portfolio-arch-projects/5550-wilshire/5550-wilshire-large-01.jpg

by Ben on Feb 28, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

I agree with Ben - the link is to an attractive, modern Art Deco building that seems to respect its context.

by Creative Urbanist13 on Feb 28, 2013 4:30 pm • linkreport

In general, design review is a terrible idea. It leads to design by committee which leads to the least common denominator. Many say that too much Federal design review is the root cause of mediocrity in architecture in DC. A decent form-based code or set of neighborhood design guidelines that clarifies the most important urban characteristics a building in a certain location must have is enough.

by Ron Eichner on Feb 28, 2013 6:12 pm • linkreport

"the architecture is pretty boring--typical of Washington. At least the Cafritz building takes a risk. "

This assumption that a building is good only if it takes risks is an interesting assumption. On the surface it seems good becasue we all admire "risk takers". But what if they are merely attention seekers? Architecturally, what passes for avant guard seems mostly to take into account an archtiect's ego rather than what's best for the street and the community as people generally tend to look at archtiecture as backdrop, unless it grabs you by the lappels and demands attention.

I'm also not certain that an all glass building can be considered risky since we've been building then like that for more than 50 years, but I suppose in it's context, it does seem edgy.

There's a great article on city design guidelines that Los Angeles is now putting forward to bring up the general level of archtiectural design. http://archpaper.com/news/articles.asp?id=6520

by Thayer-D on Mar 1, 2013 8:14 am • linkreport

Well the shopping mall has really been dead for ages. But how excited can I be about one more apartment complex popping up a couple of blocks from me that will undoubtedly be out of my financial reach. Who on earth pays those $2200/month rents for 1BRs in these spots?

by Nancy on Mar 2, 2013 12:16 pm • linkreport

People who value a new building, and living in upper NW, more than they value space, and who are not in the market to buy. Of course this might pull some of those folks out of slightly older buildings, making those cheaper than they otherwise would be.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 2, 2013 4:31 pm • linkreport

I'm pleased with the design. It would be lovely if they planned for a restaurant with a view of the park.

by Christine Demick on Mar 18, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

My concern isn't the design as much as it is the cost of renting these units. Are there plans for these to be affordable or will they simply jack up the cost of living in the neighborhood? It is not clear that having more units available at market rate lower rents in older buildings. I see no evidence of that whatsoever when the new units raise the desirability of a neighborhood. And rent control is all but non-existent in new buildings. As someone with no capacity to purchase and having grown up in the neighborhood this is a very real concern.

by Kate on Mar 25, 2013 8:11 pm • linkreport

Thank goodness. The old building is brutal...who builds a building with no windows...and a terrible waste of space. One of Van Ness' biggest problems is the lack of attractive outdoor space. Hopefully this building will address that issue. We also need more independent local businesses and more diversity -- please no more dry cleaners and chain sandwich shops.

by Van Ness on Apr 3, 2013 4:38 pm • linkreport

As a former ice skating rink, windows were probably not a top design priority.

As for being a waste of space, you could fill it with the independent local businesses you desire.

by Chris S. on Apr 3, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

BF Saul is determined to turn the Van Ness area into a ghetto. No public parking spaces in the building? Stupid. I have been living in the area for 15 years. Year after year restaurants start and fold start and fold, start and fold, start and fold. Why? NO PARKING available! Do you think diners are going to take the Metro to dinner in Van Ness. Dream On. The building will open, no restaurateur in his right mind will lease the space. The space will remain vacant just like store front spaces all over Van Ness have been year after year until a KFC finally occupies the space. Put public parking in the building, especially Valet parking for the restaurants!

by John Saunders on Sep 10, 2013 3:23 pm • linkreport

The ghetto? Oh boy.

From the article above: The building will have 226 parking spaces for the 273 apartments (which will range from studios to 3-bedroom units) plus the retail.

Do you know something the rest of us don't know?

by TJ on Sep 10, 2013 3:48 pm • linkreport

As a homeowner living near this project I'm absolutely opposed to having more apartments. Restaurants and shops yes, apartment dwellers as neighbors NO! NO! It will only create more parking problems and destroy the neighborhood character and tranquility as more strangers invade our streets and play areas. There are apartment buildings on nearly every corner or in every block of Connecticut north of Tilden. Enough is Enough!

by Jar on Sep 10, 2013 4:18 pm • linkreport

Yes, we renters are the reason the 4000-5000 blocks of Connecticut Avenue are such a hotbed of unsavory activity. We've been destroying the neighborhood's character for some 80 years.

by TJ on Sep 10, 2013 4:26 pm • linkreport

T.J. You obviously don't live in our neighborhood. Most of the apartment buildings on Connecticut have adequate parking but renters would rather pay $35 a year for a RPP sticker than to pay for parking in their building. Unless there is the requirement for all renters in the building who own cars to park in the building there will be an onslaught of unwanted cars parked in front of our homes for days on end. We look forward to restaurants and retail not more cars owned by renters--A blight on the neighborhood.

by Jar on Sep 10, 2013 5:53 pm • linkreport

I've lived in Forest Hills and been active in Forest Hills longer than a lot of homeowners in Forest Hills. If and when I do buy, I will likely buy in Forest Hills. But I don't think I should be judged as lacking in character because I haven't yet made a down payment.

And I can hardly blame the renters (and condo owners) who choose to legally park their cars on the street. I pay the $1500 dollars a year to park in my building, but the difference between that and the $35/year RPP fee is a failure of city policies, not of the renters.

by TJ on Sep 10, 2013 6:18 pm • linkreport

Jar, I also want to say I've been perhaps a bit too strident here because at first you made it about the people, not the cars. I agree 100% that people who bring cars into transit-accessible neighborhoods where street space is tight should be required in some way to park off the street - whether its in a condo, apartment building or a detached home's own garage or alley spot.

by TJ on Sep 10, 2013 7:25 pm • linkreport

TJ

I certainly hope that your interpretation of the author's sentence is correct versus mine. Subject + Verb = "building will have", object(s) "parking spaces" plus "the retail." This doesn't mitigate the fact that, of the communities along Connecticut Avenue, including Woodley Park, Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase,Van Ness is the one least blessed with character. I am tired of the frequent if not perpetually empty storefronts, seven chain fast food outlets, and overabundance of dry cleaners. I will certainly shift my opinion on Park Van Ness when convinced that it will provide more character to our neighborhood with an arts/crafts store, ice cream parlor, french bakery cafe, and restaurants on par with Tesoro.

by John Saunders on Sep 10, 2013 7:43 pm • linkreport

This building should be roughly 200 feet tall, or 20 stories instead of 6, on Connecticut Ave, as limited by Ft. Reno water supply. The north east side of Connecticut Ave, near the buried portion of the Red line, north of the Van Ness Metro stop, is a uniquely suited site for tall buildings, not casting shadows on the key public spaces (especially the Metro stop) most of the day and year. This would fit easily 3 times as many very valuable people here. The opportunity cost for DC in economic opportunity, and tax base, of 6 story building is extremely large.

by Nathaniel Pendleton on Nov 20, 2013 11:49 pm • linkreport

The project is not being developed by B F Saul as stated in Mr. Alpert's article; it is being developed by Saul Centers Inc., which is a real estate investment trust (reit), traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

by Stuart Glasser on Dec 10, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

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