Greater Greater Washington

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Is a big building "incompatible" with a historic area?

Dupont Circle has a mix of large buildings, medium ones, and smaller rowhouses. If a property owner wants to build something as high as zoning allows, which is lower than some buildings but taller than most, is that "incompatible" with the historic character of the neighborhood? That's one debate around a proposed project at 18th and Church streets, NW.


Perspective view of proposed building on Church Street. All images from the project team unless otherwise noted.

This corner was once a grand gothic church which burned down from arson in 1970. The St. Thomas Episcopal parish has been using a secondary building, which had been their parish hall, ever since, but wants to build a new church.

St. Thomas solicited bids from developers who could build the residential building and a new church. The winner, CAS Riegler, then reached out to neighbors to understand people's desires around the project.

Neighbors who share the alley with the church wanted some open space along the alley. The current parish hall comes right out to the alley, and the neighbors wanted it set back from the alley. It also would mean that if the residential building extends upward, it would not block light from the southwest which they get in afternoons and evenings.

The architects, from MTFA (for the church) and Hickok Cole (for CAS Riegler) accommodated this. They also reversed a parking ramp so that drivers going in and out of the parking garage would not travel all the way down the alley, and they set back upper floors from the adjacent townhouses.


Perspective view of proposed building on 18th Street.

The church and developer did not, however, accede to requests from some neighbors to significantly shrink down the project to more like four stories. Neighbors have been organizing to oppose the project.

The Dupont Circle Citizens' Association passed a resolution asking the city to consider buying the property for park, but even if it were for sale (and it is not), the recent Play DC Master Plan delineates an area of high need for parkland, and this area isn't inside it.

What will the preservationists say?

DC's Historic Preservation Review Board will examine this project, since the site is part of the Dupont Circle historic district, and will determine whether the size of the proposed building is "compatible" with the historic district. Is it?

A group of neighbors hired preservation consultant Stephen Hansen to assemble arguments against the proposed project. Among many points, Hansen's report argues that any building of 70 feet, the height that zoning allows, is incompatible with the historic district.

There are a number of even taller and larger buildings in the immediate area, including the Dupont East at 18th and Q, the Copley Plaza apartments at 17th and Church, and the Parisian-style building that used to house the National Trust for Historic Preservation at 18th and Massachusetts.

According to Hansen's report, the "Statement of Significance" for the historic district, formed in 1977, says:

the immediate area around the Circle itself contains some high-rise mid-twentieth century intrusions, the remainder of the Historic District is characterized by a juxtaposition of grand, palatial mansions lining two of the avenuesMassachusetts and New Hampshirewhich traverse the historic districtand rowhouse development of excellent architectural quality of the grid streets.
Therefore, Hansen argues, the similarly-sized and larger buildings in the area are "intrusions" and allowing another building beyond row house height will "compromise the historic integrity of the entire historic district."

The arguments around this project are very similar to the ones around the Takoma Metro: This is right near a Metro station, but the proposed height, which is larger than many nearby houses but not as large as every building, is nonetheless incompatible, some say.

The Dupont Circle Conservancy, the local historic preservation group, didn't agree. In its resolution, that organization supported the overall project, though a majority of members felt the church design could be further improved and wanted the building to rise more gradually from the existing rowhouses toward 18th Street, basically setting the top floors back farther on that side.

I don't believe this is incompatible

I live nearly across the street from this project and don't think it would destroy the street or make the historic district lose its character.

The original church was also large and tall, though very different in design. Erecting a prominent building on this corner actually restores, rather than damages, this characteristic of the historic district during its period of significance. The still-standing parish hall building was always subordinate to the church itself, so incorporating it into a larger building is an appropriate and compatible way to adaptively reuse this site.


Sidewalk perspective rendering from Church Street. Image from the project team.


Photograph from the sidewalk in front of my house. Photo by the author.

Like many residents of the area, I appreciate and cherish the park-like space at the corner of 18th and Church. However, I also recognize that this is not a public park, but an empty space where a church building once stood, and that zoning gives the church every right to build a structure on this site.

If the park is to disappear, adding housing is a valuable use of this land for the public good. The District faces a housing shortage which has made living in many neighborhoods, including Dupont Circle, out of reach for many people. This building will have to provide a few affordable units under the Inclusionary Zoning law. Further, adding more housing will take one small step toward adding the housing the city needs.

No one building is going to single-handedly address the housing crisis, but since most people do not want to see neighborhoods like Dupont Circle redeveloped wholesale, adding housing at sites like this one is an excellent way to make a start.

I do want to ensure that the buildings' operations do not lead to lines of cars queueing and idling on Church Street, such as for pick-up and drop-off if the church hosts a small school, for funeral processions, and regular deliveries. The applicants have promised to work out further details as the project proceeds through the development process; if they get historic approval, it looks like they will also need some zoning exceptions.

The area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 2B, will discuss the project tonight at its meeting at the Brookings Institution, 1775 Massachusetts Avenue, NW. The meeting runs from 7-10 pm and this project will probably come up between 8 and 9. Any residents or other people can (and should) speak up with their views.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

Comments

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Interesting that they keep the trees in that rendering. I'd suspect the plan is to kill them.

"I do want to ensure that the buildings' operations do not lead to lines of cars queueing and idling on Church Street, such as for pick-up and drop-off if the church hosts a small school, for funeral processions, and regular deliveries. "

Is that a valid objection?

Overall, meh. For the amount they are spending I'd hire a better architect.

by charlie on Jul 9, 2014 12:41 pm • linkreport

I have zero problem with this project whatsoever, at least from a land use/density perspective.

On the other hand, that church from 18th Street is really unattractive. But that's no reason to stop them from doing what they want.

Back off, NIMBYs.

by LowHeadways on Jul 9, 2014 1:11 pm • linkreport

Interesting that they keep the trees in that rendering. I'd suspect the plan is to kill them.

Why would you suspect this?

by Alex B. on Jul 9, 2014 1:14 pm • linkreport

Yes, I should have been more specific; the church not the condos.

I wonder how much the land costs.

by charlie on Jul 9, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

I support the project in principle. Everything about what they're doing seems entirely reasonable to me.

But we just got rid of that brutalist monstrosity of a Christian Scientist Church. While the renderings don't make it look quite that ugly, they can do a lot better than that ugly design.

by Zeus on Jul 9, 2014 1:16 pm • linkreport

Again, I say the standardless nature of the historic preservation review process in DC makes it prone to abuse. They could rule either way based on "compatibility," and who could say they were wrong?

by Crickey7 on Jul 9, 2014 1:29 pm • linkreport

charlie: The traffic issue is a valid objection because they don't want to have a loading dock. There are complicated zoning questions about whether they need to. I will probably get into that in a later post.

by David Alpert on Jul 9, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B who responded to: 'Interesting that they keep the trees in that rendering. I'd suspect the plan is to kill them.'Why would you suspect this?"

Because it happens a lot. Take Cathedral Commons, for example, the two-block quasi town center going up on Wisconsin. The developers misstated the width of Idaho Ave., then later asked to widen the street which required felling several large oaks., Then they turned around and asked for modification of the zoning order which required trees to be planed around the project of a certain size. They changed it so they could buy cheaper, smaller trees.

by Alf on Jul 9, 2014 2:07 pm • linkreport

Accidentally killing the trees you intend to preserve is very different from 'planning to kill them.'

by Alex B. on Jul 9, 2014 2:13 pm • linkreport

@DaveAlpert; that's fine, my point is that everyone -- even you -- is using some degree of coersion on the developer. It is all a matter of degree.

@AlexB; not really.Tree cover like that takes 30-40 years to regrow. I'd throw in some massive penalties -- say 1M a tree -if they "accidently" get killed.

by charlie on Jul 9, 2014 2:16 pm • linkreport

Language matters, charlie. Intent matters.

by Alex B. on Jul 9, 2014 2:28 pm • linkreport

To say that similarly-sized and larger buildings in the area are "intrusions" is not to understand the historic character of the neighborhood. There should be no problem with a building this height here, it's not Georgetown.

On the otherhand, the design seems ham-handed. I'm always amazed that developers/architects who want to build tall in historic neighborhoods don't do a better job aesthetically. That church looks like it's in Dubai.

by Thayer-D on Jul 9, 2014 2:48 pm • linkreport

This looks like they were trying really hard to hide the residential building's bulk and not to offend anyone. A better strategy might be to create a bolder building that's attractive enough that its size would be an asset, not a liability, but when you're on tiptoes trying to get past all the citizens groups and historical reviews I guess you try not to rock the boat.

Architectural merits (or lack thereof) aside, the project seems appropriate for the site.

by jimble on Jul 9, 2014 3:11 pm • linkreport

@AlexB; fair enough when you are talking criminal cases.

In this case I was referring to the difference between the photo rendering and the drawings. Nobody has talked about the trees and their future. Given the disparity, I'd be concerned.

And give, as others have said, the track record construction companies bring to tree killing.

by charlie on Jul 9, 2014 3:57 pm • linkreport

I suspect that one of the reasons that big has come to be seen as incompatible with historic is the nature of the big that is often built. We know there are ways to architecturally de-emphasize the mass of a building but so often developers don't do this because they want maximize the square footage (increase profits) and make the building of it cheaper (minimize costs).

by ET on Jul 9, 2014 3:59 pm • linkreport

For some context, here's what the church looked like prior to being burned down. Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

by Adam L on Jul 9, 2014 5:06 pm • linkreport

The old church was pretty, the proposed one is an ugly church design.

by asffa on Jul 10, 2014 3:42 am • linkreport

Sure, the old church was beautiful, but I can't even begin to imagine how much a Gothic church would cost to build today, not to mention that it probably wouldn't be the best use of space for the church. The design is meh, but it's their land and they can do what they want with it. More community space and more housing seems like a win to me.

by Abby on Jul 10, 2014 8:20 am • linkreport

Comparing this to Takoma seems like a stretch, and a dogwhistle of sorts to get people who are angry about that angry about this by default. Yes, they're both near metro stations, but they're wildly different neighborhoods.

Also, "a group of neighbors" commissions someone to come up with an argument against a project that you personally like, and you start implicitly blaming HPRB? [Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Daniel on Jul 10, 2014 10:59 am • linkreport

Abby- why the import on adding more housing? This area isn't actually short of condos or apartments.

by asffa on Jul 10, 2014 11:00 am • linkreport

There are legitimate debates to be had about what type/scale of urban infill is appropriate. This isn't one of them. The proposed building is not replacing anything of historical significance, is in keeping with the scale of other buildings in the neighborhood, and there are 2 parks within a block in either direction.

Opposing the scale is just NIMBYism at its worst. Now there could be a constructive debate to be had over design of the project.

Realistically though, is there any chance the opponents could block the project or is this just some griping that will soon be ignored/forgotten?

by Chris on Jul 10, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

@assfa: Because there is an (affordable) housing shortage in DC and more housing (especially more units designated as affordable) will allow more people to afford to live here

by MaxB on Jul 10, 2014 11:47 am • linkreport

David,

I respect your view, but I think there are some very important flaws in your argument here. For example:

1. Your title asks this question: "Is a big building 'incompatible' with a historic area?" Your answer, after lots of text, is essentially, "No, because there used to be a big building there." What you DON'T say is that the building that used to be there was significantly smaller (in height, other than the spire, and massing) than what is being planned.

2. Your article mentions says "There are a number of even taller and larger buildings in the immediate area." What you DON'T say is that nearly every building that is taller and larger was built BEFORE the city enacted historic preservation laws. You don't have to like those laws, but we all have to abide by them.

3. You say Hansen's report says "allowing another building beyond row house height will 'compromise the historic integrity of the entire historic district.'" Hansen's report does not say this, and I think it is unfair to characterize it this way.

4. You also neglect to note this very clear statement from the Dupont Circle Overlay District law: "The Dupont Circle area is a unique resource to the District of Columbia that must be preserved and enhanced. Strong protections are needed to retain its low scale, predominately residential character, independent small retail businesses, human scale streetscapes, and historic character, given the high-density development pressures caused by the proximity of the Central Employment Area and Dupont Circle Metrorail Station." I'm not sure what could be more clear than this.

Kudos to you, however, for advancing the debate respectfully on your blog. Your opinion is different from most neighbors', but it is much more helpful than the angry outbursts we have seen on both sides.

by N.B. on Jul 14, 2014 4:29 pm • linkreport

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