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Howard Town Center racing to hit the low bar

On Monday evening, CastleRock Partners, the development team selected by Howard University after a decades-long back-story for its Howard Town Center project on Georgia Avenue at V Street, presented its concept for the site at a meeting hosted by the Pleasant Plains Civic Association.

Conceptual floor plans. Images from the developer.

As part of its long-term ground lease agreement with the university, which the developers said should be signed within a week, the project must include a grocery store and the developers were looking to include approximately 450 apartment units. Otherwise, the developers stressed that their proposal was in its initial phases and things like design and potential tenants were subject to change.

That's good, because the Howard Town Center proposal as it stands needs some work. Here are the areas of contention:

Connecting W Street: In 2005, the City Council adopted the Duke plan, a small area plan for Shaw and U Street. One of the key components of the Duke plan was guidance for public realm improvements in the neighborhood, including knitting together the superblocks into a better grid. Tim Kissler of CastleRock told the at-capacity room Monday evening that "what we have is basically what's drawn in [the Duke] plan."

Except it's not. The Duke plan connects W Street between Georgia and Florida Avenues. This project as proposed would prevent that from happening, instead using that area as an underground parking ramp.

Duke plan proposal for W Street.

Howard University needs to better connect with surrounding neighborhoods. There are few better ways to do that than to stitch together the missing street grid that separates the university from the neighborhoods to the west. As it stands, this proposal fails to achieve this community goal. The Town Center proposal includes a mid-block pedestrian cut-through, but it's located closer to V Street. Perhaps it would be more effective closer to W Street, where the connection is actually missing.

Parking: Since the exact amount of retail is not yet determined (the number floated Monday was up to 125,000 square feet, including the grocery store), the developers wouldn't put a number to the amount of parking they plan to include. They acknowledged the forces competing over parking, with the DC Office of Planning pushing for fewer spaces than required and potential retail tenants (on whom project financing depends) interested in more suburban amounts of parking. It looks like OP has learned the lesson of DC USA, even if retailers have not. When a neighbor raised the issue of the water table hampering underground construction, Tim Kissler told her that it just costs a lot of money to build deep. Since all of this project's parking will be underground, there is a big opportunity cost to building as much parking as retailers demand. That money could be used for a lot of other things that actually make the project better.

Affordable housing: The project is participating in DC's Inclusionary Zoning program, but the developers are only meeting the IZ minimums, proposing that 8 percent of the residential units be priced below market value. This was a big concern for many residents at the meeting, who were dissatisfied with such a low number.

Sidewalks: A DDOT representative at the meeting noted that Georgia Avenue's sidewalks are their narrowest at this project's location. Despite the high-traffic retail proposed for this project, the developer didn't provide for wider sidewalks in this draft plan and seemed reluctant to do so when asked about it by a neighbor. DDOT's representative said that this is something DDOT will be negotiating with the developer. This project is also within Georgia Avenue's Great Streets plan, and the timeline for streetscape improvements on lower Georgia Avenue coincides with the construction timeline for this project.

8th Street streetscape: One neighbor raised her concern that 8th Street, NW would become a de facto alley for this project, with loading docks and insensitive design not unlike DC USA's treatment of Hiatt Place. While there will be loading docks, residential units will also be located on the upper floors of the project along 8th Street. The devil will be in the details for 8th Street - loading docks may move or become larger or smaller, drastically affecting the quality of the streetscape.

Conceptual rendering of Howard Town Center. Photo from the developers.

Although the developers stressed that their $150 million proposal shown Monday was preliminary, they also laid out an aggressive timeline for development despite the sluggish economy, with groundbreaking in one year and another 18 months until the project's completion. The developers said that they decided not to go through the Planned Unit Development process because it would have taken too much time, and the project is not seeking any zoning variances. PUDs give the public, through the Zoning Commission, an opportunity to improve the design and push for benefits for the community.

While an improvement for Georgia Avenue, the project as it stands barely meets the minimums for responsible development. Because the developer isn't planning a PUD, citizens will need to work hard to ensure the developer improves the product.

Stephen Miller lived in the District from 2008 to 2011 and is now a student at Pratt Institute's city and regional planning masters program. 


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I live maybe five blocks north of this project on Sherman. While there may be a couple of aesthetic issues with the project that I was unaware of, it's so vastly preferable to the vacant lots and abandoned buildings in that complex that I'm willing to accept it even if it can't be changed.

by J.D. Hammond on Sep 2, 2009 3:07 pm • linkreport

I agree that residents should push on the W Street connection. It would be great if V street went all the way through as well. As it stands, V St. is jumbled by the terminus of Vermont Ave. Try riding even a bike through there without risking your life.

What happens to the 9:30 club and the lots around it?

by Ward 1 Guy on Sep 2, 2009 3:13 pm • linkreport

I'd like to see throughput on 8th or 9th Street. I'm not entirely sure if it's possible to walk to the 9:30 club from, say, Banneker High without having to divert to Georgia (bad) or Sherman (worse).

by J.D. Hammond on Sep 2, 2009 3:21 pm • linkreport

I think it's great that the developer wants to push ahead with construction so quickly, in this economy. While many of the changes you suggest sound meritorious, I'd rather see this project proceed now as proposed (good but not perfect) than sit for a couple of years in regulatory limbo while everybody gets their say.

DC's highly discretionary approval process slows the pace of development and adds tremendously to real estate costs in the city; overall, this ends up meaning it's less affordable to live in the District, and it contributes to region-wide small. It's too bad more developments of this scale aren't able to go the as-of-right development route.

by Josh B on Sep 2, 2009 3:35 pm • linkreport

Arg. "region-wide sprawl," not "small."

by Josh B on Sep 2, 2009 3:38 pm • linkreport

Regarding the parking, it sounds like the developer doesn't want to build a lot of parking but also doesn't want to commit to that approach just yet. Why is Mr. Miller criticizing that? It would be foolish for any developer to commit to such a policy so early in the process. After all, it will not benefit the community to have a development that sits empty because the amenities do not appeal to retail tenants.

As for affordable housing, there is a limit to how much new construction can be devoted to submarket tenants and still be profitable. Again, if the development does not appeal to commercial tenants because of the amenities and features of the rest of the community, they will move elsewhere, and that benefits no one. Remember too, offering a certain percentage of units at affordable rates does not prevent voucher holders from renting the other units--the vouchers will make up the difference.

The sidewalk problem has two owners--the developer and DOT. The onus should not be solely on the developer to resolve it. Furthermore, wider sidewalks rarely produce a more vibrant community. Rather, wider sidewalks, along with wide streets make pedestrians feel vulnerable and exposed. Wide sidewalks are more often underutilized and narrow sidewalks rarely prevent shoppers or passersby from going somewhere desirable. Mr. Miller needs to reread Jane Jacobs.

I don't think Hiatt place is is necessarily a fair comparison. Hiatt Place has a lot of things that contribute to its character---the homeless shelter at Irving/Hiatt and the accompanying loiterers; several residential construction projects; a lengthy street improvement project that remains a mess; a school park that is supposed to be repurposed but has not been. None of these problems are the fault of DCUSA. In the end, any project with commercial space, whether retail, restaurant, office, or hospitality, has to have loading docks. They have to go somewhere. Their existence is not what creates a bad space, it is everything around it--trash storage, street lamps, sidewalk condition, beautification touches like flower beds/baskets, etc--that define the streets character. All of these things are minor details that the developer won't decide upon until very late in the game. It is way to premature to criticize this development for their loading dock design.

Mr. Miller really seems to be stretching to claim that this development 'barely meets the minimums for responsible development'. I do notice that Mr. Miller did not use the term 'minimum standard' because by any standard recognized in the building industry, this proposal does meet the standard.

by ogden on Sep 2, 2009 3:56 pm • linkreport

While Mr. Miller notes the PUD process provides "an opportunity to improve the design" of a project. He should acknowledge that it also provides the opportunity for neighbors to kill a good project with a million cuts. More reporting, less hyperbole please.

by G-Man on Sep 2, 2009 4:36 pm • linkreport

@ogden: We may agree more than you seem to think.

The problem of too much parking in developments like this lies with national retail tenants that overestimate how much parking they need in an urban context, not with the developer - who would surely love to use the money it takes to build the parking to instead construct more revenue-generating uses.

Neither you nor I know the developer's pro forma, so 8 percent affordable units could be the limit beyond which the project becomes unprofitable. It also happens to the the minimum for IZ. I'm willing to bet the developer is seeking to maximize profit by going with the minimum IZ requirements, and could find a way to provide more affordable units if need be. Yes, vouchers can help fill the gap, but they are not guaranteed the way set-aside units are.

Yes, wide sidewalks can be barren and narrow sidewalks can be lively. But major commercial centers need sidewalk capacity. A supermarket/retail/residential block on Georgia Avenue seems to be one of those cases. Both DDOT and the developer are responsible for ensuring that there is enough sidewalk capacity.

8th Street and Hiatt Place are not identical. But the way DC USA backs onto Hiatt Place is something that we shouldn't seek to repeat. This draft proposal seems relatively reasonable to 8th Street, but it is still something neighbors need to monitor during the planning process.

Like many commenters on this thread, I do not think this is a bad development or is somehow substandard - in fact, it will be a net positive for Georgia Avenue. But that shouldn't stop the community from working with the developer to craft the best possible product. This draft plan simply meets the minimums.

@G-Man: While projects can die of a thousand cuts in any process (PUD or not), the feeling I got from Monday's meeting wasn't that the community wanted to kill this project; almost everyone welcomed it.

I hope this clarifies my original post.

by Stephen Miller on Sep 2, 2009 4:51 pm • linkreport

It's a shame that they're not taking down the ugly new condos on Florida.

by Rich on Sep 2, 2009 10:29 pm • linkreport

Thanks for responding to my post, Mr. Miller. I would like to clarify my post as well. I will be the first to admit that sometimes community input results in a better project by a) bringing forth ideas the developer hadn't considered or b) adding things the developer didn't want to add but could quite easily. However, even if "almost everyone" welcomes a project, they can sometimes love it to death. How? By nipping away at the profit margin by placing their wish list for community change on one project. More affordable dwelling units? Less income even thought construction costs are the same. More street connections? Less units and less income. Wider sidewalks? Less units and less income. Any one would probably not kill the project, but if all the wish list was implemented,I would not be suprised if the project would be reduced in profitablity enough that it would be unable to attract investors. These projects move forward or don't based on a few percentage points on the marginal return. This is not a defense of bad projects, but rather a request to take a hard look at the realities of development from the other side of the coin.

by G-Man on Sep 3, 2009 8:56 am • linkreport

To add my two cents regarding the 8th Street discussion.

The neighbors EXPECT loading docs and garage entrances on 8th Street. It is the best location for loading and probably also for parking (although V Street would also be a good option for a commercial parking entrance - it makes little difference to me as long as the parking entrance is not on Georgia). The point of making comments now is that the building plans presented are CONCEPTUAL. There are elements that can be added to the back of the building to make it seem like the front of a building. Now, in the planning stage, is the best time to let the developer know it is important to the community that 8th Street not become the "Howard Town Center Alley." As someone who looks at those empty warehouses every day, I don't think looking at the back of a newer building is any better. Ugly is ugly.

by 8th Street Dweller on Sep 3, 2009 9:20 am • linkreport

"While projects can die of a thousand cuts in any process (PUD or not), the feeling I got from Monday's meeting wasn't that the community wanted to kill this project; almost everyone welcomed it."

Yes, but more often than not in this city they end up killing it with good intentions.

by shaw dcer on Sep 3, 2009 9:34 am • linkreport

There needs to be more affordable housing. I'm concerned about what this will do to the surrounding area. Also disappointed in the developer Howard has chosen.

by howard student on Sep 26, 2009 10:52 pm • linkreport

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