Posts about 5333 Connecticut
Architects Eric Colbert and Associates shared renderings of the latest design for their proposed apartment building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue. Few renderings of the project have been available until now, so it's been difficult to understand how it will look.
The design depicted in the renderings is substantially the same as the one presented at an ANC3G meeting in August, when commissioners voted for the Memorandum of Understanding with developer Cafritz.
Colbert applies planes of glass and white frames to a glass block in manner similar to the neomodernist apartment buildings of Richard Meier. Two of those buildings are regarded as kicking off the trend for glass-enclosed apartment buildings in New York.
The sides of the building that face single family homes have significantly fewer windows, addressing the light pollution concerns the neighbors are reasonably worried about. Having such an dramatic transition from one side to another puts a lot of pressure on the corner, architecturally. Colbert negotiates this shift with a line of windows on the edge of the Kanawha Street wing, shown above. Whether this shift succeeds will depend on how transparent the glass appears at a given time of day.
The change of transparency is driven by the sun, whose heat and light are serious concerns in a glazed building. The renderings show similar treatments on both the north and south elevations of the building. That much glass on the southern exposure will lead to an excess in heat in light, but on the northern side, the glass might also abate the worries about shadows by reflecting light down to the street.
To me, the building is the most successful at the edges of the projections from the sides of the building. There, the relationship between interior walls and the opaque frame around the edge makes it feel like volumes have slid out from the building. This could have been a simplistic, cheesy move, but Colbert's office wove translucent balcony railings into the white frame. The result is a sensitive corner, a feature often absent in glass-heavy modern architecture.
Unfortunately, this sensitivity is absent where the building touches the ground. Considering that the ground has been so controversial, the design would be better if the walls changed as they met the landscape designed by Trini Rodriguez. Whether becoming more solid, showing the weight of the building, or simply transitioning from vertical to horizontal, this relationship is key to producing a building that feels appropriate for its site.
Developer Cafritz has stated their desire to have a building that is contemporary and of its time, and meant "glass." However, glass is only "modern" when it calls attention to relationships of inside and outside, ground and sky, and between the people who look through it as neighbors. Like any materials, how a window shapes our environment is more important than the sheer technological thrill of transparency.
After decades of fighting, work began last month on a new residential building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. While neighbors had few good reasons to oppose it, the project embodies the loopholes developers use in DC's patchwork of building regulations and zoning.
The 261-unit building has long been approved as matter-of-right. It will not be a great building, but it is legal, and further appeals from residents to stop construction will only reduce their credibility in the future. Elaborate delay tactics will only reduce developers' willingness to cooperate with them.
On the other hand, the opponents' objections do reveal how Calvin Cafritz Enterprises designed the building to be as large as possible, using a thorough knowledge of DC's regulations. Architects Eric Colbert and Associates employed clever interpretations of what constitutes a "cellar," adding living space beyond the site's allowed density. The building's height was determined using the most favorable location of measurement.
However, the 5333 Connecticut Neighborhood Coalition doesn't simply want these irregularities fixed, they want a smaller building. They want a smaller building because they believe the effects of density will "harm" their community. They claim that added activity, reduced sunlight, and reduced tree canopy will degrade their quality of life.
Instead of looking for creative solutions to minor problems, they have chosen to fight the building itself. Rather than promoting uniform regulation across the city, opponents are using legal objections as easy tools to prevent a permissible project.
Recognizing that they have no legal standing, the majority of the ANC commissioners negotiated a memorandum of understanding that stipulated a number of design improvements for energy use and multimodalism. The four commissioners who voted for it were those closest to the project. The three who worked on the memorandum of understanding represented the areas that were most directly affected. The dissenting commissioners were in the suburban part of ANC3G, east of Broad Branch Road.
Despite the negotiations, opponents went ahead to protest the building at the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Given that there is no evidence that what Cafritz and Colbert have planned is illegal, the BZA should dismiss the complaints out of hand to avoid setting a precedent whereby the affluent and the influential preserve the narrow, short-term interests of their property at the expense of the rest of the city.
Opponents' case looks good at first, but lacks depth
With a little digging, it becomes clear that the 5333 CNC has no case against the building.
The project uses two sides of the building to calculate the height, a standard practice explicitly permitted by the Height of Buildings Act. Height must be measured from the existing elevation of the curb across from the middle of the mass of the front of building and height is determined by the width of the wider of the two streets it abuts.
Kanawha is narrower, but it is also at a higher elevation. Using the longstanding interpretation of the law, the Cafritz organization declared the Kanawha side the "front" and gained a few extra feet of height.
Opponents use a document from the Zoning Update process to show that this approach is unpopular but elide that the zoning update closes this idiosyncrasy in section 502.3, defining the height as originating from the midpoint of the facade that is closest to the lot line.
They further claim that the roof deck is 1.73 feet above the legal height because of how the development team calculates the Kanawha street frontage. The permitting calculations include portions of the facade of the longer, Military Road wing visible from Kanawha Street. The developer's midpoint is about 50' to the east, and 1.73 feet higher in natural elevation, allowing for the building to be that much taller.
A plain reading of the regulation suggests that this is permissible, if kind of tacky. Perhaps the regulation should be rewritten. Either way, the developer conceded this issue in the MOU, and will lower the building.
A similarly shrewd, but legal, reading of code adds habitable spaces in a "cellar story" that does not add to the official FAR. Regulations distinguish "cellars" from "basements," where a basement is simply below the entry floor, and a cellar is a space whose ceilings are no more than four feet above the adjacent grade.
The architect designed the finished grade to hide a string of apartments along Military Road, but also excavated an full-height window well in front of them. This "areaway" also appears in the interior courtyard, projecting into berms in the central courtyard.
DC classifies areaways and parking vaults as projections from the building, and every story of a sub-grade projection is considered independently of all others. Therefore, their claim that the berms around the areaways are "planters" is at some level correct, but not according to the regulations.
I agree with the opponents that this common interpretation of the regulation is sneaky. The city should revisit this regulation, not because density is bad, but because it is opaque to the public.
The final legal challenge in the opponents' BZA testimony is that the Military Road wing of the building extends beyond the plot of land zoned as R-5-D by 40 feet. A 1965 amendment extended the zoning of the plot to a length of 290 feet on Military. The zoning maps in 1966 and 1973 show this number. For some reason, from 1975-2003, the numerical description of the zoning plat appears as 251'. The graphical description of the lot remains the same, following the existing alley.
Neither side can find why the number was changed. Cafritz's lawyer claims that it is a misreading of the lettering of the 5/9, which I find unconvincing. Opponents have no better case, claiming without proof that the ZC wanted to prevent inappropriate growth and so changed it. The current, digital zoning map shows the current line ending at the alley, as consistent with all maps since 1966.
The opponents' limited familiarity with development issues extends beyond legal practices and into architecture. In response to the MOU, opponents write that they are for "practical, modest changes that would not require wholesale redesign," including shifting the mass towards Connecticut Avenue and creating a "buffer zone."
However, re-masssing a building is a redesign at a fundamental level. Foundations, floor structure, column placement, parking spaces, circulation routes, apartment layout, pipe routing, curtainwall drawings, and even the landscaping plan would have to be redone. Other than a few design motifs, there isn't much work left to save.
By suggesting that their objections are simple, legitimate, and simply resolved, opponents are disguising their desire to have as little built on the site as possible. It's hard to believe that anyone would put up this much of a fight over less than two feet of height and a cellar.
Fighting a legal building discourages collaboration in growth
The majority of the legal objections are in response to loopholes that will be resolved by the update of the zoning code initiated under Harriet Tregoning. The other dubious interpretations should be resolved uniformly across the city. It is unfair to reject these rules in this case specifically when so many other projects have employed them.
It's not fair to other communities if this building is an exception. Closing loopholes would benefit the city by making the development process more predictable for the public.
Tellingly, the opponents of 5333 Connecticut do not want to resolve these regulatory flukes. At a September 15th meeting, Peter Gosselin, one of the 5333 CNC's leaders specifically said he would not ask for city-wide change to any of their complaints.
More locally, all of the objections could be resolved by removing one floor of the building. They are not asking for that either. The 5333 CNC are asking for the Cafritz team to come back and negotiate for their own property on the neighbors' terms.
The developer was under no legal obligation to engage the community. But that does not mean that they shouldn't have. In an ideal world, developers should go into communities in a transparent and open-ended way.
New projects often alter the dynamics of neighborhoods, and developers should work with communities to make a new building amplify the value new residents bring while minimizing the negatives through walkability and sensitive design. Similarly, neighbors should recognize the need for a city to grow and respect others' property rights.
With that in mind, I can't blame the Cafritz organization for not asking permission. The strife over this project is part of long-term context of opposing development through extremely effective legal means. Whether it is the lawsuits that delayed the Cathedral Commons project for ten years or the defeat of the Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Study through lobbying, the neighborhood has shown that it has the means to oppose legal changes.
If I were a developer, I would choose the least complicated permitting option and hire an architect who can get me the most out of the zoning envelope. In other words, I would build matter-of-right and hire Eric Colbert.
The process for this building has proceeded so poorly because Upper Northwest's anti-development groups have consistently punished developers without providing guidelines that are commensurate with the demographic realities of 21st-century Washington. Even when developers try to work with neighbors, as at the Akridge and Babe's projects, they have faced stiff anti-urbanism groups. Now, a dangerous cross between the cost of collaboration and the desirability of the land ensures that development in Upper Northwest will proceed without community input for the forseeable future.
In the current political climate, only large developers, working with the government can handle the risks of Upper Northwest. That is the reality a handful of vocal opponents have earned multiple neighborhoods.
The only way out is for residents to take a broader perspective towards the issues a growing city faces, and propose a vision for development that integrates new residents and buildings into a diverse city. It is up to citizens to begin that kind of planning.
"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.
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.
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"
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.
- 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.
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.
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