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Posts about Dupont Circle

Housing


Should a "historic gas station" keep new housing units from going up in Dupont?

A new building with housing and ground-level retail was set to go up just west of Dupont Circle, but the project has stalled because some DC officials say it would harm a historic gas station building. There's often tension between wanting to preserve historic buildings and needing to build more housing for a region that will continue to grow. We asked our contributors what they think should happen in this situation.


The Embassy Gulf Service Station. Image from Google Maps.

Marx Realty & Improvement Company recently proposed potential designs for a nine-story, 34-unit residential building with ground floor retail at 22nd and P Streets NW.That address is also home to the Embassy Gulf Service Station—today a Sunoco—that was built in 1936.

The building was designated a historic landmark in 1993 because it's a particularly good example of the neo-classical design used by many urban gas stations during the 1930s to make the car-oriented buildings more palatable to planners and zoning officials of their day.

In all three of Marx's design options, the plan was to slightly move the gas station building so there was more room for the new one, and to adapt it for retail use. In some of the plans, there was to be a connection on the ground level between the old and new buildings.

Marx submitted these options to DC's Historic Preservation Review Board the staff that advises the Historic Preservation Review Board, an agency that decides whether new building proposals fit with the historic landmark. Technically, the HPRB is only an advisory board, but if it says no to a design, it's rare that the DC government issues a permit to build.

The HPRB Historic Preservation Office said in its report that none of the designs would work because of the "disparity in height" between the single-story station building and the nine-story proposal:

This is the principle the HPRB staff operated on: Any adjacent new construction should be substantially lower in height than is proposed so as to not loom over the landmark.

Here's the HPRB staff's ruling: The disparity in height between the nine-story new construction and the one-story landmark is stark, discordant and incompatible, and would result in the gas station being left in shadow. While the open lot site to the south is under separate ownership and apparently not available for development, its presence adds to what is an unsatisfying urbanistic solution in which the weight of the new tower is pushed uncomfortably close to the landmark while a large open parking lot would remain on the other side.

It's somewhat confusing to hear that a nine-story building would provide an "unsatisfying urbanistic solution" when many nearby buildings, including a ten-story apartment building directly across the street, are around that height.

We asked our contributors to weigh in on the decision and the broader competing interests of preserving historic structures while allowing DC to grow for the future.

Several contributors, like Tony Camilli, disagree with the HPRB's ruling:

DC already has more than 18% of its property designated as historic vs. 4.7% in Boston, 3.6% in New York, and 2.2% in Philadelphia. Yet these other cities are over a century older than DC. This particular gas station is prime real estate in an area with many other transportation options and was built long before Metrorail and bike lanes came about.

Modern cities have to change over time to remain relevant (see Detroit and other rust-belt cities for examples of failures to adapt). DC has gotten very expensive and needs more housing, so 1-story gas stations located in densely-populated areas with many transportation options should not be saved even if the architecture and use are historic. Document the station and archive its existence yes, but don't hold DC hostage to the change it needs to be a 21st century city.

Dan Malouff simply tweeted the following:

David Alpert sees a double standard when it comes to building designs and building heights, and argues that DC needs to take advantage of limited infill housing opportunities:

I support having historic preservation. I think we have many wonderful buildings which add architectural and historic diversity to the city and are worth keeping.

But the preservation office says new buildings should be "of their time" in terms of architecture (look contemporary, not like replicas of old buildings) even if that means a super modern building is next to an old one, the thought being that such a move would just emphasize the historic. Okay, but then they say that new buildings should not be very different in size.

Why should a building be faux-historic in height but not design? Why shouldn't the new building be "of its time" in size? Wouldn't having a tall building next to a short one emphasize the historic height?

I think preserving valuable buildings is a great thing to do, but when we're talking about new construction on vacant land I think HP can be too restrictive about "compatibility."

Dan Reed raises the point that "preservation" is often about one group's definition of history, but not another's:
This makes me think about the fate of Phase 1 (before it Apex and Badlands), the gay club a few blocks away, which is being converted back to its "historic" appearance as a carriage house.

These preservationists don't just want to save the gas station, they want it its surroundings to look like it did when it was built, nevermind how the context has changed since then. As a queer person, I personally think the "recent" history of Phase 1/Apex/Badlands overrules the 1900s history that none of us were there for and can apply any meaningful context to. But we often privilege the "built" history over the cultural history because the built stuff feels more tangible.

Jacqueline Drayer says that on the other hand, historic gas stations are extremely unique:
Very, very few gas stations in the US are protected (for good reason) - but they represent an integral part of 20th century US history. This one has both an unusual style and speaks to the lost practice of actually creating inspired station architecture. It is perfectly reasonable to maintain the spatial qualities of the still functioning gas station.
Steven Yates agrees, and wondered if a shorter building would work:
I'm OK with the gas station being historic. It is in fact fairly old (dating back to 1936) and a style we don't see anymore (and not bad looking either). But to say a tall building is incompatible with it really ignores the context of the surrounding neighborhood (like across the street). And at what height does it no longer tower over? It's only a one story building so would three stories still be too high?
What do you think? Should a building go up as long as the gas station isn't harmed? Is moving the gas station to face another way ok? Should the gas station stay around at all?

Correction: This post initially said that the developer submitted its proposal to the Historic Preservation Review Board. It actually submitted it to the Historic Preservation Office. HPRB did not hear the case.

Politics


Our endorsements for ANC in Ward 2

When tourists visit DC, they spend most of their time in Ward 2. After all, it's home to Georgetown, Dupont and Logan Circle, downtown, and the Mall. But for the people who call these places home, there are decisions to make in your local elections this November. Below, we've written about six candidates we advise voting for in competitive Advisory Neighborhood Commission races.


Map created with Mapbox, data from OpenStreetMap.

 

What are ANCs, and why should I care?

Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs, are neighborhood councils of unpaid, elected representatives who meet monthly and weigh in with the government about important issues to the community. ANCs are very important on housing and transportation. An ANC's opposition to new housing, retail, a bike lane, bus improvements, etc. can stymie or significantly delay valuable projects. On the other hand, proactive and positive-thinking ANCs give the government suggestions for ways to improve the neighborhood and rally resident support.

Each ANC is divided into a number of Single Member Districts (SMDs), averaging about 2,000 voters. Races often hinge on a small handful of votes; Your vote—every vote—really counts.

Not sure which SMD you live in? Find out here.

Here are our endorsements

After reviewing the candidate responses from each competitive race in Ward 2, we chose six candidates to endorse. Here, you can read their positions, along with responses from many unopposed candidates.


Foggy Bottom. Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

In ANC 2A, we endorse Marco Guzman

As with a few of the districts in Ward 2, ANC 2A covers an area that is full of buildings but not necessarily full of voting residents. George Washington University in this ANC, and the school creates an interesting dynamic (which you also see around other universities in DC). Commissioners here must balance the needs of students and residents, even if many students are not DC voters. Another interesting piece of the puzzle is that sometimes, ambitious students run for ANC seats to get their political feet wet.

Aside from influencing voters and candidates, George Washington is an issue in and of itself for ANC 2A thanks to thinks like the school's campus plan. Another topic facing 2A is homelessness in the area, an issue highlighted especially last year when the encampments near the Watergate Hotel were cleared multiple times by city officials.

There is only one competitive race in this ANC: 2A03, a small district sandwiched between Pennsylvania Avenue and I Street. And here, we like one of those aspiring GW students: Marco Guzman.

In terms of Guzman's stance on the university's campus plan, he hopes the school continues to "stay true to their 'grow up, not out' growth plan," and is happy with the university's progress in building more student housing and discouraging student parking in the area. As far as homelessness goes, Guzman says he will rely on what he learned while working on the issue with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and will make sure "homeless individuals have access to and knowledge of the resources available to them."

We liked what Guzman had to say on other issues as well. He is clear that he wants to preserve parts of historic Foggy Bottom, but also is not afraid "to see taller buildings to help accommodate increased density." While he did skip some transportation questions on our survey, he was supportive of bike lanes along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Marco's opponent, Matthew Chwastek, seemed reasonable but opposed to many changes to his neighborhood. When asked what he would like the area look like in 20 years, his reply was short and simple: "I would like to maintain the current look and feel of the neighborhood." He also prioritized street parking over better bus service. We think Guzman should get a chance to sit as commissioner.


Dupont Circle. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

In ANC 2B, we endorse Teal Baker and Scott Davies

The neighborhoods directly surrounding Dupont Circle make up ANC 2B. Specifically, the boundaries stretch down from Florida Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue, and west from 15th and 16th Streets towards Rock Creek Parkway.

Neighbors here battle with some of the same questions DC residents are facing across the city: How do we keep this neighborhood affordable? How do we decrease our dependence on parking? How can we accommodate housing for new residents?

Teal Baker, candidate for ANC 2B05, had particularly good answers to many of these questions, and we're endorsing her. Baker's district, a relatively long one that makes up the southeastern corner of the ANC, runs north from the White House to Q Street.

For Baker, the answers to the above questions are often related, especially density and affordability: "I favor increased housing density to allow for the creation of more affordable rental units. It is vital that our Commissioners bargain hard with developers to include ample affordable housing units in each new development project." In particular, she is in favor of adding more housing along the 16th Street corridor.

Baker is hesitant to remove parking or advocate for less of it even for better bus service, but is "really proud of the protected bike lanes on 15th Street" and believes "we need more options" like those to help non-motorized commuters in the neighborhood.

We also liked some of what Randy Downs, Baker's competitor, had to say. In general his answers were less specific, but he seemed supportive of creating more affordable housing and improving bike and public transit. In the end, we thought Teal's experience and clearer vision for the neighborhood came through in her responses, and it was enough to win our endorsement.

In the northwest corner of the ANC, the small 2B09 is also contested this year. In this race, we think Scott Davies is the obvious choice.

In many places, Davies was cautious in his responses to our questionnaire. He was clearly hesitant when asked if he would support density and more housing in the area, but said he believed there should always be "room for discussion so our automatic response isn't just 'no'." Similarly, he did not take a strong stance on reducing parking, but did say "there is room to support the new zoning regulations that recognize we live in an area with great public transit."

We definitely prefer Davies over his opponent, Ed Hanlon. Hanlon was very protective of parking in his SMD, and was generally suspicious of new housing in his area. When asked about improving or adding bike lanes, Hanlon mostly discussed the problem of bicyclists riding "far too fast on the sidewalks" and advocated for extending the downtown ban on sidewalk-riding.

What is more, readers wrote in that Hanlon has had a history of drama in the neighborhood, once getting a protective order filed against him during an ongoing argument with a neighbor over an outdoor deck. We believe Davies would be a good addition to the ANC this year.


Georgetown. Photo by Bob M ~ on Flickr.

In ANC 2E, we endorse Greg Miller

ANC 2E is Georgetown, home to Georgetown University and some very delicious cupcakes. How to accommodate a growing DC in Georgetown is a particularly prevalent issue, as neighbors traditionally fight to maintain the "village" look and feel over any attempt to add more housing. Parking is another constant source of debate, as the neighborhood receives daily influxes of visitors and has no Metro stop to provide an alternative to driving.

There are two contested ANC races in this area. The first is ANC 2E03, the area directly surrounding the main entrance to Georgetown University. Looking at the two candidates running here, we think you should support Greg Miller.

Miller noted that Georgetown's federal historic status leaves few chances for adding housing, but seemed supportive of doing so in select cases when possible. He is strongly in favor of "wider sidewalks and bike lanes along M Street," and as a non-car owner, he relies "on transit, walking, and biking to get around the city so [is] generally supportive of improving our transit options." Additionally, Miller included a number of specific proposals in his responses to improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Rick Murphy, Miller's opponent, had reasonable answers to our questionnaire as well. In the end, we decided to support Miller as he seemed to be more open to many of the changes we typically advocate for here at Greater Greater Washington.

The other contested race in Georgetown is 2E05, which makes up the entire southern border of the ANC, running south from Prospect and M Streets to the Potomac River. We could not identify a candidate to endorse in this race.

Incumbent Bill Starrels gave short and generally unhelpful answers to our questionnaire, but does write to say that "[t]he historic integrity of Georgetown is paramount" to development decisions. Challenger Lisa Palmer took more care with her answers and we liked some of the things she had say, in particular her ideas for bike lane improvements.

But in the end, we weren't convinced of some of her stances, as she spent more time explaining situations and promising to work closely with agencies and neighbors than making plain her views with clearer recommendations and opinions.

If you are a resident in this area, make sure to read both candidate responses here and make your own decision.


Logan Circle. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

In ANC 2F, we endorse Jason Forman and Alex Graham

The final ANC in Ward 2 with contested races is 2F, which is basically the Logan Circle neighborhood, traveling south down 14th Street into downtown. One prominent site in this area, Franklin Square Park and the adjacent Franklin School, will eventually be redeveloped and is a place where ANC commissioners will exert some influence in coming years. Also of importance in this ANC are proposals to improve bus service, including talk of potential express bus service down 14th Street.

Above the actual Logan Circle lies 2F's northernmost district, 2F01, where we're endorsing Jason Forman. Forman had good answers on bicycle and pedestrian issues, but was less solid elsewhere. He recognizes that "adding dedicated bus line for 14th Street is needed for residents," but demands that this be done with no "net loss of residential parking spaces." He is open to more development in the neighborhood, but says that the area is "already hyper dense."

Above all else, we support Jason over his opponent Casey Root. Root is clear on buses: "I am against bus lanes." He is similarly clear on bike lanes: "I do not support additional bike lanes as they are abused as they currently stand." He is definitely for parking: "I would vote against limiting and or removing any street parking."

We hope Jason wins a term as commissioner here.

Farther south, the small triangle made by Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont Avenues is ANC 2F03. This is a very close race, and we liked both candidates here a lot. Ultimately, we sided with challenger Alex Graham over sitting commissioner Pepin Tuma.

There is a lot to like in Graham's responses. He has grand visions for the future of Franklin Square Park, and "fully support[s] dedicated bus lanes on major thoroughfares including 16th and 14th Streets," despite some concerns from a few neighbors. He has smart recommendations for where to incorporate more housing into an already dense neighborhood, and wants to "make sure that our bike highways are effectively connected to each other."

Here was one reason Graham thinks he deserves your vote: "I have a knack at accomplishing things in an extremely bureaucratic environment." ANCs are the right place for you, sir.

Incumbent Pepin Tuma also seems great. He agrees that "[e]xpress service makes a lot of sense" on 14th Street, and points out that during his term he has worked to improve bus service in the corridor already. Likewise, he supports improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and wants to make sure current residents have opportunities to stay in their neighborhoods even as development continues.

Like we said, this is a tough call, but Graham just edges his opponent out to win our endorsement.

Just south of 2F03 is 2F05. This district includes Thomas Circle, the surrounding neighborhood and parts of downtown. This is another place where we didn't land on a clear winner for our endorsement.

One candidate, Ron Rubin, was hesitant to throw his support behind adjustments to bus infrastructure on 14th Street. He is supportive of bike lanes and has specific recommendations for places to add more housing, but also focused a lot on process in his answers. Omeed Alerasool was similarly defensive of parking over bus improvements, though he was more clearly in favor of an express bus on 14th Street.

While not perfect, both of these candidates seem generally good and we just couldn't find reason to endorse one over the other. Residents, here are their answers in full. Vote for who you think is best.

Want to read the responses of all of the Ward 2 ANC candidates who responded to our questionnaire and judge for yourself? Check out the full PDF for Ward 2. You can also see responses and our endorsements for all 8 wards on our 2016 ANC Endorsements Page, and we'll publish our rationale for those in upcoming posts.

These are official endorsements of Greater Greater Washington. To determine this year's endorsements, we sent a reader-generated candidate questionnaire to all ANC candidates. We then published candidate responses and collected feedback. Staff evaluated all candidate responses and feedback for contested races and presented endorsements to our volunteer editorial board, which then made the final decision.

Correction: In the original version of this post, we wrote that Marco Guzman was a George Washington student. That's not the case; Marco received a BS from Arizona State and a masters degree in public policy from George Mason.

Arts


Festivals like Saturday's Art All Night are great for cities

Local DC performing and visual artists and installations will invade seven DC neighborhoods Saturday night as part of a free program called Art All Night. This year's festival, and events like it, are great for fostering urbanism.


Artist Monsieur Arthur mixes paints for a live feed projection on the front of the Carnegie Library at Art All Night 2015. Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr.


Art All Night includes dozens of individual events in seven neighborhoods that are part of the DC Main Streets program: Shaw, Dupont Circle, H Street, North Capitol, Congress Heights, Tenleytown, and Van Ness, from 7pm to 3am. (The full schedule of events for each neighborhood is online here.)

Art All Night started in Shaw in 2011, inspired by the Nuit Blanche festival in Paris. This year it features almost exclusively local DC artists (with a few invited international guests), "in celebration of the Made in DC initiative," according to event organizers.


Shaw Shaws installation at 2015 Art All Night. Photo by Victoria Pickering.

Festivals make us consider the urban fabric in new ways

Art All Night founder Ariana Austin has described it as an opportunity for the community to get exposed to local and international artists and "encounter the city in a new way."

That's true, but it only scratches the surface on why festivals like this one are a boon to communities.

GGWash contributor David Meni went to the Art All Night exhibits along North Capitol Street in the Truxton Circle/Bloomingdale area last year. He says nearly all of the art installations and concerts there took place in vacant lots that would be fenced off at any other time.

"These are spaces that would normally be overlooked or even intentionally avoided. I think one of the biggest values of Art All Night, at least in that area, was to get folks from the community and neighborhoods nearby engaged with those spaces and envisioning their potential. There's a particularly large vacant lot at the intersection of Florida and North Capitol, but for this one night it was active with artists and music and food vendors—I'm sure that got a lot of people thinking about how that lot could be used in ways that bring the community together year-round."

"An arts festival is akin to a parade, marathon, or any other big urban event," adds contributor Abby Lynch. "They can draw people to a new part of the city, let us experience it in a different way. They can also take a busy area and activate it at a different time—I'm guessing that Van Ness isn't typically that busy at 2 or 3 am, so this is bringing new activity to the area in that sense as well."


Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr.

They can be an economic opportunity, too

Van Ness Main Streets sees art and cultural programming as an opportunity to use art for business revitalization. "Our Jazz @ VN series was developed to showcase our local restaurants and create an activity to highlight our restaurants as well DC's vibrant jazz scene," says Theresa Cameron, the organization's executive director.

These sorts of events can provide mini-breaks to an overly restrictive zoning scheme too, points out contributor Canaan Merchant. "Mini businesses that may not make sense in a brick and mortar space can still flourish in a festival space and the great thing is that the brick and mortar places do well as well, which makes me think that a rising tide lifts all boats."

Abby also adds that festivals like this "compliment the activities of brick and mortar institutions, too. They can concentrate programing to draw a big crowd in a way that a performing arts center with two stages and shows every Thursday through Sunday just can't. That big crowd is also a good way to showcase lots of artists (or arts groups) for a broad audience, providing them exposure in a way they wouldn't get if they were to produce a show on their own. And a healthy creative community is a good thing for a city."

In fact, some urbanists have argued that cities should focus less on museums as a development magnet and more on festivals. Why? The flexibility and overhead of festivals can provide a greater return on investment than capital-intensive museums. Certainly, that doesn't mean DC should jettison the Smithsonian, but it's an interesting argument.

Parking


For a day, we're getting a bunch of tiny new parks

Friday, September 16th is Park(ing) Day! Park(ing) Day is an annual, international event where people turn parking spaces into miniature parks for a day, prompting impromptu public gatherings and calling attention to our need for more open spaces.


Landscape architecture firm Oculus' 2013 Park(ing) Day installation in DC. Photo by Aimee Custis on Flickr.

Here's a list of where some of the miniature parks (aka "parklets") will pop up tomorrow:

District parklets

DC's official list of parklets is here. More than 25 locations will serve as pop-up parklets, including locations near Metro stations like NoMa, Dupont Circle, Eastern Market, Gallery Place, McPherson Square, and Shaw-Howard.


A map of where parklets will pop up in DC. Click for an interactive version.

The DC Department of Transportation is hosting a parklet and commuter spa at Farragut North, complete with a reading nook and a professional masseuse.

Several organizations promoting Anacostia River revitalization, including Waterfront Trust, Living Classrooms, Nature Conservancy, Washington Parks and People, and DC UrbanGreens will host a parklet in front of the Wilson Building.

Virginia parklets

Alexandria City will have five parklets throughout Old Town Alexandria, including City Hall and the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center of Virginia Tech.

Arlington will host five parklets, including one at Courthouse Plaza that will feature art by Kate Stewart.


A shot from Park(ing) Day 2013 in Arlington. Photo by Aimee Custis Photography on Flickr.

Maryland parklets

Montgomery County will host pop-ups in Wheaton, Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Takoma Park. Docs in Progress, a group that teaches documentary filmmaking, will be interviewing residents at its Silver Spring parklet.

Hyattsville will host four parklets, including an evening parklet from 6 pm to 8 pm at the City Municipal Building, which will have lawn games, food, beer, and live music.

Help us crowdsource PARK(ing) Day 2016

If you know of a parklet we've missed or if you see a parklet tomorrow, let us know in the comments. Share any photos of parklets and add them to the Greater Greater Washington Flickr pool or tweet it (#parkingday) and tag us (@ggwash). We'll post photos in a roundup next week.

Development


What do 80,000 people in a square mile look like? Depends on where you put them.

When we talk about dense housing, many think of New York City skyscrapers, or Soviet blocks. But as images maps of different neighborhoods in DC show, not all density looks the same.


A high-density block in Columbia Heights. All images from Google Maps.

Google Maps recently unveiled its auto-generated 3D imagery for DC. Using this feature, I compiled snapshots of what different levels of density—measured by people per square mile (ppsm)—look like throughout DC and Arlington. The population density numbers come from the 2014 American Community Survey, and I calculated at the census block group level.

5,000 people per square mile

In the Palisades, winding streets are lined with large houses (~5,000 ppsm):

And in Brookland, detached single family homes sit on lots with front setbacks and spacious backyards (~6,000 ppsm):

15,000 people per square mile

Though walkable, most of Georgetown isn't particularly dense, with blocks of tiny rowhouses clocking in at about 15,000 ppsm:

Lamond-Riggs achieves a similar population density with suburban-style duplexes (~13,000 ppsm):

20,000 - 30,000 people per square mile

With a mix of both historic and new-construction rowhouses, this block group in Hill East sits at around 22,000 ppsm:

This section of Fort Dupont is similarly dense, but looks much different. Garden apartments centered around green space and surface parking give this area a density of roughly 27,000 ppsm:

30,000 - 40,000 people per square mile

In Glover Park, rows of attached houses line a network of relatively narrow streets (~31,000 ppsm):

A mix of duplexes and garden apartments puts this part of Shipley Terrace at about 35,000 ppsm:

40,000 - 50,000 people per square mile

These blocks bordering the south end of Adams Morgan are almost entirely filled with large rowhouses, with a few bigger apartment buildings situated on the main thoroughfares (~45,000 ppsm):

In Rosslyn, parking lots and highways surround these 7- to 10-story apartment buildings (~47,000 ppsm):

50,000 - 60,000 people per square mile

These apartment complexes on Massachusetts Avenue near American University don't cover a lot of land area, but their height makes them relatively dense (~53,000 ppsm):

Dupont Circle's streets blend rowhouses with 4- to 8-story prewar apartment buildings (~55,000 ppsm):

80,000+ people per square mile

This section of Columbia Heights is mostly close-together 4-story apartment buildings, giving it both a high density and a human scale (~80,000 ppsm):

At the north end of Mount Pleasant, a large apartment complex pushes this block over 85,000 ppsm:

Just south of Logan Circle, bulky apartment buildings both old and new give rise to densities over 100,000 ppsm:

Preservation


"Net zero" energy building gets the thumbs up; Graham Davidson says more nutty things about climate change

The American Geophysical Union got historic approval for a large solar array atop their Dupont Circle building. But first, Hartman-Cox Architects partner Graham Davidson suggested that stopping climate change was much less important than stopping buildings from getting taller.


Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects.

The AGU, an association of "earth and space scientists," is trying to renovate their headquarters at 20th Street and Florida Avenue, NW. AGU wants to make the building "net zero," meaning it produces as much energy as it consumes, on average.

To do that, the new building will have more efficient windows and walls, will tie into the sewers to exchange heat, and on top will sport a large solar array.

The attractive current building is part of the Dupont Circle historic district, but is "non-contributing," meaning it wasn't built at the same time as most of the historic buildings in that area and therefore gets more leeway. Still, DC's Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) gets to review the design.

At last month's meeting, several board members fretted that the solar panels might be too prominent for the "delicate" building and the historic district.

In response, the architects at Hickok Cole lowered the solar array and added some semitransparent panels around the edge, so it wouldn't shade the street as much. They also made other changes to the window design, entryway, and plaza in front.

 
Previous design (left) and new design (right).

When seeing the project again on May 27, board members were impressed. Joseph Taylor said it would become "An icon on Florida Avenue." They unanimously supported the project moving forward.

Graham Davidson hopes there won't be more

One board member, architect Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox, had previously suggested a building like this might be appropriate "in some remote part of Seattle," but not in Dupont Circle.

At the most recent meeting, Davidson reiterated his opposition to having more buildings in DC follow AGU's lead. He said,

On the one hand, we have the desire to make buildings that attempt to be environmentally responsible ... but results, quite frankly, in buildings that are peculiar and certainly a big shift in aesthetics from what we're used to.

On the other hand, we have the desire to maintain the character of the city. That's what our job is, and the character of the city is unique. It's why people like to come here to visit, and what they expect to see. It's why people live here and why people live in the neighborhoods. Proposing buildings such as this, adding arrays to buildings like this, in such a manner does change the character of the neighborhood and the city.

So I was largely persuaded by the staff report [which endorsed the project] ... but I am very concerned about precedent in this case. When one person on the edge of the historic district, with a noncontributing building, builds a solar array that increases the allowable height of buildings by more than a story, we are going to have hundreds of other buildings that are proposing the same thing.

That's right—if saving the planet means buildings can get a little taller, well, that's not a tradeoff Davidson would make, anyway.

It's also somewhat unclear what he was talking about, as on the AGU renovation, the solar array will be lower than the building's current penthouse (though higher than the current cornice, the top of the building visible from the street).

He further suggested that, since other energy-saving features will have a bigger impact than the solar array, it was just "great for marketing" by letting AGU "say [it's] net zero."

Preservation must preserve our natural environment, too

Historic preservation cannot be so concerned with the architectural appearance of buildings that it loses sight of the bigger preservation challenge, that of preserving our very cities from the dangers of climate change.

If the sea level keeps rising and much of DC ends up underwater, it is not going to matter how tall buildings are or the "aesthetics" of the historic district. People are not going to live in the neighborhoods any more (and I actually don't think the aesthetics of Dupont Circle are the biggest reason people live there—it's for proximity to jobs and transit, though the aesthetics certainly matter).

Fortunately, many preservationists do agree, including the historic preservation office staff, members of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, and most of the board.

Board member Andrew Aurbach and chair Gretchen Pfaehler also noted, in the meeting, that the preservation office is trying to start a project that would define clearer preservation standards around sustainability. This, Pfaehler said, would "further integrate and stregnthen the relationship between preservation and sustainability" and "make this kind of dialogue and review and approval happen very easily and smoothly."

According to Pfaehler's statements at the hearing, the proposal is waiting for action by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE). This is a good step and should move forward. If it does, it could clarify to Davidson what his priorities should be, or perhaps clarify to Mayor Bowser that the city would be better served with a different architect on the board.

Public Spaces


Mike Feldstein revived Dupont Circle. We'll miss him dearly.

Mike Feldstein, a Dupont Circle ANC 2B commissioner who pushed to make sure we get the most out of our public spaces, passed away on Wednesday. He was 73.


Mike Feldstein. Photo from ANC 2B.

Mike had a full and rewarding career long before he became active in civic affairs in Dupont Circle. A New York native, Mike was a Peace Corps volunteer. He worked for the US Agency for International Development and as a policy planning staff member for the State Department. He represented the US around the world, and served as a board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

He became involved in the ANC when another remarkable Commissioner, Curt Farrar, had to step down for health reasons. Mike's passion, from day one, was the Circle itself. He was determined to turn an urban park into a vibrant, exciting place once again.

In his quest, he became the Godfather of Dupont Circle.

When Mike was first elected, he told his fellow commissioners, "we should do more with the Circle. Seventy-five years ago, there used to be band concerts out there. There were events happening out there all the time. We should bring it back to life." Of course, we all agreed, but no one had any idea how to bring the Circle back to life.

Except Mike.

He assembled a group of volunteers who shared his vision. They came up with a name: Dupont Festival.

They spent many hours over many months convincing the National Park Service to let them sponsor and hold events in the Circle. This was no easy task, as the folks at NPS entrusted with the park were in no hurry to risk anything. If something went wrong, those bureaucrats would bear the blame. So getting permits for any event was a huge undertaking.

Mike used the World Cup to bring Dupont together

One of the earliest efforts was Soccer in the Circle. Two of his volunteers, Aaron DeNu and Michael Lipin, had the idea of hosting a giant viewing party for the opening of the World Cup in June, 2010. This would involve getting NPS permission to put up two giant screens in the park, and then—after securing permission—raising tens of thousands of dollars to pay for it, and then assembling the manpower to put on the event and clean up immediately afterwards.

Honestly, I don't think anyone on the ANC except Mike Feldstein thought it would ever happen, but we all went along with the idea. After countless meetings, they got NPS to agree to allow use of the park, and then convinced the Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry Association to donate something like fifteen-thousand dollars to help pay for equipment rentals and related expenses. They got FIFA and ESPN to give them the rights to stage an open air broadcast of the cable tv feed. The Screaming Eagles, DC United's booster club, would be volunteer marshals and would handle cleaning up.

On Saturday June 12, 2010, crowds began assembling at 6:30am to watch the first of three games. Because South Africa was the host country, the time difference meant a very, very early start. It was South Korea versus Greece, and the early crowd included large numbers of people from the Korean and Greek communities, including embassy staffs. With the 7 am kickoff, we were pleasantly surprised to see the park packed with people that early in the morning. We had no idea just how packed it would become.


Soccer in the Circle. Photo by David on Flickr.

By the time the third game began at 2pm, the park had been rocking for more than six hours. It was estimated as many as 15,000 people had attended at one time or another. CNN was doing live cut-ins, as was ESPN. All the local stations were there. We were seen literally all around the world on CNN International. The crowd was well-behaved. There was only one arrest, for public intoxication. Every restaurant within shouting distance of the circle ran out of beer and was scrambling for more in the intense heat of that June afternoon.

The US and Britain played to a 1-1 tie, and, immediately after the game ended, the Screaming Eagles began a clean-up blitz. Dozens of them filled plastic garbage bags with whatever trash was left over, even though the crowd had put most everything in trash cans. Within an hour, the park was cleaner than it had been the day before. Timing was crucial, because the match ended at 4:15 pm, and the annual Pride Parade kicked off at 6:30. So the soccer triple-header was only the start of a day-night doubleheader that brought a hundred thousand celebrants to our neighborhood: soccer in the morning and afternoon, and then the Capital Pride Parade. Wow! Just celebrating the day with more than 100,000 of our closest friends!

A finer day there never was.

Soccer was just the start

After the success of Soccer in the Circle, the NPS permits came easier. And, eventually, the Park Service even developed a separate policy for urban parks. Previously, NPS rules, regulations, and policy were pretty much one size fits all, whether we're talking about Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Dupont Circle. Whether the change was a direct result of what was happening at Dupont is not clear, but events like the soccer viewing certainly didn't hurt.

Mike and his Dupont Festival team—Will Stephens, Andy Klingenstein, and Aaron DeNu—made Groundhog Day great again, bringing it to Dupont Circle with the help of Potomac Phil. They found Phil in Miss Pixie's on 14th Street, brought him out of the closet and out of the shadows. We've had band concerts, Shakespeare, dance celebrations, Earth Day, science fairs, and more Soccer in the Circle viewings—both the US Mens and Womens teams—and so much more.

Mike believed strongly that parks and open urban spaces are to be celebrated, cherished, and used. He believed that free events, open to the public, are a way to build community. And he used his vast experience as a State Department official to navigate the bureaucracy and help achieve his goal of restoring Dupont Circle to its role as the center of our neighborhood life.

Mike strongly supported new housing, but wanted to make sure it was done right. "If we delay someone for a few months or a year, that's not always good," he said. "But if we tear something down, it's gone forever. And if we put up something bad, it may last for a hundred years."

Mike strongly supported walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, and mass transit options. His New York background made him a dedicated urbanist.

We loved Mike dearly and grieve the loss of a true friend. He was a pleasure just to be with. Kibitzing with Mike was one of life's joys. He leaves behind countless friends, and a legacy of making our neighborhood a better place. He had a vision and made it reality. He was the Godfather of Dupont Circle and he really did bring the Circle back to life.

There will be a celebration of Mike's life later on May 1st, with the location to be determined.

Preservation


Saving the planet is a good idea, say preservation board members, but don't do it here

A scientists' organization wants to generate enough solar energy atop their building for all its needs. Despite enthusiastic support from neighbors and the DC government, a historic preservation board rejected the plan. One member suggested large solar panels are appropriate in "some remote part of Seattle" but not Dupont Circle.


Rendering of the proposed building seen from along Florida Avenue. Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects unless otherwise noted.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is an association of geophysicists, or "earth and space scientists." AGU has a building at 2000 Florida Avenue NW, at the corner of 20th and Florida, next to Glen's Garden Market. This is the very edge of the Dupont Circle Historic District, and surrounding buildings are both larger and uglier than this one.

AGU wants to make the building "net zero," which means it consumes zero energy on balance. (It would pull from the grid at night and on cloudy days, but give back to the grid when it's sunny). To do this requires a large canopy of solar panels.


Views from the west now (left) and proposed (right).

Preservation board members, however, called the canopy "too large and overbearing" while effusively praising the net zero effort.

Who gets to decide?

Any change to a building in a historic district has to go through historic review. First, the property owner meets with historic preservation staff in the DC Office of Planning. After getting feedback and potentially revising the plan, the owner presents it to community groups and ultimately to a hearing at the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a group of citizens including architects and historians.

If HPRB gives the green light, it can move forward; if not, the applicant has to either revise it or appeal to the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation in a more legalistic and time-consuming process.

Neighbors and city officials applaud this project

For this project, the Dupont Circle Citizens' Association was enthusiastically in favor. President Robin Diener (who's opposed many other buildings in the area), testified for DCCA. She said, "The project will reduce AGU's energy costs, but AGU is also assuming costs that will ultimately redound to the good of all, not only by reducing consumption but by setting an example for others to follow. We very much need this environmental leadership in thinking about architecture for historic districts."

Diener had some specific complaints about design changes for the building. For example, the current building has a small triangular glass projection at the corner which evokes a ship's prow. The new design enlarges it, creating more glass and bringing more light to the interior, but Diener (and many members of the preservation board) want to see some changes to that. Likewise, the renovation would remove some of the window mullions, and a number of people disagree with that choice.


Windows and façade detail now (left) and proposed (right).

This isn't a "contributing building" to the historic district, however. In a historic district, some buildings are called "contributing" if they were built during the main "period of significance," while other, newer buildings are not. The latter group gets more leeway in renovations; preservation officials are supposed to only consider the building's impact on the historic district. A change to window mullions may or may not be wise, but it probably doesn't affect the historic district.

Especially because this building is not in the middle of a cluster of historic buildings or anything like that:


Rendering of the proposed building in a photograph of the immediate area.

City historic preservation staff also enthusiastically endorsed the project in their report, calling the canopy "uniquely compatible in this location."

The report adds, "While obviously different in character and scale, the roof top feature would provide a distinctive profile that could be seen as a contemporary response to the historic roof towers and turrets that are common in the historic district, such as on the President Madison Apartments across the street."

No neighbors testified against the plan at the hearing. The Dupont Circle Conservancy also voted in support (disclosure: I am a member of the conservancy, but didn't attend that meeting.) The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission did not take a formal vote, but comments were positive.

Put it in Seattle, says one preservationist

Amid all of this enthusiasm, how did the members of HPRB themselves respond? Not well.

Graham Davidson, an architect with Hartman-Cox and a constant opponent of taller buildings, roof decks, and pretty much everything, said that this project sacrifices too much of the "neighborhood character."

Anything that we can do to make our neighborhoods more sustainable, we are eager to support. However, to do that at the expense of the way the neighborhood looks and feels is not something we can support. ... I think most of us are very supportive of a net zero goal, but if this is the way that we have to achieve it, then this neighborhood is not the place to go about expressing it in this way.

About two years ago, when it was built in a brand new building in some remote part of Seattle, maybe it's okay there, but I don't think that in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that this fairly substantial piece of equipment should be installed on top of a very delicate building that has a very nice scale to it.

Davidson is talking about the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which has an even more prominent solar array. That's far from a "remote" part of Seattle; it's close to downtown Seattle and right near the Capitol Hill neighborhood, one that has a lot in common with Dupont Circle.


The Bullitt Center, Seattle. Image from Google Maps.

(Interestingly, this isn't even the first time Davidson has suggested some architecture should stay in Seattle and far away from DC.)

Other HPRB members Joseph Taylor (Georgetown University) and Capitol Hill activist Nancy Metzger all criticized the canopy as well.

Rauzia Ally, a Dupont Circle resident and architect, questioned this bandwagon effect of taking sustainability less seriously. "I worry about some of the things Mr. Davidson is saying about overall huge canopy structures to achieve net zero goals. I think it's a very laudable goal to try to make this a net zero building."

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler (Beyer Blinder Belle) took a somewhat middle ground, supporting the idea of the solar panels ("I am all for this idea. I think it is great; I commend you on it," she said) but asking AGU to redesign it "to look at the way the array could grow from it in a more organic fashion."

Climate change can't be a problem for someone else to solve

Climate scientists recently concluded that they'd been too conservative in predicting what greenhouse gases would do the planet; the sea level may rise twice as much as previously thought.

That could decimate New Orleans, Miami, and Boston, and cause huge displacement in many other coastal cities, not to mention disaster for millions around the globe. To forestall this requires everyone to do their part, not to suggest that historic districts are exempt, especially from projects that neighbors support (though HPRB ought to be willing to support such things even when neighbors are more divided).

DC's 2012 sustainability plan calls to "retrofit 100% of existing commercial and multi-family buildings to achieve net-zero energy standards" by 2032. While that's ambitious and perhaps unlikely, it certainly can't happen if HPRB says no the very first time someone tries.

Seattle, in fact, now allows extra variation from zoning for buildings which go unusually far to reduce net energy or water usage. Buildings which aim to hit sustainability targets deserve more leeway, not less.

Development


Opponents of a new Dupont building gamble and lose

Well, they blew it. Last month, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission decided to turn down a deal for neighborhood benefits in the proposed development at St. Thomas Parish and roll the dice on fighting the project. That turned out to be a bad bet.


Roulette image from Shutterstock.

On January 12, the Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved a variance so that the proposed building could occupy 86.7% of the lot instead of the 80% normally allowed under zoning.

Arson destroyed the St. Thomas Parish at the corner of 18th and Church streets NW in 1970, and now the church is partnering with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church along with a residential building whose profits will help fund the religious one. After going through historic preservation approval, the design extended just a small amount closer to the nearby alley than in the first drafts, requiring a zoning variance.

CAS Riegler and St. Thomas representatives invited neighborhood leaders and nearby residents to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding for neighborhood benefits during and after construction, like rules for loading trucks or noise on the roof deck. But many residents objected from the start to the size of the proposed building, which is larger than adjacent row houses but shorter than other large apartment buildings a block to the east and to the north.

Based on that sentiment, in December the ANC threw away the negotiated MOU and instead decided to oppose the variance. (Disclosure: I participated in the MOU negotiations and supported the proposed final deal.)


Rendering of the proposed church building and the residential building behind.

Zoning board members critique poorly-directed opposition

When announcing the ruling, several BZA members chided the ANC and neighbors for arguing against the project as a whole instead of addressing the actual variance under discussion. Most opposition focused on the building's height, but the building steps back at higher floors; adding lot occupancy would have just taken a small amount from the lower floors, and only in the rear, on the alley.

Chairperson Marnique Heath said, "The request that they've made is just for 6.7% of lot occupancy, which is rather minor. The primary concern of the parties in opposition was in regard to the large scale... [but] the strongest concerns that the opposing parties had really wouldn't be addressed by not granting that request."

Peter May, the zoning commissioner from the National Park Service (read this for why a Park Service employee is involved here) said,

I cannot see where the parties in opposition have actually explained how their objections relate to the requested relief. A lot of people were objecting to the loss of the park and to the height of the building. I could find almost nothing that specifically relates to lot occupancy, which is where the relief is requested. ...

I'm frankly a bit disappointed. We often hear from neighbors who are unhappy with changes in the status quo, but I saw precious little appreciation from the neighbors for the 45 years they had for this public park, and I would hope that we would have seen more of that.

The only word to the contrary was from Fred Hill, a very new member of the BZA. Hill said he was "actually a little torn and "can understand why I wouldn't want something this large at the end of that block." But he went along with his colleagues on the issue of the law, recognizing that the variance wasn't actually about the size of the building.

Neighborhood leaders took a better approach in the past

Unfortunately, the ANC failed to steer a useful conversation in this situation. When there was controversy over the last church-related development project in the neighborhood, a parking lot at 17th and O, former commissioner and longtime resident Bob Meehan urged all parties to focus on achievable, specific requests that related to the zoning relief being debated. The main issue there was roof deck noise affecting residents at the building to the north; people negotiated and found some compromise.


Remember this? Photo by Adam Lewis.


What got built. Photo from Wikimedia.

Bob Meehan isn't on the ANC any more, and the relative lack of experience showed in the way many members had trouble evaluating how much weight their support or opposition would carry. In the end, that relegated the ANC to an ineffective position and left neighbors worse off.

Some commissioners decided to oppose the variance because of confusing and bad legal advice from the DC government about whether the MOU was enforceable. But others opposed it outright, and the ANC did not try to hold a special meeting or ask for a delay to work out any possible enforceability problems.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the 2013 government shutdown. John Boehner was trying to negotiate with Barack Obama, but his House GOP caucus kept refusing to make any kind of deal out of a zeal for partisan purity. As a consequence, the ultimate budget policies ended up being worse for the GOP than if they had made a deal.

DC needs more housing, and this corner is a good place for it. By implacably resisting the height of the proposed building and repeatedly refusing to engage on specific, achievable issues, the ANC really lost the chance to have a voice, to improve the quality of life without reducing the ability to add new housing.

Update: This article was edited to add a paragraph about the MOU's enforceability in response to questions.

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