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Posts about Georgetown

History


The story behind Georgetown's street grid

If there is one thing that people love the most about Georgetown, it's the small blocks filled with 18th and 19th century homes. But how exactly did it come to be that way?

Much of the land that would eventually become Georgetown was originally granted to a Scotsman named Ninian Beall in 1703. Beall named this 705 acre plot of land the Rock of Dumbarton in a reference to his native country.

The location of the land that would become Georgetown became an important aspect to the town's early development. Located as it is just south of Little Falls, this land is the farthest north that ocean-bound ships could reach on the Potomac. As such, it was a natural location for a tobacco port. Landowner George Gordon constructed a tobacco inspection station along the Potomac shore and soon a thriving commercial port developed.

In 1751, merchants of this new tobacco port successfully lobbied the Maryland colonial legislature to authorize the creation of a new town. The men chosen as commissioners of this new town approached George Gordon and George Beall (son of Ninian) to purchase their land. The Georges were not interested in selling their land and sued the commissioners for condemning their land. A jury full of Bealls and Magruders (ancestors of the Magruders grocery store) awarded the Georges 280 pounds.

Whether the decision to name it Georgetown was in honor of these two gentlemen, or the reigning monarch, King George II, is a fact lost to time.

The commissioners then had the land surveyed and broken up into 80 lots. Gordon and Beall were given the privilege of first selecting two lots each. Gordon chose his first. Beall refused to recognize the legitimacy of the commissioners and decline to choose his lots, at least until faced with the possibility of receiving nothing, at which point he chose two lots under extreme protest.

As you can see below, the blocks that were first laid out for the town only encompasses a few of the central blocks of modern Georgetown:

The layout of Georgetown was a typical modest colonial town. The 80 lots were separated by only two streets and two narrow lanes. In the 1780s, several additions were annexed to the town. As you can see from this map of 18th century Georgetown, the street grid that still exists was already layed out, despite the fact that there were not many buildings off of Bridge St./Falls St. or High St. (what are now M St. and Wisconsin Ave. respectively):

While the physical structures hadn't filled in the street grid by the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant nonetheless concluded that Georgetown was too developed with its own town plan to be incorporated into his Baroque plan for the city of Washington.

This design independence has survived to the present day as Georgetown lacks the circles and radials of the rest of downtown Washington. What didn't survive was the separate street naming scheme. With the exception of a few streets, Georgetown's streets were renamed to be consistent with the Washington street naming scheme when it was merged with Washington city in 1872.

Much of this information comes from the Chronicles of Georgetown.

This post originally ran back in 2010, and was crossposted at the Georgetown Metropolitan. A recent visit to Georgetown inspired our staff editor to dig it back up!

Transit


DC's streetcar may go to Georgetown with dedicated lanes

You read that headline right—dedicated lanes! After lots of transportation experts and pundits said DC's streetcar needed dedicated lanes if it's to be valuable, DC transportation planners designed an option for extending the streetcar which devotes a lane for almost all of the length from Union Station to Georgetown.


Streetcar in the K Street Transitway. Image from DDOT video.

Tuesday night, planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present options to extend the existing H Street streetcar route to Georgetown. Greater Greater Washington has gotten an exclusive sneak peek at the proposals.

Besides a no-build option, there are now two: one in a dedicated lane from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle but in mixed traffic the rest of the way, and a new option to use dedicated lanes for almost the whole length.

The piece along K Street downtown has been slated for dedicated lanes since 2009, when DC finished an environmental study of plans to move K Street's medians over one lane. Instead of four lanes in the center and two on each side (one for parking), there will be a 2-lane transitway in the middle and one three-lane road on each side, which could have parking in one lane outside peak periods.

Segment of K Street transitway design.

Until now, that was the only dedicated lane being contemplated for the streetcar. But more and more people argued that without dedicated lanes, the streetcar would not offer a faster ride, making it no more appealing, transportation-wise, than existing bus lines.

Therefore, the project team added a new option which has a dedicated lane under the Whitehurst Freeway, along K Street to Washington Circle, under Washington Circle, and over to Mount Vernon Square.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

The streetcar would share the road with other vehicles around the square itself, but then go back into its own lanes to New Jersey Avenue, where the route turns to get down to H Street. The two blocks on New Jersey would be shared, as that road isn't wide enough (some parts of that area are just three lanes).

Finally, along H Street from New Jersey Avenue to the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station, DDOT is studying a dedicated lane or possibly shared lanes. According to project manager Jamie Henson, this will depend on another study going on about how to allocate space on the Hopscotch Bridge (H Street's bridge behind Union Station) between the various needs of Amtrak (as it plans for a major expansion of Union Station), Akridge (which will be building offices atop the railyards north of H, and other needs.

If the streetcar can't get a dedicated lane on the bridge, Henson said, it wouldn't make sense to give it one on the short stretch from there to New Jersey Avenue, since each time it crosses in or out of a dedicated lane there has to be a special phase for traffic signals.

Where the planning stands

This is actually the third meeting in an ongoing Environmental Assessment which began in 2014. DDOT held two meetings that year, but with the change in administration and a halt to an ambitious Public-Private Partnership effort, the study went on hold as the Bowser Administration re-evaluated the streetcar program.

Ultimately, they decided to commit to opening the H Street-Benning Road line (done) and then extending the line east to Benning Road Metro and west to Georgetown. The Tuesday night meeting focuses on the Union Station to Georgetown end; another meeting Thursday will consider the Benning Road end (and we'll have a post later today on that).

In 2014, there were three options:

  1. No-build; don't build a streetcar here.
  2. Dedicated lanes along the K Street transitway, but mixed traffic everywhere else.
  3. Run the streetcar in the existing outer lanes of K Street instead.
The team has now jettisoned Option 3, concluding it wouldn't work, but added the new, more exciting Option 4, with as much dedicated lane as possible.

Option 2. Click for a larger version.

DDOT has also started involving the Federal Transit Administration more closely as a partner agency in this study. That might make it possible for DC to get federal Small Starts or other funding for some of this project, said Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT (though there is no guarantee). Zimbabwe said the FTA also may help improve the project through its expertise.

What's next

Planners will hear from the public at a meeting Tuesday night, May 17 (tonight, if you're reading the post the day it's first posted). They will then study the options in more detail before presenting in the fall, with a final public hearing in early 2017.

I like Option 4, with dedicated lanes, and would like them dedicated on the H Street portion as well. You can tell DDOT you agree (or express a different opinion) using the form below.

The rest of the study will fill in many of the open questions, including things like traffic operations around Mount Vernon Square (a thorny issue), cost, and more. A 2013 analysis put the approximate price tag for the section to Union Station in the ballpark of $325 million.

After the study wraps up next year, the streetcar line will open six months later. No, just kidding. DDOT will have years of engineering design, procurement, and more ahead of it. The current budget provides funding for actual construction starting in 2022, so a line would open at the earliest in the early- to mid-2020s, said Henson. (And nobody at DDOT wants to commit to any dates yet.)

There are some more details in DDOT's presentation about the streetcars' power systems and the area west of Washington Circle, which we'll talk about in upcoming posts.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

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Development


Big developments serve a huge need, but smaller ones help cities too

It's pretty common to see new buildings with hundreds of units going up across the region. But what about smaller buildings, going up one at a time? That kind of small scale development, also referred to as incremental development, is an important part of building a city.


Neighborhoods like Georgetown came about one building at a time. Photo by Norman Maddeaux on Flickr.

Think about your favorite neighborhood in DC. Maybe it's tree-lined Swann Street by Logan Circle, with it's multi-colored row homes, all similar but with details that make them special, like the flower plantings on each stoop. Or maybe it's Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown—a bustling neighborhood commercial street with café seating and colorful shop windows selling specialty wares.

These special places were not created all at once; they are the result of a buildings being built, changed, and rebuilt, which has resulted in a rich urban fabric that supports renters, owners, merchants and service providers.

Today, that process is much more rare, with whole new neighborhoods going up all at once. These projects are often quite successful, and address the need for increased housing and retail in DC. But when large companies are the only ones building in neighborhoods, would-be smaller developers are left out.

Why do we want to avoid that? Because when communities are built by the people who live there, then those people are engaged in the neighborhood. Incremental development brings more wealth into the community; the developers of small projects reap the benefits of property ownership, including income-producing properties and tax benefits. And since small developers are literally invested, they have a stake in the decisions of the community, and take part in decision-making and neighborhood advocacy.

Furthermore, the spaces created by incremental development—from pop-up food kiosks to retail under residential—are more conducive to small entrepreneurs who can't take on the high rents and long terms of new larger retail spaces. In the boom and bust cycle of real estate, communities that are built incrementally are more resilient.

Today, real estate financing, the development process, and housing demand favor larger projects. So even if you want to, say, build a small coffee shop on that vacant corner lot, or fill in a hole in a commercial corridor with a multi-use building, it can be challenging to get the resources and permits to do so.

For example, banks are hesitant to lend money to build project types that have not been proven to create a profit, especially in up and coming neighborhoods. And even if you get financing for a mixed residential/retail building, then your project could be stymied by parking requirements that were meant for larger residential projects. There are roadblocks and unforeseen issues every step of the way.

If smaller projects aren't part of the mix, neighborhoods might be less likely to get a fine-grained feel. Also, it can mean less space for small retail, and fewer business opportunities for people interested in building cities.

A new non-profit is trying to change this

The Incremental Development Alliance was created by small scale developers who had been overwhelmed by the number of people reaching out to them seeking advice on how to build small, multi-unit buildings. Since the group's founding in 2015, the group has conducted over twenty workshops on this topic, and are the recipients of a Knight Foundation grant to encourage incremental development in Columbus, Georgia.

On May 13 and 14, one of the founders of IDA, John Anderson, will be in Silver Spring to run a workshop on developing small real estate projects. The Silver Spring Small Developer Boot Camp will begin with a networking on Friday at Fire Station 1, and run all day on Saturday at the Montgomery County Planning Department. Participants will learn about technical skills and resources to navigate development financing, zoning and entitlement, site selection and building design in order assemble small scale real estate deals.

Discounted pricing is available until this Friday, and registration is available online.

Transit


Who needs Metro? Duck Rapid Transit is the answer to the Blue Line crunch

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Metro's total shutdown earlier this month forced many people to travel by other means for the day. But maybe that's just the way things should be. All the time. It would be much cheaper to get around using existing water infrastructure if the region built Duck Rapid Transit (DuRT).


Concept rendering of a possible Washington-area DuRT line from the from the Institute for Tub and Duck Policy (ITDP). Base duck photo by Jonathan Chen.

DuRT would be perfect for the Washington region, especially the overburdened Blue Line. With minimal investment, passengers could ride aboard a high-speed fleet of DC Duck Tours' amphibious boat/bus vehicles, running primarily on the Potomac River but also on dedicated Duck Occupancy/Toll (DOT) lanes in both Virginia and DC. Travel times would be competitive with Metro.

"Why isn't now the time to ask whether we should keep investing in the Metro system?" asked Thomas O. T. B. Fired, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "Any reasonable metric shows it's not a good form of transit compared to other ones."

If Fired had his way, he said he would close Metro. He was previously quoted by the Washington Post's Kendrick Bunkle saying he'd fill in the tunnels with dirt, but we now know Bunkle misheard him and he really meant DuRT.

Here's one possible transit line alignment, with stops at eight existing Metro stations: Franconia-Springfield, Van Dorn Street, Eisenhower Avenue, Pentagon, Rosslyn, Foggy Bottom-GWU, Dupont Circle, and U Street. A future stop could also be added at the Watergate complex.

The idea garners mixed reviews

The Georgetown Business Improvement District, which spearheaded a study of a gondola from Rosslyn, is eager to see an analysis. "I just want a feasibility study of DuRT," said BID director Stone Jerlieb. However, some residents immediately inveigled against the idea on the local listserv. In response to counter-arguments that this is far in the future, local neighborhood curmudgeon, Ima Ghenstytt, said she had to be opposed "just to be sure."

It's also unclear if Georgetown could even get a DuRT stop, but the BID isn't worried. "The line for Georgetown Cupcake starts in Foggy Bottom, anyway," said Bill Footsfield, BID Coordination Coordinator.

In addition to new Duck Loops at each of the stations, the route would require the construction of ramps to connect dedicated lanes along existing roads like I-95, Virginia 110, and New Hampshire Avenue to waterways like Backlick Run, Cameron Run, and the Potomac River, including a funicular ramp near Key Bridge.

Local transportation innovator Gabe Gross also roundly applauded the idea, saying, "This is a bold step towards having fully accountable public-private partnerships operate all of America's transit. Also, having more transportation options improves the region's resilience in the face of imminent disasters, like floods and electrical cable insulation."

DC Ducks could receive the same fares and public subsidy levels that the Blue Line currently receives, but DuRT operating costs would be lower than Metrorail, since the vehicles can be powered primarily by stale bread crumbs.

The DC government actually considered DuRT under former DDOT head Tan "Danger" Lini. That concept would have further extended the line to Columbia Heights by making the Meridian Hill Park fountain into a log flume. But that plan foundered after the National Park Service told DC it would require a public EIS process that would conclude, at the earliest, on April 1, 2036.

Some park advocates also opposed the idea at the time. Referring to the alignment near the Watergate, Ivana Park, co-chair of the Committee to Re-Engineer Extant Plans (CREEP), said, "The 1930 landscape plan for this area does not show the canal being used for boat transportation, so this use would plainly violate the historic nature of the C&O National Historical Park."

Will people ride it?

A major criticism of DuRT nationwide is whether riding on a duck boat carries a stigma as compared to more upscale-seeming vehicles. For that reason, some cities have tried using swan boats instead.

Miami politicians recently asked to replace a duck project, long in planning, to swans. "People don't like to take ducks," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, "unless they have no alternative."

But proponents like Yorick Yoffe of Citylab argue that these are myths, and if a good-quality DuRT line were built, people would ride it.

The US has not successfully built a DuRT line without it devolving to a bathtub-sized project through "DuRTy Creep," but proponents hope a Backlick Run/Potomac River line could be the one that finally succeeds.

Development


Housing atop Georgetown's Safeway would have strengthened the neighborhood

Retail is struggling in upper Georgetown, and a big reason is because not all that many people live there. Safeway could have added housing when it redesigned its Wisconsin Avenue store, but says it didn't because doing so would have delayed building. That was a lost opportunity.


The Wisconsin Avenue Safeway. Image from Google Maps.

Affectionately called the "Social Safeway" for its fame as a place for singles to meet, the Georgetown Safeway got a full makeover in 2010. The old version was a traditional grocery store with a big parking lot in the front, but the new one fronts the sidewalk and fills in the street. The company also added a strip of retail spaces below and adjacent to the grocery store.

The Safeway itself was obviously done well, as most people who used the old Social Safeway probably continue to use the new one. There are more grocery options across the city than there were 10 years ago, but for western Ward 2 and lower Ward 3, the Georgetown Safeway is still a solid option.

But the retail market around the Safeway has struggled. Noodles and Co. at Wisconsin and S closed after only a couple years, and the Roosters barbershop, tucked away in a poor location off Wisconsin, barely lasted a year. The northernmost street level space under the Safeway briefly had a Verizon store before it sat vacant for years. Other spaces in the older buildings between the Safeway and R Street have also been vacant for years.


Photo by the author.

If more people lived in upper Georgetown, more people would shop there

More residents in the immediate proximity would be a boon to businesses along this stretch of Wisconsin, including those in the Safeway properties (that's the grocery store building itself, plus all the buildings down to the Jos. A Bank just north of S).

Residential could have been part of the grocery store's development, but some zoning relief would have been necessary. The southern building (i.e. the old Noodles and the Jos. A Bank) is zoned C-2-A. That allows commercial and residential up to 50 feet tall, far more than the single story Safeway went with. The lot occupancy allowance, however, would have presented a problem: When you build commercial in C-2-A, you can use 100% of the lot (which the buildings now use), but you can only use 60% when you build residential.

The other buildings are zoned C-1. This doesn't allow residential at all except for group homes. It also only allows three story buildings.

Could Safeway have overcome these relatively minor difficulties? Probably. I asked Craig Muckle, a Safeway representative, whether the company considered building residential. He replied that generally Safeway doesn't reveal their internal considerations but that in this particular case a desire to rebuild the grocery store in "as short a time as possible" was a driving concern. He didn't mention it, but the saga of the Cathedral Commons redevelopment by Giant up Wisconsin Avenue probably weighed in on the decision.


Cathedral Commons. Image from Google Maps.

It's not the case the Safeway simply doesn't do residential development. The company proposed developing its Palisades location into a mixed-use project. Faced with community opposition, though, it dropped it and promptly put the property up for sale (although it doesn't appear to have found a buyer).

Safeway also redesigned its Petworth store, adding residential space to that property. It was even done by the same architect as the Social Safeway.


The Petworth Safeway has lots of housing on top. Image from Google Maps.

Whatever reason they had for not adding a residential component in Georgetown, Safeway missed an opportunity to bring a lot more economic stability to this forlorn section of Wisconsin Avenue.

History


Modern Washingtonians have a mandate to remember black Georgetown

Most people know that Georgetown once had a large African American population that is, for the most part, not around anymore. Dig a bit deeper and you'll find that in the 1930s, Georgetown was the first neighborhood in DC to undergo a process later known as gentrification. In fact, this process—and the role historic preservation played in it—is central to the history of the neighborhood and its current state.


Photo by the author.

Among the first qualities of Georgetown cited by people extolling its charms is the historic architecture of the neighborhood. And it's true that Georgetown as a neighborhood is a virtual ark of American architecture from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. One of the reasons the building stock has survived is that Georgetown entered a long economic lull in the late 19th century. It was an age of benign neglect which spared Georgetown from dramatic demolition and expansion that a more prosperous time would have inevitably brought.

By the time interest grew again for living in Georgetown in the 1930s, the fog of nostalgia had descended. The first flickers of a wider preservationist movement (Colonial Williamsburg was formed in the 1920s to wide acclaim) sparked a drive to save Georgetown as it stood.

Displacement from Georgetown started with historic preservation

That, at least, is the sanitized version of how Georgetown became Georgetown. A more accurate picture of how the depressed neighborhood with pockets of poverty and racial diversity transformed is less rosy. Two significant Congressional acts can be credited with the change.

The first was the Alley Dwelling Act of 1934. This act created the Alley Dwelling Authority, a city agency that was granted the power to condemn and demolish cramped alley dwellings. While the act had an air of a progressive policy—one that refused to allow people to live in squalor in the nation's capital—the act also had an implicit (if not entirely explicit) goal to evict black residents specifically.

Preservation in places and time like Georgetown in the 1930s is a decidedly double-edged sword. Regardless of the intentions behind the changes (and they were almost certainly not entirely pure), when existing housing stock is deemed substandard and the tenants forced out so that the home can either be demolished or modernized, the end result almost always meant the previous tenant was not welcome back afterwards. The conditions were ameliorated, yes, and in many cases in Georgetown the architecture was preserved, but the people who lived there were forced out.

This duality is on view when you consider the story of Pomander Walk in Georgetown. This is a tiny street lined with tinier houses. While some claim that they once housed slaves, they certainly did not since they were all built in the late nineteenth century. They did, however, house African American domestics and other laborers who worked in the houses and factories of Georgetown. (It was also originally called Bell's Court, after Alexander Graham Bell who lived nearby. At some point it was renamed Pomander Walk after a 1910 play of the same name by Louis Parker).

By 1940, the city had apparently used the Alley Dwelling Act to "improve" Bell's Court. In that year the President of the Georgetown Citizens Association (a predecessor to the Citizens Association of Georgetown) wrote to the city sanitary commission:

With many thanks I wish to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 14th relating to Bell Court [sic]. Of course we noticed the wonderful change [cessation of wood cutting and regular seven to eight day cleanings] that had been wrought in that alley, and for the first time in many months we felt that we could drive through the alley with a feeling of security. It is a long time since it has been as clean as it is now. I am sure that some of the people who live there will contribute their full share in keeping up the sweeping.
Clearly the residents were not sawing wood daily for their own amusement. This was their livelihood. They would walk the streets of Georgetown selling firewood to the residents, cutting the wood's length to fit the resident's fireplaces. Despite it being the resident's livelihood it didn't fit in with the idealized picture of what Georgetown was supposed to be. There's no room for grime in amber.

Georgetown's adopted policies that pushed black residents out

There are obvious racial dynamics to these changes. Reacting to the increased demand for housing, property owners of homes occupied by black residents hiked the rent or put it up for sale. Redlining prevented the black residents from being able to finance a purchase. In one case retold by a descendent, a family was kicked out of their flat at 1505 26th Street because they could not find a bank to provide a mortgage when it was put up for sale. When a grocer around the corner offered to lend = the money, the seller raised the price even more and eventually sold to an out-of-town buyer (who was presumably white).

This dynamic was put into overdrive by the adoption of the Old Georgetown Act in 1950. It took the notion of preservation and improvement that had previously applied just to the alleys and applied it universally. This act is widely praised in Georgetown and serves as the heavy artillery for preservationists. You cannot even replace a window in Georgetown without the approval of the US Commission of Fine Arts, a body that spends most of its time evaluating the design of federal buildings and monuments or the nation's coinage.

The pressure exerted by this new mandate was simply too much for the remnants of Georgetown's African American community that still hung on in the 1950s. Even if they wanted to improve their home, the cost to do so consistent with historic preservation was too steep. Within a few decades the community—which was once more than 30% of the entire neighborhood and constituted the vast majority in smaller pockets like "Herring Hill" by Rock Creek—was gone.

This is the history of Georgetown

This is not a subset of the history of Georgetown. It is not an isolated facet of the history of Georgetown. It is the history of Georgetown. In order to save buildings and convert our neighborhood into the jeweled birdcage it is today, we ejected people, thousands of people. Everything we celebrate about the beauty of Georgetown today was inextricably linked with this expulsion.

This is not meant to be a rejection of Georgetown or the fruits of this preservation and improvement. But it is a call to acknowledge the dire cost that came with that, and to acknowledge that the cost was born by those least able to bear them.

It is obviously too late to undo this, but nonetheless our community does far too little to acknowledge the dreadful bargain that was struck at the dawn of modern Georgetown. In exchange for the permanent fixation of our physical form in a federal amber, we carved out parts that didn't fit the sanitized vision of a 19th century port town.

Remembrance is all we have left. And the remembrances of those who lived in Georgetown's black community when it still thrived should be preserved and cherished as much as the grand estates of Dumbarton Oaks or Evermay. And we are lucky that many of those memories have already been recorded in the 1991 publication Black Georgetown Remembered. (It's from that book that I pulled the story about the family being priced out of 105 26th Street above).

The book is being republished to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its original publication. In addition, a reunion/panel discussion will take place at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University on February 24th at 7:00 pm. Original contributors to the book, including ANC Commissioner Monica Roaché will be on hand to recollect their community's rich history. I encourage all to come.

Preserving memories is significantly more difficult than preserving structures. But the mandate is all the same.

Pedestrians


"Bulb-outs" could make crossing the street safer at key trouble spots

People on foot could get a little more space at the corners of 14th and U NW, Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE, and M and Wisconsin in Georgetown. Those are a few of the concepts in a new analysis of how to make DC's most dangerous intersections safer.


Image from NACTO.

Transportation officials, local community and business members, bicycle and pedestrian advocates, and councilmember Mary Cheh toured five of the highest-crash intersections in August and September. A new report from DDOT recommends ways to make each safer.

The intersections were: Columbus Circle in front of Union Station, New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE, 14th and U NW, Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, and Wisconsin and M in Georgetown. Between them, three people died and 12 had "disabling injuries" since 2012, a total DC is committed to reducing to zero.

The report is full of interesting statistics on crashes and small fixes for people walking, biking, and driving. One piece of note is are a few spots where the study team is proposing temporarily or permanently creating some more space for people on foot, such as "bulb-outs" at corners which add to the sidewalk space and shorten crossing distance.

At 14th and U, plans are already underway to rebuild that intersection as part of a 14th Street streetscape project expected to start this fall. That design includes bulb-outs at the corners:

On Benning Road, DDOT will look into adding a pedestrian refuge using flexible posts for the spot where people walking and biking get onto the bridge sidewalk to go over the railroad tracks (and later the river).

The always-thorny corner of M and Wisconsin has large numbers of people waiting on the narrow sidewalks to cross the street (and then short times to cross). The report suggests studying possible bulb-outs for three of the corners to add more space for people to wait.

For New York Avenue and Bladensburg and Columbus Circle, the report doesn't recommend any changes of the same scale, but notes that there are sidewalks and pedestrian islands on New York Avenue that are too narrow and which should be widened, as well as are some missing crosswalks on Columbus Circle.

What else do you notice in the report?

Preservation


An art deco industrial building in Georgetown could have a new use

Developers want to build a contemporary mid-rise residential tower on a prime site in Georgetown, but it'd mean tearing down a distinctive old heating plant. There might be ways to reuse the old building and build something new as well.


The West Heating Plant looking south from the C&O Canal. All images by the authors unless noted.

The West Heating Plant, which abuts Rock Creek Park on the edge of Georgetown, was built by the Federal government to provide steam heating for federal buildings in the District. Designed during World War II by architect William Dewey Foster, it opened in 1948 as one of the few examples of industrial art deco-to-moderne architecture in the District; the other is the Central Heating Plant on 13th Street SW.

The six-story structure now stands idle, having been decommissioned in 2003.

A team led by local developer Richard Levy purchased the plant from the Government Services Administration (GSA) in 2013 with plans to demolish part of the building for up to 80 luxury Four Seasons residences and use the former coal yard for a new park.

Unfortunately, preservation officials encouraged Levy's team of notable architects - British architect David Adjaye and OLIN landscape architects - to be creative with the site without preserving the building. Levy understandably leapt at the opportunity.

In a presentation to the Citizens Association of Georgetown in December, Levy outlined plans to tear down the West Heating Plant entirely. His new plan includes a 10-story tower made of blue travertine and bronze on the site of the plant, housing 60 to 70 luxury residences and the adjacent park.

The West Heating Plant is worth preserving

DC has few industrial buildings and even fewer that are architecturally significant. The West Heating Plant, despite its decaying state, is significant as both a notable industrial edifice and one of the few examples of moderne architecture in the city.

Eight massive vertical windows stretching nearly the building's entire height dominate its north and south faces. A similar vertical portico dominates the 29th Street façade.


The entrance portico is an impressive vertical dominating the building's 29th Street facade.

The West Heating Plant stands out on the Georgetown skyline as one approaches from the south or east, reminiscent of the neighborhood's industrial past. Other remnants of this include the lofts in converted warehouses along the canal and the Capital Crescent Trail that was on the former Georgetown Branch railroad line.


The West Heating Plant seen from Rock Creek Parkway.

The building is a worthy reminder of Georgetown's history, and an impressive example of civic architecture.

Converting the plant to residences would be difficult

With or without Levy's plan to demolish the West Heating Plant, it was never really feasible to convert the existing building into residences. Floors are only located on its 29th Street side, and shoring up the columns that run up and down the building would be costly due to years of corrosion.

In addition, at 109 feet wide, the building is deeper than is preferable to get good light throughout an apartment. The design team attempted to fix this in their earlier partial-demolition proposal by adding big shafts to the center of the structure to bring in light.

To fill the building with apartments or offices, the developers would also have to add a lot of windows. This would be problematic as the brick is only loosely attached to the steel frame. Adding windows would require painstaking care and, even then, might deface the monumental qualities that give the building interest.

In other words, it is a tough sell for a residential or commercial conversion even before he exorbitant cost of cleaning up the asbestos, PCBs, and other toxins scattered throughout the site.

Zoning and economics drove Levy's demolition proposal

The original appeal for developers was that the West Heating Plant sits on just a fifth of the lot. When the GSA sold the facility, it anticipated the site would receive a waterfront zone district, W-2, allowing for 362,000 square feet of development up to 60 feet high, in its environmental assessment.


The West Heating Plant only sits on about a fifth of the lot. Image by Google Maps.

However, adaptively reusing the plant would offer only up to 143,600 square feet of space. While the building is tall, it only has six floors with high ceilings—13 feet on most floors and 22 feet on the first—that allows for less density than the height suggests.

To address this disconnect, the GSA imagined that a developer would build a second flat and fat structure on the coal yard south of the heating plant that would peep over the Whitehurst Freeway viaduct. Since the conversion would ruin the dramatic interior spaces and significantly alter the monolithic exterior, it would have been a pretty hollow deal for developers and preservation interests alike.


The West Heating Plant seen from the Whitehurst highway viaduct.

Levy's demolition plan is a compromise to the competing expectations of the developers and neighbors: there's no second building and the new 10 stories of apartment fit into the existing massing. That's more floors than with an adaptive reuse but less density and more open space than the GSA's scenario. The height and the park secure the great views that high-end buyers will pay extra for and the park has quieted a lot of neighborhood concerns.

It is a clever solution but it is not the only one. There are options that preserve the historic plant and also get a distinctive new apartment building.

The West Heating Plant could be a new public space

If height is not really an issue, Levy could build a new 10-story building in the coal yard and reuse the actual plant for something much more creative.

There are ways to reuse the West Heating Plant that work in big messy spaces. Contemporary art institutions, like the Tate Modern in London, are a good example, especially if the first floor is open and free to the public, effectively making it an extension of the streetscape.


The Tate Modern gallery is located in the former Bankside Power Station in London. Image by Alquiler de Coches on Flickr.

The Tate Modern has been a staple of the London tourist circuit since its turbine hall hosted a series of blockbuster exhibitions shortly after it opened. This has prompted demands for contemporary art museums elsewhere with large spaces that can handle rough treatment, like the Dia:Beacon near New York City.


The turbine hall at the Tate Modern. Image by Jennifer Morrow on Flickr.

The West Heating Plant's boiler room is an ideal candidate for such a space, something the Post recommended in 2012. While only about a third the size of the Tate's 36,500 square foot turbine room, it is much bigger than the District's last proposed contemporary art museum in the Franklin School. If two floors of the plant were cleared out, Adolf Cluss's landmark school would fit comfortably in the boiler room.

The plant could also be used as a home for one of DC's excellent theaters. A big box with three stories for flies could make the cornerstone of a spectacular alternative theater venue. The industrial patina, few windows and big spaces of the old plant again could be more of an asset than a drawback.

Realistically, to keep the old and add the new, any reuse of the site would have to assume a new building on the coal yard. This would likely mean more height and density on the site in order to allow development of as much of the 362,000 square feet allowed. It would also mean no new large park.

Dropping the park from the Levy's proposal may not be a bad thing. The Georgetown Waterfront Park, just a few blocks from heating plant, was completed just five years ago and both Rock Creek Park and the C&O canal run along the site.

To offset the loss of the park, and curry neighborhood support for a higher and denser project, the boiler room of the new West Heating Plant art space could be part of a new public space with new entrances connecting it to both Rock Creek and the canal. Shops facing the canal could be added along the ground floor making it a popular neighborhood destination.

Compromises will undoubtedly be necessary to get the developer to support preserving the plant and the neighborhood to support more density on the site. But it would be well worth it.

A West Heating Plant site with both an extension of the urban fabric plus new public arts and green space at the intersection of two of DC's most popular parks might be a altogether a better deal for Georgetown and the District.

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