Greater Greater Washington

Posts about HPRB


To preserve or redevelop? One man will soon decide for a key Anacostia site

DC's housing agency wants to develop a long-vacant site in Anacostia with affordable housing and retail, but residents and the city's preservation officials say it is incompatible with the neighborhood. The choice between the two hangs on one last appeal.

Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

The city's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has owned the "Big K" site on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue since 2010. It includes the abandoned former "Big K" liquor store and two historic, yet blighted, houses next door.

DHCD has been working with the Chapman Development company to plan an affordable apartment building on the land. Chapman wants to demolish the liquor store, built in 1906 but just outside the Anacostia Historic District, and move the two houses to a nearby city lot where the former Unity Healthcare Clinic has sat vacant for nearly two years. Chapman would pay for the relocation, while DHCD would renovate the homes with a fund of $750,000.

Chapman also plans to acquire the adjacent Astro Motors to assemble the entire Big K site and build a building of 114 apartments over a retail ground floor. The apartments would be affordable housing for people making 60% of Area Median Income, or about $58,000 for a family of 3. The original proposal was 6 stories and 141 units, but Chapman shrank the project in response to community pushback.

Rendering of the original, larger proposal.

The revised version maxes out at 5 stories, but each of the upper two stories would be set back so they do not occupy the whole footprint of the parcel, forming an "E-shaped building" as seen from Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. DHCD would transfer its ownership of the Big K lot to Chapman for $1, while low-income tax credits and government transfer rent payments would help finance the building.

Top: Elevation of the original proposal. Bottom: The new proposal. Renderings from a community presentation by the development team.

However, at community meetings about the project, residents have opposed the plan. They do not want to see so much new affordable housing, saying that Anacostia already has more than its fair share. Others said that the building's scale is incompatible with the historic district, which mostly comprises lower and smaller buildings.

Residents also opposed the name Cedar Hill Flats. Cedar Hill is the name for the home of legendary civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, and community members wanted to keep that name linked solely with Douglass. Chapman has agreed not to use the name.

The Historic Preservation Review Board "denied the concept for new construction as incompatible with the character of the historic district because it is too large in height and extent relative to the historic buildings in the commercial corridor and out of scale with the historic district" in October. Then, at the end of February, Chapman brought its revised, shorter version to HPRB, which again denied the application:

It is too tall relative to the district's historic buildings and too extensive, to occupy half the square and crowd the narrow sidewalk. It would also destroy the unusual topography of the site. ... The Board recommended that a permit not be issued to move 2234 and 2252 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue because the move would diminish the buildings' integrity and harm the character of this corner of the historic district, and because the houses could be rehabilitated and reused in place.
The preservation staff and board were also skeptical that the $750,000 earmark would be enough to properly relocate the homes without damaging them.

Project goes to the Mayor's Agent

HPRB's charge is only to look at the historic preservation issues in an application. But when a property owner believes the "special merit" or public interest value of a project should outweigh historic concerns (or if there is a financial hardship involved), there is an appeals process to an officer known as the Mayor's Agent. Currently, that agent is J. Peter Byrne, a Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Chapman has appealed to the Mayor's Agent. At a hearing yet to be scheduled, Byrne will review the application to move and rehabilitate the two houses and, will consider the purposes and benefits of the entire Big K project. DHCD and Chapman Development will likely argue the "special merit" of different components of the project, its amenities, and talk about how they help achieve objectives in DC's Comprehensive Plan.

At February's HPRB hearing, staff from DHCD, including Director Michael Kelly, Chapman Development and a consultant from Streetsense, argued that economic development was a key component of the project. Although members of HPRB contended that economic development was not under their purview, it is possible that argument will meet the special merit standard for the Mayor's Agent to rule in favor of the project.

After four long years of debate, the long path for Anacostia's most infamous vacant property may finally be coming to an endor if this proposal fails, could continue for years more to come.


McMillan plans show expansive new recreation spaces

Opponents to redeveloping the McMillan Sand Filtration Site often say it'll result in a loss of recreation and park space. But a recent video of the proposed plan by development team Vision McMillan Partners shows a compelling vision of a site with a large park and recreational component.

The newest plan, which the Historic Preservation Review Board called "very tangible and commendable" earlier this month, consolidates the site's green space, and ensures it's available to the whole neighborhood, rather than as piecemeal private yards.

While the fight to get redevelopment moving at the 25-acre site is far from over, winning HPRB approval is one more major hurdle cleared in bringing a 6-acre public park with pool and rec center, dedicated new affordable housing, and rowhouses and apartments to the long-shuttered site.


Preservation board members regret ever allowing roof decks

DC's Historic Preservation Review Board approved a roof deck for a row house near 15th and T last month, but not before a few members lamented ever setting a precedent of allowing them in the first place.

Left: The rear of the house on T Street requesting a deck. Right: A less attractive deck across the alley. Photos from the DC Historic Preservation Office.

In the Dupont, Logan, and U Street historic districts, many alleys have a wide variety of decks on the backs and tops of row houses. The practice for many years has been to deny additions to row houses which are visible from in front of the house, but to be much more permissive about changes on the alley side.

Following that precedent, Historic Preservation Office staff reviewer Kim Elliott recommended the board approve the deck.

However, Elliott also noted that unlike on some blocks, all of the 2-story row houses here have the same, uninterrupted roof line from the back (as well as the front). The 3-foot high railing for this deck would create a pop-up effect from the rear. Elliott pointed out that the board started allowing roof decks some years ago, setting a precedent.

The Historic Preservation Review Board ultimately agreed with Elliott and approved the deck, though Bob Sonderman suggested making the owner shrink the deck a few more feet by pushing the railing back away from the rear of the house.

Members Graham Davidson, an architect at Hartman-Cox, and Nancy Metzger, formerly with the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, both wondered if the board might have made a mistake allowing roof decks in the first place. The pair have been fairly consistently the most skeptical of buildings and have pushed hardest for changes like removing floors from new buildings.

Here are the comments from Davidson and Metzger on this case during the board's meeting:

Still allow decks, but insist on quality?

Davidson noted that many of these decks are fairly "poorly built" and "clunky," because people are trying to get them done at low cost. He'd like to "improve the quality of alleys" throughout the city. That's a worthy impulse, but why do many preservationists thus feel that the solution is to reject the decks or shrink them toward invisibility?

The preservation board also has power over the materials people use for additions, decks, and other projects. It can demand a higher quality of design and construction.

As with the pop-up across from Geoff Hatchard's house in Trinidad, which he just wrote about, he doesn't seem to object so much to the house getting a 3rd story as to the cheap vinyl siding design. In that case, we might wish a preservation board had the power, and willingness, to let the 3rd story go through but demand better quality.

The DC Comprehensive Plan calls for exploring "conservation districts," a less restrictive form of historic preservation. Preservation can control, or not control, 2 categories of changes: where and how large to build, on the one hand, and its materials and quality, on the other.

Some might want a conservation district to be the equivalent of lower zoning, where the board gets to veto anything that builds up in any way, but it would make far more sense for such a district to permit additions that meet zoning rules, but ensure that their appearance be compatible with surrounding buildings.

Of course, "compatible" is always tricky to define, as is "higher quality." Most neighbors would want an addition like the one on Geoff's street to simply make the building look like it had always had 3 stories. But many preservationists think that any new construction should stand out from the old, and might push instead for something of modern appearance. This is a question the neighborhood should discuss if such a district came into being for Trinidad, and written guidelines should codify those choices.

Preservation, even a limited form, would potentially raise the cost of building. Certainly it might make the pop-up across from Geoff more expensive. In some neighborhoods, that can limit new supply and/or make new housing more costly. In an area like Trinidad today, though, prices are rising so fast that rules to push for higher quality would likely affect profit margins more than the growth of supply.

On T Street and other areas with historic protection, the city could indeed "improve the quality of alleys" as Davidson wishes. But let's not define "higher quality" as "bereft of decks." Instead, it can mean "filled with attractive decks that don't look cheap."


As streetcar work kicks into gear, details emerge

It's going to be the summer of streetcar in DC, with increasingly rapid progress visible on H Street and at the vehicle testing site in Anacostia.

At last week's streetcar community fair, DDOT representatives presented the timeline for vehicle testing, gave line-by-line construction and planning status updates, and showed images of streetcar station signs, power substations, the car barn, and more. The fair was one of the largest releases of new information in the program's history.

Streetcar station pylon sign. Image from DDOT.

Vehicle testing timeline

Workers at the streetcar testing and commissioning site on South Capitol Street have already started testing the mechanics and electronics of the 3 Czech-built streetcars currently in DC. They'll begin dynamic testing around July 15, meaning that's when streetcars will actually begin to move along track.

Around August 1, the 3 streetcars will be turned over to DDOT's operations and maintenance team for a month of crew training, before they're moved to H Street for on-site testing around August 30 this autumn.

The first of the 3 new US-built United Streetcar vehicles is expected to arrive and begin testing in September.

Line by line updates on the 22-mile system

DC's streetcar plans call for 37 miles of lines, but so far DDOT is only working on the first 22 miles.

The 22-mile system. Image from DDOT.

Work is progressing in 3 phases. Each line goes through alternatives planning, followed by environmental analysis, and then finally construction.

Right now, two segments are under construction, two are in the environmental stage, and 4 are in alternatives planning.

The H Street and Anacostia initial segment are under construction now, with H Street slated to open this year.

Planners expect environmental analysis to be finished this summer for the northern extension of the Anacostia line into central Anacostia, and for the eastern extension of the H Street line across the Anacostia River to Benning Metro.

Alternatives planning is complete for the M Street SE/SW line, and will soon be complete for the Union Station to Georgetown line. The north/south line will begin analysis this summer, with the Bolling Air Force Base extension of the Anacostia line following after that.

The car barn

The car barn. Image from DDOT.

Streetcars will be stored and maintained over the long term in the car barn in front of Spingarn High School. The car barn design is still advancing through the Historic Preservation Review Board approval process, but is now making progress and is no longer facing delays.

Construction will begin this month on the tracks and non-building infrastructure at the car barn site, in anticipation of hosting streetcars later this year. The building itself should begin construction this fall, and open in summer 2014. DDOT can operate the streetcars with the tracks but not the building for a few months, so as long as the tracks at the car barn site are finished on time, the fact that the building will still be under construction this winter should not cause any delay.

Power substations

There will be 3 traction power substations along the H Street line, necessary to keep the streetcar's overhead wires alive with electricity. The substations will be located at 2nd Street NE, 12th Street NE, and 25th Street NE.

12th Street substation. Image from DDOT.

Approval was granted for the 12th Street substation in May, and construction is now imminent.

Keep up to date

It's going to be a busy and exciting summer for streetcars in DC. To keep up with the latest, visit

Correction: The 3 streetcars currently being tested at the commissioning site will be moved to H Street sometime this autumn, not at the end of August as originally reported.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Preservation problems: predictability and pellucidity

The latest historic preservation plan essentially concludes that people don't trust historic preservation in DC because they don't know enough about it, and recommends that staff and advocates push harder to persuade people of preservation's positive effects.

Photo by JosephLeonardo on Flickr.

As I argued yesterday, that's not preservation's primary problem. Rather, it awkwardly absorbed many resident desires to shape development, from laudatory ones like wanting buildings to engage the street and eschew vinyl pop-ups to the too-common impulse to simply block any buildings that are even slightly tall.

Preservation needs to confront these questions of what it should and shouldn't restrict and what kinds of outcomes it's looking for. Meanwhile, it can take some immediate steps to define much clearer rules, make preservation decisions more predictable, and let people to see how projects have evolved through the process.

We need pictures!

The Historic Preservation Office (HPO) is right that people aren't aware of all of the positive effects of their review on development. One big step they could take to improve transparency (or, after using a thesaurus to find a word starting with 'p,' pellucidity) is to put images of the proposed buildings online.

Right now, you can access staff reports online, which go into ornate detail about the building. Take this paragraph about the project at 13th and U:

The composition has been organized with three vertically-oriented towers so that it doesn't look squat or horizontal; the corner balconies and paired windows help reinforce the vertical emphasis. The rhythm and proportions of fenestration on the residential floors is consistent with historic apartment buildings, while the first floor is designed and articulated to reinforce the street's pedestrian scale and retail character.
That's great, but can you really picture the building based on that description? As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and in the case of architecture, maybe many thousands. It's really almost impossible to understand what they're talking about without a picture:

I was able to post that picture because this developer put renderings online when they presented them to ANC 1B, but many don't. The preservation office isn't making their decisions based on prose, but on sketches.

Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) members get many pages of drawings before their meetings. These are almost always, if not always, just print-outs from the architect's computers. It shouldn't be hard to have the architect submit electronic files and put them online.

The DC Office of Zoning recently deployed a nice system that lets you search for a zoning case and see all of the submissions, both textual and graphical, as PDFs. Why not the same for historic preservation, or even work with OZ and use the same system?

Often, I hear about buildings where the board seemed to make the right decision, or where a project improved based on staff review. It would be great to run posts about those. With pictures, it would become far more feasible.

This should be a top priority for the office. I didn't see it in the plan.

We need information earlier!

When a project appears on the HPRB agenda, it's actually fairly late in the design review process. The property owner has usually shown the design to the staff and gotten considerable feedback already.

Often the staff makes designs better through this consultation. (Sometimes they make it worse.) If they want people to see the positive effects of preservation review, the next step should be to peel back the curtain on this somewhat.

It starts with a property owner submitting a permit application. Post those online, and then post the designs at each step along the way. Residents could see a slideshow of how a project has evolved, hopefully for the better, through the process from start to finish.

Maybe property owners don't want people to know about their plans until they are farther along, though it's not clear the government should be in the business of catering to that desire for secrecy. If there is a reason to maintain some silence, then perhaps the office can post all of the original and intermediate renderings once a project reaches the point of becoming public, such as going on the HPRB agenda or having a zoning hearing.

Create clear guidelines to define "compatibility"

The other major direction for the preservation office to pursue is making its decisions less apparently subjective. Right now, staff reports seem to pull aesthetic judgments out of thin air, and then the board either agrees or disagrees.

Since it's made up of architects, historians, and archaeologists rather than lawyers, most of the comments on the board involve statements like "I like the detailing" or "I think it's too tall."

Preservation should not be about what people "like." It's technically about what is "compatible," and an important, yet mostly absent, step is to define, ahead of time and clearly, what "compatible" means.

DC has some design guidelines. They are extremely vague and quite out of date. For instance, the document on additions to historic buildings says:

a contrasting rear addition may be acceptable if it is not visible from a public street or alley and when it does not destroy existing character-defining details, ornamentation and materials of a rear elevation. A new rear addition that can be seen from a public street or alley should be compatible with the design of the rear elevation of the existing building. If the new addition is not visible from the street or alley, a less compatibly designed addition may be acceptable.
That's fairly clear, but isn't the preservation office's practice in much of the city. I live in the Dupont Circle historic district and am a member of the Dupont Circle Conservancy. We discuss many rear additions, and at least in Dupont, the Conservancy's policy, and HPO's policy, has been that rear additions of any type are fine as long as they're not visible directly from the street. You wouldn't know that from reading the guidelines.

If the rules are different among historic districts, then the guidelines need to say so.

The guidelines on new construction in historic districts say:

Typically, if a new building is more than one story higher or lower than existing buildings that are all the same height, it will be out of character. On the other hand, a new building built in a street of existing buildings of varied heights may be more than one story higher or lower than its immediate neighbors and still be compatible.
Sounds like on a street like U Street, a building like that 8-story apartment building should have been a no-brainer. Anyone on the board saying it was too tall was clearly ignoring the written guidelinesexcept that the guidelines are widely ignored and out of date.

Guidelines use nonspecific, hand-drawn sketches.

The answer is simple. Write newer, much clearer guidelines. That would let property owners figure out for themselves fairly well what is likely to get approved or rejected. What you can build on your property shouldn't depend on the whims of the preservation official, but rather have a firm basis in the code with officials only interpreting the guidelines and applying them to the specifics of a case.

Guidelines would also give residents and leaders a chance to actually debate what kinds of restrictions there should be. Each historic restriction also has a consequent impact on the city's ability to house more people, economic growth, the tax base and more.

We need a balance, but right now that balancing happens almost entirely behind the scenes, in the minds of HPO staff, who then crank out a report that recommends for or against a project purely on historical grounds. Let people debate whether or not a historic guideline is a good idea, not just on the basis of "compatibility" but on its total effect on the city.

Cite the guidelines in reports and decisions

Then, when crafting staff reports on projects, cite each recommendation to a guideline. Say that the building needs to have more of a setback? Then refer to a guideline that says this. If there's no guideline to that effect, then it's not incompatible. Write a new guideline that defines the incompatibility, and use it for future cases.

Likewise, if HPRB goes against the staff recommendation, it should have to quote guidelines that form the basis for that decision. Don't simply declare that a building ought to look different; point to a written document that other people besides the board would likely interpret as meaning the same thing.

This would make decisions seem less arbitrary. Instead of reading like an aesthetic judgment, a staff report would be interpreting the guidelines in a clear way. Others might disagree with the interpretations at times, but it's not just coming from nowhere.

The Mayor's Agent can also hold HPRB to a more rigorous standard. When the Board of Zoning Adjustment grants a variance or a special exception, it writes a detailed, legalistic set of factual findings and conclusions of law based on the regulations.

HPRB doesn't need to be quite so meticulous, but nor does it get carte blanche to make any judgment unquestioned. In the law, it's actually technically only an advisory body. But it's usually not treated as an advisory body; the staff follows HPRB's rulings as if it's the official arbiter of "compatibility."

In the law, the mayor, who acts through an official known as the Mayor's Agent, can override any HPRB decision. The Mayor's Agent could declare that if HPRB votes to deny a permit, they need to point to some guidelines that justify it, or not have its "advice" given much weight.

A few steps can make a difference

Preservation has many beneficial effects on our built environment. However, it's too opaque and decisions often seem capricious. The preservation office can work to repair preservation's reputation by tackling two problem areas:

First, make sure that people can see what property owners propose and what changes came out of the preservation process. Post online renderings of projects when they first come to HPO, as they evolve through consultation with staff, when they go to HPRB, and the final outcomes.

Second, make sure people can see why those changes came about. Develop detailed and specific guidelines that any property owner could read and understand generally what would and wouldn't go forward. When a case is controversial and goes to the board, make sure staff reports and board decisions then cite these guidelines to ground the decisions in something other than flighty opinion.


"Perception" is not preservation's primary problem

The DC Historic Preservation Office (HPO) has released a new plan for preservation through 2016. From conversations with preservationists and the public, HPO concluded that "preservation has a perception problem," which it wants to combat. However, perception isn't the only problem.

Photo from the report.

Most of the challenges the preservation office says they heard are about communication:

  • "Preservation has a perception problem"
  • "Many residents have no understanding or misperceptions of preservation"
  • "There is a perception problem with historic district designationwe need to address it"
  • "The next generation of preservation leaders is not there; where are the future activists?"
  • "We're not communicating well about what preservation is, especially to the younger generation"
The participants, and HPO, appear to assume or conclude that the problem with preservation is that people don't understand it and all of the wonderful things it does.

And preservation has had a valuable impact on DC in a number of ways. Many proposals gain better architectural harmony with surrounding neighborhoods, more interesting ground-level detailing, and more interesting rooflines as a result of the design review from the preservation process.

But there's a deeper issue than just perception. Preservation is often addressing the wrong problems for today. As Richard Layman often says, the preservation system arose during the era of the shrinking city, when people wanted to tear down beautifully detailed apartment buildings to create parking lots. Then, it was inherently a good thing to place more of the city under historic protection.

Today, the city is growing, and the challenge is to shape that growth. It should concentrate in areas with good transit. New buildings need to engage the street as old buildings do, and include some interesting architectural details to avoid a monotony of glass boxes. Designs should avoid leaving large dead spaces at the pedestrian level.

In many cases, design review is helpful. And the preservation office is right when it says in the plan that they could do more to communicate the ways projects get better through the process. However, the preservation movement is also full of people who just plain don't want change.

With housing prices rising rapidly, the fact that there isn't enough housing is a bigger problem than the fact that some residents have to look at new buildings that might be a little taller than some other buildings nearby. But when preservation is beholden to the anti-height set, it's not solving the problem that many younger (and many older) residents see with development.

There's one quotation on the list that gets at the real issue:

  • "Anti-development preservation gives preservation a bad name"
Unfortunately, the rest of the document doesn't really follow up on this issue.

Graphic from the report.

Individual goals focus more on salesmanship than fixing problems

The plan seems to assume, but not directly argue, that giving the preservation office control over more of what happens in the city is the ideal goal.

The chapter on "why preservation works in DC," for instance, almost entirely focuses on the numbers of historic districts and numbers of landmarked properties, as well as extolling the support for preservation from the federal government, DC's local laws, advocacy organizations, and developers.

In several recent cases, people have opposed historic districts. That's not because they don't understand what preservation means. Rather, residents are often very concerned that preservation staff and the Historic Preservation Review Board will arbitrarily allow or block elements simply based on personal whim, subjective, aesthetic judgment, or an agenda to repel growth. That's not imaginary; that is indeed what often happens.

The office needs to find ways to design the preservation process so residents can get the positive effects of historic designation and fewer of the negative ones. This report, however, doesn't explore that. Instead, it focuses on how to convince people to support preservation as is.

For example, one of the specific goals seems tailor-made to address the concerns of urbanist critics, goal D1, "Practice sustainable urbanism." It even has a picture of Capital Bikeshare. Aha! Here, HPO can clearly state that it should try to make preservation decisions that also support sustainable urbanism.

It does not take the opportunity. Instead, the goal is:

Make a stronger case for the connection between preservation, sustainability, and economic growth, and adopt supportive public incentives.
In other words, instead of actually practicing more sustainable urbanism, the office's approach is to try to convince people that it's already practicing it. None of the supporting goals call for any change to the "take off a floor" default stance from many preservation groups. Two of the supporting goals are:
Develop sustainability guidelines to educate residents about the resource investment in historic buildings, and ways to adapt them as energy-efficient, renewable resources.

Publicize the sustainability benefits of preservation on websites and through award presentations, publications, educational programs, and professional networks.

Once again, the approach to sustainable urbanism is to convince people to support what's already going on. It doesn't call for developing guidelines to better align actual preservation decisions with sustainability, but rather guidelines "to educate residents."

Goal B2, "Speak out about preservation," basically outlines a plan to try to sell more preservation to communities. The objective is:

Strengthen mutual support systems needed for an effective community voice for preservation, and use that voice to advocate for preservation in all modes of public dialogue.
Supporting actions include "revitalize the Historic Districts Coalition" to encourage new local preservation groups and "establish and develop an advocacy group for DC Modernism," a phase of building that was particularly destructive to our city's livable neighborhoods. Mismatches between preservation and good urbanism often come most of the surface when dealing with modernist buildings.

While the plan doesn't call for the preservation office itself to take these steps, it's astounding to see an official document from an office call for people to form advocacy groups to lobby for more influence for that office.

The preservation system has a tremendous amount of power over DC's growth, more than in most cities. Preservation staff must be sure they are using that power wisely, not just put out plans which call for increasing their power and convincing residents to like it.

Instead of going into sales mode, the preservation movement, both inside and outside the government, needs to better confront the substantive critiques of its decisions. Next, I'll look at some steps that the preservation office could prioritize that would both educate residents and also make the process better address the needs of today.


A building can look smaller without losing a floor

The architects of an 8-story apartment building at 13th and U streets, NW have tweaked their design after the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) came close to asking to remove a whole floor. Instead, they've aptly demonstration how it's possible to make a building feel less large without actually making it much smaller at all.

Image from JBG.

In December, HPRB heard from JBG, the developer who owns the site, and their architect David M. Schwartz about their plans to replace the low strip mall complex containing Rite Aid, Pizza Hut, and other stores with an attractive apartment building.

Historic preservation staff favorably recommended the building, which they said "has many of design characteristics that are found in traditional apartment building design and which would result in a compatible relationship with its surroundings in this location."

The composition has been organized with three vertically-oriented towers so that it doesn't look squat or horizontal; the corner balconies and paired windows help reinforce the vertical emphasis. The rhythm and proportions of fenestration on the residential floors is consistent with historic apartment buildings, while the first floor is designed and articulated to reinforce the street's pedestrian scale and retail character.
A number of nearby residents, however, objected that it was too large compared to nearby townhouses. The board split fairly evenly, with a number of members suggesting deleting a floor. Graham Davidson, who calls buildings "too tall" with great frequency, praised the building as beautifully designed, but still felt compelled to come down on the side of lopping a floor off despite the fact that it would disrupt the elegant proportions.

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler convinced the board to simply ask JBG and Schwartz to try to do something on the 13th Street side, farthest from other large buildings. This week, they will go back to the board with a revised design that makes some small tweaks, but ones that staff believe have addressed the board's concerns.

Previous (top) and current (bottom) designs for the front of the building.

The rounded corner at 13th and U is one story shorter, and there is a more pronounced cornice line at 7 stories that runs along the whole side of the building. Balconies along the top floor in "hyphen" spaces between the center, left and right "tower" elements are deeper as well, and on the back side facing Wallach Place, there are more balconies to break up the solid mass of the building.

Previous (top) and current (bottom) designs for the front of the building.

The staff report says:

The revisions illustrate how relatively small changes in massing can substantially change the perceived height, weight and bulk of a large scale building. While harder to appreciate in photographs of the model ... these changes result in a very different reading of the building. ... The result is a building which reads lower, lighter and more varied at its roofline, and which relates more compatibly with its surrounding context.
I thought the last design related compatibly enough, but this design ought to placate the board, if members can look beyond the simple number of floors.

This change also clearly illustrates how developers and architects can address concerns without actually shrinking the building very much. Neighbors unhappy with a proposal often focus on its total height, but a fairly short building can look imposing while a much taller one does not (just look at some of the beautiful apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue, for instance).

Rather than pushing for fewer floors, neighbors should push for better design and small changes at the corners that can make a difference in a neighborhood's look and feel. HPRB, meanwhile, should praise the architect for these changes and get the project on its way to being built as soon as possible.

Update: HPRB voted unanimously to support the revised design.


Park Van Ness will fill in Connecticut Avenue streetscape

Developer BF Saul plans to replace its Van Ness Square, a low retail complex that contains a Pier 1 Imports, Office Depot, and a number of other stores, with a 273-apartment building and ground floor retail.

This is the second large matter-of-right proposal on Connecticut Avenue right now, but unlike the other, the glassy Cafritz building at Connecticut and Military, this will not only add housing opportunities and activate the street but has an attractive design as well.

Architects Torti Gallas and Partners designed the new building, 2 blocks north of the Van Ness Metro station. It's called "Park Van Ness," mirroring the Park Connecticut, an Archstone apartment building immediately next door. Park Van Ness will rise 7 stories from Connecticut Avenue, the same height as the Park Connecticut.

This building is right at the end of Yuma Street. The plans show a large arched opening between two halves of the building that lines up with Yuma Street, so drivers or walkers on Yuma will be able to see through to Soapstone Valley Park, a branch of Rock Creek Park, immediately beyond. Past the arch, the opening turns into a large plaza overlooking the park below.

View from Yuma Street.

The rendering shows a security gate across the archway. It's not clear whether this will be open during the day and just control access to the plaza at night, or will block off the area beyond for residents alone 24-7. The floor plans show a "club room" for residents opening onto the plaza. It would be far better if this overlook can serve as a semi-public space where people can sit and perhaps enjoy a coffee they might purchase from one of the retail spaces.

Representatives of BF Saul did not yet return calls asking for more details about this part of the plan.

Area ANC Comissioner Adam Tope says that BF Saul plans to make the building some level of LEED, but hasn't yet specified what level. The owner also hopes to put up to 4 restaurants in the ground-floor retail spaces of the north half and other types of retail on the south side.

This project could take a big step toward activating the streetscape in this area. Here, there is surface parking in front of the existing Van Ness Square, which does not create an appealing pedestrian environment. The same is true for many of the buildngs at Van Ness, constructed during a period when many architects and developers weren't trying to create appealing, walkable places; therefore, Van Ness has too many large voids, street-fronting parking, or buildings (like Intelsat) set far too far back from the street.

The building will have 226 parking spaces for the 273 apartments (which will range from studios to 3-bedroom units) plus the retail. That means that while many residents will bring cars, not everyone can or will have their own car. The parking will be underground in the front, while the back of those floors will have apartments overlooking the park several stories below Connecticut Avenue.

Aerial rendering of the Soapstone Park side of the building.

Will residents support or fight this?

The Art Deco style should fit in well at Van Ness and please residents of the area, in addition to the benefit they gain from new restaurants and more patrons for area businesses. Still, some people may try to fight more density along Connecticut Avenue just on principle, even though this is not taller than the adjacent building.

Saul representatives claim the building is matter-of-right, said Tope, so they will not need to go through formal public hearings for any zoning exceptions or variances.

Some people in neighborhood are up in arms right now about matter-of-right projects, not because of this one, but because of the much less attractive glass building Cafritz is proposing farther up Connecticut at Military Road. There, some people want it to be smaller and others just want it to look less glassy, but the building conforms to zoning, so DC officials and Councilmember Cheh have no legal power to force them or block the project.

The Cafritz proposal at 5333 Connecticut.

Chevy Chase listserv moderator Mary Rowse recently posted a message calling for a historic district along Connecticut all the way from Tilden Street (the northern edge of the current Cleveland Park historic district) to Chevy Chase Circle. She wrote,

This stretch would include the three remaining undesignated low-scale commercial pockets along Connecticut Avenue at Chevy Chase, Nebraska & Fessenden and Van Ness. ... Having a Historic District provides a framework for managing new construction that respects the scale, design, siting and compatibility of existing structures.
The preservation office would likely not oppose the BF Saul Van Ness project, beyond perhaps dictating some design elements. It's harder to know what the appointed Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) might do; they often go along with staff reports, but in several cases this year, some members pushed to remove a floor or two from a building despite a favorable staff report when enough opponents show up.

A historic district would address two impulses. First, many people want to be able to push for a better design. That could mean different architecture, or better detailing at street level, or more ground-floor retail. Others want to simply increase pressure to limit the size of new buildings.

I sympathize with the first impulse. The Park Van Ness design seems good, but not so much at 5333 Connecticut. On the other hand, the belief that smaller is always better seems to dominate too many preservation debates these days. HPRB has used its powers much more often to shrink projects versus to improve other elements of their design.

In fact, the question of what makes a "historically compatible" design varies widely. Ron Eichner wrote in response to Rowse's email:

I have never been a fan of this idea of creating an historic district where nothing historic happened and neither the neighborhood layout nor the architecture is remarkable. Even as a back door way to give ANCs design review, it is a flawed idea, since all the HPRB reviews for is whether a project contributes to an historic district or not, which allows for lots of leewayjust look around town in the historic districts. In the 5333 case, I suspect that regardless of the ANCs assessment, HP would see the 'historic pattern' as big apartment buildings on the Avenue and single family houses on the side streets, and approve the project massing.

As for the facade design of the [glassy] proposed building, as much as we don't like it, HPRB is pretty friendly to the outmoded and sorta dopey idea that glass 'expresses our time' (as opposed to expressing the Mad Men time of the 1950's when glass walls were actually new and special) and they like contrast between periods so I wouldn't assume that historic district status and HPRB review would have changed a thing.

Residents understandably want some say in development projects, but the existing processes that give them a say, like historic preservation, often don't focus on the real factors that affect how a building interacts with its surrounding area. We end up with some cases (like 5333) where residents have no ability to push a project in a better direction design-wise, and too many others where review ends up harming our overall housing supply more than it improves a building's design.


Streetcar car barn design improves in latest round

The DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) will discuss a new set of designs for the Benning Road streetcar maintenance facility this Thursday. The US Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) already got a look last week.

Aerial view. Top: "Vertical/Civic" option. Bottom: "Horizontal/Podium" option.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) showed earlier concept designs to HPRB and CFA in November. CFA recommended "a more urban and civic condition of a public building," while HPRB wanted it to be as small and unobtrosive as possible.

Therefore, DDOT has developed 2 concepts. One has more vertical architectural elements designed to give the building a "civic" look, while the other has a more horizontal feel dubbed "podium." Both are the same height, but the "horizontal/podium" design sets the 3rd floor back from the front façade, while "vertical/civic" does not.

View from Benning Road. Top: "Vertical/Civic" option. Bottom: "Horizontal/Podium" option.

These designs look much better than the previous ones. Historic Preservation Office staff, in their report, say that the architects have better related the building to Spingarn High School by using a brick veneer, preserving certain sight lines to Spingarn, and creating a border of green space around the perimeter.

It's too bad DDOT wasn't able to locate the building on the nearby RFK parking lots. Streetcar planners should have started pursuing this option with the federal government sooner, but there's no guarantee they ever could have gotten permission; the National Park Service is fairly jealous about keeping "recreational" land free of buildings even if that "recreation" right now is just empty parking space for a stadium.

At the MoveDC kickoff forum, Meg Maguire of the Committee of 100 made the sensible suggestion that DDOT plan locations for other car barns early, so that other communities have more chances to participate in designing them, and so that there's time to work more thoroughly to pursue the most appropriate sites.

26th Street elevation. Top: "Vertical/Civic" option. Bottom: "Horizontal/Podium" option.

HPRB members will be tempted to block the building because they wish it could be elsewhere, but that's not their standard. This building is compatible with the adjacent historic ones and should go forward, though if HPRB members have suggestions to improve the design, it's certainly worth getting the best example of a civic building that's practical to build here.

DDOT is holding a public meeting Tuesday to update the community on the streetcar's progress. It's 6:30-8 pm at Miner Elementary, 601 15th Street, NE.


Board lauds 13th and U design, still balks at height

The Historic Preservation Review Board lavished praise on the architectural design for a proposed residential building at 13th and U Streets, NW, but demurred from approving the project yesterday, as they could not make themselves entirely comfortable with the building's size.

View from U Street. Images from JBG.

The 8-story building would replace the one-story Rite Aid-anchored strip mall at the corner of 13th and U. JBG, the property's owner, wants to build a distinctive residential building in a classic style that evokes many of the large buildings on streets like Connecticut Avenue.

JBG had originally proposed a hotel for the corner, but changed it to residences based on neighborhood pushback against a hotel. They also made the building slightly shorter and set back the top 2 floors. They also stepped the building down in the rear, toward the Wallach Place row houses across the alley to the south.

View from Wallach Place.

Based on these changes, ANC 1B approved the design, and Historic Preservation Office staff also were satisfied with the design, after working extensively with the architect. Preservation officer Steve Callcott explained at yesterday's hearing that since the U Street historic district was created, there has been debate over whether tall buildings belong on U Street at all, given the shorter row houses.

Ultimately, he said, most preservation staff and board members concluded that taller buildings did belong. After all, there are 100-year-old buildings of such heights near row houses in many other parts of the city today.

We don't tend to think of [the tall buildings] as incompatible with the row houses. We think of them as simply a different building type that relates very well and creates a dynamic urban environment, and I think our feeling is that this proposal would do the same thing. It's without a doubt larger than the buildings around it. It's unabashedly an apartment building. But the way the design has been detailed and organized and articulated, despite the disparity in scale and height, it could be a very appropriate neighbor and addition to the U Street historic district.
Some residents of Wallach Place, however, continued to argue that the building should lose one or two more floors. The site is not very deep, and there are smaller row houses immediately across. Since the building is to the north, it won't actually affect the light on their yards, but they objected to the scale of this building compared to others nearby.

View along 13th Street from the north.

Most preservation board members, while they roundly complimented architect David Schwarz on the design, verbally struggled with their decisions but ultimately couldn't agree with the building's size. Architect Graham Davidson, who frequently suggests removing one more floor from buildings that come before him, continued this pattern, but with trepidation.

The building would be a lot better if it were a story lower. The reason I'm conflicted about this is that there are other buildings in the neighborhood which are as high as this building, and have been approved, and have been built, and they're not nearly as good. And it pains me to have to consider penalizing this building, which has been designed so carefully and will be a much more successful building, and to require that it be reduced in size when there are other bldgs that are this height and aren't as succcessful.
Davidson also talked about how the overall proportions of the building were so elegant that any reduction would disrupt the overall look of the building. Likewise, just cutting it down on 13th Street, which is the most residential end, would make it unbalanced and asymmetric.

Nancy Metzger noted that the Ellington, a building of similar height, has greater setbacks. Where it borders townhouses, HPRB forced it to have a smaller end piece. But here, Davidson noted, it's difficult to make one end look like a separate building. (Personally, that end piece has always looked awkward to me, like we almost built a whole building but not quite.)

Metzger seemed to feel she needed to support residents in asking the architect to remove more from the building, but couldn't figure out what. "It is a very elegant building," she said, "And it is very hard as I've been sitting here to say, okay, what is out of it? And I guess I would come down to the point where I think maybe a story needs to come off maybe because it is so big."

Bob Sonderman, the archaeologist member on the board, said,

I just feel like the little country boy from Capitol Hill. We're just not used to big buildings,and this is a really big building. I am fully in support of the architectural design. It's fantastic, it's gorgeous, the proportions are wonderful. It's just a really attractive building, and I think the U Street corridor should be pleased to have an architect of this quality to design a building in this corridor.

It's a huge improvement over many other buildings that this board, and me, have approved in the past. I'm loathe to suggest a reduction in height, but I think that would help a bit. The 13th st facade is great, I love the curves and the corners, but that is a long facade of work there. It's big; but it's pretty... big.

View from U Street Metro.

Andrew Aurbach, on the other hand, raised a question of whether it was appropriate for the board to be trying to decide the overall size. "Maybe these are more zoning concerns than they are preservation concerns," he said, referring to a frequent statement by board members that they only consider what's historic and don't get into zoning matters. Aurbach suggested finding a way to adjust the 13th Street end to reduce the impression of height without actually shrinking the building.

Newly-elected board chair Gretchen Pfaehler also wasn't disturbed by the overall density, but wanted some significant changes. She suggested the architect add more of a "reveal" which conceals some of the mass and girth of the building from some angles.

The traditional style of the building draws upon the critical details, the proportions, the window openings [of precedent in the area]. it's a beautiful building. I think that to me it's a matter of the height along the edge which gets into scaling and massing.

I would push to go just a little bit farther in terms of reveal and pulling away, not only from the pedestrian perception. One thing that makes the Ellington, the Mayflower, the hotel on 14th and K that we just landmarked, even though very large buildings, do have this reveal.

I would propose to my colleagues on the board that I don't think it's an issue of the height as much the proximity of the height along the length of the street. I'm comfortable with the height and I wouldn't direct the applicants to remove a story, but there needs to be more variation in the proximity of the heights to the street. That would give you relief but allow you to have the density that you need.

Pfaehler also acknowledged how the board has to balance "preservation" concerns with the needs of a growing city, especially in this rapidly changing neighborhood.
It's not just the preservation of the heritage that's there, but there needs to be viable infill that provides the affordable vitality that these communities need in order to keep them moving & living. Otherwise we have a museum set, and that's not what DC is about.

View along 13th Street from the south.

Pfaehler proposed a resolution to give the applicant the direction she had outlined, which passed unanimously. It's not entirely clear, but that seems to mean that they don't have to take off any floors, but should look for ways to give the 13th Street end some architectural features which break up its height a bit and let the view people see evolve as they approach on 13th Street from the south.

Ultimately, this case highlighted very starkly the different pressures within preservation for large-scale new construction. How much of it is about a good architectural design that respects the historic context? How much is HPRB just another hurdle which forces projects to shrink down a little more from what they already had in negotiating with the ANC? How much do board members want to actually be making zoning decisions even though they supposedly aren't?

Here, we had a building which the neighborhood generally approved of, the preservation office supported, and for which board members had nothing but the highest praise for the design. Yet 4 members still felt an irresistable pressure to make the building smaller.

Pfaehler might have turned them away from that course for now, and perhaps the architect can accommodate their concerns in a way that doesn't disrupt the opportunity to create a building that future residents will cherish as a highlight of the neighborhood rather than another chimeric compromise.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City