Posts about HPRB
Late last month, plans to renovate DC's downtown library got a key approval from the District's Historic Preservation Review Board. The overall design approach is the same, but the details have changed.
The HPRB designates buildings as landmarks and reviews potential alterations to those buildings up. While divisive, the MLK Library, a modernist building completed in 1972, is registered as a national landmark.
The approved plans have changed a lot from the scheme that the design team, Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson, won the project with. A mixed-use building was too hard to finance and the designers tweaked the plans based on community feedback. But fixing the building's flaws within historic preservation rules has been the toughest challenge for designers, and those concerns have been the driver behind the biggest design changes.
Last Thursday's approval is a key step for the project in terms of moving forward. The design the HPRB approved is the result of several rounds of review by HPRB, Washington's other project review boards, DC's professional Historic Preservation Office and the Federal Cultural Resources, or Section 106, process. But because MLK renovation poses big historic preservation questions while having little impact on the environment or federal operations, the other agencies are looking at to HPRB's decision. That means this design is close to being final.
The design uses similar ideas as before but has a more conservative look
The 2014 competition design proposed a few open-ended alterations to the building: removing interior walls, retrofitting the façade for energy efficiency, opening up the ground floor, swapping opaque stair enclosures for transparent ones, and adding some kind of top that strongly contrasted with the historic structure.
Now, the new flor takes the shapeof a black trapezoid so it's less visible from the street. Glass skylights bring light to the basement instead of light wells. What was an oval auditorium between the fourth and fifth floors in last year, has moved to a rectangular space the center, to better riff off the geometry of the 1972 building's original designer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Because of this process, there were only two contentious issues for the board to rule on. They are glassy expanses that would replace tan brick walls. One is a set of doors in the center of the great hall. They lead to the first floor multipurpose space, which replaces a loading dock.
The other is a pair of glass walls separating the entry vestibule and the two stair "cores" that frame it. Moving the cores has never been controversial. When they built the library, Mies and his office designed a circulation pattern better suited to a high-rise. The designers' goal was to move them so, as architect Tom Johnson quipped, "you don't have to ask at the desk" how to go upstairs.
The renovation design team originally wanted to demolish the core walls on all floors and replace them with semi-transparent glass ones, so the stairs would be easy to find.
HPO and designers couldn't agree on how much brick to remove
The District's Historic Preservation Office found that this approach was too extreme. They recommended instead that the renovation only remove a small recessed area in the vestibule and a few nearby metal panels. In January, HPRB steered the designers toward keeping more of the tank brick walls, especially in areas like the ground floor, that HPRB had designated as having special significance in a set of renovation guidelines.
Since the stair core walls can't be transparent on all five floors, the architects have worked hard to make the stairs exciting. Still, they found they just couldn't avoid opening up the cores at the entryway. So while they were able to reach an agreement with the preservation office on other issues, they got stuck here.
So why was HPO so opposed to removing the bricks? Public comments on the renovation frequently criticized them. In its first round of comments, HPO took what might sound like a startling stance on the entire renovation, writing "[HPO] believes that all alternatives besides A (No Action) would have an adverse affect on the building, due to loss of historic fabric."
Preservation looks at buildings as evidence of history
"Historic fabric" means the physical substance of the building. As historic preservation law grew stronger, advocates worried that restorations often meant editing them to fit biased perspectives, effectively re-writing history. Preservationists had seen plenty of artifacts go into the dumpster.
In Old Town Alexandria, preservation mavens replaced working-class Victorian details like lamps with tonier recreations of Colonial Revival fixtures. In the UK, early agencies cut up ruins to make them fit a fanciful understanding of the Middle Ages. Architects "corrected" centuries-old monuments, demolishing irreplaceable archaeological features in the process.
To make restoration "objective," preservationists changed their methods. They wouldn't try to reconstruct a building's ideal state. Instead, they'd treating sites more like records of historical changes. Preservation laws started to preserve everything within a "period of significance," irrespective of whether it's "good design" or flattering to history.
Demolition of the surviving parts of a historic building was discouraged. Alterations would instead have to be clearly distinguishable additions.
You can see this attitude where developers move entire buildings around to preserve them, keeping wooden windows in Columbia Heights, or storing
The federal government collected these rules into a document called the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. This document informs the Historic Preservation Office follows when it makes recommendations.
More importantly, the Principles of Rehabilitation are the basis of of the design guidelines created for the library. They designated those first-floor brick walls the designers want to swap for glass as particularly important.
An inviting entrance wins out
I think this all makes a lot of sense. A building can't offer a meaningful connection to the past if its evidence tells a made-up story. And for every brilliant renovation there are a hundred bad ones proposed as well. So, the approach is conservative, with HPRB existing to allow more discretion. That's what happened here.
What HPRB technically did was "approve and delegate," which means that the big, conceptual issues were resolved. Their comments instruct the professional staff at HPO how to bring everyone into agreement.
Several HPRB members endorsed the design team's proposal to make the entry more inviting by removing as much of the brick walls as the renovation team wanted. Nancy Metzger said, "I've always hated walking into this building… I think it should be more open." Other members echoed her and even called for removing more brick.
But to preserve the existing building's s spatial effects, they suggested making the glass less transparent. That way, patrons would see the activity inside, but wouldn't assume the glass side walls are doors, and they would feel compelled to enter.
To achieve this, board members suggested adjustments to the glass through ceramic glazing called frits, shades, or metal mesh built into the glass. Board member Graham Davidson pushed the idea further, asking to replace the proposed window frames, which Mecanoo designed to match the first floor's walls, with a flat, monolithic surface that recalled the monolithic surface of the existing brick.
The metal embedded in the Des Moines Public Library's walls works like a two-way mirror. From the darker interior,, you can easily look out. Photo by toddmundt on Flickr.
I think this is a very sophisticated compromise. The metal mesh option, in particular, might call back to the chain curtains used by Mies and Philip Johnson at the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York, while clearly being a technology from a different time and place. Similarly, Mies and his office used the shape of frames to tweak the sense of transparency, including at the library. This approach could permit even more removal of the first floor cores and a more inviting space in front of the building.
The glassy design also follows the recommendations of the Commission of Fine Arts, which has pushed for a more radical, intellectual renovation, including a more engaging entrance. So, with the big issue resolved, the design will likely progress smoothly through the rest of Washington's interconnected design review environment.
The prohibition against the loss of historic fabric was instituted to preserve alterations that gave insight into subsequent users' time and place, not just the origianl. For buildings built after landmark laws came into effect might never get the chance to incorporate that kind of historical record.
If the rest of the design process goes well, that may be what happens here. This alteration may be deemed significant as well, as a desire to balance preservation and vibrancy in rejuvenated downtowns.
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The DC Public Library considered adding three floors of housing on top of the Martin Luther King, Jr. library, but recently backed off. Preservation concerns and opposition from activists were part of the reason, but the real issue was that the finances didn't work.
One mixed-use option for development of the MLK library. All rendering photos from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson via NCPC.
When the library trustees picked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson as the architects to rehabilitate the downtown library a year ago, they stressed that naming the firm as their design competition winner was only the start of the process. That has proven very true, as evidenced by the multiple options (pictured throughout this post) the team has had to produce since then.
At the end of January, after a year of negotiating, engagement, and redesign, the trustees voted to abandon the more ambitious designs. DCPL still wants to build on top of the library, but it's asked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson to go with something smaller and not mixed-use.
Instead, library officials are now considering two new designs, each with only a single new floor atop the existing building.
An alternative design that more closely models the the library's original 1972 design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Up top, more floors didn't add up
Financially, not pursuing a mixed-use addition was a relatively simple decision. CBRE, a real estate conglomerate, valued the remaining developable space at at $27.8 million, which is only 10-15% of what the proposed renovations would cost. A cost-benefit analysis by local developer Jair Lynch Partners saw this value as not worth the challenges.
CBRE concluded that office tenants would give the city the most value for the three extra floors. But from the beginning, the library has wanted to disrupt downtown's office monoculture, and building more offices doesn't do that. Rental apartments would bring in less annual revenue, particularly if they incorporated affordable housing. A hotel wasn't an option because the area is already saturated with high-end hotels.
Another challenge is that the building would likely need more parking beyond the current single floor. The appraisal included the cost of a valet or automated parking system; both might still be unappealing to a developer, and adding a new floor of parking below would be unimaginably expensive.
Difficulties in arranging public-private partnerships also pushed the library toward a simpler design. For the city, recouping investment is a multi-decade process; most developers, on the other hand, look for a five-year return. According to Lynch, other concerns like developing a unique ownership structure, or even changing the zoning, made the proposition too risky for the financiers.
Going forward, the library may choose to reinforce the building to support a design like the one Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson proposed last year. That's similar to what happened with the Tenley-Friendship library, where developers have the option to add a tower in the future. That also means that the city can't sell the air rights to the site, worth $27.8 million.
The final way to use private money to fund the renovation would be to sell the library's historic preservation tax credits. National landmarks are eligible for credits meant to defray the cost of restoration, and public entities can sell the benefits to third parties. The market analysis suggested a tax sale at MLK could net $20-30 million.
Below, a long process for what is approved
Even without the mixed-use addition, the renovation still faces DC's legendary design review process.
So far, all of the changes to the competition-winning entry have responded to historic preservation concerns. But the designers have to get approval from a number of agencies that deal with more than preservation.
- Though the District owns the library building, any projects in this part of DC also require input from the federally-run National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). NCPC will have to conduct an Environmental Assessment and a Cultural Resources Study.
- If the library decides to sell its historic preservation tax credits, it has to bring in the National Park Service (NPS) which runs the tax credit program. Even if the other agencies approve of the design, NPS could deem the changes to be too invasive.
- The design team has received positive feedback from the the US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). In January, CFA members asked for a more decisive approach, favoring more open space inside and additions that contrast stylistically from the Miesian architecture.
- Finally, the Historic Preservation Review Board has to approve changes to the building, which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed in 1972 and which is both a national and local landmark.
Correction: This article has been changed from the original version to make it clear that all three pictured renderings came from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson after they won the design competition. You can see the designs submitted for the competition here.
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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.
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.
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 end— Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 DCstreetcar.com.
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.
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.
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.
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 guidelines—
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.
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.
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 designation—
we 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"
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"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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