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Adams Morgan could get more housing and preserve its plaza, too. But it probably won't.

Some Adams Morgan leaders have said "no" once again to a proposal to replace an ugly 1970s bank building at the corner of 18th and Columbia. Redevelopment would destroy what's now a plaza, but does it have to? If neighbors got over some "height-itis," maybe not.

April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

For most of this year, controversy has swirled around proposals from PN Hoffman to redevelop what's now a two-story SunTrust bank building dating to 1973 and a brick plaza. Hoffman's initial proposal left a much smaller (but more attractively landscaped) plaza at the corner. Opposition was immediate, and took two forms.

Some people, like the "Save Our Plaza" group, focused most on the plaza itself. The place has some history involving the neighborhood's past efforts to push for fair lending to low-income homebuyers from the Perpetual Federal Savings bank, which used to use the building. Others simply feel that an open gathering space at Adams Morgan's central corner is a worthwhile part of the urban environment.

The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Others, like Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A zoning committee chair JonMarc Buffa, focus opposition mostly on the size of the proposed building. Much of the 18th Street strip is three stories high, while this building would have been six or seven to the cornice line (plus a set back penthouse).

There are buildings of similar height in the immediate area, but many people including HPRB member, architect, and stalwart opponent of height (except on his own buildings) Graham Davidson said it was too tall and too massive.

September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

Many others, like the commenters on this Borderstan article, argue that Adams Morgan could benefit from more residents (helping neighborhood retail besides bars and late-night pizza places thrive), that DC needs housing, and besides, this is private property.

Open space isn't a bad thing, but neither are buildings. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

How about a plaza AND new housing?

While this is indeed private property (though the city's historic preservation process has wide latitude to control what's built), there's some merit to the argument that in a well-planned Adams Morgan, it would still be good to have a plaza here.

My neighborhood has a large circular park right at the Metro station. Even though it takes a lot of land away from being used for needed housing, it's a terrific amenity and I wouldn't want it developed.

However, that doesn't mean I want to keep people out of the neighborhood, either. I support building more housing on other sites and would support taller buildings around the circle where they are low.

What is the priority for Adams Morgan residents? If the plaza is the most important thing, they could propose that instead of shrinking the building, PN Hoffman makes it even taller, but in exchange leaves more of the site open. Or want to minimize height? Then the plaza, which is not public land, probably has to go.

Site plan showing the current building.

I'd go with more height and more plaza space if possible. Tall buildings at prominent corners are actually a defining feature of DC (to the extent any DC building is "tall") and other cities. This marquee corner would be a great spot for something really dramatic that could anchor and characterize Adams Morgan. All of the proposals were architecturally conservative, and have gotten even more so in subsequent revisions. This is why DC has a reputation for boring architecture.

The best vehicle for such an arrangement would be what's called a Planned Unit Development. It's a more involved process that gives a developer more zoning latitude in exchange for benefits to a community. Hoffman hadn't been pursuing a PUD, perhaps hoping for a quicker turnaround in the process, but if neighbors agreed to support something with more density and more plaza space, it would reduce the uncertainty of doing a PUD and open up possibilities for a better project.

I don't want to represent that something is possible that might not be: I haven't talked to PN Hoffman about this possibility. Making a building taller adds construction cost; I'm not privy to the dynamics of their deal to control the land. But in most projects, there is some opportunity for give and take if neighbors really were willing to prioritize asking for one thing and being more flexible on another.

Not a lot of activity. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And let's not kid ourselves—this plaza is nothing special. It's hosted a farmer's market, but Hoffman has said they'd work to relocate it to another large expanse of sidewalk right across the intersection. For most people walking through Adams Morgan, this spot is just the ugly dead zone in between the interesting commercial strips in various directions.

A smaller but well-designed plaza could be more useful. A larger AND well-designed one could be even better, and potentially even feasible if height weren't such a bugaboo.

Unfortunately, area activists don't seem likely to suggest a taller building and a better plaza. Instead, the Save Our Plaza people seem almost as angry about the number of feet proposed for the building; their petition actually mentions the height first, before the plaza.

A more detailed plan could help

The DC Office of Planning created a vision plan for the neighborhood last year, and it in fact cites the plaza as something to hopefully preserve. But there was no official policy change to protect it, nor did that plan consider offsetting zoning changes to add more housing elsewhere in the neighborhood. The plan had good uncontroversial ideas (better wayfinding, more green roofs, public art) but doesn't actually determine where new housing can go.

The zoning for this site allows a building atop the plaza. Historic preservation is almost wholly discretionary and the preservation board doesn't publish detailed written decisions, making it impossible to know what is and isn't acceptable.

If DC's practice was to devise more concrete plans, we could imagine having a clear vision that lays out how much housing DC needs, what proportion of that would be fair to allocate to Adams Morgan, and a strategy for where to put it and where not to. The zoning could then match this vision instead of bearing at best a passing resemblance.

Instead, it seems that the only thing that would satisfy Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C is virtually no change at all. That's not reasonable; the city is growing, and so should Adams Morgan's core. But neighborhood leaders can think through how they'd best accommodate that change, and the government could help. And maybe this site could still have a better building and a plaza at the same time.


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

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

Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Davidson hopes there won't be more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preservation must preserve our natural environment, too

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who gets to decide?

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

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

Neighbors and city officials applaud this project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put it in Seattle, says one preservationist

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

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

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

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

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

The Bullitt Center, Seattle. Image from Google Maps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Plans for renovating the MLK Library have changed to meet preservation standards

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.

Current design for the MLK Library. Image from DCPL.

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.

Sketch diagram of key changes: new stairs, cafe, and an addition on top. Image from DCPL/NCPC.

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.

Curvilinear roof addition from last fall. Image from NCPC.

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 Great Hall with glass partitions to a new assembly space. Image from DCPL.

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 most recent design for the lobby entryway. Image from DCPL.

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.

The semi-transparent cores envisioned last fall. Image from DCPL.

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.

Existing vestibule, with recessed notch. Photo by the author.

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.

The new design for the stairwell has a central opening. Image from DCPL.

The proposed stairways now are curved spaces. Image from DCPL.

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 a small piece of marble removed from the Kennedy Center.

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.

Most recent plan of the top floor. Image from DCPL.

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.

A cafe would replace the garage entry on 9th street. Image from DCPL.

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.


Residential on top of the MLK library just doesn't work

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.

The DCPL-preferred standalone design.

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.

The agencies that will have a hand in the design. Chart from NCPC.

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.
All of these boards' reviews include public input, but they usually only hear from a limited audience. The more the public engages with this project, the greater the chances it meets the entire community's needs.

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.


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 end—or 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.

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