Posts about Whitman-Walker Project
New York announced an innovative solution: close Broadway to traffic in these areas. Pedestrians may finally have enough room, and it'll actually reduce car delays. (Tips: Greater Greater Dad, Robert H.-D., Andrew K., and others.)
Go blogs! Yesterday's Broadway announcement is also a huge win for Streetsblog, the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign, Transportation Alternatives, and other advocates who have persuaded the NYC government to completely transform its approach to transportation. A Wednesday segment about the future of news on NPR's Marketplace mentioned the rapid rise of small, online-only news operations focused on city government, local politics, and development.
T4A launches platform: The national Transportation For America coalition officially launched their platform on Capitol Hill today. It calls for this fall's transportation bill (TEA) to fund a 21st-century network that allocates transportation dollars based on objectives, like lowering carbon emissions and ensuring economic access, rather than set amounts for highways and (much smaller amounts) for transit.
PG neighbors debate highway widening, light rail: Residents of Temple Hills, Clinton and Brandywide debated widening Route 5 south of the Beltway. Some residents are eager for the widening, while others don't want the sprawl it will bring to southern Prince George's and counties to the south; some are pleased about the county's proposed light rail corridor, while others worry about the development that could result. (Gazette)
Reject a bungalow, get a skinny box: A developer built a 12-foot-wide modernist house on a lot in Arlington after neighbors rejected a zoning variance to put two bungalows in the place of one.
Up in Montgomery-land: The new Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville will be much worse for walkers (JUTP) ... The debate over Falkland Chase continues (Gazette) ... JUTP's Dan Reed and some friends encountered a Rockville leasing agent who said they "don't look like [they] could afford to live here" (Diamondback Online)
And: The Historic Preservation Review Board approved the revised design for the Whitman-Walker redevelopment project at 14th and S (CSNA) ... Metro has started layoffs (Examiner) ... the Senate passed the voting rights bill, with an amendment repealing DC's gun laws, but which will probably come out in conference. (Post, City Paper) ... The Virginia House rejected a bill to give residents the right to dry clothes on clotheslines.
After making a few revisions in response to neighbor and historic preservation concerns, the proposed residential development with ground-floor retail on 14th Street between S and Swann is solidly on track for approval. The project retains the historically contributing, former Whitman-Walker Clinic building at the corner of 14th and S, and replaces the other one-story structures on the block.
Neighborhood preservationists and HPRB disliked the original front facade, which used zig-zagging glass bays. The HPO staff report in December argued that the bays "work at odds with the historic district by emphasizing the addition's large size and horizontality; their proportion of glass to masonry and the scale of what appears as a single super-projection diminishes rather than enhances the historic building." The materials of the storefronts also clashed with the rest of the structure.
In response, developer JBG Cos. and architect Shalom Baranes redesigned the facade with more verticality and more prominent masonry. The glass bays now only rise to the fifth floor, and the masonry only to the sixth, making it look smaller while still containing a full seven floors. HPRB will reexamine the proposal this Thursday, and the staff report released yesterday praises the new design and recommends approval.
JBG also tweaked the rear of the building to address some neighborhood concerns. While some neighbors oppose the project entirely, some raised legitimate issues. The project team set back part of the ground floor in the rear to give garbage trucks more space to navigate a 90-degree turn between two alleys. They also moved the garage entrance closer to S Street to make them less visible.
Fortunately for the residents of S and Swann Streets, this project looks much more appealing from the rear than most projects. In fact, at the BZA hearing, Commissioner Greg Jeffries praised Baranes for designing a rear elevation as interesting as the building's other sides. Too often, developers neglect the back side of buildings. Just compare this proposal's rear elevation to the back of DC USA in Columbia Heights:
The Board of Zoning Adjustment has approved the necessary variances, and HPRB should approve the staff report this Thursday. This project will convert a mostly bland, empty, unsightly block into a vibrant part of the neighborhood. New housing on 14th Street, near Metro, many buses, and exciting shops and restaurants, will enable more people to live in a non-car-dependent part of the city and bring customers to the neighborhood's businesses.
At yesterday's Whitman-Walker BZA hearing, one of the neighbors opposing the project challenged the notion of building less parking than the current zoning regulations require. "Where will those cars park?" he asked.
That question assumes that the cars exist at all. But there's no fixed set of cars out there in search of spaces. Instead, the number of cars depends entirely on the people living in the building, or shopping or eating there. Some will drive. Some will walk, bike, or ride Metro or the bus. Some of "those cars" will turn into walkers, bikers, or transit riders instead.
We can do more to ensure that residents and shoppers really can travel without driving. In their comments, DDOT endorses the special exception to build fewer spaces than zoning demands, but recommends a set of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies alongside. They suggest that JBG:
- Provide bicycle parking in the garage (accessible to residents and retail employees) and exterior bike racks for the public
- Give all initial residents a $60 SmartTrip card
- Provide car sharing space(s) in the garage
- Pay for the application fee and a one-year membership to Zipcar for all initial residents and business owners
- Pay for a one-year SmartBike membership for all initial residents and business owners
These represent a great step and are not very expensive for the developer. Each of them simplifies living in the building or working in one of the retail stores without a car.
DDOT also recommends two elements on which I'm not completely sold:
- If people can buy the spaces permanently (instead of just renting them), include a deed restriction prohibiting residents from buying parking spaces and then reselling them to commuters
- Make residents of this building ineligible for RPP stickers
The deed restriction is probably moot, since this building will be rental apartments and thus I assume the garage would likewise rent rather than sell the spaces. But once we've built spaces, it's good to have a free market in those spaces, so that those who really do need parking for any reason (frequent transporting of large items, difficulty walking) can choose to pay for one.
Excluding buildings from RPP is very controversial. On the one hand, it ensures that new development won't create "spillover" competing with residents for spaces. But it's also unfair. An existing resident isn't more entitled to space on the street than a new resident. And if existing residents have a special right to public space, there's less of an incentive to choose to forego the car (and save money) so someone more needy can use the spaces. Better to use performance parking to allocate the limited space to those who value it most, not those who've been around a long time.
Cheryl Cort, of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, testified at the hearing with even more great suggestions. Her recommendations:
- Bicycle shower facilities for employees of the retail businesses
- An on-street Zipcar space instead of one in the garage. The revenue from one more pay garage space not used by the Zipcar could go to DDOT to make up for lost meter revenue.
- Having the developer guarantee a certain amount of revenue to Zipcar for the space, to ensure that they can put a car in the building (or in front) and not lose money. If they made more than the minimum, the developer would pay nothing.
- Taxi vouchers for people who reach the stores by transit and buy large goods in the stores
- A little bit of affordable housing, perhaps for someone who works in one of the retail stores
Finally, on the limitation of restaurants to 25% in the ARTS overlay, the Office of Planning recommended that BZA allow restaurants in the new development, but only up to 50% of the frontage of the building. That's a good compromise. Most of the restaurants in the ARTS overlay are on U Street, 9th Street, or P Street, not right in this area, so it's silly to prohibit restaurants here. And limiting it to 50% will encourage more, smaller businesses (at least two) instead of one, huge, block-encompassing restaurant or store.
JBG agreed at the hearing to implement some of DDOT's recommendations. They will put bicycle racks in the garage and on the street (facing both 14th and S streets, since S will be the main residential entrance), set aside one space for a Zipcar, and pay for Zipcar memberships for initial residents who don't rent a garage space. That's a good start, though they could also institute some TDM practices for the retail employees beyond simple bike racks.
"I'm happy to hear you're not overparking the site," said Zoning Commissioner Gregory Jeffries, "but I want to make sure there are all the other bells and whistles as it relates to having less parking." Jeffries talked about the importance of development that enables more people without also bringing more cars.
Most of all, it's great to see DDOT recommending these progressive policies in new development. All large, new development projects should include similar best practices. And when developers propose a Planned Unit Development (PUD), where the Zoning Commission gives them greater density and flexibility in exchange for community amenities, similar TDM practices ought to be some of the amenities we require.
In the past, unfortunately, the Zoning Commission has sometimes gone the opposite direction, demanding more parking to protect neighbors' on-street spaces. That only creates gridlock and doesn't even effectively protect on-street parking. Instead, new development should build only the parking the market would support, and with the money they save from fewer underground levels, fund TDM strategies to reduce car dependence for residents and employees.
Yesterday, developer JBG Companies, opposing neighbors, and advocates faced off before the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a hearing about the proposed development on the Whitman-Walker site on 14th between S and Swann.
Streets surround the project on three sides along with an alley along the entire back side, spanning from S to Swann. Tom Coumaris owns a property across the alley, and seven years ago moved into the carriage house facing the alley to rent out the main house. He opposes locating the proposed loading and parking entrances off the alley because they will create noise next to his front door, and argues that the building will impede his light and air.
Joseph Freeman, owner of an 8-unit half-condo, half-rental building on Swann, also spoke against the project, along with several other neighbors. Freeman said, "The developer wants to kill neighborhood peace, light and access because it just wants to fatten its wallet. There is no compelling public interest in that."
I disagree. There is a significant public interest in seeing this project built. A new project impacts not only the nearby residents, but every other person who walks, bikes, rides the bus, shops, eats, or works in the area. The BZA must consider the impacts of a project when considering variances and special exceptions. The immediate neighbors do feel the impact more acutely and their needs should receive greater consideration, but we must balance their needs against the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of other people who use this area as well.
More housing on this block positively impacts residents of the surrounding area. More housing increases the Metro ridership, enabling more service, lower fares, or lower taxes. It increases patronage for the businesses we like to enjoy. It lowers housing costs. It reduces our environmental footprint. And it lessens development pressure far out at the edge of the region, reducing traffic in the area.
Less parking also positively impacts residents of the area. The developer wants to build 90 spaces instead of the required 108, to limit the underground garage to two levels. If forced to build the full amount of parking, this project will create more traffic, reduce future Metro ridership and revenue, increase conflicts between vehicles and pedestrians or bicycles, and make the new housing more expensive.
Having the parking and loading face the alley positively impacts area residents. If forced to open onto 14th Street, the garage would increase pedestrian-vehicular conflicts on the much-busier 14th Street, conflict with the 14th Street bike lane, and reduce the street frontage available for retail.
The Utopia project curb cut was a very extraordinary circumstance. This is not. DC's policy calls for garage entrances and loading docks in alleys. Sure, almost anyone would like to push negative impacts away from their own alley and onto the public realm. But alleys are the proper places for parking and loading.
As for light and air, the developer submitted studies showing that the building will only minimally overshadow the adjacent townhouses. And alternate designs they could have built as-of-right would have cast the same shadows. My three story townhouse is right across a narrower alley from a nine-story building, which doesn't step back at all on higher floors. Having buildings of different sizes near each other is the reality of living in a city.
Fortunately, members of the BZA seemed to be appropriately balancing neighbors' needs with those of the broader community. Zoning Commission member Gregory Jeffries talked about the value of density near Metro stations, and the role of alleys as the proper place for loading and parking in DC. (One rotating Zoning Commission member participates in many BZA cases.) Board members repeatedly pressed neighbors for suggestions about workable alternatives, but they presented none. DDOT and the Office of Planning did make some specific suggestions, which I'll cover in an upcoming post, and which I hope the BZA will adopt when they rule on the case in January.
No sooner had the dust settled in Dupont Circle and U Street from the debate over the Utopia project at 14th and U, or the furor over the Room and Board purchase of 14th and T, than controversy erupted on the next block. Earlier this year, JBG acquired the former Whitman-Walker Clinic at 14th and S, along with the adjacent, non-historic buildings making up that block of 14th. They plan a seven-story building with 120-130 apartments above ground-floor retail:
The historic Whitman-Walker building is at the left, which will stay and become the residential entrance to the entire building. The project is separated from the townhouses on S and Swann by an alley, which runs straight from S to Swann and joins another alley lengthwise through the block. The developers plan to locate the loading docks and underground parking entrance in the alley, building 90 parking spaces instead of the required 105.
In addition to the parking variance (technically a "special exception"), the developers are seeking three others: to exceed the lot occupancy by three percent (78% instead of 75%), to slightly exceed the setback requirements from the ARTS overlay in that area, and to get an exemption from the ARTS overlay limit of 25% restaurants by linear feet.
Similarly to in Cleveland Park, the ARTS overlay area (which includes most of the commercial areas of 14th and U Streets, Florida and 7th, and P Street in Logan Circle) limits restaurants to 25% of the linear feet. With all the restaurants on U Street, that number is up to 24%, meaning this building couldn't lease to new restaurants.
At last night's Dupont Circle ANC meeting, several residents spoke against the project. Most talked about the historic two-story townhouses on S Street. According to resident Tom Coumaris, the houses were built in
1804 1864, well before the rest of the neighborhood, from old trusses from the 11th Street bridge. The trusses were too small to reach across a whole house, forcing the builders to construct large joists in the middle. Resident Jim Bogden explained how many of them lack cement between the bricks, with only lime and sand sealing the cracks.
Of course, we don't want the construction to make any houses fall down, and the builders better take adequate care. But at the same time, this isn't a persuasive argument to block the project, despite the wishes of many of the residents who spoke. Coumaris disputed the wisdom of putting parking and loading in the rear, given the existing curb cut on 14th and the historic lack of traffic in that alley. This illustrates the danger of making an exception for one unique alley: everyone will argue that they are unique, and should therefore push all garage traffic onto the main street, where the cars will conflict with other pedestrians, instead of their alley.
But the Dupont Circle ANC didn't agree this time. Chairman Ramon Estrada introduced a resolution to approve all of the requests except the restaurant issue. Some other Commissioners felt that, while they supported the variances, they were unhappy that the developers waited so long to come to the community. The Utopia project team had attended almost a year's worth of ANC and community meetings before going to the BZA. Because of this, the ANC voted to oppose all four variances (and special exceptions).
This project will also go before HPRB in December. The Dupont Conservancy voted to oppose the design for aesthetic reasons. They felt (and I agreed) that it has too much glass in front, which doesn't relate well to the historic building. Something still modern but with more brick would fit better with the surroundings.
I hope HPRB makes some design changes to yield a more attractive building. But I also hope they don't start "sculpting" down the mass of the bulding. It already pulls back in the rear at the higher floors, to avoid looming over the smaller nearby houses. That's appropriate. But a seven-story mixed-use building at 14th and S will be a good addition to the neighborhood, and the rear loading and parking entrance the right design.
Update: The following night, CSNA (the neighborhood association for the U Street area) raised similar objections to the glass and the short advance notice.
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