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Development


Eckington is getting some much-needed retail

A new development in Eckington will bring housing and much-needed retail to the area, including businesses that are hyper-focused on the local economy. Some residents are being very vigilant to make sure the project benefits the neighborhood.


Eckington Yards overview. Image from The JBG Companies.

Called Eckington Yards, the project will facilitate a "maker economy" of businesses that keep things local, like breweries or coffee shops that roast their own beans on the premises.

"We try to think outside the box when we bring in new retail not just bringing in five or six restaurants," said Bryan Moll of the JBG Companies, the project's developer, at an Eckington Civic Association meeting earlier this month. "You're not just selling things, you're not just making things. You make it locally [and] you sell it locally,"

The maker retail component will line the interior corridor of Eckington Yards, which will be built on a three-acre site that stretches from Eckington Place NE to Harry Thomas Way NE between existing developments. The corridor will be a rough extension of Quincy Place NE.


Eckington Yards site. Image by Google Maps.

A coffee shop or small restaurant is likely at the corner of Quincy Place and Eckington Place.


The interior corridor of Eckington Yards. Image by JBG.

The additional retail will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Eckington lacks retail in its interior, something that the civic association says was done by design when the area was developed in the late 19th century. Today, the closest restaurants are in Bloomingdale, with a grocery store and pharmacy in NoMa.

Residents are circumspect

Eckington residents want guarantees from JBG and its partners that Eckington Yards will benefit the neighborhood. They point to the developer of the Gale Eckington, formerly Triolgy NoMa, and how they promised a dog park and some retail when it opened in 2012.

Today, only a small corner on Harry Thomas Way—the furthest point of the Gale from the center of Eckington—is a dog park and there is no retail.


The small dog park at the Gale. Image from Google Maps.

"Our goal is to activate the space," said Moll on the retail component of Eckington Yards. JBG promises to keep its commitments to the neighborhood, he added, pointing to a binding community benefits agreement they plan to sign with the civic association.

A draft copy of the agreement includes ensuring that the maker retail is viable in the development, investing in a new or expanded Capital Bikeshare station, and planting trees and in and round the site.

The project is light on affordable housing

Eckington Yards is slated to have 695 residential units in four new buildings, said Moll. Only 8% of these, or about 55 units, will be included in DC's inclusionary housing program, he said.

Built on private land, JBG and its partners are not bound to the public land-deal requirement that 20% to 30% of residential units be included in the affordable housing programme.

Of the 55 affordable units, 20% will be set aside for households of four that make up to 50% of area median income (AMI)—about $50,000—and the remaining 80% for households that make 80% of AMI, said Moll.

Not all of the units in Eckington Yards will be rental. JBG plans to initially put units in only one of the four buildings up for rent with the rest condo but, Moll said, they convert another building into rental units depending on demand.

JBG will include both rental and for sale units in the affordable component of Eckington Yards.

The developer plans to seek approval for Eckington Yards from the DC zoning commission in May with construction beginning around the middle of 2017 and opening by the middle of 2019, said Moll.

Development


How the Navy, baseball, and government planners made Capitol Riverfront one of DC's hottest neighborhoods

Capitol Riverfront, the area around Nats ballpark, ranks high on any list of Washington's most rapidly transforming neighborhoods. But it took more than baseball to make that transformation happen.


Image from the 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan.

By the last decade of the 20th Century, Washington's Anacostia River waterfront was a crime-plagued and dirty testament to urban neglect. It wasn't a nice place to be.

But beginning in the 1990s, a string of ambitious plans, government projects, and private-sector infusions have turned the neighborhood into a thriving and desirable place to spend time.

Here's the story of how that happened.

Metrorail brings federal workers

When the Metrorail Green Line opened its Navy Yard station in 1991, that opened the door to an infusion of people and money into the neighborhood. That infusion began in earnest in the mid 1990s when two federal groups decided to move thousands of office workers into the area: The Naval Sea Command (NAVSEA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Following post-Cold War military base consolidation, the US Navy opted to move over 5,000 NAVSEA workers from offices in Crystal City to the Navy Yard. Meanwhile, DOT announced it would build a new headquarters four blocks from the Navy Yard complex that would house over 6,000 workers.

Those two massive construction projects, the ensuing permanent influx of employees, and the subsequent ripple effect of service retail and of contractors looking for nearby offices, combined to provide a huge economic stimulus.

The District does its part

Michael Stevens, director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID), points to the 1999 election of Mayor Anthony Williams as the next turning point.

Under Mayor Williams' direction, DC began a concerted effort to re-plan and better manage the Anacostia riverfront. That effort culminated with the 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Initiative master plan, which provided a consensus vision for what the Anacostia shore could become, including its layout of streets, buildings, and public spaces.

Following the District's adoption of the master plan, the riverfront BID started up in 2007. At first the BID simply worked to make riverfront streets cleaner and safer, but as successes mounted their mission evolved to building parks, running public events, and managing economic development.

In 2004 the Montreal Expos moved to DC, becoming the Washington Nationals. City leaders opted to build a permanent stadium along the riverfront, and Nats Park opened in 2008.

The baseball stadium did unquestionably bring new people to the riverfront, and certainly helped spread the center of gravity south from M Street. Together with other parks, such as the 20-mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, the riverfront has become unique among emerging DC neighborhoods with great public recreational spaces being built right alongside housing, retail and offices

Housing pressure mounts

The riverfront's renaissance hasn't been without controversy, particularly where older residential buildings, and the people in them, are concerned.

A $35 million federal grant to redevelop the Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg public housing project surrounding 4th Street SE has been especially challenging.

The 23-acre housing project was built in the 1950s with 707 homes. But with DC's population increasing and demand for housing skyrocketing, 700-some homes on 23 acres just isn't enough, not four blocks from a Metro station.

Although the plan was to replace low-income apartments on a one-for-one basis, residents were displaced during construction. Gentrification was a definite fear.

But with the redevelopment area now approaching its planned 1,700 units, and full replacement of income-restricted homes guaranteed, the upheaval seems to have been worth it. Hundreds of low-income families have new homes, and added 1,000 households are enjoying the revitalized neighborhood.

With offices, entertainment, and parks in place, and an increasing number of residents in the redeveloped Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg project and elsewhere, the riverfront is truly booming.

Development


DC added record housing in 2015. That's slowing down price increases.

In 2015, DC permitted more new housing units—4,956, to be exact—than in any year since the Census started keeping track in 1980. This pace of housing growth compares favorably to other cities, and there's reason to believe it's helping to slow rent increases.


Photo by Ryan McKnight on Flickr.

The record-setting year is most likely due to both long-term factors (a shift towards city-living among young professionals) and short-term, cyclical ones (federal government job growth having recovered from the sequester).

The composition of 2015's housing permits in DC skewed heavily towards large multifamily buildings, as it has in recent years. Neighborhoods like Navy Yard and Southwest Waterfront, where there are fewer neighbors to oppose large development projects, are contributing strongly to the city's overall housing production.


Graph by the author, with data from the Census Bureau.

Accounting for population, DC got more permits than most other major coastal cities

How does DC's year stack up against other cities? Well, it's somewhat difficult to compare these numbers across cities for a few reasons:

  • Initial population matters. For example, 10,000 new units in one year would be a ton for DC, but very few for a bigger city like New York.
  • Population growth matters too. Baltimore has about the same number of people as DC, but there's little reason to build new houses if few people are moving to town.
  • Cities have arbitrary political boundaries. We could use a standardized geographic unit (like MSAs), but that captures a lot of single-family, sprawling development. At the end of the day, we're interested in the extent to which cities are allowing their cores to densify.
But we can still make some back-of-the-envelope calculations. One useful starting place is to scale permits by a city's population. In 2015, DC permitted 7.5 housing units per 1,000 residents.

That matches or exceeds the rates of most comparable coastal cities: Boston (also 7.5), Portland (7.1), New York (6.6, an outlier driven by regulatory uncertainly for the usually low-growth city), San Diego (4.5), San Francisco (4.3), and Los Angeles (4.1). It easily surpassed cities with lower-than-average job growth, like Philadelphia (2.4) and Chicago (2.1). And DC was out-produced by growth-happy Seattle (17.0), Denver (12.0), and Austin (11.0).

There's evidence that all this new supply is slowing rent growth

In recent years, real estate analysts have noted that DC's higher pace of building has led to rents that are slowing in growth, or even declining. This effect is especially seen at the higher end of the market, since most new construction is luxury.

Here's Multifamily Executive covering a new Yardi Matrix report:

The cities that had the smallest rent gains in 2015 were Richmond, Va.; Washington, D.C.; and Baltimore. Echoing other reports, Yardi says Washington's rent gains have been held back because of the large amount of new supply in its market, while Baltimore still lacks job growth. These cities can expect to see similar results in 2016, Yardi says.
A Bloomberg reporter who interviewed DC developers last summer collected relevant anecdotes:
Tepid job gains and a spate of construction that created almost 20,000 units in the past two years made Washington one of the worst markets for US landlords, forcing owners to grant tenants concessions such as months of free rent to keep new luxury apartments from going empty.
And early last year, The Washington Post wrote that an increasing supply had driven down rents, partly by pushing landlords of luxury buildings to lower prices so they could compete.

Any effort to make our region more affordable will require a good deal more market rate housing than what we currently have. Hopefully, DC will build on the successes of 2015 and continue to allow high levels of dense housing construction.

Development


To get ideas for reusing the historic Franklin School building, DC can look to Newark, NJ

The Franklin School, at 13th and K NW, is an iconic DC building, but it has been vacant and abandoned since 2008. On a recent trip to Newark, New Jersey, I got a glimpse of another use for old, historic buildings.


The Franklin School building. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Designed and built in the 1860s by Adolph Cluss, who also designed Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, the Franklin building has a Great Hall that could seat 1,000. It was the centerpiece for DC's public education system—its big windows for light, along with roomy and airy spaces, made for a great learning environment—as well as a resource for community concerts, exhibitions, and public meetings.

Before being abandoned, the building most recently served as a homeless shelter. Mayor Vincent Gray pushed to renovate it, but when Mayor Muriel Bowser became mayer she reversed course and put the proposals on hold. Though Bowser solicited new proposals in October 2015, she has not provided any timeline for review and decision making.

Throughout the 2000s, the DC Council had multiple opportunities to make the building eligible to lease or sell but failed to do so. A 2005 deal to turn Franklin School into a hotel fell through because the proposed lease wasn't valid, and the discussion over what to do with the building has been plagued by a lack of focus, transparency, and analysis of redevelopment options, the kind of thing that can keep proposals with a lot of merit from ever even coming forward.

It's not as if we don't know how to preserve important historic structures. It took just two years after a 2007 fire at Eastern Market for the neighborhood jewel to reopen: Local firm Quinn Evans Architects replaced the roof while retaining many of the original iron trusses, and added sustainability features including high-efficiency lighting and HVAC systems, high-performance glazing, and stormwater filtration.
Thinking creatively about place, the built environment, and the long-term prosperity of residents is an essential task for every city and town.

So why have we struggled with the Franklin building so much?

Here's what Newark did with its equivalent of the Franklin School building

If I could, I'd take some of DC's leaders on a field trip to Newark, New Jersey to visit the Hahne & Company department store building.


Photo by Jukie Bot on Flickr.

There, a truly collaborative effort between the City of Newark, Rutgers University - Newark, L & M Development, and J. P. Morgan Chase has resulted in an old icon (a former star of local retail, it's been in disrepair for 30 years) becoming the centerpiece of Newark's recovering downtown.


Construction workers inside a gutted Hahne building. Photo from L&M Development.

During a hardhat tour of the renovation ($174 million, 400,000 sq. ft.), the development team highlighted the future for the building. By December 2016, the mixed use, mixed-income space will be open to its first residents. A total of 161 rental units, 60 percent market rate and 40 percent for low income residents (at 60 percent of area median income), will be ready.

The retail floors, with anchor tenant Whole Foods, will open this spring. Rutgers University - Newark will house their Department of Arts, Culture, and Media there, which will include classrooms, artist studios and gallery space. The project has put nearly every relevant tax credit to use—historic preservation, new markets, and low income housing. For the coup de grace, the great skylight—4-stories above the central atrium—is being meticulously restored to its former glory.


Rendering from L&M Development.

As it turns out, Newark is a hotbed of preservation and reuse. Not far from the Hahne building, a similar coalition is nearly finished renovating the former American Insurance Company tower into a building that will have both retail and residential uses. When it comes to historic preservation, partnerships across sectors, and creating new housing, these projects are transformative.

In Newark, preservationists and other key stakeholders are taking full advantage of the assets they have available—60 to 100 years of growth in the built environment that yielded homes, factories, shopping arcades, warehouses, transportation systems, public utilities, parks, schools, and neighborhood residents.

Although simple economic arithmetic may dictate demolition and abandonment, those willing to see beyond the next fiscal quarter tend to reap far greater rewards. It is for this reason, for the creation of a more prosperous and distinctive place—a place that people want to live in or go to rather than drive through—that historic preservation needs to be an essential strategy for every city and town. In the nation's capital, we have plenty of opportunities to apply these lessons.

Development


NoMa is one of DC's fastest growing neighborhoods

The population of NoMa is booming, putting the neighborhood on track to be among Washington DC's densest when it is all built out. New charts released by the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) highlight its growth.


Image by NoMa BID.

The number of people within the NoMa BID's boundaries grew to more than 6,000 residents at the end of 2015, up from less than 1,000 seven years earlier. This represents a compound annual growth rate of at least 30%, far faster than the 2.13% annual growth rate for the District since 2010.


Image by NoMa BID.

NoMa BID covers 237 acres stretching from R Street NE in the north to Massachusetts Avenue in the south, west to New Jersey Avenue and east to 4th Street NE.

The near northeast neighborhood had 3,886 residential units in November. Another 967 were under construction and 6,843 were planned for total 11,696 units.

"What you're going to have here… you're going to get parks, shopping, retail and restaurants—it's going to be quite an amazing place," says BID president Robin-Eve Jasper following the news that it had acquired a two-acre lot for a new large park.

NoMa will likely be DC's densest neighborhood

NoMa could boast a population of more than 17,500 residents when all of the BID's forecast units are built out, assuming it continues to maintain the same number of residents-per-unit, about 1.5, as it had in November 2015. This equals a density of roughly 73.8 residents per acre.

This is denser than the Navy Yard neighborhood, which the Washington Post recently suggested would become the District's densest.

The population of the Capital Riverfront BID, which includes Navy Yard, could increase to nearly 22,000 residents living in the 14,611 residential units that were open, under construction or planned at the end of 2015 under the same 1.5 residents-per-dwelling assumption as in NoMa. However, the neighborhood's much larger 500 acres means the density would only be about 44 people per acre.

Even when not including the 41 acres in the undevelopable Washington Navy Yard, the Capital Riverfront would still have a density of only about 48 residents per acre.


Capital Riverfront BID housing units and estimated population at the end of 2015. Image by Capital Riverfront BID.

All the new housing is good for the region

The fact that the District continues to add a significant amount of new housing stock in under-developed neighborhoods like NoMa and Navy Yard is, in the end, more important than having the title of city's densest neighborhood.


More development is planned for Navy Yard. Image by the author.

If DC's population continues to follow current growth projections, it will need about 6,130 new residential units annually through 2030, the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis forecast in 2010. The rapid growth of both the NoMa and Navy Yard neighborhoods will go a long way towards meeting this need.

Each neighborhood boasts attractive amenities to new and old residents alike, including grocery stores, existing and planned parks, recreational trails and Metro stations. These amenities will anchor the neighborhoods—and serve the city—for years to come.

Correction: The original version of this post said NoMa's population was up to 6,000 in 2015, up from less than 200 NoMa residents seven years earlier, and that the compound annual growth rate was more than 63%. It's actually up from less than 1000, with the growth rate being at least 30%.

Development


Opponents of a new Dupont building gamble and lose

Well, they blew it. Last month, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission decided to turn down a deal for neighborhood benefits in the proposed development at St. Thomas Parish and roll the dice on fighting the project. That turned out to be a bad bet.


Roulette image from Shutterstock.

On January 12, the Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved a variance so that the proposed building could occupy 86.7% of the lot instead of the 80% normally allowed under zoning.

Arson destroyed the St. Thomas Parish at the corner of 18th and Church streets NW in 1970, and now the church is partnering with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church along with a residential building whose profits will help fund the religious one. After going through historic preservation approval, the design extended just a small amount closer to the nearby alley than in the first drafts, requiring a zoning variance.

CAS Riegler and St. Thomas representatives invited neighborhood leaders and nearby residents to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding for neighborhood benefits during and after construction, like rules for loading trucks or noise on the roof deck. But many residents objected from the start to the size of the proposed building, which is larger than adjacent row houses but shorter than other large apartment buildings a block to the east and to the north.

Based on that sentiment, in December the ANC threw away the negotiated MOU and instead decided to oppose the variance. (Disclosure: I participated in the MOU negotiations and supported the proposed final deal.)


Rendering of the proposed church building and the residential building behind.

Zoning board members critique poorly-directed opposition

When announcing the ruling, several BZA members chided the ANC and neighbors for arguing against the project as a whole instead of addressing the actual variance under discussion. Most opposition focused on the building's height, but the building steps back at higher floors; adding lot occupancy would have just taken a small amount from the lower floors, and only in the rear, on the alley.

Chairperson Marnique Heath said, "The request that they've made is just for 6.7% of lot occupancy, which is rather minor. The primary concern of the parties in opposition was in regard to the large scale... [but] the strongest concerns that the opposing parties had really wouldn't be addressed by not granting that request."

Peter May, the zoning commissioner from the National Park Service (read this for why a Park Service employee is involved here) said,

I cannot see where the parties in opposition have actually explained how their objections relate to the requested relief. A lot of people were objecting to the loss of the park and to the height of the building. I could find almost nothing that specifically relates to lot occupancy, which is where the relief is requested. ...

I'm frankly a bit disappointed. We often hear from neighbors who are unhappy with changes in the status quo, but I saw precious little appreciation from the neighbors for the 45 years they had for this public park, and I would hope that we would have seen more of that.

The only word to the contrary was from Fred Hill, a very new member of the BZA. Hill said he was "actually a little torn and "can understand why I wouldn't want something this large at the end of that block." But he went along with his colleagues on the issue of the law, recognizing that the variance wasn't actually about the size of the building.

Neighborhood leaders took a better approach in the past

Unfortunately, the ANC failed to steer a useful conversation in this situation. When there was controversy over the last church-related development project in the neighborhood, a parking lot at 17th and O, former commissioner and longtime resident Bob Meehan urged all parties to focus on achievable, specific requests that related to the zoning relief being debated. The main issue there was roof deck noise affecting residents at the building to the north; people negotiated and found some compromise.


Remember this? Photo by Adam Lewis.


What got built. Photo from Wikimedia.

Bob Meehan isn't on the ANC any more, and the relative lack of experience showed in the way many members had trouble evaluating how much weight their support or opposition would carry. In the end, that relegated the ANC to an ineffective position and left neighbors worse off.

Some commissioners decided to oppose the variance because of confusing and bad legal advice from the DC government about whether the MOU was enforceable. But others opposed it outright, and the ANC did not try to hold a special meeting or ask for a delay to work out any possible enforceability problems.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the 2013 government shutdown. John Boehner was trying to negotiate with Barack Obama, but his House GOP caucus kept refusing to make any kind of deal out of a zeal for partisan purity. As a consequence, the ultimate budget policies ended up being worse for the GOP than if they had made a deal.

DC needs more housing, and this corner is a good place for it. By implacably resisting the height of the proposed building and repeatedly refusing to engage on specific, achievable issues, the ANC really lost the chance to have a voice, to improve the quality of life without reducing the ability to add new housing.

Update: This article was edited to add a paragraph about the MOU's enforceability in response to questions.

Development


There's a great opportunity to add housing on Capitol Hill

New housing is going up on a Capitol Hill site that was once meant for a higher education project that never got off the ground. The plan is to make it a mix of condos and rowhouses, but it might be smart to make it all condos.


Base map from Google Maps.

The site, at 1325 D Street SE, backs up to the Safeway on Kentucky Avenue, and is roughly a half mile in either direction from the Eastern Market and Potomac Avenue Metro stations.

Two of the four buildings will become 41 condominiums, while the other two buildings will be demolished and 41 rowhouses—with garages—will go up in their place.


Site rendering from the developers.

In the rendering above, the white building on the far left is the Safeway. Long term, I could see this site becoming higher density housing with a new Safeway on the ground floor, such as what was done at the Safeway on Georgia Avenue two blocks from the Petworth Metro station.

A nicely designed six-story building could fit in well at that site and would extend the range of housing offered in a neighborhood where there will always be greater demand for housing than supply.


The Safeway with apartments above in Petworth. Image by the author.

In a city where housing prices are escalating rapidly, we need to maximize housing production in a way that achieves a number of things.

Given the proximity to the Metro stations, I believe that, while it would probably generate tons of resident opposition, more high-density condominiums or apartments would be a better use of the land than rowhouses. My reasons are:

  1. More people on the site would mean getting more out of its transit accessibility.
  2. A more diverse housing stock (type of dwelling and who lives there) in that part of Ward 6, which is dominated by single family rowhouses.
  3. More residents to the area, generating more support for retail and community improvement and more income tax revenue.
  4. The property would yield higher property tax revenues (this is likely even though, depending on the final design, rowhouses would likely sell for $1.5 million to $2 million, depending on the final design.
Adding rowhouses with parking is somewhat disadvantageous from a sustainable mobility standpoint because even though the site is well located for transit use, and arguably is still walkable to the US Capitol (albeit at a distance) and more distant points, the housing is likely to appeal foremost to potential residents who prefer to use cars, because each unit will have on-site parking, an amenity that is not available to most residents in Capitol Hill.

On the other hand, if it's hard to find on-street parking, it's more likely the buildings will attract residents who get around by some way other than a car.

At a minimum, the rowhouses could include basement apartments, which would extend the amount and diversity of available housing in the area and help provide a mix of owner-occupied and rental housing.

This post originally ran on the author's blog, Urban Places and Spaces.

Preservation


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The West Heating Plant is worth preserving

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

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


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

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


The West Heating Plant seen from Rock Creek Parkway.

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

Converting the plant to residences would be difficult

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

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

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

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

Zoning and economics drove Levy's demolition proposal

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


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

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

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


The West Heating Plant seen from the Whitehurst highway viaduct.

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

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

The West Heating Plant could be a new public space

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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