Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Historic Preservation

Preservation


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

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


Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

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

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

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


Rendering of the original, larger proposal.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Project goes to the Mayor's Agent

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

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

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

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

Development


Dupont church ruins may become new housing and a new church

In August 1970, an arsonist poured 12 gallons of gasoline on the Gothic 71-year-old St. Thomas Parish at 18th and Church streets in Dupont Circle. The building burned in minutes. Soon, only the parish hall, some ruins around the altar, and a single stone gable pointing to the sky remained.

Soon, that spot could become part of a new church and an apartment or condominium building.


Left: The 1899 building. Right: Concept design for a new church. All images from St. Thomas unless otherwise noted.

After the fire, most of the original building became a small park, and in fits and starts, the Episcopal congregation there worked to rebuild. They converted the 1922 parish hall behind the church into worship space and have used it since. But there's no way for a person in a wheelchair to reach the sanctuary, nor a casket for a funeral. Nor is there enough space for other programs.

From 2007 to 2012, Matthew Jarvis, a young architect and parishioner, designed a new church on the site of the old one. It was a modest, low building compared to the 120-foot-tall original. A roof with 12 triangular skylights would envelope the gable at one end and taper down to a two-story stone façade on 18th Street.


A rendering of Jarvis' proposal.

The church looks to private development

But the parish and the diocese, which in the Episcopal Church controls the property, concluded that they couldn't afford to build and maintain this larger building. After long discussions with church members, they decided that the only way to be able to afford a new building was to partner with a developer, who would construct a residential building on part of the property, raising money for the church.

Working with Michael Foster of MTFA Architecture, the congregation created this draft design. Personally, I find grand religious architecture more compelling than the subdued design of the last attempt. It also better matches the other buildings along 18th Street, most of which are at least 4 stories and some rise as high as 9.

Meanwhile, a 70-foot residential building with 6 or 7 floors would face Church Street. (Disclosure: I live on this block, and can see the church from my window.) After receiving proposals from several developers, the congregation chose CAS Riegler, a firm based in Shaw, to design the residential building as well as to develop two vacant townhouse lots on P Street the church now uses for parking.

Some decisions are open for discussion, some are not

At a community meeting Wednesday night, church officials, Foster, and Kevin Riegler from CAS Riegler, emphasized that the process was still very young. Unfortunately, the meeting started out somewhat disorganized. A planned slide presentation about the church's overall plan for the site didn't materialize because of technical difficulties.

Some residents felt "surprised" that the church had already made a number of decisions with MTFA in writing their request for proposals: they will place the religious building on the 18th Street side of the property and the main residential building on Church Street; they want to demolish most of the parish hall; and there will be 15 parking spaces for the church and 41 for the residential building.

Foster never came right out and revealed these facts, which only came up because some residents had gotten a look at the RFP. It took a few questions from residents to clarify that Riegler was only responsible for the residential building and that the church's plan was largely not open for discussion.

Riegler emphasized his firm had only come on board 11 days prior and the residential building was "a blank slate." While he was laudably bringing in community members now in an effort to get input on the ground floor, many decisions about the site had already been settled before he was involved.

Residents worry about density and losing the park

"You've grieved for the loss of your church for 40 years," said one resident at the often-acrimonious meeting. "Now we have to grieve for the loss of our park." The park will no longer be public open space, though Riegler noted that with Dupont Circle one block west, there is already a good amount of space, and he didn't even mention Stead Park one block to the east.

Others, including some who had supported the church's earlier plan to build on the park, felt the building was too tall. Riegler pointed out that a 70 foot building, which is what zoning allows, is shorter than the 90-foot-tall building at 18th and P (or Massachusetts) which until recently housed the National Trust for Historic Preservation, or the also 90-foot apartment buildings on the corner of 17th and Church, at the opposite end of the block.

I personally would like to see the site accommodate as much new housing as possible, given that DC desperately needs to build 41,000 to 105,000 new homes over 20 years in order to house all of the people, at all of the income levels, who want to move to or stay in the District. But to many, the idea of what could be 58 new housing units represents a big change.

A number of residents argued that the church is not fulfilling its godly mission by partnering with a developer in a transaction that was mostly about dollars. "Is it the church's mission to build 58 condos? That's a paltry mission," one resident said. "We don't need more apartments, we don't need more autos," said another who had just moved to Dupont Circle when the church burned in 1970.

Yet another nearby resident asked why the congregation had to stay on the site at all. "Why don't you guys move? Find another facility" and donate the land to a different nonprofit, she suggested. ANC Commission Leo Dwyer argued that the church has been a treasured neighbor, letting a local LGBT congregation meet there and hosting health groups, not to mention serving as a polling place (at least for now; the DC Board of Elections plans to move and consolidate polling places).

Still, over the course of the meeting many people (including myself to some degree) grew a little more comfortable with some details that had been worrisome. Maybe some of these resemble the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The conversation starts with claims that the community wasn't involved, then moves to arguments that a building is too intrusive, and works its way to a discussion about what neighbors can constructively get in the design to maximize their quality of life within the constraints of zoning, property rights, and fairness.

What will be preserved?

A lot of questions remain. Chief among them is what will happen to the stone façade of the parish hall, which certainly merits historic preservation, and the gable and ruins, which do so even more. While the new design for a church on 18th Street is impressive, it might have been easier to preserve more of the old church by building the new church where the old church elements are instead of on the other end of the property.


Photo by A.Currell on Flickr.

I asked Ryan Winfield, chair of the church's Building Committee, who said they didn't want the church to be hidden away behind other buildings. It once had a grand entrance on 18th Street, and they'd like it to again, he said. A lot of people don't even know it's there now, and assume it's just a completely abandoned site. Plus, they'd like to make reference to the past but also move beyond it after spending 40 years literally in its shadow.

Still, there are countervailing forces between a congregation that wants to design the best site from their point of view, neighbors who might prefer the slightly lower church to be adjacent to their homes, and preservation laws that give historic architectural elements, as this most certainly is, a special legal status.

Riegler promised another meeting in a few weeks to present their early designs for the residential buildings. He and his architectural partner for the residential building, Hickok Cole, will have to find a way to design something that preserves, incorporates, and references old elements while also being very much new.

Ultimately, the church has the right to build on their vacant property, and as long as it's "historically compatible," Riegler has the right to build a 70-foot residential building. For residents who don't want any building here, in particular, this process may require moving through the grieving process to accept that the park will go away, and then working to push for the most attractive design possible.

Architecture


Wheaton's Youth Center represented the future in 1963. Could it do that again in 2014?

50 years ago, the Wheaton Youth Center brought local teens together around rock-and-roll and symbolized the idealism of the young, fast-growing suburb. As pressure grows to replace it with a new recreation center, can this building adapt to become a part of Wheaton's future?


All photos by the author.

To some, the 1960s-era building at Georgia and Arcola avenues is a local landmark with a storied musical history, but to others, it's an eyesore and an exercise in nostalgia. They can't even agree on what to call it: preservation supporters use its original name, the Youth Center, while opponents call it the Rec Center.

Whatever the name, county officials have been planning to demolish it and the adjacent library and put them in one new, $36 million building on the site of the library. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board both recommended the building become a historic landmark, but it doesn't seem to have many friends on the County Council, which will make the final decision.

"Where rock-and-roll was invented"

When the Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963, it won awards for its Japanese-style architecture. But it was better known for hosting famous musical acts, like Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart, and Led Zeppelin, who may have played their first US show there in 1969.


Eileen McGuckian of Montgomery Preservation, Inc. and the guys who hung out at the Youth Center as teens.

Local musicians played the youth center's stage as well, including a 13-year-old Tori Amos, then living in Rockville, who gave her first public performance there at a talent show in 1977. In December, the kids who once hung out at the Wheaton Youth Center came back to celebrate the building's 50th birthday with cake and a screening of filmmaker Jeff Krulik's documentary "Led Zeppelin Played Here."

Krulik, who lives in Silver Spring, says the building helped nurture a music scene in Wheaton. "Places like this are where the rock-and-roll concert industry was virtually invented," he says. "The building speaks to me. The walls talk."

"This was the cool place to be," says Olney resident Rick, who grew up in Wheaton and hung out at the Youth Center every weekend. "It kept us off the streets, gave us focus...all the things that young people should learn." Rick only recently learned about the building's architectural history, but says "that alone" makes it worth saving.

Is preservation a "fanciful plan"?

To current users, however, the recreation center is too small and falling apart. December's party happened in a crowded hallway between the gym with the leaky roof and the computer lab with four machines.

The county didn't have to consider preserving the building because it wasn't on its survey of historic buildings, a prerequisite for historic designation. The last survey was done in 1976 and doesn't include any buildings from the 20th century, because nobody thought they were historic yet. Planner are working on a new survey to identify which buildings deserve further study, says historic preservation planner Clare Lise Kelly.

Naturally, residents anxious for a new recreation center fear that designation will add unnecessary delay and cost. Outside the party, opponents planted little yellow signs reading "NO DELAY" all around the building. Last fall, the Planning Board recommended keeping the old recreation center since the new one would be built next to it anyway, which wasn't received well.


How the new recreation center and library (right) could fit in with the old one. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.

"If the Planning Board wanted to add another element to their fanciful plan, they might as well have added a zoo for unicorns," wrote Olney resident and library board member Art Brodsky in a letter to the Gazette.

Both sides disagree how much it would cost to rehabilitate the building, which has never been renovated. Architects Grimm + Parker, which is designing the new facility, estimates it could cost nearly $7.8 million to bring the building up to code and move in the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, currently housed in the library. Advocacy group Montgomery Preservation, Inc. hired a structural engineer to assess the building, who says it would cost just $1.3 million for more basic improvements.

Community leaders say neither price is worth it. Before a public hearing last night, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who represents Wheaton, sent an email blast to her constituents asking them to testify against preservation. "We can - and should - find ways to honor the history of this facility in the new design, but not through historic designation," she wrote.

Could the Youth Center represent the future again?

The Wheaton Youth Center is young enough that people don't consider it truly historic, but old enough to be unfashionable and in disrepair. But for a community that grew up in the 1950s and 60s, buildings like the Youth Center are as much a part of Wheaton's heritage and Montgomery County's heritage as Victorian rowhouses are in DC, setting it apart as a product of its time.

Eileen McGuckian, president of Montgomery Preservation, Inc., was a student at Blair High School in Silver Spring when the youth center opened. "It's the period of hopes and dreams, of things happening...it was exciting," she said.


Inside the gym of the Wheaton Youth Center where bands used to play.

But Wheaton has changed a lot over the past 50 years, from a largely homogeneous, middle-class place to one that's much more socioeconomically and racially diverse. At the party, Rick said that many of his friends growing up have moved out to Olney or Damascus, taking their memories with them.

And it was hard not to notice the contrast between the older white guys standing on the stage, reminiscing about their days playing in rock-and-roll bands decades ago, and the young, mostly black and Hispanic kids playing pickup basketball on the floor. For kids growing up in Wheaton today, this building belongs to a past they can't relate to and people who don't live there anymore.

Preservationists have to prove that a building that reflected Wheaton's future in 1963 can still be a beacon today. One option is leasing it to a nonprofit group who would fix the building themselves, like the the Writer's Center, housed in the Bethesda Youth Center.

Kelly sent me a list of 13 organizations willing to take over the building, including arts groups, theatre companies, and the Ethiopian Cultural Center, which serves the region's quarter-million Ethiopian immigrants. These groups represent where Wheaton is today, and they might help this building become a valued part of the community again.

In any case, it might be too late for the Wheaton Youth Center. But I hope we'll give Montgomery County's other notable modern buildings a second chance. If you think this building deserves historic designation, you can email the County Council at mailto:county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov.

Politics


Hear the candidates: Ward 1 on housing

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for Ward 1 on the DC Council. See all of the discussions here.


Images from the candidate websites.

The District is adding 1,100 people a month right now, and a GMU Center for Regional Analysis report estimates DC needs 41,000 to 105,000 new housing units over 20 years. Where will this housing go? Or will supply fall far short of demand?

I asked the candidates in DC's April 1 primary this question, and the answers from Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham an his challenger, Brianne Nadeau, illustrated a clear difference in how we think about growth.

To start with, Graham and Nadeau both support building multi-family buildings along the ward's main corridors, such as 14th and U Streets where there has already been a lot of development, especially near Metro stations.

Graham said,

I'm an advocate for developing the core. The areas around our subway stations, areas with excellent bus transportation, should be areas where all of this is developed, because what we found is ... people are coming without cars and contributing to the fact that ward 1 has the fewest number of car owners per capita of any ward in the city.

Nadeau:

We've watched key populations, such as our Latino population, be pushed out of the ward and over the border into other wards or even other jurisdictions because of rising costs. One of the things we have to do is increase density where it's appropriate. We want to maintain the distinct character of our historic neighborhoods, but what we can do is increase density around transit hubs.

Both also spoke up in favor of affordable housing programs, including providing more money to DC's Housing Production Trust Fund. Nadeau cited how the Home Purchase Assistance Program actually helped her afford a down payment on her own home 5 years ago. "Without that down payment assistance, I would still be renting," she said, "and what it's given me is long-term stability."

What income level should affordable housing programs serve?

Nadeau said she wants to ensure that enough affordable housing goes to people making below 60% of Area Median Income (AMI), and that there are enough units of appropriate sizes for families as well as singles. Graham was even firmer about the 60% threshold:

When we reach 60% of AMI, which I think is almost $100,000, everybody would like to have some kind of housing subsidy, but I can't bring myself to believe that they are as much in need as other income levels, particularly those who are at $60,000 or less. To give somebody a housing subsidy at $100,000 a year of income is puzzling. It's more than puzzling, it's unacceptable to me. I think that's too high of an income to merit a rental subsidy.
(Note: I believe Graham is confused about the AMI levels here. According to DHCD, the 2013 60% AMI level for a 3-person household is $57,960 and for 4 people is $64,540. 100% of AMI for a 4-person household is $107,300.)

Nadeau disagrees with Graham's bright line. "We talk a lot about people below 60% AMI because we recognize that there's a great, great need there. But once you get to 61% we can't be forgetting about those people either."

Many affordable housing advocates indeed push to ensure that our affordable housing programs benefit those significant below median income, especially 60% of AMI and even some at lower levels like 30% and 50%, but housing is a challenge even for people above the median income. What about those who have higher incomes and might not qualify for, or perhaps deserve, explicit government subsidies?

Increase the supply of housing? Where?

Even though there are some significant parcels of land, like McMillan, Saint Elizabeths, and Hill East where new growth can go, the Office of Planning estimates that in 10-20 years DC will hit a ceiling of how much housing can be built under current zoning and the Comprehensive Plan.

I asked Graham, "What do we do for people making 60% of AMI or more so they have the opportunity to live in neighborhoods in Ward 1?"

"They may not have that opportunity," Graham replied, though he did cite the Inclusionary Zoning program which creates some units at 80% AMI. Other than that, he pointed to neighborhoods like Brookland which is seeing significant new development to accommodate new residents.

If each ward grows comparably, that would be 5,000 or more units for Ward 1 and every other ward. Should Ward 1 find room for that much housing? Nadeau said, "I don't know what the percentage [of new housing between wards] would be, because we are the most densely populated ward so we need to control for that," but she suggested a planning process or and housing audit to identify needs for affordable and market-rate units, and "providing enough housing so we're bringing the market down."

To the same question, Graham said, "The answer to that question is we may not find those 5,000 units in Ward 1. ... I don't know whether Ward 1, with its current boundarieswe have so little vacant land left because we have wisely developed all of the major parcels."

Graham talked about how Anacostia is on the cusp of becoming a neighborhood many people want to move to, and how prior to 1965 it had large numbers of white residents as well as some long-time black residents. But, I asked, people in and around Anacostia are nervous about "overdevelopment" and "changing the character of the neighborhood" just as people are in Ward 1.

"I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face," said Graham. "If we wreck the historic character of the neighborhoods, we're just becoming a neighborhood that's closer to downtown jobs. That's not a neighborhood I want to move into. If we wreck all of that for the sake of more people, we make a poor bargain indeed."

See the whole discussion about housing:

We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood. Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.

Preservation


Plans to redevelop Anacostia's Big K site hinge on two historic houses

For three years, DC has been trying to redevelop the prominent "Big K" lot in Anacostia, and plans are finally moving forward. This week, city officials expect to host a public meeting about the project, including what will happen to two historic homes on site today.


Big K lot on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia.

Last October, DC's Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously denied plans to develop a six-story residential and retail building on the Big K parcel on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. It would involve demolishing the former Big K Liquor store, the site's namesake, as well as relocating two boarded-up homes to a city-owned lot three blocks away on W Street, something which some neighbors have vocally opposed.

The plans were the culmination of the Department of Housing and Community Development's three-year effort to develop the Big K parcel. Now, DHCD is readying itself to go before HPRB again with a revised concept, which will have a public hearing soon.

At a recent oversight hearing of the DC Council's Committee on Economic Development, DHCD director Michael Kelly described the Big K project as a "transformative project in a very important part of town." Last week, Kelly met with members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A to discuss Chapman Development's latest development proposal. DHCD will hold a public meeting to provide updates and discuss the proposed plans tomorrow, Wednesday, February 19, from 6:30-8:30 pm at the DHCD Housing Resource Center, located at 1800 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE.

Big K's recent history

DC acquired the four lots comprising the Big K site in the summer of 2010. Three of the four parcels, not including the liquor store, are located in the Anacostia Historic District. In 2012, the city demolished the 1880s-era home at 2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, leaving the two other historic homes intact. Officials weren't able to acquire Astro Motors, a car dealership at the corner of MLK and Maple View Place SE.

After releasing a Solicitation for Offers in June 2012, DHCD received a single qualified respondent, Reston-based Chapman Development. Chapman is known for developing the Grays, an apartment building with the Fairlawn Market on the ground floor.

If Chapman Development meets the conditions of the property disposition agreement, DHCD will sell them the Big K property for $1. According to DHCD's website, the developer's proposal will be successful if it "[results] in a vibrant, mixed use development that promotes walkability and provides neighborhood-serving retail."

Residents were hostile to Chapman's original Big K proposal at a community meeting last September. While some asked DHCD to seek another developer, the agency chose to remain with Chapman, which has tried to mend ties with the community. In recent weeks, the developer's principal donated $10,000 to the Child and Family Services Agency's Partners for Kids in Care Donation Center.

Relocation to 1328 W Street

The two homes on the Big K site today would move to 1328 W Street SE, most recently a Unity Healthcare Clinic. According to sources familiar with the ongoing process, the Department of General Services signed over ownership of the property to DHCD. Although the site has been deserted for more than a year, the temporary structure remains.


The former Unity Healthcare Clinic at 1328 W Street has been deserted for more than a year.

It's unclear if DHCD plans to relocate the historic homes to the W Street side or the V Street side of the lot, where they would rest between Engine Company 15 and Delaware Avenue Baptist Church. Moving them will require a level of technical execution DHCD has yet to demonstrate and coordination with neighborhood leaders who have been outspoken in their opposition to the relocation.

As the saga of the city-owned Big K lot continues into its 5th year, what happens next is anyone's guess.

Architecture


Northeast Library reopens with just the right changes

On Monday, the Northeast Neighborhood Library in Capitol Hill reopened after a $10 million modernization. Bringing it up to date required only a few major alterations, but the real challenge was finding new life in the 82-year-old building.


Children's collection, second floor showing integral shelves and benches. All photos from DCPL.

The function of a library has shifted a few times since 1932, when the branch circulated its first book. This most recent renovation positions it as more of a "third place" for the public without abandoning its core purpose as a public resource. Whether residents come to hear a story, use a computer, or attend a community meeting, some of the branch's 45,000 books are always in the background on built-in shelves.

Those shelves are emblematic of the way DCPL conducted the renovation. They're original, designed for 1930s book sizes. Unfortunately books have become bigger, particularly picture books, so a big part of the collection no longer fit.

Rather than rip out the shelves, library officials chose to expand them 1.5 inches with matching walnut woodwork. They're still not big enough for everything in the collection, but this kind of shrewd modification keeps the historic character without getting in the way of modern life.

When the city commissioned Albert Harris, the municipal architect from 1923-1934, to design the building, he did so in the Colonial Revival style. Since at least 1911, the Commission of Fine Arts had favored that style as a common look for DC's public buildings. The modest materials used by far-flung Georgian architects like brick and painted wood meant the style could be built inexpensively. It was also in fashion, since the reconstruction of Williamsburg was prompting architects to search for their roots.


Northeast Neighborhood library when it opened in 1932. Photo Courtesy DCPL.

But the revival of Georgian architecture meant drawing inspiration from building types that don't fit so well in an dense environment. Harris styled his building after mansions and courthouses that stood alone in fields.

On the site at 7th Street and Maryland Avenue NE, Harris' tight composition left an empty lawn on the most prominent corner. In the renovation, the exterior architect, Bell Architects located a patio there, so that the library has a front porch. With WiFi, of course.

A path runs from the patio around the back to a glass-enclosed staircase in the rear. The previous staircase ran clumsily through the central room, creating awkward spaces on either side. The new staircase fits into the footprint of a disused garage. The stairway's sunniness provokes the opposite sensation of the MLK Library's windowless, dreary stairwells: you want to climb it and see what you can see from it.

The staircase solves two other problems the building had. One is that the original entry couldn't be made ADA-accessible. The accessible door is in the glass tower, opposite the front door on 7th Street. Coming from either way, visitors enter into the same foyer and then into the library. What is effectively a single entrance shields the reading rooms from the noise of coming and going, so children can rush up to their spaces on the upper level and community members can visit the meeting room without disturbing patrons.


The new foyer, looking towards the glass stairway and circulation desk.

The lack of a good meeting room was the other problem before the renovation. Vines Architecture, who designed the interior, converted two underused rooms through discreet structural changes. New girders to hold up the mezzanine and basement ceilings converted what were once claustrophobic spaces into three public meeting rooms. This saved the airy rooms on the first and second floors for reading.

Other changes follow this trend of discreet interventions. The librarians wanted a more open space, so they could more easily monitor the rooms. The architects responded by placing the reference desk at the center of the building and cutting passages through the walls around it.

The cuts are low compared to the original doors, and the architects integrated them into the wood paneling, so you barely notice them. The things we take for granted nowadays, like good lighting, central air, and plenty of outlets are present, but not at the cost of the library's coziness.


Downstairs meeting room, with columns removed.

Beyond these quiet changes, the restoration had a light touch. The flaxen paint scheme and cork floor tiles are historically appropriate details that also suit contemporary expectations. The reading tables are recreations with one minor tweak: power strips. It's striking how good design can serve radically different uses with only minor alterations.

Since the beginning of its capital campaign in 2006, library officials have rebuilt 10 of the 26 branches. With the opening of the Northeast Library, they will have renovated five historic buildings. Three planned projects remain: Woodridge, which is under construction, West End, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. central library.

As we consider how to renovate that building, the Northeast Neighborhood Library might offer guidance. Here, carefully chosen alterations have an impact that goes beyond their immediate function. An understanding of what was good about the historic fabric revealed what needed to change. It's worth considering how much alteration is required to make a work of architecture better. A few little changes can do a lot of good.

History


In 1931, a parking lot in Cleveland Park changed how Washington shopped

Many people are perplexed as to why Sam's Park & Shop in Cleveland Park is a historical landmark. While it may look like an ordinary strip mall, the Park & Shop was one of the first examples of retail architecture designed around the automobile.


The Park & Shop's parking lot made it the vanguard of modern design in 1931. Image from Architectural Record.

In the May 1932 Architectural Record, the author praised the Park & Shop in contrast to a traditional main street retail strip, which he derides as "Coney Island Architecture." He might as well have been describing the Connecticut Avenue service lane, which many neighbors are now trying to have removed.

It's easy to look back on the beginnings of autocentric planning and think that the people who conceived it must have been deluded, but to them these choices seem eminently rational. Modernism and Le Corbusier often get blamed for the rise of the automobile during the 20th century, because its supporters posed it as the only way to solve urban issues like traffic and overcrowding.

But this magazine is unequivocal about the need to redesign retail for the automobile, and merely reports on the International Style as an interesting trend in Europe.

If only they'd bulldozed those awful storefronts the strip wouldn't be faltering!
Page from May 1932 Architectural Record.

If anything, Modernism was an attempt to create an aesthetic for the rationalist fixations of modern, 20th century society, like efficiency, objectivity, and hygiene. After all, the first auto-oriented shopping malls, like Country Club Plaza in Kansas City or Highland Park Village near Dallas, were executed in Colonial Revival styles. When you take the two ideologies apart, it's easier to see how parking fits in.

It's a complicated story, one that I don't really know much about. Luckily, a professor I knew in college, David Smiley, recently wrote a book about the development of the shopping mall, Pedestrian Modern. It discusses how the desire to accommodate the automobile and pedestrian safely crossed with American modernists' interest in retail, before 1960s radicalism rejected capitalism outright.

Our Park & Shop comes in towards the beginning of the story. Architects were grasping how to design for a motoring consumer. They started by expanding the curbside into a parking lot:

A 1932 Architectural Record article on "neighborhood shopping centers" perhaps explains why shopping projects of the interwar period did not quite challenge the curbside paradigm. Buried in the "Drafting and Design Problems" section of the magazine were two juxtaposed images - a typical Main Street with "Coney Island Architecture" and a "planned grouping" of stores set back to make room for parked cars.

The former image implied congested conditions where parking was difficult, the building were "confused," and the street lacked design coherence. The latter image, by contrast, so that order, coordination, and "uniformity," and abundant parking were all evident. The shopping center shown was the 1930 Connecticut Avenue Park and Shop, in Washington, DC, which Knud Lönberg-Holm had lauded as utterly rational in his 1931 Record article on stores.

Set back from the road and making space for the then technological "fact" of the car, the center appeared to rationalize and make more efficient the elements of the new metropolis. Merchandizing was, in these terms, one among many social programs that could be made to function "better." …

Frey, Kocher, and Lönberg-Holm saw in this project a rational approach to the retailer's need to accommodate a new set of auto-borne customers - the shopper was a driver, not yet a pedestrian.

The new parking configurations try to make sense of the flow of automobiles, paying particular attention to making parking easy for women. As the article points out, they did most of the shopping.


"Modern" parking configurations that preserve the flow of traffic.

These represent ideal conditions to the author. Smiley also describes the efforts to retrofit existing cities:

In a process akin to urban bricolage, not yet urban renewal, they considered the turning radius of the car, raised platforms connecting older buildings, ramps or lots squeezed into unexpected places, new technologies, alleys remade into walkways - in sum, they attempted to reimagine the older fabric as an integral part of something new.
Ultimately, these "expanded curbs" couldn't solve the parking problem. Designing for single-use convenience led naturally to the enclosed shopping mall. Everyone involved wanted to keep the "king's way" clear for the flow of automobiles and create comfortable places to stroll while shopping. The mess of a city street impeded this.

First they brought coherence, then centralization, then separation, and finally climate control, and now have the pedestrian-oriented shopping mall. All it took was making it impossible to walk when you're not in a mall.

Given the growth of internet shopping, how Cleveland Park's retail will cope remains an open question. But the history of designing for parking suggests that focusing on automobile access would harm what is so desirable in Cleveland Park, rather than save it.

A version of this post appeared on цarьchitect

Architecture


One of these three visions could be the MLK library's future

Last week, the District of Columbia Public Library unveiled the six visions for the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. While the designs aren't final, each option offers a very different approach to preserving the historic library while accommodating new uses.


Team Two's "community mixer" atrium. All images from DCPL unless noted.

Three teams of architects produced two designs each, one where the library renovates the historic building by the office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and another that also adds two or three stories of apartments to the building. For all teams, the mixed-use scheme and standalone version share a common design up until the fifth floor. The residential additions do not affect the public spaces below.

The three teams approached preservation with a few common elements. All projects leave the exterior alone. All schemes preserve the horizontal character of the ground floor, except in key locations. The changes they make stand apart from the original building, and all projects treat the Mies building as an artifact of a different time.

While libraries used to be a place where users only interacted with staff, now they're about users interacting with each other. To respond to this new purpose, the teams had to consider what kinds of spaces suited the new program. Do the existing deep floors still make sense? How do you fit new spaces, such as a lecture hall into the building? Importantly, the teams had to find a way to better connect the floors of a building that, despite having lots of glass, has very little natural light.

Because each scheme proposes major changes in the activities of the building and how visitors will move around, it's worth reading the design presentations, which we have embedded.

Team One: Mecanoo + Martinez and Johnson

Dutch firm Mecanoo and local partner Martinez and Johnson propose alterations that maintain the horizontal character of the building, even going further than Mies. Starting from the modernist's fixation on open-plan spaces, they envision removing all of the opaque barriers from the three library floors. The architects grouped programs floor by floor, so youth collections are on one floor, quiet specialty collections on another, and the noisiest, least library-like uses activate the "market" ground floor.


Team One's mixed-use design seen from 9th & G.

Library offices occupy the north side of the building up to the 5th floor, a blob-shaped mechanical penthouse surrounded by gardens. In the "development" scheme, a block-long bar of apartments sits on the penthouse, clearly distinct from the original building. The bar slants in plan from from north to south, which emphasizes the horizontal character of the original building and picks up the angles of the 10th & G building to the west and the Pepco building to the east.

To connect the public floors, Team One proposes replacing the yellow brick elevator and stair area just inside the entrance with a large atrium clad in glass panels enameled with the pattern of marble that Mies frequently used. This makes the vertical circulation one of the most visible parts of the building.


Section drawing through Team One's standalone design, showing stair cores.

Team One mostly respects the ceiling and ground planes of the first floor, but they also cut a light shaft around the rear to bring natural light to the basement. They also eliminate the low brick walls around the north side of the building, hopefully enlivening the dark arcade. This scheme would also leave the original exterior walls in place, but adds insulated glass walls to prevent heat loss, saving on energy costs.

Team Two: Patkau Architects + Ayers Saint Gross

The collaboration between Patkau Architects and local architects Ayers Saint Gross produced the most conservative scheme. The design centers on a courtyard extending from the second floor to a fabric sunshade embedded with communications technology on the third. Called the cloud, the exuberant shape framed by the courtyard reflects the team's approach of making alterations within Mies's order.


Section drawing through Team Two's mixed-use design, showing central courtyard.

Team Two's key alteration is a circulation core directly opposite the main entrance. Escalators take visitors up to a fifth-floor garden and down to the basement, which contains the technological aspects of the program, an auditorium, and the teen collection. A double-height lobby visually connects the entry with the upstairs courtyard, where all of the library's different users would mix. The design of most reading rooms remains relatively unchanged.

The residential component changes the building more dramatically. The standalone building has a small pavilion and a green roof on the fifth floor. The mixed-use variant continues the courtyard up, with a public colonnade around the skylight. Mies imagined the building with a fifth floor, so Team Two extends the original facade without windows as a kind of screen, with floors 5-8 rising behind it in a gray, transparent skin.


Team Two's mixed-use design seen from 9th & G.

In addition to the cloud, Team two proposes some unconventional changes. Most radically, they replace the parking ramps with car lifts and valet-only parking. I don't know of any buildings in DC that use this approach, although it is definitely used in other cities.

Team Three: STUDIOS Architecture + Freelon Group

Team Three proposes the most radical alterations to the Mies building, invoking the zeitgeist argument Mies himself was fond of. Their concept aspires to create a new urban space at 9th & G, inside and outside of the building. The design would gut the upper three stories of the southeastern corner and replace it with a floating, golden zig-zag block containing expanded functions of the library. A continuous stair from the basement to the fifth floor cuts an atrium into the space.


Section drawing through Team Three's mixed-use design, showing stair and atrium.

The design would open the great hall to a three-story atrium. This change is probably the most controversial feature of any of the three teams' designs. Otherwise, the first floor remains largely unchanged. Team Three does propose constructing a cafe underneath the G Street colonnade, as well as one inside the main hall.

If the library chooses to develop the mixed-use scheme, the added block would snake out of the building in a U-shape around the courtyard skylight, ending in a cantilever over the 9th Street sidewalk. The stair slope would pause at the 9th & G corner before climbing atop the residential bar to become an intensive green roof with community gardens. The way Team Three's bending bar sits atop the building leaves the 9th & G corner undisturbed and framed as a public space.


Team Three's mixed-usee design from 9th & G. Courtesy DCPL.

Team Three calls for the residential volume to use a curtain-wall system that uses mathematic equations to generate the shape of each component, some of which are more transparent than others. The floors within are conventional slabs. The patterns are carried through to flooring in the entrance that echoes the main staircase as well as the existing lights in the ceiling.

They're not done yet!

DCPL insists that nothing is final about these designs. That is certain. The library needs to decide whether to develop the mixed-use option, and what kind of legal structure it would have. Then, library officials will work with citizens and the architects to further evolve the design. Then, the evolved scheme will undergo at least two design review processes. By the time this process is complete and DCPL solicits contractor bids, the design could change quite dramatically.

The architect teams will present their projects this Saturday, February 15th at 10 am in the MLK library. If you can't attend, the library is livestreaming the event. The designs are also available at each branch library, and DCPL has a website where you can submit your thoughts.

The needs of the library are complex. A single image can't capture the particular experiences of different users, and each of the options involves trade-offs.

Personally, I prefer Team One's overall plan, especially if the library goes ahead with a mixed-use program. Although I appreciate Team Two's sensitive alterations, Team One's solutions for the program, environment, and circulation embrace the strengths of Miesian architecture, but reimagine them in a way that suits the new expectations of urban libraries. It reminds me of two groundbreaking examples of libraries for a digital society, the Sendai Mediatheque and the Idea Store, Whitechapel.

If Team One's design is the beginning of a public building of that caliber, DC will be in good shape.

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