Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Historic Preservation

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.

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Zoning


Can a new zoning code make Mt. Rainier inviting and affordable?

Long considered up and coming, Mount Rainier is a Prince George's neighborhood just east of the District line that's attracting investors and where house prices are rising. Typically, more zoning means higher housing costs, but Mount Rainier residents are trying to use zoning to keep their neighborhood inclusive and affordable. Is that possible?


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Mount Rainier's MO: cheap and funky

Mount Rainier is a historic streetcar suburb bordering DC's Ward 5 that has, for decades, been an affordable destination for renters and owners as well as a haven for interracial, gay, and immigrant families. It's a diverse community, where multiculturalism is not an ideology, but a way of life.

A major part of the city's charm is this neighborly community vibe, which in turn is created and encouraged by the city's urban fabric: early 1900s vernacular architecture including porches near the sidewalks, front yard art installations, and other community-building features. Today, the motto of the local grocery co-op sums it up: "still cheap, still funky."

Today, Mount Rainier is still mostly a cozy collection of small bungalows and Victorians. But home prices are spiraling up, making renovations a hot topic.

Mount Rainier has been here before: Prior to the bursting of the early 2000s real estate bubble, Mount Rainier saw a wave of ambitious home renovations that peppered cheap and/or architecturally deaf flips and McMansions amidst the subsequent foreclosure crisis.


A Mount Rainier house during renovations. Photo by Milo Shepherdson.

Mount Rainier might change its zoning

In a process tracing back to the aforementioned era, the Mount Rainier community is considering a new zoning overlay to cover its single family homes. This Architectural Conservation Overlay Zone (ACOZ) has been proposed as a middle ground between a flipping free-for-all and a restrictive historic district.

The goal of the ACOZ is to encourage renovation and new home construction that is compatible with the existing built environment while preventing poorly executed projects.

As currently proposed, new code would impose detailed design standards and significantly expand the cases in which a building permit is required for residential home construction and renovations.

All homeowners would receive a "pattern book" with guidance and resources about maintaining Mount Rainier's residential architectural fabric, and a local committee would review applications for any project that required a permit to ensure compliance with the standards.

This might sound scary to some, but this is actually exactly how the process works now: A volunteer design review board already reviews many house renovation permits in Mount Rainier, so there is ample precedent for this type of review. Considering that current county zoning requires the board to review permits for residential fences, fears of the ACOZ creating a significant new permitting hurdle may well be overstated.

This has worked in Mount Rainier before

Conventional wisdom says that land use controls like zoning increase the cost of construction and restrict supply, making housing less affordable. And while most would support the laudable goal of maintaining the much loved sleepy neighborhood look, there is always a concern for unintended consequences.

Luckily, this is not Mount Rainier's first experiment with trying to invent a type of zone that both welcomes growth and incorporates the existing built environment.

In 1994 Prince George's County created the first Mixed Use Town Center zone in Mount Rainier, the goal being to revitalize traditional storefronts and invigorate the commercial district. The award-winning 2010 update of this plan established a community vision for a revitalized downtown Mount Rainier as a walkable, green, lively neighborhood-oriented retail center.

As many communities nationwide chase major chains or tourism dollars, Mount Rainier has recommitted to the local, the independent, and the original, saving environmental and financial resources with adaptive reuse of our historic buildings. The MUTC plan incentivizes historic reuse by imposing far more stringent review requirements on new construction, and establishes design standards to promote compatible and quality development.


Image from Prince George's County.

Redevelopment in Mount Rainier is also shaped by a second, larger zoning overlay known as the Gateway Arts District that stretches from the District border up Rhode Island Ave through Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville. The Arts District was created in 2001 to provide policy infrastructure for the further development of the local economy and existing arts community, prohibiting many land uses and establishing at times extremely detailed visual standards for buildings and signage.

Nationally, multijurisdictional arts districts are all but unheard of, and the Gateway Arts District remains very much a community-driven experiment in progress. The dream of rezoning specific properties from conventional residential, commercial, and industrial categories to flexible mixed-use zoning that enables arts entrepreneurs to locate is in part confounded by the challenges created by requiring compliance with the zone's detailed design standards. It is unclear if recent developments like conversion of Mount Rainier's historic firehouse into Red Dirt Studios happen because or in spite of the zoning overlay.

A positive outcome isn't guaranteed

There's no guarantee that we can truly achieve our shared goals through yet more zoning. Chapel Hill, NC, used a similar zoning overlay somewhat differently to police tensions between owners and investors managing homes as rentals. There, advocates for "neighborhood conservation" draw a distinction between renting homes to families versus group houses of unrelated individuals, a sign of both town-gown and anti-immigrant tensions.

Payton Chung recently drew attention to a case in LA "of what Mike Davis called 'slow-growth Know-Nothingism,' Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about 'those' people."

The Mount Rainier community is at a turning point where it must make choices. Do we let the hand of the free market move over the city, or is our local government capable of implementing a well-intentioned and well-designed public process to regulate residential development? Will the ACOZ worsen already difficult permitting processes, drive up the cost of renovation, and create a historic preservation mafia? Or can preservation and affordable housing coexist?

The past and the present are colliding in Mount Rainier, as they have in many other once-affordable historic neighborhoods like Brookland, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring. We believe Mount Rainier is special. Can we achieve a different outcome?

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Preservation


Baltimore will tear down whole blocks of row houses to fight blight. Is that wise?

In DC, housing is so scarce that prices are skyrocketing, especially for charming, historic row houses. Just up in Baltimore, however, they can't give many dilapidated row houses away, and Larry Hogan recently announced a plan to tear many of them down. Is that a good idea?


Image from @MayorSRB.

Baltimore officials think so; its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano think this is something the city needs. Some advocates aren't as sanguine.

In the short run, parks will replace the tear-downs, but Hogan also announced a loan program to encourage developers to build new housing in the same neighborhoods.

What's the point of knocking down housing just to build other housing? Our contributors discussed this issue.

Canaan Merchant articulated the concern:

There is a sense that these neighborhoods will just never recover (at least in our lifetimes) and until then the abandoned houses just make things more dangerous.

But if the "plan" (vague as it is) is to build parks and affordable housing then I have a hard time separating that logic from what we said about so many neighborhoods (like Southwest Waterfront).

Meanwhile, one of Baltimore's best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced. That's why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today.


Photo by urbanfeel on Flickr.

Payton Chung explained the economics:

There is such a thing as property with a negative value. Think about if a smelly, flea-ridden old couch materialized in your living room—you'd pay to get rid of it, right? That's negative value.

Given the high housing prices in DC, we can sometimes forget that the capital cost of rehabilitating (or even maintaining) buildings can be so high that those buildings have negative value. Gut-rehabbing an old rowhouse just to meet code can easily cost over $100,000.

Given that move-in condition rowhouses in West Baltimore can cost $50,000, there's little economic incentive to rehab the houses unless you're comfortable throwing lots of money away. Nor can you just rehab a few of them: vacant properties really drag down the value of entire blocks, and selective demolition isn't an option since rowhouses depend on their neighbors for structural support.

What's more, even good houses at low prices won't be enough to stimulate demand for new housing. It's easy to think "oh, housing prices are cheap, therefore it's a bargain." As new arrivals to Detroit can attest, though, that's not always the case.

Not all rowhouses are created equal. The houses that are being targeted are quite different from DC rowhouses: whereas ours are typically 16-18' wide, Baltimore's rowhouses are just 12-16' wide in most cases. (It's not just a matter of platting—rowhouses have beams across their entire width, and the price of solid-wood beams doesn't scale linearly.) Those extra few feet make a huge difference in livability, especially in the ability to have hallways next to habitably-sized rooms.

Richard Layman, a historic preservation supporter, posted some thoughts on an email list and gave permission to print them.
There is a difference in what people can do in weak markets as opposed to strong markets. In a city like DC, there is demand for property, whereas in Baltimore, my sense in talking with planners over the years is that they are beaten down by the sheer volume of the problem, that they have so many vacant properties and lots, that they see demolition as a reasonable step.

The weak market problem there is stoked by too much capacity for development in Howard, Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel Counties. There isn't enough demand for all those places to be successful, and the success of the counties comes at Baltimore City's expense.

But the reality in a place like Baltimore is that a demolished empty building becomes a vacant lot, no easier to revitalize, and merely a different form of blight, an exchange of one blight for another.


Photo by John Perivolaris on Flickr.

Jeff La Noue lives in Baltimore and gave a perspective from up there:

As a Baltimorean, I appreciate our rowhouse architectural character. However, there have been so many public policy decisions, including poor transit as well as the preponderance of crime and poor schools, that make many row house neighborhoods lose their favorability/marketability. As a result, many shells can't be given away and there is no market to spend any money to redevelop.

We all dream of a time when the conditions change for many desolate row house neighborhoods. However, while we wait, the rot continues. In addition, Baltimore remains relatively affordable and we continue to build lots of new housing in the booming southeast part of the city and suburbs. The oldest and least desirable housing then goes vacant as people move up to better housing and "better" neighborhoods whether they be in the city limits or not.

I certainly would love to see a nuanced demolition plan that does not knock down the most charming and viable. However, I think we need to cull of the weakest of the rowhouse herd. It is hard to leave 20 to 30,000 vacant houses just sit for another decade or more. There is not enough demand for traditional row house living right now, especially with poor transit and little neighborhood retail, to make a massive rowhouse renovation plan financially viable anytime soon.


View from the West Baltimore MARC station. Photo by Adam Moss on Flickr.

Could Baltimore be DC's next bedroom community?

So, there's negative demand for housing in Baltimore, and overflowing demand in DC. If Baltimore were adjacent to DC, we'd be talking about how it's the next hot area, but it's about 40 miles away. Could faster, better transit whisk Baltimoreans down to jobs in DC?

(Maybe that's what Hogan has in mind with his $10 billion maglev, except he doesn't want to pay for it, it wouldn't go to the distressed neighborhoods, and Hogan just cut a transit line that would have.)

What if Maryland improved MARC speeds and frequencies to make the trains Metro-like. Would Washington-area housing demand flow into Baltimore? Richard Layman doesn't think so.

If it were that simple, it would already have happened. I reverse commuted to Baltimore for a time, and yes, Baltimore markets itself as a cheaper alternative for people working in DC, but it really stinks to spend a couple hours each way each day commuting, especially if one does it by sustainable means (bike/walk/transit).

As I wrote previously, Baltimore is undercut by massive overcapacity of development opportunity in the suburban counties, and great poverty and financial needs within the city, which outstrip its financial capacity. It lacks a transit network which would recenter demand on the center city, for both commercial and residential location.

Plus, while it has cool neighborhoods, the city is large and isn't so walkable between neighborhoods as much as it is within neighborhoods. EYA has a trademark, "Life within walking distance." Baltimore isn't set up that way.

Other contributors said that there might be a few spots where this could work, but they're nowhere near where Baltimore is tearing down blocks. Jeff La Noue:
From a Washington perspective, there are tons of super cheap and good looking row houses within walking distance of the West Baltimore MARC Station. That is a place that could seemingly develop market viability, but it needs some initial investment to get it going.

Photo by Ian Freimuth on Flickr.

Payton Chung:

Yes, the property surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station is surprisingly undervalued. However, Sandtown-Winchester won't be improved by transit anytime soon, since it opens a peculiar can of worms: Winchester Street runs atop the Penn Line's B&P tunnel, halfway between Baltimore Penn and West Baltimore, and which is the subject of multibillion-dollar replacement proposals.

Commuting from Baltimore to DC would be much easier if the last-mile transit connections were better. The transit connections and densities surrounding Baltimore Penn and Camden stations leave much to be desired, and Washington Union Station isn't convenient to most workplaces in DC.

Through-routing MARC trains down to L'Enfant Plaza and Crystal City would help, as will the streetcar and [potential] future Metro Loop. So will new office developments within walking distance to Union Station, in areas like NoMa and Capitol Crossing.

It seems Baltimore faces such a mountain of problems that these demolitions may be necessary. One can't help wonder if things would have been different if Baltimore had gotten a full subway system like the Metro, which was proposed around the same time.


The originally-proposed Baltimore Metro network.

And while the presence of the federal government kept Washington in better shape than Baltimore during the worst of times, the Metro elevated the value of downtown DC. Had it never been built, perhaps Washington would still be a "donut" of attractive suburbs around a continually decaying core with rising crime and insurmountable vacancy rates.

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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 fašade.


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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Public Spaces


Palisades' humble rec center exemplifies great park planning

In the 1930s, architects carefully planned the Palisades Recreation Center to take advantage of its location overlooking the Potomac River. 80 years later, it's still an informative model for park planning.


The Palisades Recreation Center today, looking from the north. Photo by the author.

Designers carefully planned the rec center, at 5200 Sherrier Place NW, to be more than just a collection of ball fields and playgrounds. They oriented buildings to take advantage of natural vistas, located baseball diamonds so their outfields double as public greens, and used unpretentious but beautiful architecture to balance the need for man-made structures with the surrounding natural beauty.

The result is a 13-acre green space that's as much a small national park as it is community playground.

Unlike other DC playgrounds established in the 1920s and 1930s, the Palisades rec center was designed by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of the Public Works Administration. The rec center opened to the public on September 11th, 1936. As of a 2014 study, the field house is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

But changes began to come in 2008 with DC's first artificial turf soccer field, and continued in 2013 with a new playground. Now, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the Department of General Services are developing a plan to address the aging field house, as part of DPR's Play DC initiative.


A site plan for the Palisades rec center from late in 1935. Though this isn't the final plan, the building, the overlook, and the baseball field are all present. All images from the National Parks Service except where noted.

How it all happened

Thomas Chalmers Vint, an architect and landscape architect, supervised design and construction of the project between 1934 and 1936. Vint advocated the idea of having master plans for parks, to look at them comprehensively from planning through to construction. At many parks or monuments today, Vint's influence can still be seen in fine rustic buildings, bridges, and in how developed areas blend with the environment.

The NPS made park development plans mandatory in 1929. Under Vint's leadership, five-year plans became the standard for streamlining landscape preservation and park development.

At Palisades, Vint played an active role in the field house's design and setting. Plans for the site prior to Vint's involvement, from 1931, show a grouping of small buildings at the northern end of the property. That plan failed to materialize, and so community members pushed for a field house in early 1934. That coincided with Vint's move to Washington to become Chief Architect of NPS' Branch of Plans in Designs.

Planning for the new recreation center got underway in February 1935. Plans for both the playground and the building evolved, as designers tried to find a scheme that worked. They went through four different building proposals until settling on the eventual design, each plan being more informal and in harmony with nature than the one before.


An early Palisades rec center design from February 20, 1935.


A design from July 22, 1935.

The final design, dated October 1, 1935, is an asymmetrical three-part red-brick structure. The result is a building that looks informal and vernacular.


The final rec center design, approved October 4, 1935.

The grounds

Based on the building's asymmetry, its placement toward the southern end of the playground, and its orientation facing north-south, we know that every effort went into ensuring the field house did not overpower the natural beauty of the site. Instead, the building enhanced and was subservient to that beauty.

The building, along with its southern facing terrace, functions as a scenic overlook to the Potomac River. Palisades is the only Washington playground to have such a feature. This was, again, a result of Vint's oversight and experience.

While the overlook is the most notable feature of the site, others include a baseball diamond, tennis courts, a nature trail, and an outdoor picnic area. All are in places where they're unobtrusive and subordinate to nature. For example, the baseball infield and tennis courts are along the trolley right of way on the northeast border of the property, leaving less intense uses for the property interior.

It is particularly noteworthy that the baseball diamond's home plate is at the north end of the field, both giving residents fast access to home plate, and allowing the outfield to double as a meadow when people aren't playing baseball. We know that was intentional based on plans from 1935.


A partial site plan, dated July 17, 1935. It notes the meadow (which is the baseball field) and overlook.

Continue the legacy

The 1930s may be a long time ago, but we need good parks as much today as we did then. As DPR renovates Washington's aging parks, it will be important for today's generation of planners to think of these places in comprehensive terms, and not as only locations for active sports fields.

Washington needs strong long-term planning if it's going to manage its public resources efficiently and equitably. DPR's Play DC master plan is a good overall approach in concept. But it's still prone to piecemeal planning since DPR and DGS only plan for projects that have dedicated funding. This ad hoc approach makes it hard to create master plans, and hard to prioritize long term visions.

The Palisades Recreation Center's mid-1930s design is an example of how master planning can and should apply to Washington's recreation areas.

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Architecture


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

The DC Public Library considered adding three floors of housing on top of the Martin Luther King, Jr. library, but recently backed off. Preservation concerns and opposition from activists were part of the reason, but the real issue was that the finances didn't work.


One mixed-use option for development of the MLK library. All rendering photos from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson via NCPC.

When the library trustees picked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson as the architects to rehabilitate the downtown library a year ago, they stressed that naming the firm as their design competition winner was only the start of the process. That has proven very true, as evidenced by the multiple options (pictured throughout this post) the team has had to produce since then.

At the end of January, after a year of negotiating, engagement, and redesign, the trustees voted to abandon the more ambitious designs. DCPL still wants to build on top of the library, but it's asked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson to go with something smaller and not mixed-use.


The DCPL-preferred standalone design.

Instead, library officials are now considering two new designs, each with only a single new floor atop the existing building.


An alternative design that more closely models the the library's original 1972 design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Up top, more floors didn't add up

Financially, not pursuing a mixed-use addition was a relatively simple decision. CBRE, a real estate conglomerate, valued the remaining developable space at at $27.8 million, which is only 10-15% of what the proposed renovations would cost. A cost-benefit analysis by local developer Jair Lynch Partners saw this value as not worth the challenges.

CBRE concluded that office tenants would give the city the most value for the three extra floors. But from the beginning, the library has wanted to disrupt downtown's office monoculture, and building more offices doesn't do that. Rental apartments would bring in less annual revenue, particularly if they incorporated affordable housing. A hotel wasn't an option because the area is already saturated with high-end hotels.

Another challenge is that the building would likely need more parking beyond the current single floor. The appraisal included the cost of a valet or automated parking system; both might still be unappealing to a developer, and adding a new floor of parking below would be unimaginably expensive.

Difficulties in arranging public-private partnerships also pushed the library toward a simpler design. For the city, recouping investment is a multi-decade process; most developers, on the other hand, look for a five-year return. According to Lynch, other concerns like developing a unique ownership structure, or even changing the zoning, made the proposition too risky for the financiers.

Going forward, the library may choose to reinforce the building to support a design like the one Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson proposed last year. That's similar to what happened with the Tenley-Friendship library, where developers have the option to add a tower in the future. That also means that the city can't sell the air rights to the site, worth $27.8 million.

The final way to use private money to fund the renovation would be to sell the library's historic preservation tax credits. National landmarks are eligible for credits meant to defray the cost of restoration, and public entities can sell the benefits to third parties. The market analysis suggested a tax sale at MLK could net $20-30 million.

Below, a long process for what is approved

Even without the mixed-use addition, the renovation still faces DC's legendary design review process.


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

So far, all of the changes to the competition-winning entry have responded to historic preservation concerns. But the designers have to get approval from a number of agencies that deal with more than preservation.

  • Though the District owns the library building, any projects in this part of DC also require input from the federally-run National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). NCPC will have to conduct an Environmental Assessment and a Cultural Resources Study.
  • If the library decides to sell its historic preservation tax credits, it has to bring in the National Park Service (NPS) which runs the tax credit program. Even if the other agencies approve of the design, NPS could deem the changes to be too invasive.
  • The design team has received positive feedback from the the US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). In January, CFA members asked for a more decisive approach, favoring more open space inside and additions that contrast stylistically from the Miesian architecture.

  • Finally, the Historic Preservation Review Board has to approve changes to the building, which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed in 1972 and which is both a national and local landmark.
All of these boards' reviews include public input, but they usually only hear from a limited audience. The more the public engages with this project, the greater the chances it meets the entire community's needs.

Correction: This article has been changed from the original version to make it clear that all three pictured renderings came from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson after they won the design competition. You can see the designs submitted for the competition here.

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