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Development


A court just halted DC's McMillan development

DC's highest court just blocked development at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. This is a setback for the city's effort to turn an empty yet historic field, which previously served to filter drinking water, into a complex of housing, offices, and more active parks. This may not be end of the project, but it's added some significant new hurdles.


McMillan's silos. Photo by Elliot Carter.

The 25-acre site along North Capitol Street was established in 1905 as a way to purify the water of the Washington Aqueduct. The water ran through 25 underground vaults which filtered out impurities. But we don't filter water this way any more, and in 1986 the federal government declared it surplus.

For years now, DC (which now owns the site) has been trying to work with a consortium of developers, called Vision McMillan Partners, who won a bidding process to redevelop the site. The plan would include 655 units of housing, office space for Children's Hospital, and retail.


The development plan. Image from Vision McMillan Partners.

A park would keep part of the site open, and preserve the above-ground silos (the concrete tubes in the image above). The developers would also try to restore one of the vaults for people to explore and experience. Other vaults are not stable enough and could collapse, so they would be removed.

This week, DC officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for the project, but Thursday, a court opinion halted further progress.

What the court said

The court opinion hinged on two project approvals. First, the DC Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say (except this court) on zoning, approved this project. It was a Planned Unit Development, which is where a project gets some relief from zoning in exchange for community benefits.

Second, this site is a historic landmark. DC's law allows demolishing some historic resources, either because of financial hardship or to construct a "project of special merit." The Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation, the administrative judge who decides such cases, determined this did qualify as special merit.

A 3-judge panel of the Court of Appeals vacated both approvals and sent the project back for another opinion, and possibly more hearings, before both.


Opponents have waged a sign campaign as well as a legal one. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

The zoning case is all about the Comp Plan

The DC Zoning Commission, which approved the project, is required to follow DC's Comprehensive Plan. However, the Comp Plan is often compared to the Bible: it says whatever you want to read into it.

Contradictory policies in the Comp Plan simultaneously say, for instance, that DC needs more housing but should preserve open space; that established neighborhoods should be protected but there should be infill development; that there should be density near transit stations but then a map shows low density in that area.

In approving the project, the DC Zoning Commission traded off among some of these conflicting priorities. An while I am not a zoning attorney (and haven't yet heard back from the ones I called), it appears the Court of Appeals understands this. However, the judges say that the Zoning Commission didn't adequately explain why it was choosing to honor the policies it did over the ones it did not.

The court doesn't prohibit high-density development

Some of the project would have larger buildings which qualify as "high density" in DC's land use categories. One part of the Comp Plan is a map, the Future Land Use Map or FLUM, which shows density levels in different areas, and McMillan is not colored red for high density. It's a combination of "moderate density commercial," "medium density residential," and "parks, recreation, and open space."


The Future Land Use Map around McMillan.

Opponents argued that since some buildings are high density, those aren't permitted here. However, the court disagreed, saying two things: First, on a large site like this, there could be some tall buildings and some short ones which essentially average out to moderate or medium density, and that's okay. Second, the Zoning Commission has the perogative to weigh the map's colors against the other provisions of the Comp Plan.

(Lawyers will parse how consistent this is with a recent case in Brookland, with two of the same three judges, where the court basically took the map literally and rejected a project for not matching its categories.)

However, the judges say that the Zoning Commission must explain its reasons for weighing some factors over others. The judges seem to take issue with some factors not being adequately explained. They have instructed the Zoning Commission to make another decision, potentially after more hearings, that better explains this:

The Commission stated that permitting high-density development on the northern portion of the site was "a critical and essential part of fulfilling the parks, recreation, and open space designation of the [FLUM], while at the same time achieving other elements of the Comprehensive Plan and the city's strategic economic plan."

[Friends of McMillan Park, a leading opposition group] argued before the Commission, however, that the other policies reflected in the Comprehensive Plan could be advanced even if development on the site were limited to medium- and moderate-density uses. The Commission neither provided a specific basis for concluding to the contrary nor stated reasons for giving greater weight to some policies than to others. We therefore vacate the Commission's order and remand for further proceedings.

The court worries about environmental impacts and housing costs

Environmental Impact Statements are an important tool to ensure that governments don't run roughshod over the environment. However, they require a lot of analysis by those advancing any project, and often that gives courts an opportunity to nitpick one or another of scores of analyses in the EIS. For example, the Purple Line, which is clearly better for the environment than everyone driving, was blocked for EIS deficiencies because the Maryland judge quibbled with ridership projections.

The court here may be adding some EIS-like procedure to approval of projects like this. The judges say that the Zoning Commission did consider environmental impacts, but not as thoroughly as it should have. That wasn't their reason for remanding the project, but it points to a way these judges might find fault with a subsequent approval as well.

(The environmental benefit of dense development in the core of the city is that it lessens pressure to build sprawl in farms at the edge of the region. This is an area of some disagreement between Smart Growth environmentalists and others that fight for open space regardless of its location.)

Opponents further argued that the project would "accelerate gentrification, increase land values, and result in a net loss of affordable housing." The opinion doesn't get into the policy issues here, simply saying that the commission didn't sufficiently address these either.

In reality, this project will not lead to a loss of affordable housing because it is creating more affordable housing. Having housing here is not going to push up housing prices nearby as compared to not having housing here. The opponents are making economic arguments that are intuitively true to some but contradicted by economic research, but it seems the judges identify with those arguments.

Is this "special merit"?

The court also vacated the Mayor's Agent approval to demolish much of a historic resource to construct a "project of special merit." This part of the ruling seems to pose an even higher hurdle for the project, as the court did not only find that the Mayor's Agent failed to sufficiently explain himself.

Rather, the court disagreed with the overall definition of "special merit." The Mayor's Agent in essence found that the affordable housing, medical office needs, and other overall economic development value of the site outweighed the historic preservation value.

If I'm reading the opinion right, it seems this court disagrees. Special merit can be things like outstanding architecture and also a "specific feature of land planning." That term is pretty vague, and the court is not at all convinced by the more general conclusion from the Mayor's Agent:

"If the special-merit inquiry could appropriately focus on the "totality" of the benefits arising from a project,
then presumably the Mayor's Agent should also take into account all of the project's adverse impacts. Under such an approach, the Mayor's Agent would function essentially as a second Zoning Commission, evaluating all of the benefits and adverse impacts associated with projects requiring a permit from the Mayor's Agent. We conclude that the Preservation Act assigns the Mayor's Agent the more discrete role of determining whether one or more specific attributes of a project, considered in isolation or in combination, rise to the level of special merit, thus triggering a balancing of those special-merit benefits against historic-preservation losses.
The developers weren't clear about whether some cells could be preserved, at least according to the judges. The Mayor's Agent dealt with that by requiring an additional step before the developers could demolish the cells, but the judges don't feel that is sufficient.

Finally, the judges pose one more, perhaps quite big hurdle:

Among other things, an applicant seeking approval to demolish or subdivide a historic landmark bears the burden of showing that demolition or subdivision is "necessary." ... "The applicant must show that it considered alternatives to the total demolition of the historic building and that these alternatives were not reasonable." Although an applicant need not demonstrate that there are no other feasible alternatives, an applicant "should be required to show that all reasonable alternatives were considered."
In short, to be able to demolish a historic resource, the court is saying that the property owner needs to show that there is no "reasonable" other way to preserve the historic resource. This creates a high hurdle.


Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

The preservation law doesn't deal well with situations like this

Perhaps such a hurdle is appropriate. After all, if someone's talking about demolishing a really special, historic building, these kinds of obstacles seem intuitively sensible.

But this isn't a single, really significant building; it's a giant 25-acre site. The preservation law seems somewhat ill-suited to such things, because it doesn't provide for weighing various needs. If something is historic, it's historic. There's no "a little bit historic," and the law doesn't say the Mayor's Agent can consider how the historic value weighs against the need for housing, tax revenue, medical office space, or active (rather than fenced-off) parks.

The Mayor's Agent had, in other cases, used the "special merit" category for such situations, but this court decision throws that into doubt. DC makes it easier to designate things as historic than in some other places, but also somewhat easier to make changes as well; that may be changing.

If DC wants to be able to continue to add housing, it will eventually have to reckon with the twin trends of running lower on empty land and having more and more land designated as in historic districts or sites.

Historic preservation is valuable, but it needs to be weighed against other factors as well amid the various priorities for the city. If the court is going to reduce the Mayor's Agent's powers, perhaps the DC Council needs to amend the law to broaden them again.

Housing


Should a "historic gas station" keep new housing units from going up in Dupont?

A new building with housing and ground-level retail was set to go up just west of Dupont Circle, but the project has stalled because some DC officials say it would harm a historic gas station building. There's often tension between wanting to preserve historic buildings and needing to build more housing for a region that will continue to grow. We asked our contributors what they think should happen in this situation.


The Embassy Gulf Service Station. Image from Google Maps.

Marx Realty & Improvement Company recently proposed potential designs for a nine-story, 34-unit residential building with ground floor retail at 22nd and P Streets NW.That address is also home to the Embassy Gulf Service Station—today a Sunoco—that was built in 1936.

The building was designated a historic landmark in 1993 because it's a particularly good example of the neo-classical design used by many urban gas stations during the 1930s to make the car-oriented buildings more palatable to planners and zoning officials of their day.

In all three of Marx's design options, the plan was to slightly move the gas station building so there was more room for the new one, and to adapt it for retail use. In some of the plans, there was to be a connection on the ground level between the old and new buildings.

Marx submitted these options to DC's Historic Preservation Review Board the staff that advises the Historic Preservation Review Board, an agency that decides whether new building proposals fit with the historic landmark. Technically, the HPRB is only an advisory board, but if it says no to a design, it's rare that the DC government issues a permit to build.

The HPRB Historic Preservation Office said in its report that none of the designs would work because of the "disparity in height" between the single-story station building and the nine-story proposal:

This is the principle the HPRB staff operated on: Any adjacent new construction should be substantially lower in height than is proposed so as to not loom over the landmark.

Here's the HPRB staff's ruling: The disparity in height between the nine-story new construction and the one-story landmark is stark, discordant and incompatible, and would result in the gas station being left in shadow. While the open lot site to the south is under separate ownership and apparently not available for development, its presence adds to what is an unsatisfying urbanistic solution in which the weight of the new tower is pushed uncomfortably close to the landmark while a large open parking lot would remain on the other side.

It's somewhat confusing to hear that a nine-story building would provide an "unsatisfying urbanistic solution" when many nearby buildings, including a ten-story apartment building directly across the street, are around that height.

We asked our contributors to weigh in on the decision and the broader competing interests of preserving historic structures while allowing DC to grow for the future.

Several contributors, like Tony Camilli, disagree with the HPRB's ruling:

DC already has more than 18% of its property designated as historic vs. 4.7% in Boston, 3.6% in New York, and 2.2% in Philadelphia. Yet these other cities are over a century older than DC. This particular gas station is prime real estate in an area with many other transportation options and was built long before Metrorail and bike lanes came about.

Modern cities have to change over time to remain relevant (see Detroit and other rust-belt cities for examples of failures to adapt). DC has gotten very expensive and needs more housing, so 1-story gas stations located in densely-populated areas with many transportation options should not be saved even if the architecture and use are historic. Document the station and archive its existence yes, but don't hold DC hostage to the change it needs to be a 21st century city.

Dan Malouff simply tweeted the following:

David Alpert sees a double standard when it comes to building designs and building heights, and argues that DC needs to take advantage of limited infill housing opportunities:

I support having historic preservation. I think we have many wonderful buildings which add architectural and historic diversity to the city and are worth keeping.

But the preservation office says new buildings should be "of their time" in terms of architecture (look contemporary, not like replicas of old buildings) even if that means a super modern building is next to an old one, the thought being that such a move would just emphasize the historic. Okay, but then they say that new buildings should not be very different in size.

Why should a building be faux-historic in height but not design? Why shouldn't the new building be "of its time" in size? Wouldn't having a tall building next to a short one emphasize the historic height?

I think preserving valuable buildings is a great thing to do, but when we're talking about new construction on vacant land I think HP can be too restrictive about "compatibility."

Dan Reed raises the point that "preservation" is often about one group's definition of history, but not another's:
This makes me think about the fate of Phase 1 (before it Apex and Badlands), the gay club a few blocks away, which is being converted back to its "historic" appearance as a carriage house.

These preservationists don't just want to save the gas station, they want it its surroundings to look like it did when it was built, nevermind how the context has changed since then. As a queer person, I personally think the "recent" history of Phase 1/Apex/Badlands overrules the 1900s history that none of us were there for and can apply any meaningful context to. But we often privilege the "built" history over the cultural history because the built stuff feels more tangible.

Jacqueline Drayer says that on the other hand, historic gas stations are extremely unique:
Very, very few gas stations in the US are protected (for good reason) - but they represent an integral part of 20th century US history. This one has both an unusual style and speaks to the lost practice of actually creating inspired station architecture. It is perfectly reasonable to maintain the spatial qualities of the still functioning gas station.
Steven Yates agrees, and wondered if a shorter building would work:
I'm OK with the gas station being historic. It is in fact fairly old (dating back to 1936) and a style we don't see anymore (and not bad looking either). But to say a tall building is incompatible with it really ignores the context of the surrounding neighborhood (like across the street). And at what height does it no longer tower over? It's only a one story building so would three stories still be too high?
What do you think? Should a building go up as long as the gas station isn't harmed? Is moving the gas station to face another way ok? Should the gas station stay around at all?

Correction: This post initially said that the developer submitted its proposal to the Historic Preservation Review Board. It actually submitted it to the Historic Preservation Office. HPRB did not hear the case.

Development


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

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


April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

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

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


The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

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

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


September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

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


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

How about a plaza AND new housing?

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

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

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

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

Site plan showing the current building.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A more detailed plan could help

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

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

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

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

Development


This vacant tower could become your favorite new bar

There's an old rail control tower on 2nd Street SW, a few blocks from where CSX is rebuilding the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, and CSX has agreed to do major work on the tower as part of the rail project. Could it become a museum or a bar? Could someone live there? There are great possibilities, but also unique challenges.


Image from DC's Historic Preservation Office.

The Control Point Virginia Tower, which sits at 2nd Street and Virginia Avenue SW next to the railroad tracks that take VRE and Amtrak passengers between Union Station and CSX's rails that run along the east coast. It's an interlocking tower, which is where a leverman used to manually switch which railroad tracks a train was using.

The Virginia Tower was built between 1904 and 1906 along with the First Street Tunnel, and around the same time as seven other such towers in Washington, DC.

Though a marvel of the late 19th century, by the 1930's CP towers started to be replaced by centralized traffic control from remote control centers. By the late 1980's almost all such towers were closed.

Of those eight DC towers, only Virginia and "K", so named because it is just south of K Street on the approach to Union Station, still stand. CSX stopped using the Virginia Tower in 1989, and according to a 2007 article in Trains magazine, there were plans at the time to demolish it (which is what the agency did with the Anacostia Tower in 2008).


Base image from Google Maps.

CSX is fixing up the Virginia Tower on the outside...

The Virginia Tower, however, has dodged the wrecking ball, and under the terms of the 2015 Memorandum of Agreement for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project, CSX has agreed to preserve the tower.

Moreover, the agency has filed the necessary paperwork to add the tower to the National Register of Historic Places and the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, and it has agreed to rehabilitate the tower.

The rehabilitation will improve the appearance, repair the structure and provide added security. CSX will remove all exterior additions that are no longer needed such as antennas, steel window mesh, utility connections, and cabinets, along with the graffiti and cover-up paint. The agency will repair, replace or restore all of the floors, roof, windows, doors, and walls. Finally, CSX will add security features such as fencing, gates, and cameras.

...the inside is a different story, but think of the possibilities

The plan is to only rehabilitate the exterior of the tower and leave the interior alone. According to CSX the tower "will remain an active building to support CSX operations" as it "is still a vital part of the railroad infrastructure."

It's hard to see how that's the case since CSX was planning to demolish it only nine years ago. Interlocking towers such as this one have been reused at other sites, but almost exclusively as small railroad museums. And while there are several serious and likely insurmountable barriers to any adaptive reuse—CSX resistance, the location between an active railroad track and a secure congressional office building, and its unusual size and location—below are some ideas for what could be done with it if those barriers weren't there.

Museum

As I mentioned above, other such towers have been turned into museums or rail fan club houses. A museum run by volunteers with infrequent tours could better address security concerns by leaving it closed and locked at most times. The museum in Bradford, Ohio, for example, is only open six hours a week for nine months of the year.

Restaurant or bar

The building itself wouldn't hold many patrons, but the courtyard could support an outdoor beer garden like the Brig at 8th and L SE. The building could could serve as a kitchen and storage. The idea is not totally crazy. K Tower, the other remaining interlocking tower in DC, is still used by Amtrak. According to one source it is the only such tower in use south of Philadelphia, but in the 2012 Union Station Master Plan, Amtrak envisioned turning it into restaurant or bar.


The reconstructed K Tower as a destination bar/restaurant in the air rights development. Image from Akridge/SBA.

Canal Quarters

It would be the most unique hotel in DC, but the tower could be turned into a small, rustic rental similar to what the C&O Canal has done with its lockhouses as part of its Canal Quarters program. It would be cramped, but you can't beat the steps-from-the-Mall location (assuming you can sleep through train noise). Maybe the Canal Trust would even manage it for a cut of the profits.

Housing

Before the Canal Quarters rental program, the C&O Canal park attempted to lease its Lockhouses. Micro-units are the hot thing in real estate, and this cozy condominium might be a step up for a Congressmember currently sleeping in her office. It's only a three block walk to the Rayburn Building. Perhaps it could even become the Official Residence of the Speaker of the House?

Preservation


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

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


Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Davidson hopes there won't be more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preservation must preserve our natural environment, too

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

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

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

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

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

Preservation


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Who gets to decide?

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

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

Neighbors and city officials applaud this project

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Put it in Seattle, says one preservationist

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

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

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

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

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


The Bullitt Center, Seattle. Image from Google Maps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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