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HPRB Opts Not to Vote on 60-Unit Project at Adams Morgan’s Central Intersection—Yet

by Nena Perry-Brown

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The most recent rendering of the planned development as seen from the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW

On Thursday morning, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) got its first look at the much-debated and agonized-over redevelopment of the SunTrust bank building at the nexus of the Adams Morgan neighborhood.

After three hours of debate and testimony, the Board ultimately chose to defer a vote on the concept design until the PN Hoffman-led development team reconsiders various aspects of their proposal.

As UrbanTurf has reported, current plans will involve replacing the SunTrust building at 1800 Columbia Road NW (map) with a 70 foot-tall mixed-use building, delivering 60 apartments atop 8,375 square feet of ground floor retail. There would also be an underground parking garage with 33 spaces.

Although many in the neighborhood and on the local ANC find the height, massing and design of the building objectionable to varying extents, the most contentious part of the proposal is the loss of the public plaza that fronts the site, which has housed the neighborhood farmers’ market for the past four decades. The development team has suggested that the farmers market, which will be forced to relocate for at least 18 months during construction anyway, be relocated to either the public space on the opposite corner or a block away at Unity Park on Columbia Road.

HPRB opted not to delve too deep into the question of whether the public plaza should be considered historic or retained at its current size, but it was mentioned that the proposed design of the plaza should be made more inviting to the public regardless of its size rather than only being functional for the surrounding retail. Board chair Gretchen Pfaehler also suggested that the developers add signage to the plaza in homage to its recent importance as a public square.

Several HPRB members found the development’s design and scale to be incongruous with the adjacent buildings along 18th Street and felt that more design consideration should be given to make the new building harmonious with the neighborhood.

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The most recent rendering of the planned development as seen from Columbia Road NW

In terms of compatibility with the Washington Heights historic district, members opined that the facade was too disjointed and protruding compared to buildings along Columbia Road, window bays were too elongated, and the design of the street-level retail was out of proportion with other commercial space in the corridor. Additionally, the wide variation in building materials had the effect of making the design too busy despite clear attempts on the developers’ part to create something that evoked the design of other buildings in the historic district.

The Board’s decision was not an outright rejection of the Historic Preservation Office’s staff report, which recommended approval of the concept pending various design refinements. The Board and the staff report both emphasized that the developers need to resolve the design of the bays, retail storefronts and windows, and to further integrate the penthouse level into the design. However, the decision not to vote reflected the Board’s concerns that the concept and design changes they would like to see were too substantial to offer an approval of anything at this stage.

It was also noted that the delayed vote will give concerned citizens in the neighborhood more time to research the history of the site and its plaza. While the ANC would like to see another iteration of the design before it is presented to historic preservation staff again, September is likely the earliest that this will take place.

Potomac Investment Properties and architect Eric Colbert and Associates round out the development team on the project.

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/hprb_opts_not_to_vote_on_adams_morgan_pnc_proposal_--_yet/11393

3 Comments

  1. skidrowedc@gmail.com said at 2:49 pm on Friday June 24, 2016:

    No one wants to wade too far into this steamroom of discontent, but a few corrections should at least lower the heat.

    First, regarding the Farmers Market, the developers are not just inactive bystanders “suggesting” that the market could move.  They have devoted time and effort (which equals money, by the way) to meetings and communications with the farmers, DC Office of Planning, and DC Dept of Transportation working toward a smooth transition for the market. They hired a landscape architect to do test fits of the Unity Park site (one block east) and BB&T Plaza site (across the intersection).  These were presented to the ANC.

    Second, the plaza as designed is largely for public use.  It is not, as the ANC rep claimed, “80% or more” for private use of adjacent retail space. Whatever one thinks of the design (I’m in agreement with the Board that it’s not great), it shows fixed planters and a few benches that wouldn’t begin to work for a sidewalk cafe or sidewalk retail (or farmers market, for that matter).  The only space left for private retail use is up against the building face, at most 20% of the area.

    Third, let’s acknowledge that it is equally valid to consider the proposed building to be 6 stories with a setback habitable penthouse and a further-setback mechanical enclosure wall, or 7 stories in which the top story is set back with a mechanical enclosure penthouse atop. As the building section in the applicant’s drawing set indicates, the former is how DC Zoning would define it; the latter is how the Building Code would define it. The new penthouse regulations (allowing habitable uses in penthouses) will create many buildings with the same measurement problem.  Maybe it’s annoying, but it really isn’t so confusing, and it certainly doesn’t show cheating or malice, as the community opponents claimed of the developer.

    Fourth, the building doesn’t front only on Columbia Road (as the developer’s presentation emphasized) or only on 18th Street (as the opponents promoted): it fronts on both, with an effective third front facing to the corner.  As the Board pointed out, this sets up the central challenge/problem for any proposed building.  Most of the Board members stated that the Columbia Road facade and corner-facing facades work fairly well, some refinements needed, but specifically that the height shown is not a problem.  The Board’s central discomfort was with the relationship of the 18th Street facade to its lower context. They emphasized that the problem wasn’t necessarily height per se, but rather the more elusive quality of “scale.”  (Which obviously can’t be entirely divorced from height, but is not the same thing.)  They acknowledged that dropping the height on 18th Street would probably make compromise the important corner condition.  The architects on the board (Graham Davidson and Chair Pfaehler) readily admitted that they had no idea how to resolve this central problem, but they felt that a resolution was necessary prior to concept approval.

    Last, the opponents’ effort at showing historic significance for the plaza was interesting, but they’ve got a long way to go before there’s anything reasonably actionable.  Their research indicates that SunTrust’s predecessor, Perpetual Bank, which built the existing branch bank in 1978 on what was a vacant lot, agreed to a community-use plaza as reparations for having done redlining in the 1950s-1970s.  The opponents claim that there is a legal easement to that effect, but admitted that no signed easement has been located. If a signed easement surfaces, then Hoffman would be compelled—by private agreement, not by public process—to conform.  (And presumably they would sue their title company, who should have found any such document.) But as an HPRB matter, it’s a peculiar argument. For starters, the timing (mid-to-late 1970s) falls way outside of the historic district’s “period of significance” (1880-1950). Equally problematic, the argument maintains that the circumstances and fact of the plaza being provided are what is of historic significance, divorced from the designs of the plaza and/or branch bank building.  Therefore, the argument went, the HPRB should preserve the open public space, but allow a new design (since even the most ardent opponents of the proposed Hoffman building agree that the current plaza’s design is not good).  No wonder the Board decided “not to delve too deep,” as the article puts it.

  1. Lisa said at 9:55 pm on Sunday June 26, 2016:

    Thank you skidrowedc for putting meat on the bones.

  1. Nathaniel Martin said at 9:22 am on Tuesday June 28, 2016:

    I continue to be astonished that neighborhood busybodies are fighting so hard to save a hideous building and barely used plaza. Any of the design proposals created so far for the new building would be a great boon for the neighborhood.

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