Historic Preservation Office Recommends Approval of Suntrust Plaza Project in Adams Morgan

by Nena Perry-Brown

Historic Preservation Office Recommends Approval of Suntrust Plaza Project in Adams Morgan: Figure 1
The most recent rendering of 1800 Columbia Road NW

Despite a recent redesign, many Adams Morgan residents are still opposed to the planned residential redevelopment of the SunTrust Plaza at 1800 Columbia Road NW (map). Likewise, ANC 1C voted unanimously last month to put their opposition on the record.

However, a new report from the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) indicates that the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) might approve the concept despite the neighborhood opposition.

In preparation for developers P.N. Hoffman and Potomac Investment Properties upcoming appearance before the HPRB for concept review of the mixed-use building, HPO recommended that the Board find the design compatible with the Washington Heights Historic District and grant its approval.

Although objecting area residents have spoken out about their potential loss of the plaza on the site and overall dislike of the planned building’s aesthetics, HPO believes that the design team has taken into account the Board’s prior feedback on the design and that their edits were “successful.”

The HPO report also notes that the Office will continue working with the design team on various details, including the design of the plaza.

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/historic_preservation_office_recommends_approval_of_suntrust_plaza_project/11813


  1. Jay said at 6:27 am on Saturday October 22, 2016:
    WE are not opposed to this design or plans. There is a small group of vocal NIMBYs who do not want change or progress in Adam's Morgan. It's time for this god awful plaza to go. I've lived here 20 years and am tired of seeing other parts of the city move forward while this neighborhood lags behind because a small group opposes change.
  1. skidrowedc@gmail.com said at 6:05 pm on Monday October 24, 2016:
    Although community review is part of the process, and the HPRB is required to give "great weight" to the opinion of the ANC, the power to determine "compatibility with the historic district" is solely the HPRB's -- not the community's nor the ANC's. Many people come to ANC and community meetings not understanding this most basic aspect of the process. (Sometimes it seems that real estate bloggers aren't quite clear about it, either!) Moreover, the HPRB works off a set of guidelines (not laws, note the difference) which provide a framework to determine compatibility. These guidelines do not speak to anything else--not affordable housing, not parking, not (in this case) whether the community has some kind of squatter's rights over the privately-owned plaza. In fact the Board members must put aside views they may hold on irrelevant factors and judge the case on preservation merits. No matter how wonderful a plaza could be, or vital to the sense of community, it's essentially irrelevant to preservation. During the Washington Heights Historic District's "period of significance" (1880-1950), such plazas are almost unknown, and this particular site had a building which went all the way to the corner. The plaza has its own little piece of history, as a sort of reparations for redlining, but that's a tough sell legally: its date (1978) is way off from the "period of significance", and it's less than 50 years old (the legal cutoff for designation of historic importance). Moreover, the historic value is an idea, not the specific built elements (the plaza, the branch bank) related to the idea. The preservation guidelines wouldn't oppose having a plaza, were an applicant to propose one, but the stronger preservation argument is no plaza. It's also worth noting that the Board is required, based on judicial case law, to make a good faith effort to approve a building that compromises property rights (which usually amounts to FAR/density of development) as little as reasonably possible, without compromising the preservation guidelines. For SunTrust, the NIMBY opposition's key relevant argument is that the typical height of buildings on 18th Street (2-4 stories) should govern the entire site, even though Columbia Rd's typical height is taller (7-9 stories, especially for buildings with relatively large floor plates). This is a losing argument, no matter how sincerely the opposition may believe otherwise. Personally, I think it would be optimal to maintain a plaza in that location, of better design and maintenance (obviously) than the current one. But the preservation guidelines and process offer almost no support for that view. Some communities and ANC's would figure out how to make a deal -- in this case, the obvious approach would be to support a taller, but smaller footprint building, to preserve space for a plaza. But Adams-Morgan's "leaders" are unable to make deals. They are energized by opposing things--pretty much everything, from a liquor license to a bus stop relocation to a new building--and get so caught up in the righteousness of their own arguments that they can't compromise. It's sad, really.
  1. dcblogs@gmail.com said at 7:21 pm on Monday October 24, 2016:
    The building will brings new retail, people and life to the heart of Adams Morgan. High density housing belongs on this site, and the first floor retail will help connect, physically and emotionally, the businesses on Columbia with those on 18th. The SunTrust Plaza acted like a dead zone. It did nothing for this neighborhood.

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