HPRB Staff Wants SB-Urban to Go Back to the Drawing Board on Blagden Alley Plan

by Lark Turner

HPRB Staff Wants SB-Urban to Go Back to the Drawing Board on Blagden Alley Plan: Figure 1
Rendering of proposed Blagden Alley development.

An SB-Urban plan to build 125 small units on Blagden Alley hit a snag this week when a staff report from the Historic Preservation Review Board recommended against allowing the project to go forward as planned.

The staff report, which represents a recommendation to the larger board, objected to a design for a pedestrian walkway connecting two buildings in the development, as well as other design issues. The setback was first reported by District Source.

SB-Urban, which is working with architect Hickok Cole on the project, is planning to turn a portion of the alley into two separate buildings housing 125 units. The buildings, sitting mostly along the alley with facades on 9th and M Streets NW (map), would be connected by a glass-enclosed, industrial-style pedestrian walkway above the alley. The units would be small, even micro at about 400 square feet, and come fully furnished. SB-Urban has even considered providing breakfast as an amenity to its likely-millennial tenants.

HPRB Staff Wants SB-Urban to Go Back to the Drawing Board on Blagden Alley Plan: Figure 2

For all that — and despite a total lack of parking on the project — ANC 2F has largely supported the plan. But the commission has expressed concerns in the past over the project’s facade on 9th Street. The ANC has said that facade should fit in better with the character of 9th Street, and excluded the design of that facade from its otherwise-enthusiastic support of the project.

But the HPRB staff report focused more on the project’s fit with the historical character of the alley. It calls the industrial-style walkway “the most prominent feature of the concept,” and says the walkway as a feature is the “most difficult to reconcile with the character of the historic district,” where there’s not much precedent for such a walkway.

HPRB Staff Wants SB-Urban to Go Back to the Drawing Board on Blagden Alley Plan: Figure 3

HPRB also objected to SB-Urban’s plans to widen the alley and create a public gathering space for its residents on the alley — a key component of micro-unit design. (The idea is that with smaller units, developers should provide large public spaces for residents to hang out.)

“Blagden Alley became one of the most populated alleys in Washington because of its ample alleyways,” the report reads. “They were wide enough to provide access, light and air, but not so ample that they invited main stream development. The alley dimensions made living and working in them possible, but they were not public gathering places, which is the effect of a creating a piazza like space between the two buildings. The dimension of the alley is critical to the integrity of the historic district.”

The over-connection between the two buildings ultimately dominates the space, the HPRB staff report concludes, and just doesn’t fit with the historic nature of the alley. But the rest of the buildings’ design generally works. The report concluded by recommending SB-Urban return “after further development” of the plan. SB-Urban is scheduled to go before the full board for a decision on July 31.

See other articles related to: hprb, historic preservation review board, blagden alley

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/hprb_staff_want_sb-urban_to_go_back_to_the_drawing_board_on_blagden_alley_p/8768


  1. Lisa said at 2:52 am on Wednesday July 23, 2014:
    Thank you from the depth of my heart HPRB. The BANCA and ANC 2F should be ashamed of themselves for approving it. But maybe they're too busy nit-picking The American and The Colonel and this went right over their heads, so to speak.
  1. Nathaniel Martin said at 7:06 am on Thursday July 24, 2014:
    So the HPRB objects to the coolest part of the project. No surprise there, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing. . .
  1. Andrea Rosen said at 4:08 pm on Wednesday August 6, 2014:
    I am surprised to see the HPRB do the right thing, given their conduct regarding McMillan Park. It's almost comical (in a tragi-comedic sense) how the analyst's report angsts over the distinction between industrial buildings and one-person industrial shops in determining that an overhead walkway pertains to the former but not to the latter, and thus must be rejected--while somehow the analysts who repeatedly reviewed a City Beautiful-era 25-acre greensward on the National Register of Historic Places and the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites found VMP's suburban office park effacement of McMillan Park and its underground vaults consistent with the historic nature of the site. But I digress. Kudos to the author of the Blagden Alley recommendations for the observation that widening of the alley into a piazza effaces the alley-ness and sense of place. I walk that alley almost weekly to have coffee at La Colombe, and I visit Seasonal Pantry (on Ninth Street between M and N) for provisions and I concur with this evaluation. However, I wonder why the preservationist is okay with a 9th Street facade that is so inconsistent with the buildings on the avenue. The proposed micro-apartment building design brings the workplace architecture that was originally restricted to the alleys to the avenue where--as the surviving buildings show--the residences aspired to 19th century grandeur. This inconsistency was rightly emphasized by the ANC, and the renderings make it painfully obvious.

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