Notes From Our Public Meeting – and What Comes Next
Last Thursday neighbors from around Wallach, 14 and 13, T and U crammed into our home to hear about the proposed development at 14th and Wallach from those who know it best – the developer & architect.
David Franco from Level2 Development and Eric Colbert with the eponymous Eric Colbert & Associates came by early and were generous with their time that evening – especially knowing that they might face a skeptical crowd. We didn’t disappoint.
Even before turning to the design itself, Colbert got it rolling immediately by noting that this project had undergone more revisions than any other he could recall – a point he and Franco returned to several times. That may be, and it’s clearly tried the patience of the principals who no doubt want to move forward as quickly as possible. All the more reason why community input would have been so valuable at the beginning, rather than the end when everyone starts getting frazzled.
The as-yet unnamed building – we’ll just call it WallachZilla for now – will be tall: 73′ for the main building, with the rooftop patio going to 83′ – 90′ if you count the machinery needed for a handicap-friendly lift. It will also be large - filling the same footprint as the bunker that’s there now housing a Post Office, carpet store and one of the few remaining Yum’s in DC. The building proposes to be around 85% studio rentals, averaging a cramped 400 or so square feet – leaving several neighbors wondering why the equivalent of a dorm building is so needed for that spot and our neighborhood.
The concerns roughly broke into two themes; the first being the aesthetic quality of the proposal itself. Franco (mostly) and Colbert (somewhat more quietly) repeatedly emphasized the details – the mix of brick and metal, the long top line of windows creating a “sheet of glass”, the (undeniably small) set-backs on Wallach, the “warehouse-style” look of windows evoking 14th Street’s history as a auto dealership magnet. Critics noted the general blandness of the look, with very little (if anything) distinguishing it from a hundred other boring buildings sprouting around town. “I can drive around and point out - there’s a Colbert building, there’s a Colbert building,” noted one attendee to the architect himself – who curiously made only small efforts to defend the design. “We can at least be proud that our block will boast one of the world’s finest examples of the Late Ballston School of architecture. Outside of Ballston,” noted another neighbor. Frankly, it’s a fair hit, and listening closely to Franco and Colbert that night, one senses they would agree it’s not far from the mark.
The other and much larger theme was impact of the building – how it will hulk over the entire block, casting neighbors into constant shadow; how traffic whizzing down Wallach will increase and street parking (which is to say what barely exists now) will evaporate; how residents on T and Wallach who share the same alley will face exponentially more trouble negotiating in and out of their off-street parking spots, and how what is in the developer’s own terms “a building for interns” is being air-dropped into a neighborhood that’s now more Sesame Street than Soho.
“Had shadow studies been done?” Mmm, nope. (loud blinking.) “How many guest parking space will you have?” Uh, two. (sound of plates hitting floor.) “What’s going to keep residents, friends and visitors from jamming Wallach and the alley to get to parking?” Well, nothing really. (uncomfortable silence as everyone waits for everyone else to respond.)
While Franco and Colbert were polite throughout, they grew notably shorter and more evasive with their answers, perhaps out of irritation with the continued questioning. Attendees were reminded that the proposal already received unanimous ANC support (more on that later) and a preliminary OK from the Historic Preservation Board – which is to say, it would be nice if we would just be quiet and support WallachZilla, but it’s by no means necessary.
But that’s really not true. In fact, this week, on June 30, the HPB will hold an open meeting at 1pm at 441 4th Street NW, room 220 South, and board members appear open to hearing and airing some of these concerns. While Level2 might be hoping for a slam-dunk, given the at-times lenient attitude from the HPB to new development near Metro lines, it is no longer guaranteed.