Last Thursday saw nearly a dozen Wallach Place neighbors (and one from as far away as V Street), gather at the DC Historic Preservation Review Board monthly meeting. On the afternoon docket was discussion and a vote on the Level 2/Eric Colbert 1905-1917 14th Street project, a 7+ story, 160 unit apartment building that’s proposed for the corner of 14th and Wallach.
Despite the design team’s statements that they ran all the official notification and process traps, the first we’d heard of the project was in a May 16 City Paper story.
Needless to say many were caught off guard, but a sizable group of residents from the surrounding area scrambled to get up to speed on it following a presentation the design team made at the June 1 USNA meeting.
Team Wallach has been through this fire drill once before with JBG’s proposed 10 story, 250 room ’boutique hotel’ around the corner at 13th and U – a different development, yet the same concerns: massing, scale, height, parking, traffic, trash and process. Hardly NIMBYs, the residents welcome development on both sites – meaningful projects that would rid the immediate neighborhood of two eyesore, non-contributing bunkers. Adding to our interest is the fact that two award-winning architects have signed onto the projects.
Like we did with JBG and architect David Schwarz, we invited Level 2’s David Franco and Colbert to a block meeting to share our concerns and hopes. It was a cordial meeting; Franco and Colbert were both generous with their time and receptive to our thoughts. Then it was up to HPRB to weigh in. Weigh in they did.
Six of the eight Board members attended the meeting to see and hear Mr. Colbert’s presentation. After he was done, 10 Wallach Place residents with anywhere from 10-50 years of hard time on the block addressed the Board with shared concerns. Unaccustomed as we are to acting en masse during an official preceding, our points of contention dovetailed almost identically with the Board’s. Franco and Colbert were stiff-armed on the proposed plan. The Board was uniformly critical of the project as it now stands. Whereas the neighbors’ comments focussed mostly the building’s physical characteristics and not aesthetics, Board members were wholly unimpressed with Mr. Colbert’s design:
Elinor Bacon (herself a resident of a Colbert residential building on 14th Street), wanted the ANC to take another look at the project and suggested, “it goes back for a full discussion.” She was curious about the height of other 14th street residential buildings and had a concern that the Level 2 project was, “a huge jump up.” Bacon called Colbert, “the architecture God of 14th Street… (but the building) doesn’t have that Eric Colbert Magic…” She suggested he look at the project anew and to come back his “particular magic for the street.”
Joseph Taylor, AIA, said the project is “a long way from being done… too much height (on Wallach)… some restudy is required for compatibility.” Taylor had concerns about the project’s windows [Ed. note: What we have here is a failure to fenestrate]. He said the building would look more at home on K Street than 14th.
Maria Casarella, AIA , had basic design issues with the plan and suggested the building have more uniformity with the other 14th street storefronts. “The height has to be studied in a more sensitive way…. (It has a) commercial appearance… looks more K Street than 14th… reconsider the height and scale more carefully. In concept, I’m on the fence about approval for it.”
Tersh Boasberg, asked for an audit on the buildings on 14th between P and W Streets, with data on heights and turning corners, “especially onto smaller streets. He said, “The front as it presents itself is boxy and very ordinary… This one is a failure of imagination… The set backs are not sufficient and look pasted on… I have a lot of problems with the 6th and 7th floors… I would not vote to approve it as is.”
Chris Landis, AIA, was brief in his remarks telling Franco and Colbert to, “Reset and come back…” Landis said that not everyone was going to be “totally happy,” telling the Wallach residents that what ultimately goes up, “won’t be a 3 story building.” [Disclosure: Chris Landis and his brother Ethan's firm renovated our townhouse in 2001].
Catherine Buell, shared concerns with her colleagues and wanted to see the Wallach Place elevation clipped and something “more creative.” She admitted Colbert has a “tough job (ahead with) design problems.” Buell motioned to recommend against approval in concept (Boasberg seconded). The motion carried unanimously on a voice vote. She asked the design team to bring in examples of other buildings in the area, restudy the 6th and 7th floors, the Wallach Place elevation and setbacks.
The beautiful building on that site was razed in 1970 and the riot-proof pillbox that took its placein 1988 can’t go away soon enough. We’re willing to help with demo. Gladly.
There’s new optimism that the site will showcase a much improved building than what was first proposed. Maybe NIMBY now stands for ‘Nicer In My Back Yard.’