Something Old, Something New

JBG’s Plan Leaves Residents Blue

After three teases before the U Street Neighborhood Association, a group at Busboys and Poets and the ANC earlier this Spring, JBG has officially begun its public charm offensive for the proposed nine-story apartment development they want to built at the corner of 13th and U Street. Mark June 14th, 2012, as the official start of the sprint JBG will rush through to either, depending on your view, “gather meaningful community input” or “punch its cards” on their march toward demolition and victory.

Hotel? Apartments? DC or Dallas? What does this building say to U?

Now, of course there have been and continue to be dozens of little side meetings here and there. I know only some of our neighbors, but everyone I run into is asking questions. “Did you hear about the meeting between so-and-so and JBG?” “How much did they tell you they’d pay for the PUD?” “They say the submitted documents on the structure, but I can’t find them.” “Gladys Kravitz says she heard that JBG is already calling for a vote of approval on their design, who OK’d that?”  It’s not too far off to say that many concerned neighbors are skittering hither and yon, trying to keep up with the byzantine tangle of DC development laws built so that only a development lawyer could keep up with them.  But hey, what’s a little disenfranchisement between friends?

Thursday’s meeting was hosted by the Saloon and its long-time owner, Kamal Jahanbein; “Kami” to many of his customers. When it comes to community involvement and smart planning, Kami’s at the head of the list. Because he bought his establishment, it’s just what he wants it to be without rapacious landlords pushing him around (or out.) And his commitment to good local governance – and generous philanthropic works around the globe – are as obvious as the hundreds of donor names painted on his walls. When Kami talks, neighbors listen close.

Thus it was a bit surprising that Kami waded into the JBG 13th Street development discussion not in his usual fair arbiter role, but as a concerned neighbor. Jahanbein’s business would no doubt stand to gain from hundreds of new thirsty residents, but even he expressed some concern about the building’s need, design, and motives of the developers. And he was not alone.

JBG’s Brook Katzen did his best to sell the building’s design as fitting with the overall architectural language and design of U Street, but his best was, once more, not good enough. At least, not to judge by the number of questions and doubts raised during this presentation. In sum, critics say:

  1. The building’s height (nine stories) is far out of line with anything on the corners (SE corner 4 stories, NE corner 3 stories, NW corner of Ellington 4 stories before step-up)
  2. The poor massing and sheer verticals of the building, rising to its complete height with no set backs or cut-ins, creates a looming hulk,
  3. Possible concerns about the water table on the site mean that JBG doesn’t want to dig down to complete the full compliment of parking city regulations require,
  4. There are few, if any, architectural details that integrate the structure into the historic rhythms of the neighborhood – it might as well be plopped in Loudon County somehwere,
  5. Although this may be discounted by some, a growing number of residents of the Ellington are coming to realize their panoramic views of DC are about to be blocked.

There were other concerns as well – along with one (count ’em, one!) voice of support for the building on Thursday. Clearly if it were put up to a vote now, it would have as hard a time as the last go-around (Revisionism alert: while JBG likes to say they pulled out of that earlier hotel for financial reasons after the community had voted to support it, that’s misleading at best. Community groups one after the other voted the proposal down, or just sent it back to the drawing boards.)

All that said, there’s one even larger question hanging over this compressed debate – why this building? Several years ago starchitect David Schwarz and JBG higher-ups told everyone who would listen that 13th & U needed one thing, and one thing only: a hotel. A world-class hotel, in fact. Young and hip and trendy; a place that all of U Street’s visitors would want to stay at, a place that captured the heart and passion of the neighborhood. Condos wouldn’t work, they said, nor would an office…AND it would have to be much taller than anything else nearby, just to get the economics to work.

Now, after getting their hand slapped, they insist that it’s apartments that the corner wants! Apartments and nothing more! And definitely no offices. It’s a curious argument, given that the entire area still doesn’t have a hotel of any size (most neighbors always liked the idea of a hotel, just not one that was 10 stories tall) and limited office space, but will soon have a glut of apartments. “Louis at 14th“? “Level2” at Wallach? JBG’s own “District Condos”? Has anyone counted the number of sky-cranes up and down 14th Street, from Florida down to R? Is their argument really that the one thing the neighborhood most needs is more apartments? Because if it is, that’s a losing one on its face.

There are more meetings, and more votes, which we’ll list here once we confirm the dates. The Shaw-Dupont Neighborhood Association is also sponsoring a P.U.D. workshop in the coming weeks with the guy said to know just about everything from everything about how they work, and what they’ll mean for residents.

It’s going to be a very fast ride along a very bumpy road; JBG has made clear its intentions to move this as fast as possible, and not get ensnared in the community opposition it encountered a few years back. That’s their right. It’s also the neighborhood’s right to slow it down as much as possible, until everyone has the chance to make an informed decision.

PostScript: Part of making an informed decision is having the proposal to examine. JBG insisted Thursday night that its building proposal and details could be found at its website. We’re still looking.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Something Old, Something New

  1. 10 year U Street area resident

    Apartments, really?? You would think builders would recognize overbuilding. A hotel would be fine. But this project really needs to get going. What a waste of that corner to have a crappy Rite Aid, pizza hut, nail salon and just one story.

  2. TJLinBallston

    U Street deserves its share of the commercial building boom that the DC region, on the whole, still enjoys. Some like Modern, or post-Moderne, or Retro or NeoClassic or neo-Deco (like the JBG plan) but U Street is due its slice of the pie. Cities rise with a huge mixture of architectural styles and forms. Sometimes matchy-matchy is the worst thing you can do! It’s easy to be cautious — harder to be bold.

    • Doug

      TJ, You’re spot on that it’s hard to be bold. There was a great building proposed for 14th Street that got turned down because it was “too bold”, or so they said. What this neighborhood deserves is something fresh, dramatic, something that captures the energy and history of the hood. I would hop on that in a second, and I think most neighbors would, too. That they aren’t suggests more about the proposal than the neighborhood.

  3. Dan

    Yeah, high density apartments next to a metro stop on one of the most vibrant commercial corridors in the city — WHAT IS JBG THINKING??

    • Craig

      No one is arguing against high density, Dan. You’re wide of the mark if you think that’s the issue. And why don’t you use a real email address?
      We like to think of this enterprise as a community forum. All opinions are welcome, and you can publicly identify yourself however you choose. But responses from fake and phony email addresses will be regarded as just that.
      Have an opinion? Stand up and own it.

  4. Pat

    Craig, it’s hardly a surprise that the turnout at Saloon was almost entirely opposed to the proposed building. You seem to be confusing the loudest views in the neighborhood with the majority view. They are rarely the same thing. Same goes with your SDCA, by the way.

  5. Logan Res

    Parking requirements have been reduced because many commercial buildings have come to realize they have far too many spaces that remain unleased as most new residents to the DC core neighborhoods are moving here to escape the car and its expenses. Underground parking also adds a lot of expense to the project which is passed on directly to the prospective buyer or renter. A rental building that includes parking with its leases will result in many renters sub-renting our their space if they don’t plan to use it which means many more cars driving to the neighborhood to use their parking and then metro from that point to downtown. Not a good thing to advocate for excessive parking requirements on the part of the developers.

  6. Doug, Craig: The project website is http://www.13thandu.com. It’s been up for several weeks, and has all of the presentations provided to the community posted. It also has the HPRB application. We’ve announced this website at our last few community meetings – please tell your neighbors/friends. Thanks,
    James Nozar
    JBG

  7. Brook Katzen

    The proposal can be found on the project website: http://www.13thandu.com.

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