Hitting The Heights

Architecture, Community and Balance

A few months back, when JBG first presented its new plan for an apartment building development at 13th and U Streets NW, architect David Schwarz was asked how his building would reflect the historic neighborhood it might be joining. “I don’t have an answer for you right now,” he replied. It was an honest reply.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Schwarz answered that question.

In a presentation that mixed PowerPoint, classroom and community, Mr. Schwarz offered an impressive proposal about his design for the as yet un-named building that he promises will lift up, but not dominate, the U Street community. It was a small gathering; JBG offered those most intimately affected by the building, as in those on Wallach Place, a chance to see  the most specific details yet offered about the development. It was well illustrated, crafted, and much needed.

Given the haze that has largely surrounded this re-do proposal, this was a welcome opportunity, and one that both Schwarz and the neighbors seized…though to be frank, Schwarz and his crew (including his son) and the JBGers in attendance almost outnumbered those living on Wallach. (What, exactly, that reflects is a still unanswered question, though many will likely offer opinion.)

Schwarz is a name in architectural circles, and his buildings – like Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Hall  – generate interest, but not always for the desired reasons. Critics aside, it’s safely said his buildings are often as large as his personality. “I either wanted to be a successful architect or a bartender in the Caribbean. Nothing in between,” he famously told the Washington Business Journal. Like we said: personality.

In just over 15 minutes, Schwarz laid out a meticulous diagnosis of the U Street neighborhood’s architectural faces and antecedents. From muttoning and ribboning to window “punching” placement and a host of other terms I will no doubt get wrong, Schwarz offered up a professor’s tour of U Street as it is in brick and mortar, and an architect’s dreams of how it will be, still in pencil and pastel.

There’s no doubting that everyone gathered in our small living room was impressed. “I’ve really learned some things,” was how one resident summed it up. And while his site still lists the development as a hotel, attendees saw some new things – design elements across the 1/2 block structure that clearly were not throw-aways (unlike the now underway “WallachZilla“.) Perhaps having learned a lesson or three from their previous smack-downs, we can honestly say that Schwarz has designed a building that is steps ahead of the proposals that preceded it, and offers serious thoughts about what U Street was, is, and aspires to be.

That said, there was one significant area of rupture between artist and audience: namely, the building’s height. “Honestly, it should be at least a story taller than it is,” offered Schwarz when questioned about its out-of-rights eight stories, plus roof attics and whatnots. “It’s a handsome design, but couldn’t it be just as handsome at six floors?” asked yours truly. No, he candidly replied.

If architecture is our most public, and long-lasting, discourse about who we as a people are, then quizzing a designer who has laid down the law at eight floors about a building’s height can feel like Salieri snipping measures from a Mozart symphony.

But no. Precisely because it is so public, a community’s architecture is not the province of the singular artist, but rather the shared neighborhood where it resides. And this is where an artist’s vision, and a neighborhood’s concerns, abut economist’s bottom lines.

“Eight floors is pretty much the limit,” acknowledged Jim Nozar, one of three JBG representatives at the meeting, along with Brook Katzen and – I am very sorry to say – another representative who’s name escapes me. Like Schwarz,  the JBG reps were personable but focused. Like Schwarz, they appeared to have an affection, if not always a commitment, for the neighborhood. Like Schwarz, they are engaging and professional.

But at least as much like Schwarz – or perhaps more so, as the ultimate check signers – the JBG representatives were unyielding: the building must be eight floors or more. Any less, and – in their words – it simply wouldn’t be worth the effort.

The meeting broke up after some two hours of discussion, debate and concerns about the PUD process, the openness of community input, and the ultimate project dimensions. Many questions, most of them not new, remained unanswered.

But at least we now have the line drawn. JBG says they must have eight stories, plus the add-ons on top.

And say this: David Schwarz kept his word. He said he would explain how he believes his building – one which he promises he will live in – will be a new treasure of U Street, and he fully explained his view. The JBG representatives also gave a frank bottom line: eight floors, no step-downs, non-negotiable.

That’s their view. What the neighborhood wants – and deserves – is the next question demanding an answer.

UPDATE: Monday the ANC 1B Design subcommittee met in an previously announced, yet detail-free, session. (Meaning: no location, no time and no agenda public provided save for private distribution channels, but we’ll get to that later.) Despite much – meaning majority – opposition expressed in the meeting, the sub-committee voted 3-1 to approve the design. WITH acknowledgment of the community opposition.

The way the ANC “works” – much like the City Council “works” – it’s enough to make one wonder about the entire ANC process: the rules, the oversights, and what “public trust” means.

But you’ll be reading much more about that soon enough. And not just here.

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