Tag Archives: 13th&U

We Support…Maybe?

The ANC Weighs In With Mixed Results

The ANC 2B met Thursday evening at the Reeves Center with a mixed audience turnout, but resulting in a surprise vote.

On the agenda was support for both the JBG proposal, as it exists, for the U/13th Street 86 foot apartment project, and the PUD put forward to avoid the snarls of public review. The turnout was mixed, as usual, but not when it came to JBG’s plan. Not a single member of the public spoke in support of the project.

Despite one out-going commissioner’s belittling of those who turned out, every member of the community that spoke registered opposition to the project. This Commissioner  likes to say things like “despite your giggling…” or “other than the six people in the back…” in hopes of sidelining opponents to the proposal as it exists. For the record, I object to any public official belittling their constituents. It is offensive.

Yet every time any public meeting has been held, as several community members pointed out, far and away the majority of voices have spoke out against the proposal, as it exists. In short: too tall, bad massing, poor meeting of the street, and no parking.

Which, as I pointed out in my letter to Chair Myla Moss, does not mean opposition to the proposal as a whole. Without quoting at length from my public letter to her (ask her for it, it’s public record,) I and many of my neighbors “find much to like in the JBG proposal.” Yeah, you read that right.

That, however, does not mean the proposal as it stands is ready for prime time. As I also said to Chair Moss: “Taking a month or two to address community concerns will make for a better building, and a better neighborhood.”  Oh, that was regarding the L2 project, which everyone agreed upon, following adequate public input. But also this project, which suddenly every one seems to have to approve yesterday.

While some will report Thursday’s vote as the ANC’s support for the project, it was explicitly – with the aid of Commissioner Zwerdling – contingent upon explict approval from DDOT that all residents of the apartment building – now and forever – would not be able to apply for on-street parking. This, following from precedent at the L2 development, and their garnering approval from the ANC.

And even at that, the vote ended up being 5 for, 3 against and 1 abstention. Not in any way a full throated approval for 13/U. In fact, that very vote should signal to all concerned the continuing concerns about the proposal. As long as you assume that’s not just coming from six cranks in the back of the room.

The proposal now goes to Zoning, and HPRB. Suddenly, 13th and U is looking a little shaky.

PostScript: Oh, one of the JBG representatives mentioned four times, “this isn’t a threat, but…” As in, if you don’t give us everything we want, well…we’re not threatening anything, but…

To which I say: if you have to say repeatedly something isn’t a threat, it is.



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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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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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The Song Remains The Same

JBG Unveils Its Latest Switch-up For 13 & U

It must have been a very busy month for JBG. Consider that just four weeks ago, Jim Nozar and Bryan Moll were standing before the U Street Neighborhood Association (a packed meeting at that) discussing plans for the hotel they wanted to build at 13 and U. Oh yes, hotel. Nozar was quite affirmative about that.

Renderings of JBG's proposed apartment building at 13 and U

Just what exactly happened over at HQ these last few weeks we can’t say. We can officially say now that, following Tuesday evening’s presentation by JBG of their plans to the community, the hotel is most assuredly off. And without saying it exactly, Nozar and architect David Schwarz seemed pretty certain who to blame.

“We’ve heard a lot from the community about the massing, the increased density, other concerns,” Schwarz told a packed community meeting Tuesday night, going on to specifically single out “residents of Wallach” several times for uncertain sins. Hmm. Basically, he says, the lot’s too narrow for an office building, the meanies in the community wouldn’t let them build 100 feet, they’re “stuck with” Rite Aid as a retailer on the corner, they can’t make the economics work, so boo-hoo, it has to be apartments.

Not affordable apartments, mind those who want to see real affordability. “High-end, class-A tenants,” said Nozar, noting that of 135 planned units there would be no efficiencies, just one and two bedroom units.

Here are the details, such as they are:

  • Building height 90′, with an additional 18’6″ on top for the penthouse (by code they can legally build to 65 feet without a variance.)
  • 72 parking units, including spaces reserved for retailers
  • 10’3″ alley off 13th, where all traffic with flow in and out.
  • Space for just three tenants (other than the much-derided Rite Aid), and not much space at that, perhaps a total of 15,000 sf, with the drugstore accounting for half of that.
  • Oh and brick color? “We haven’t decided that yet,” said.  “We’ll show you some samples later.”

JBG’s spin to the contrary, the new proposed building is nearly identical to the old proposed building, which isn’t all that surprising given the remarkably quick turnaround from must-have hotel to much-needed apartment building. In fact spin was surprisingly in evidence Tuesday night, with Schwarz asserting boldly: “It wasn’t the architecture that people didn’t like before, it was the massing and density.”

Look familiar? JBG model of 13th & U development

Perhaps everyone should be reminded of the actual debate several years back. Yes, massing and density were among the concerns; but so, too, was the building’s exterior, with the ANC and other boards specifically pointing out its lack of harmony with the street.

Asked Tuesday night to detail how, exactly, his new design is reflective specifically of the 13th and U neighborhood, Schwartz said simply “I’m not prepared to do that tonight.” Yipes.

JBG sees 13th and U as a “global neighborhood,” and they say they want to improve it, “…make it like Bleeker Street in New York.” First, DC isn’t Manhattan and shouldn’t pretend to be; rather it should be its own city with its own character. But more importantly, as one resident and former New Yorker pointed out, what makes Manhattan so interesting is the mixed presence of office and entertainment, ensuring 24-hour traffic. Bluntly put: we are completely unconvinced an architect as skilled as Mr. Schwarz would be unable to come up with an innovative office design that could attract an exciting business or three to the ‘hood.

There were a few supportive voices that spoke at the meeting – noting the design would remove all the Rite Aid trucks from loading/unloading on 13, and JBG’s community support of local education and other civic initiatives. That is good stuff…but also, as another voice noted, most likely part of JBG’s corporate plan. It would appear that JBG’s effort to court “influential opinion makers” in the neighborhood to sway the discussion (as several people reported to us) have not been all that successful.

In short it seems that JBG bought a lucrative property when real estate and times were riding high, and with the market crash ended up with something of a problem on its hands. It seems their solution is to just build yet another apartment building and be done with it. Seriously: can anyone find any difference between the new proposal and the former hotel proposal?

Judging at least from those who spoke Tuesday night, it doesn’t seem the community is loving that plan. “I’m just disappointed with what I’ll call a lack of bravery,” said one.

JBG will present its new plan before the ANC next Monday night. Next stop: PUD before the Zoning Commission.


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