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.
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:
- 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)
- 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,
- 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,
- 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,
- 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.