Tag Archives: JBG

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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Of Cabanas, Condos and Coppis

The Entire U Street Area Dances with JBG

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

It was a full room on a full moon that greeted members of the U Street Neighborhood Associaition this week. Perhaps because of the brief candidate speeches of those seeking to replace Mr. Orange (or in his case preserve it, ending awkwardly by repeated “I am not a crook” when the bell rung and he was out of time. Foreshadowing, that?) Or perhaps because of someone else in the room; namely the company that ate our neighborhood, JBG.

The meeting chairs worked to keep things brief, but meetings like this always feel like squeezing 7 pounds of sausage into a 4 pound casing. This time, to their credit, there actually was a tremendous amount before the USNA, so thanks guys!

Candidate’s stump and pumps finished, and one disturbing crime report later – summary: larcenies and robberies are rising, duh,  – we turned to Sheryl Walter, who heads Historic Preservation and Development, who in turn handed the spotlight to Bryan Moll and Jim Nozar of JBG.

Louis' roofdeck, complete with cabanas and fire-pits.

Nice for some, but not for you

A few minutes of fumbling with the right graph and the framed drawing and the sketches on boards, and it was time to present “Louis!” Or  “Loo-ee” to his friends, apparently. Louis is, if you haven’t heard, the 268-unit apartment building running nearly hundreds of feet along 14, and turning the corner at U before running hundreds more down 14th. “It’s a mixed use  building,” repeated manager Bryan Moll, “with 40% 1 bedrooms or greater.” Which still leaves 60% studios and efficiencies. And NOT in the price path most could afford, as the questioners learned.

Teases were rolled out. “Here is where we hope to have a produce store, which we are not able to *CoughtraderjoesCough* put out there, and elsewhere we hope for dry goods.” Said Moll: “We going up to Brooklyn right now to see some exciting new opportunities!”  Thank God they’re not going to Ballston.

Nozard picked it up from here with another framed gauzy portrait of the Louis’ roof: “We’re really excited about this! In fact I wanted to live in this building!” he said, even though 5 minutes earlier he said he lived nearby and was committed to his house. Anyway: “There’s going to be a roof top pool – a plunge pool – a club room, tvs and bars. We’ll have cabanas and grilling stations and firepits, and in the summer a huge screen on which we’ll show movies in the night. It’s totally the placed you’ll want to hang out!”

Too bad nobody but the building’s residents will ever do so, although the rest of us are likely to hear.

Concerning, “fortunately or unfortunately,” as Moll says it, the McDonalds, it isn’t likely to move. However the other treasures of U – Rice Noodles, Coppis, Stem and Utopia and the Deli? Well, while Moll and Nozard suggested vague ” negotiations are continuing”, the plan would call for the shut down of all those establishments (plus the deli) for major construction work for at least a year.

Negotiations? Didn’t seem to ring a bell with the owner of one of those restaurants; one of the first in the area when U Street was largely drugs, prostitutes and crime.  We promised not to use his name, but will check in soon with him. We hope he and his colleagues have a clearer idea of JBG’s proposal soon. His take: ‘nobody’s talked to me about anything.’  That’s not good.

Moll and Nozard detail an old drawing

And soon is a relative term. Moll and Nozard were clear: they expect the site to be cleaned by April, with the first crane up in June – a crane that will sweep in its arc well over East 14 and Wallach. Lease-holders were less clear.

Apart from “Louie’s” friendly name and the two smiley JBG reps, lots of people had deep worries about ‘Louis’; traffic problems, construction pats, partking variences, what potential owners had or hadn’t been told about moving into a rapidly noisy and crowded area. In short: developers saying one thing at the start, and something else once they’re underway.

Then came questioning about the JBG development a couple doors down, at 14 and S. (Look for the skycrane – it soon won’t be lonely.) Originally sold as condos, JBG now tells us that “the economics have changed” and that they would now be – just like almost every other new unit in this tiny region – rental. The crowd as not pleased. What else might change, JBG?

Tick tick tick, time was running out at the meeting, and with the most controversial proposal at the end. That’s the sort of thing 1st term Senators play. Brief address on Florida and 8th and the Atlantic Plumbing complex (they own a great deal of the land there but aren’t planning at this point anything mammoth or monumental.)

“We’re aware of releasing too many units on the market at the same time,” said Nozar. Which gives one pause: units at Louis, units at 14& S, units at a large development at Floriday & 8th, units at the sweeping “Atlantic Plumbing” area, units at the 14th and R Central Mission rehab (a Colbert Project), units at the proposed Colbert “WallachZilla” at 14th and Wallach place. Are we missing anyplace?

Anyone care to tally up all those units? And do we really expect a non-disruptive rollout?

Oh, and then there’s this other thing. “We said when the time was right we wanted to return to this idea of a development (an Ian Schrager-like all glitz and no room) hotel at 13 and U,” said Nozar, showing a pastel drawing of a 120 foot monstrosity. It if looked familiar, it’s because it was.

“You’ve said you’re going to seriously modify the proposal, but what you’re presenting is the old drawing that was roundly rejected. Why are you showing us this?” I asked.

Fumferfumfer “We’ve definitely heard the community and we’re working on modifications.”

‘Like what?” someone hollered. “Is it still going to be 120 feet?” said another. “Well fumferfumfer we’re just not there yet, but we do hear you.” “How about the parking variance?”  How about the complete lack of infra-structure support?” “Yes, yes, we’ve heard you and will do our best.”

“When?” I asked. Sheryl spoke up: “JBG has promised a special session for this project once they have something to present.”

“Isn’t that gonna be too late?” said someone.

*Ding* Time was done.

Except, time isn’t done. We’re curious to hear much, much more of these many developments. And thoughts about all all this is changing the very nature of this community.

The meeting chair regained order. “OK,OK, let’s wrap up and move on.”

Don’t get me wrong. Jim Nozar looks you square in the face and seems to answer honestly. Bryan Moll is very good at standing and lending an aura of handsome inevitability.

But this is not how decisions get made IF a community is involved.


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