Tag Archives: WallachZilla

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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Level 2: Take 2

New and Improved

The principals behind the proposed project at 1905-1917 14th Street returned to meet with the Wallach Place neighbors last week. In front of a group of about a dozen neighbors, David Franco and John Kardon of Level 2, along with their architect Eric Colbert, brought the next iteration of plans for their building.

Level 2's first iteration

As Franco described the process, the latest set was revised a number of times from their first presentation, Franco saying it’s “an evolutionary process,” and these would be the set of plans they go back to the USNA, ANC and HPRB with, but the end design could also reflect additional tweaks.

Level 2, Take 2

Franco told the crowd that they “went back to the drawing board to incorporate comments (from the Wallach residents and HPRB, and)… more sensitive to massing and setbacks.”  Franco said they looked forward to continue working with the various stakeholders. Key changes include:

  • A four-story setback on the Wallach Place (North) elevation
  • A 4th floor cornice to establish a historic reference
  • A strong cornice line at the 6th floor
  • Entrance was moved which shifted the massing towards the south
  • Glazing patterns broken down into smaller elements

While the footprint and overall height remain the same, interior square footage was sacrificed to accommodate the changes. Franco now expect there will be a total of 144 units, down from 154, and nearly 4,000 sf less.

Franco said that both a traffic and shadow study could be conducted.  Wallah residents, mostly from the south side, were skeptical of the clearances the alley could allow for the anticipated 30 foot moving trucks. Those are some rather steep angles back there nd not a lot of space to swing even a medium-sized rig.

The consensus of the Wallach neighbors was that this set of plans was a marked improvement over the first set. All are thankful of the time and effort Franco, Kardon and Colbert gave to the block’s residents.

The complete set of renderings is here:

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The Colbert Report

Notes From Our Public Meeting – and What Comes Next

Last Thursday neighbors from around Wallach, 14 and 13, T and U crammed into our home to hear about the proposed development at 14th and Wallach from those who know it best – the developer & architect.

David Franco from Level2 Development and Eric Colbert with the eponymous Eric Colbert & Associates came by early and were generous with their time that evening – especially knowing that they might face a skeptical crowd.  We didn’t disappoint.

Even before turning to the design itself, Colbert got it rolling immediately by noting that this project had undergone more revisions than any other he could recall – a point he and Franco returned to several times. That may be, and it’s clearly tried the patience of the principals who no doubt want to move forward as quickly as possible.  All the more reason why community input would have been so valuable at the beginning, rather than the end when everyone starts getting frazzled.

The as-yet unnamed building – we’ll just call it WallachZilla for now – will be tall: 73′ for the main building, with the rooftop patio going to 83′ – 90′ if you count the machinery needed for a handicap-friendly lift.  It will also be large –  filling the same footprint as the bunker that’s there now housing a Post Office, carpet store and one of the few remaining Yum’s in DC.  The building proposes to be around 85% studio rentals, averaging a cramped 400 or so square feet – leaving several neighbors wondering why the equivalent of a dorm building is so needed for that spot and our neighborhood.

The concerns roughly broke into two themes; the first being the aesthetic quality of the proposal itself.  Franco (mostly) and Colbert (somewhat more quietly) repeatedly emphasized the details – the mix of brick and metal, the long top line of windows creating a “sheet of glass”, the (undeniably small) set-backs on Wallach, the “warehouse-style” look of  windows evoking 14th Street’s history as a auto dealership magnet.  Critics noted the general blandness of the look, with very little (if anything) distinguishing it from a hundred other boring buildings sprouting around town.  “I can drive around and point out – there’s a Colbert building, there’s a Colbert building,” noted one attendee to the architect himself – who curiously made only small efforts to defend the design.  “We can at least be proud that our block will boast one of the world’s finest examples of the Late Ballston School of architecture.  Outside of Ballston,” noted another neighbor.  Frankly, it’s a fair hit, and listening closely to Franco and Colbert that night, one senses they would agree it’s not far from the mark.

The other and much larger theme was impact of the building – how it will hulk over the entire block, casting neighbors into constant shadow; how traffic whizzing down Wallach will increase and street parking (which is to say what barely exists now) will evaporate; how residents on T and Wallach who share the same alley will face exponentially more trouble negotiating in and out of their off-street parking spots, and how what is in the developer’s own terms “a building for interns” is being air-dropped into a neighborhood that’s now more Sesame Street than Soho.

“Had shadow studies been done?”  Mmm, nope. (loud blinking.)  “How many guest parking space will you have?”  Uh, two.  (sound of plates hitting floor.)   “What’s going to keep residents, friends and visitors from jamming Wallach and the alley to get to parking?”  Well, nothing really.  (uncomfortable silence as everyone waits for everyone else to respond.)

While Franco and Colbert were polite throughout, they grew notably shorter and more evasive with their answers, perhaps out of irritation with the continued questioning.  Attendees were reminded that the proposal already received unanimous ANC support (more on that later) and a preliminary OK from the Historic Preservation Board – which is to say, it would be nice if we would just be quiet and support WallachZilla, but it’s by no means necessary.

But that’s really not true.  In fact, this week, on June 30, the HPB will hold an open meeting at 1pm at 441 4th Street NW, room 220 South, and board members appear open to hearing and airing some of these concerns.  While Level2 might be hoping for a slam-dunk, given the at-times lenient attitude from the HPB to new development near Metro lines, it is no longer guaranteed.

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