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Controversial Project at 14th & U Near Final Ok Despite Objections

By Anthony L. Harvey

A perfect storm of hotly competing urban planning forces converged at the afternoon session of the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board’s (HPRB) February meeting to contend with a revised proposal for the large apartment building, “The Utopia,” to be built at the southwest corner of 14th and U Streets, NW.

As noted in the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff report recommending approval of the revised plan with minor revisions, “When previously reviewed in December [2007], the Board found the treatment of the height, mass, and design to be incompatible with the small scale character of the historic district and directed the applicant to re-study the proposal.” Specifically, the Board and its staff directed the developer’s architect, Eric Colbert, to bring back for HPRB’s further consideration a dual, rather than single, building proposal the height and massing of which would better relate to its surroundings.

Architect Colbert ‘s response was a revision with two building “elements” for the north and south sides of the proposed structure, with the north — U Street — side emphasizing a 10-story high-rise apartment building and the south — along 14th Street to very near T Street — emphasizing mid-rise building elements, meaning three-to-five stories high facing 14th Street and seven to eight stories facing toward T Street.

Colbert outlined for the Board several other revisions from the original design which are significant to the developer and are in direct response to HPRB and HPO: (1) the massing has been reduced by 20,000 square feet; (2) upper floors have been set back substantially — for example, the two additional floors rising to 100 feet on the U Street side behind the historic buildings would have 50-foot set-backs; (3) residential penthouses were eliminated, as was the tiered massing on the west side; and (4) also removed were the townhouse apartments facing the alley — this removal to be replaced by a landscaped buffer. Colbert also pointed out that the H-shaped building “element” on 14th Street that will also be facing toward T Street is not as tall as the nearest existing T Street apartment building or the HPRB-approved Rapture Lofts redevelopment project at the southwest corner of 14th and T Streets.

On traffic, parking, and curb-cut issues, Colbert offered two design proposals — one incorporating the existing, with expansion, 14th Street curb cut and the other relying on alleyway access. All parties seemed in agreement that further consideration of the 14th Street curb cut issue should await the applicant’s traffic planning consultant’s report, together with a review by the city’s Transportation Department’s (DDOT) 14th Streetscape redesign project proposal.

Regarding the project’s increased height, HPRB Chair Tersh Boasberg reminded the Board that the underlying zoning in historic districts had to be respected; this, he noted, was recently reaffirmed in a ruling on a similar case by the Mayor’s Agent, an administrative law judge responsible for hearing such cases.

Community responses included that of the Dupont Circle Conservancy which had filed a written recommendation asserting that “the massing [of the Utopia] project is moving in the right direction” and further “encouraged the architect and developer to take advantage of the major elements along 14th Street, and to sculpt them into something more architecturally significant.”

And, by unanimous vote, the Dupont Circle Neighborhood Advisory Commission (ANC), in both written and oral testimony given by ANC Chair Ramon Estrada, strongly dissented from the HPO recommendations and the applicant’s revised project design, stating, “As noted at its November and December meetings, the ANC 2B opposed the massing, height, and siting of the proposed development. We remain concerned about the appearance, siting, and impact of the proposed building from ALL sides and their objectionable effects on the adjacent historic/residential zone.”

ANC Chair Estrada continued, “We consider the progress drawings to be heading in the right direction; however: (1) The height has not been reduced per our recommendation and that of the HPRB. To recap, we recommended that the height of the building relate to the existing historic block, with no more than five stories at the southern (C3A) portion of the parcel, no more than seven stories at the northern (C-R) portion of the project; (2) We support the location of the entry for the underground parking garage on 14th Street, using the existing curb cut; (3) We oppose the eight-story sections of the building that front on 14th Street without a setback. They are too tall and massive for the site.”

The Utopia project received strong support from Cheryl Cort and Philip Spaulding on behalf of the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association (CSNA). The group’s written testimony from its president, Lynn M. Coffin, focused on the CSNA’s belief “that restoring and maintaining the continuous sidewalk along 14th Street between U and T Streets should be the priority for the public as this project advances. A continuous sidewalk enhances the pedestrian environment, fostering a safe, more pedestrian-oriented retail street. The continuous sidewalk restores the integrity of this historic street, reinforcing the intent of the Greater U Street Historic District.”

Also testifying in support of the revised project plans was architect Patrick Burkhart on behalf of the DC Preservation League. Burkhart’s testimony tempered the League’s support with an encouragement that “the designers push for greater vertical and horizontal variety in the massing. The tower elements of equal height, for example, continue to convey a strong sense of symmetry along 14th Street at odds with the dynamic nature of the project site. The League suggests a taller and more slender articulation of the northern tower, where perhaps an additional story could distinguish it from the central tower. Additionally, the central tower could benefit from a more slender proportion. If necessary, the southern portion of the seven-story bar could be expanded further west at the back alley to provide flexibility in modeling the primary volumes facing the streets.”

Expressing continuing concerns for impacts of the proposed project on the historic alleyway complex in the heart of the block incorporating the Utopia project, alleyway resident Phyllis Klein provided the Board with a fascinating set of photographs depicting the alleyway conditions of historic Waverly, Paloma Way, and Treto Way prior to DDOT’s recent renovation. Klein further pled for use of the 14th Street curb cut for the new project’s underground parking garage entrance. “This exception to the curb cut rule would contribute to the success of new development, reduce the adverse effects to the neighboring properties, including detriments to the health, safety, convenience, and general welfare of persons living, working, or visiting in the area,” Ms. Klein concluded.

After brief Board deliberations, including a seven-to-two vote defeating a proposal to reduce the project’s U Street height by removing part of its top two floors, the HPRB approved the staff recommendations and directed the applicant to slightly lower the building’s U Street height to ensure it not being higher than the historic Security Storage Building next door; provide a more sculpted approach to the 14th and T Street-facing elevations’ design elements; and provide better architectural design balance to the Utopia’s proposed towers.

“It’s starting to be a very nice project,” observed HPRB architect member Anne Lewis, as the Board concluded its consideration of this proposed redevelopment of this important 14th and U Streets.