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Major West End Re-Development Project Designs Unveiled; Luxury Boutique Hotel for Adams Morgan Continues to Divide

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Two, long-simmering development projects in northwest Washington appear to be coming to a rapid boil, with spring and summer Planned Unit Development (PUD) filings expected soon — one in early May, the other no later than July 29th. Both would re-develop by replacing, and in one case restoring by re-adapting the use of a 100-year-old church, aging public sector and non-profit infrastructure. One project is in the heart of the city’s West End amidst its brand name luxury hotels and looming tall, high-end condominium apartment buildings; the other is located in the mixed-use and less luxurious residential Reed-Cooke section of Adams Morgan and adjacent to the bars and restaurants of 18th Street.

Both project proposals have troubled histories. The West End project — an innovative public/private partnership which will incorporate a replacement state-of-the-art branch library and a new fire station — appears to have triumphed over its earlier missteps, which included receiving a harshly criticized sole-source award of DC properties by legislative fiat. On the other hand, the Reed-Cooke project is still struggling with a yet-to-be articulated to the community of a full, formal plan for its heavily subsidized undertaking, one which has already received from the city council a $46 million property tax abatement and the PUD for which, if granted, is expected to be worth $100 million according to developer Brian Friedman — with a Federal historic preservation tax credit being added icing on the cake.

The developers for both these projects gave presentations in April; the differences in presentations could not have been more striking.

New West End Branch Library, Fire Station; Luxury and Affordable Housing and More

The West End project, which began during the Williams administration, was presented on April 25th by Joe Sternlieb, Vice President of Development for Eastbanc, well-known for its highly praised Georgetown and West End/Foggy Bottom projects. It was, said Sternlieb, his 67th community presentation of Eastbanc’s evolving plans for the project, with a new West End branch library at the 24th and L Streets corner and the new fire station to be incorporated into the 23rd and M Streets side. The presentation was held at the Fairmont Hotel on 25th Street, with baked goods on hand for the 75 to 100 neighborhood residents in attendance – supplied by the project’s first-named retail tenant, Bakery de France.

Eastbanc’s partnership project entails construction of two separate buildings on four lots, the first of which  replaces the dowdy and dilapidated branch library and the police department’s special operations branch building on L Street between 23rd and 24th and an adjacent surface parking lot with a 10-story, high-end, luxury apartment building. Nine floors of 180 condominium apartments will sit above the ground floor, which will house a 19,840 square-foot replacement library and 10,450 square-feet of retail space; below will be an underground garage with 202 spaces – 88 more spaces than now provided in the existing surface parking lot.

The second part of the project replaces the decrepit appearing Engine Company Number One at 23rd and L Streets with a new, two-story state-of-the art fire station as part of a stacked, three-component ensemble of structures; the two above the fire station will be a 20,000 square-foot squash court above which will be five floors of affordable housing. In addition to the 52 rental apartments that will be priced at 60 percent of average median income, there will also be 16,000 square feet designed for use as community space for the tenants.

These two buildings were described in detail on handsome boards in the room’s side gallery and with an illustrated PowerPoint presentation of slides picturing elevations, massing, and architectural renderings of the completed structures. On hand to explain and describe the architectural features was the project architect Enrique Norton of TEN Arquitectos, the award-winning firm he founded 25 years ago in Mexico City.

Norton and his architects now practice throughout the world and came to the developer’s attention through their work with DC Public Library’s Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper during tenure as the director of the Brooklyn Public Library System, before coming to Washington, when she worked with Norton on his acclaimed design for the proposed Brooklyn music and performing arts library.

TEN Arquitectos’ two structures were designed to replace what Norton characterized as the two broken teeth in the West End’s built environment; he further noted that they were designed to boldly distinguish themselves from the characteristic boxiness of so much of the buildings in Washington’s downtown and West End business and hotel districts. The design of these two strikingly attractive buildings, if and when built will be instantly iconic for the neighborhood, were greeted with great praise from the Foggy Bottom ANC commissioners who hosted this community forum, and most of the many residents who participated in the lengthy question and answer period.

Concerns, however, were expressed on sight lines and the blocking of views from neighboring apartments adjacent to levels of the condominium building, the projections of which jut out and block the views from, for example,  apartments in the Gibson and Ritz-Carlton condominiums. The Enrique Norton-designed condominium building is quite large and its expressionistic design of projecting blocks –which provides much of its stunning distinctiveness — was questioned by two participants. One asked that upper floor setbacks be studied, the other that the elimination of one floor be considered.

Further, much  skepticism was expressed over the project’s traffic study and its projection of very modest increases in traffic load on the surrounding streets from a new development of this magnitude. Another person questioned the dramatic glass walls of the two-corner replacement library component with its engaging, undulating rear wall of floor to ceiling library books, fearful that it would attract the homeless. ANC Commissioner Asher Corson asked that the provision of separate, out-of-hours access for use by such community organizations as the ANC of library meeting rooms be further explored, and ANC Chair Rebecca Coder asked that a shadow study be done.

Earlier, Sternlieb had reminded the audience that Eastbanc was providing the new library and the new fire station, estimated to cost $20 million, in exchange for the District’s three lots, Eastbanc having acquired the surface parking lot separately, and that 85 percent of the taxes generated by the project will be reserved as a revenue stream for maintenance of the library and the fire station. The affordable housing component above the fire station and squash court will complete the public/private partnership between Eastbanc and the city.

The fire station, squash court, and affordable housing components which are presently in a CR zone, can be constructed as a matter-of-right, while the library and condominium portions are now zoned R5-B with a 50-foot height limitation and will require the zoning relief provided by prospective approval by the Zoning Commission of Eastbanc’s PUD application. If plans and permit approvals proceed as expected, Eastbanc predicts a winter 2015 completion date for the project.

Adams  Morgan Luxury Hotel Restaurants, Bars, Events Space

In contrast to Eastbanc’s elaborate, high-tech presentation at the Fairmont Hotel, Friedman Capital’s April 30th presentation to the Adams Morgan community occurred on a grassy slope around a picnic table in Kalorama Park. Billed as a community forum, hosted by the Adams Morgan ANC chairman, Wilson Reynolds, it had been postponed from April 4th due to the absence of the developer Brian Friedman and subsequently having been bumped from the Kalorama Rec Center due to previously scheduled Saturday afternoon activities, and then was moved from the outdoor plaza in front of the Rec Center because of the neighborhood’s Spring clean-up event.

In addition to the awkwardness of people surrounding a picnic table, the provided visuals were lack-luster, consisting entirely of preliminary drawings, floor plans, and an artist’s sketch used when the developer presented a preliminary historic landmark application in November, 2008 to the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) at which time it outlined its proposed plan for the adaptive re-use of the 100-year-old First Church of Christ, Scientist opposite Unity Park at the corner of Euclid and Champlain Streets. The plan also incorporated the adjoining surface parking lot behind the church building and included replacing the adjacent Champlain Street building now occupied by the City Paper with a 10- story glass tower, five-star luxury hotel.

At that November, 2008 HPRB meeting, the Board enthusiastically endorsed the plan. However, now two-and-a-half years later, the landmark designation of the neo-classical Roman temple-style church building is apparently being held in abeyance by the District’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) and the applicant until such time as the city council-authorized subsidies, the PUD, and the Federal tax credits are all in place.

This historic preservation adaptive re-use project anticipates restoring the exterior and remodeling the interior of the Christian Science church building to accommodate two restaurants, five bars, and a 12,000 square-foot event space. A connecting “hyphen” building, primarily housing mechanicals, would lead to the 10-story conventionally-styled, modernist hotel glass tower slated to be a high-end, five-star “Edition Hotel” designed by noted New York boutique hotel promoter Ian Schrager of former Studio 54 club fame — to be operated once completed by Marriott International, Inc.

Estimated costs for the project are $127 million, of which $102 million is estimated to be the cost for the hotel tower and three levels of underground parking with the remaining $25 million to cover the cots of adaptively remodeling and restoring the church and equipping the space with the necessary facilities for the restaurants, bars, and the 12,000 square foot event space. Financing for the facility was expected to come from a $22,100,000 District grant of Tax Increment Financing (TIF), the sale of federal historic tax credits, long-term financing, and equity. Analysts at the CB Richard Ellis (CBRE) global real estate consulting firm    added the caveat that “the level of food and beverage sales achieved will be largely dependent on patronage other than by hotel guests.”

All of this financial planning, conducted for the District by CB Richard Ellis using the developer’s figures, presumes the approval by the Zoning Commission of the developer’s proposed Planned Unit Development (PUD) application. Furthermore, And CBRE’s analysis, completed in the summer of 2010, has been superseded by the city council having authorized in the closing minutes of its final, 2010 legislative session in December a $46 million property tax abatement for the project; further, the proposed TIF was not approved.

Discussion on the grassy slope focused on the PUD and the Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay, which places severe restriction on height, massing, and alcohol service establishments. The City Paper building and the church parking lot, according to the Office of Zoning’s on-line mapping system, are both in the Reed-Cooke Overlay District and are thus subject to restrictions of 40 or 50 feet for building heights, depending on the inclusion of affordable housing; furthermore, hotels or any alcohol serving establishments are prohibited.

Of the no more than about three-dozen persons in attendance, proponents and opponents of the project appeared to be equally divided, with proponents seemingly convinced that the Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay would be swept away generally or simply ignored when considered by the Zoning Commission. Opponents, on the other hand, appeared equally convinced that the District’s comprehensive plan would continue to prohibit such a project, even if changes were made to zoning overlays generally. And even the underlying zoning for the City Paper building and the church parking lot, which is presently zoned mixed commercial/residential –C-2-B in zoning parlance — allows only 65 feet in height and requires 15-foot rear yards. Even with the addition of rooftop structures of 18.6 feet for mechanicals, which the Zoning Administrator can approve, the project would be nowhere near its desired height of 90 plus feet, to which one must add the Champlain Street slope of between 12 and 15 feet, plus the rooftop 18.6-foot allowance — all of which have been incorporated into the PUD application.

The developer’s $46 million property tax abatement continues to draw brickbats in light of the projected severe cuts in the District’s social programs, especially from those who were unaware that the timing of the abatement’s authorization — December of last year with the project only coming on line no earlier than fiscal year 2015 — eliminated the requirement that offsetting revenues be identified and incorporated in subsequent budget and spending legislation by the Council.

While the so-called “claw backs” in the legislation requiring that 51 percent of the construction and hotel jobs be reserved for District and Ward One residents, that all apprentices be District residents with Ward One residents being given preference, that the developer establish a job training program, and that 4,000 square feet of community meeting space be reserved for neighborhood programs seem to satisfy some members of the community, others see the $46 million as part of how the exterior of the historic church building can be preserved. Others are simply aghast at the magnitude of this tax abatement, even if it is true, as some assert, that “every hotel gets one.”

Little illumination beyond what was outlined on the November, 2008 boards was provided by the developer during this relatively brief afternoon meeting other than Friedman’s announcement of a new date — no later than July 29th –for his filing of a PUD application. In a subsequent meeting with this reporter, developer Friedman asserted that he was diligently working on the finishing touches to the PUD application that would contain the detailed drawings, façade elevations, architectural renderings, and dynamic multi-dimensional computer graphics of the project from all different angles, as well as embellishments to “green” building features. This, he explained, had been awaiting the Council’s enactment of the property tax abatement. Friedman also stated that he was exploring prospective community amenities to propose in his PUD application as required by the Zoning Commission. These would be, of course, in addition to the community amenities mandated by the $46 million property tax abatement and any provisions in the granting of Federal historic preservation tax credits. He further asserted that the approval of the PUD would be worth an estimated $100 million to the project.

Editor’s Note: For background, see “Recent Church Re-Use and Raze Hearings Reveal Growing Public Disillusion with DC’s Historic Preservation Laws,” InTowner, December 2008, PDF page 1. Also, reporting on an earlier proposal, see “Historic Adams Morgan Church Demolition Rumor Put to Rest; Adaptive Re-Use Design Shown,” InTowner, November 2005, PDF page 1. Both reports are available in the Current & Back Issues Archive at www.intowner.com.