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Old Italian Embassy 16th Street Site Redevelopment Plan Proceeding Apace; Adams Morgan Hotel Plan Has Way to Go

By Anthony L. Harvey

The Kalorama Citizens Association and the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association, known by their KCA and RCNA acronyms, respectively, held their May and June monthly membership meetings with a focus on the issues of prospective impacts on Adams Morgan of Planned Unit Development (PUD) projects being proposed for two sites within the Reed-Cooke  neighborhood boundaries — the old Italian Embassy redevelopment residential condominium project, to be known as “Il Palazzo,” at 16th and Fuller Streets through the block to Mozart Place, and the First Church of Christ, Scientist redevelopment hotel proposal at Euclid and Champlain Streets.

On hand for informal presentations, and to answer questions, at the KCA meeting in May were Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning, and David Maloney, DC State Historic Preservation Officer.

The star attraction at the KCA meeting was a presentation by architects Michael Lee Beidler and Patrick Cooke of Trout Design, with Beidler explaining to the well-attended meeting participants the plans and details for the still evolving old Italian Embassy “Il Pallazzo” project, and Cooke manning a  bravura computer projection of a three dimensional streaming video and slide show of  the project from all angles and individual elevations, as well as overall depictions of the planned restoration of the three-story original embassy and chancellery buildings together with a small stucco structure connecting the historic former embassy with an eight-story apartment tower, stepped down to five stories at the Mozart Place and Fuller Street corner – all shown in the context of the surrounding blocks.

There was general appreciation of the handsomely designed new apartment tower and its sloping roof structures but complaints about the stuccoed connecting structure that had been dictated to the architects during the initial project review by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) that replaced an earlier design of a glass “jewel box” connecting structure.

Residents also questioned the height of the project, suggesting that one floor be removed. Re-zoning is being requested for the project to a consolidated 90-foot height of the split-zoned site, a deep, double lot stretching from 16th Street to Mozart Place. Present zoning restricts the Mozart Place back half of the site to 50 feet and the half fronting on 16th Street to 90 feet — both plus roof structures. The re-zoning is being justified as necessary to adhere to HPRB approvals and to secure the necessary height to make the project financially feasible.

Concern was also expressed about the impact of increased traffic on the narrow, 28-foot-wide streets surrounding the project and asked that the matter be further studied.

The return to the community of special benefits and amenities, which are required for PUDs and are in addition to simply re-developing an underused and vacant site, are  being promoted by the applicant as heralding the historic preservation of the landmarked but long vacant old Italian Embassy, the provision of affordable housing units in the new apartment towers, new tree boxes and plantings, a yet-to-be finalized agreement to employ 12 local residents on the project, an aesthetically superior architectural design, and a sophisticated, circular pedestrian and vehicular plan for the project.

The Zoning Commission, at its set-down meeting on the application, questioned the inclusion as amenities of such matters as the affordable housing component, which is an inclusionary zoning requirement for a project of this magnitude, and of the small number of units proposed — five in a PUD application stating that “the development will consist of approximately 110 to 135 residential units.” The Commission’s Vice Chair, Konrad Schlater observed that “overall the benefits and amenities proffered with this application are pretty light.”

KCA sentiment seemed in agreement, as did that of the RCNA membership in early June when a motion by RCNA’s Billy Simpson — who has been researching the somewhat opaque policy questions surrounding PUD community amenities or benefits — to request a significant amenity of tree fences for 600 Reed-Cooke neighborhood tree boxes at an estimated cost of $700 per tree box; this was unanimously adopted by the RCNA membership.

Commissioners on the Adams Morgan ANC are spearheading efforts for a formal agreement on the 12 community jobs being requested, and other amenity packages may be in the offing between now and the scheduled September 8th Zoning Commission hearing on the matter — both on the part of the applicant and that of other community groups.

Editor’s Note: A major residential plan incorporating the old embassy building and its site was proposed by a previous developer five years ago which raised many of the same concerns as the current plan. Our extensive report at the time helps to put the current plan -– much closer to fruition than was the earlier one –- into context; see, “Former Embassy Designation as Historic Roils Adams Morgan Residents; ANC and Preservation League at Odds With HPRB,” InTowner, March 2006, PDF page 1 (available in Current & Back issues Archive through link to the online vault).

Consideration by KCA of the Adams Morgan hotel project was brief and somewhat desultory. Developer Brian Friedman was not present, and the representative from the project’s partner, First Church of Christ, Scientist, who asked simply to be called Bobby, had nothing to say. In response to questions from attendees, the planning office’s director, Harriet Tregoning, asserted that no PUD application from the developer has been filed with the Office of Planning, and that such a 90-foot hotel tower proposal in the Reed-Cooke overlay district would not comport with the District’s comprehensive plan, the underlying zoning of that site, and the restrictions of the current Reed-Cooke zoning overlay.

In response to questions regarding the pending historic landmarking of the adjoining church and the earlier proposal for extending the church structure with new construction for condominium apartments onto what is now a surface parking lot and the site of City Paper’s present building, DC State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney responded that the landmarking application was simply pending, and that the condominium project had never been presented to the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) for review. To a further question regarding HPRB concept approval of a hotel tower project connected to an adaptive re-use of the church building, Maloney responded that HPRB’s courtesy review and design concept approval of the hotel project from 2008 had expired. All this, ironically, regarding an Adams Morgan hotel project with a $46 million property tax abatement enacted on the last day of the DC Council’s 2010 session. (For more information about this proposed project, see “Major West End Re-Development Project Designs Unveiled; Luxury Boutique Hotel for Adams Morgan Continues to Divide,” InTowner, May 2011, PDF page 1.)

The Reed-Cooke meeting’s approach to the proposed hotel development was to note the absence of any concrete developments regarding the project since its 2008 presentation to HPRB; RCNA’s membership then unanimously reaffirmed its policy statement of November 18, 2008 that had been submitted to HPRB for the Board’s November meeting that year which — in summary — while expressing support for the project’s goals of increasing job opportunities, economic development and the preservation of the church building, opposed the currently proposed height and mass of the hotel and found it to be a threat to the underlying zoning of the Reed-Cooke neighborhood and 18th Street. It further criticized the November 2008 “proposed design of the hotel’s exterior to be completely out of conformity with the existing architecture and character of the other buildings in the neighborhood.”

Developer Brian Friedman has previously announced that new plans and a PUD application for the hotel project will be filed by July 29, 2011.