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Plan to Expand Two Kalorama Houses for Condos Blows Up as Major Donnybrook at HPRB

Accompanying images can be viewed in the May 2013 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

The contentious case of a proposition to redevelop and expand two historic duplex houses at 2012-14 Kalorama Road, NW resulted in a sweet victory for proponents — primarily the developers and the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) — and a sour defeat for the arguments of the opponents, especially those of the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) at the April 25th monthly meeting of the District’s powerful Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB).

Ironically, both proponents and opponents of the projects asserted their profound support and respect for Washington’s robust historic preservation program, and both have bona fides to attest to that support.

The principal, and extraordinarily well organized immediate neighborhood opponents of the development proposal, the resident owners of the very large apartment building at 2101 Connecticut Avenue, however, were relatively mute at the April session, letting their attorney deliver a report stating that they had reached a settlement with the project developers but would be continuing to monitor and work with the developers on the project’s landscape plan and its impact on privacy and noise suppression, the placement of the HVAC systems, trash removal, all code compliant issues, the demolition plan, stair configuration, and finishes.

As previously reported by The InTowner in January and February (http://tinyurl.com/cye5u4t and http://tinyurl.com/cy2f9wo, respectively), this case consists of ambitious plans proposing to restore and rehabilitate two adjoining town houses — a classic duplex — and add a large addition to the rear. The duplex houses are surrounded by larger apartment buildings — five, seven, and eight stories tall. The re-development project calls for three and four stories in height.

As modified by the developers in reaching their settlement with the owners of 2101 Connecticut, and as concisely outlined in HPO’s staff report on the revised plans, “the project has evolved significantly in response to community concerns and Board comments. Notable improvements include the retention of more of the rear wall on the first and second floors and full retention of the third floor rear wall, with its distinctive gambrel roof and dormers.” The project has reduced its footprint and is now set back on both sides from the site’s side yard property lines. The connecting structure between the old buildings and the twice-the-size new addition “is a full story shorter than previously proposed and is inset more. However, the addition itself has grown in height with a newly proposed fourth floor [and] the much more rectilinear design utilizes large expanses of glazing on its sides and rear, rather than replicating the traditional sash windows of the original house. While the cladding remains brick for the most part, the top floor is proposed to be sheathed in metal panel, as will the largely glazed hyphen.”

Issues of context and compatibility continued to bedevil the proceedings, with context being stated by the Board to constitute the square in which the project sits and Kalorama Road. Compatibility was defined in the staff report as being observable from Wyoming Avenue across the surface parking lot for 2101 Connecticut. This, the report further asserted, would be “the only true vantage point — the design would be integrated into the immediate context of apartment buildings. It is this context of a duplex between large apartments — not within a row of houses — that enables an addition this large to be considered compatible,” or, in the double negative phrasing of HPRB members, “not incompatible.”

The most eloquent statement in opposition to this assertion was provided by ANC Commissioner Ted Guthrie, who compared “compatibility” to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s difficulties with words or standards like “obscenity” that are difficult to articulate. But, noted Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” “Compatibility,” Guthrie said, “is one of those terms. The standards for additions to buildings in historic districts use that word.”

Citing the Secretary of the Interior’s Standard for Rehabilitation 9 (“The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.”), Guthrie continued, “This project has additions that are nearly twice the size of the original structures and architectural features that neither mimic nor echo those of the original structures. If this project is within the definition of ‘compatible’ for purposes of that standard, I cannot imagine an addition that would fail such a standard.”

In conclusion, Guthrie stated: “I may not be able to define ‘compatibility’ with particularity but I know it when I see it — and so do the other neighbors.” The ANC resolution in opposition to the project, passed by a vote of four to two, was short and simple: The proposed development “is inconsistent with the historical character of the neighborhood.”

As for the KCA, its three-point resolution began with that same assertion, adding a second point that the project was contrary not only to the Secretary of the Interior’s standards, but also to the DC Historic Preservation Act and the HPRB’s own guidelines and standards for “Additions to Historic Buildings,” ending with the observation that such “disproportionately large in-fill additions to historic houses located in DC Historic Districts inexorably lead to violations of the DC building code and zoning regulations and other degradations of quality of life because too many living units are crowded into too little space.” In conveying this resolution to the Board, KCA President Denis James concluded by asserting that “the design of this project is so far out of keeping with its setting and the historic district that the KCA requests the Board to reconsider its previous concept approval and reject this design today.”

Other neighbors testified in opposition, including Janet Daniels, president of the Stratford Apartment Residents Association; the Stratford is the five-story apartment building on the east side of the proposed project. Several of these opponents launched blistering attacks on the Board and the 2012-14 developers. Many others wrote strongly worded letters in opposition. One letter received by the Board in favor of the project was noted.

In the end the Board voted unanimously to adopt the staff report and recommendations and to support these further refinements of the revised project plans with the proviso that the developers reduce the magnitude or height of the proposed fourth floor to make it less visible; to continue to work with 2101 Connecticut on the issues so stated both by its attorney and by the Board’s chair; and to continue to refine the design and finishes as discussed by Board members.