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Controversial Project for Construction of New Row Houses on Heavily Wooded Mt. Pleasant Site Raise Issues of Compatibility & Appropriateness

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

It may not be the forest primeval but the heavily wooded, small triangular plot of land at the corner of Oakwood Terrace and 17th Street, NW, with the site’s majestic, tall mature oak tree, has long served as a dramatic beacon at the apex of what is known to local historians of Mt. Pleasant as the Theodore Roosevelt entrance down 17th Street to Rock Creek Park and Piney Branch Creek.

Jutting high above this dramatic, canyon-like 17th Street to the west, which windingly descends to Rock Creek, and framing one side of a rising Oakwood Terrace to the east, a development project consisting of four adjoining town houses, two of which will have English basement apartments is being proposed for this undeveloped and awkwardly sited piece of land and is now the subject of an intense neighborhood controversy.

Against the project are the residents of the two immediate streets and several on nearby Newton and Brown Streets, almost all of whom are vehemently opposed and pitted against not only the developer Carmel Greer who is both the owner of the property as well as the architect, but also against the staff of the District’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) and the neighborhood’s preservation group, Historic Mount Pleasant.

The area’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) appears to be in something of a neutral position, finding itself in the middle of the matter but is now seeking clarification on such matters as the definition of “historic compatibility,” especially with the apparent requirement in preservation regulations for conformance of new construction with “existing historic district set-backs of structures” and such defining characteristics of these structures as the shapes of roofs — peaked versus flat, for example.

The project proposal for this six-unit building with a flat roof design and an un-adorned, plain, rectangular front façade on Oakwood — with the structure stepped down on 17th and made of brick and pre-cast limestone colored materials — was first approved in concept by the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) in December of 2010, with strong support expressed by Historic Mount Pleasant and the HPRB staff and with no position taken by the ANC and without any comment or controversy from the immediate neighbors. These neighbors have subsequently asserted that they knew nothing of the proposed project until this spring when they learned of it inadvertently –- “by mistake,” several testified to the HPRB at a May 23rd hearing on the re-authorization of the project’s concept approval.

This approval had lapsed after two years of no action being taken by the project applicant following the earlier concept approval for the proposed new development. After HPO staff and the project applicant Carmel Greer’s testimony, and the presentation of an ANC resolution asking that the HPRB consider issues raised by community opponents of the project and that the Board specifically clarify ANC questions on compatibility, 12 neighboring residents appeared at what became a lively and contentious hearing on May 23rd to voice their strong opposition to the project as presented by applicant Greer –- now in a slightly revised version at this session from that of the December 2010.

Opponents, each who were given three minutes to voice their concerns, first noted for the Board that in the three weeks they had known of the project, over 140 immediate and nearby residents had signed petitions in opposition to the project. Several asserted that at the December 2010 hearing HPRB had been presented with incomplete information regarding the applicant’s proposal and the community’s reaction. The immediate and nearby neighbors, the opponents testified, knew nothing about it. Strenuous objection was voiced to the applicant’s assertions that her proposal fit a so-called eclectic nature of historic Mt. Pleasant; their counter assertion was that it fit, for example, with structures such as the undistinguished modernist Vista Apartment building directly across from the site on 17th Street and the apartment building erected on the property line at Newton and 17th, both of which were in the applicant’s power point presentation. These, said the opponents, were examples of built structures that fostered the growth of the historic preservation movement in Mt. Pleasant rather than examples of the kind of structures on which to base a “compatibility” argument.

Opponents asked for a project that would conform to the set-backs of historic row houses and other historic district defining structures, and one possessing building features that harmonize with such structures. Opponents also objected to the height and massing of the proposed structure and its stark, undecorated façade, and were especially concerned about the project’s impact on mature trees on the site and that of the possible consequences of excavation on the stability of adjoining and nearby structures. Oakwood Terrace resident Nils Junge voiced strong objection to HPO architectural historian Timothy J. Dennee acting as an advocate for the applicant.

Unfortunately for both proponents and opponents of the development proposal, documentation for the project remains at a primitive stage, consisting mainly of basic black and white line drawings of the structure’s elevations and a simple site plan. No renderings of the proposed building or landscape drawings of its surroundings have been produced by the applicant; thus the plain façades and the boxy appearance projected by the elevation drawings were all the more of a startling, visual contrast to that of the elaborate articulation of structures providing the defining characteristics of the area’s existing historic fabric.

HPRB members appeared unmoved by these expressions of community concerns, observing several times that the applicant had the right to build on this privately owned plot of land and commending efforts by the applicant to adapt her design to the unusual constraints of the building site. The Board did, however, express several concerns of its own, concluding in a subsequently written decision which approved the revised concept plan with several important caveats.

This decision, unanimously approved, states that the Board renews its conceptual approval of the proposed site plan, height, and massing of the new construction but stipulated that the applicant must return to the Board with its plans for further development of the design of the project. It further “requested that the applicant study reduction of density and/or additional set-backs for the buildings [and that of] the relationship of the project to 3434 Oakwood Terrace,” the large red brick structure adjoining the development site. It further asks for study of “additional distinction of individual row house units by stepping them or staggering them”; study of “revision of [the] southern apex of [the] project or its removal if it cannot be improved; further development of ornament and details including removing the upper belt course; [and the] possible additions of entrance canopies and raising the entrances above grade.” Finally, the Board “recommended that the applicant communicate revisions to the community.”

A subsequent community meeting on the project was held the following month, on June 27th, in the Mt. Pleasant public library with ANC Commissioner Adam Hoey chairing the session and other commissioners in attendance. Hoey called for civil dialog and a genuine exchange of views from all those wishing to speak.

The developer, Carmel Greer, began the session with a recapitulation of the project and a bitter lament over the actions of opponents in displaying a false rendering of her project they had prepared at a recent Mt. Pleasant market day and distributing questionnaires for project opponents, asserting that opponents simply wanted the building to disappear. She then presented a revised version of the line drawing elevations showing a reduction in height from 37 to 33 feet, which, since the site lies in an R-4 zone, would allow for 40 feet. Other changes specified, included a distance of 20 feet from 3434 Oakwood Terrace, the structure next door, and a site plan showing additional green space around the project with the removal of the building appendage at the south end facing the intersection of Oakwood Terrace with 17th Street.

A site drawing also displayed three parking spaces for the six units entered at grade on 17th Street, the number of spaces required by zoning regulations for new construction of six units.

Nils Junge responded for the immediate and nearby neighbors and rebutted the assertion that the opponents wanted the proposed building to simply disappear. What the opponents want, he countered, is something they find compatible with the neighborhood. Their survey revealed the neighbors’ primary concerns are about height, set-backs, width, parking, and protection of trees, especially the two oak trees on the site.

The focus of their concern over the project’s incompatibility centered on its flat roof, large mass, and lack of ornamentation — its stark plainness. He also asserted that the proposed project would obstruct views of the 1871 house on Oakwood Terrace — one of the oldest in Mt. Pleasant — directly across from the developer’s proposed new building.

A second speaker, Ruben Doboin, reported on the results of the opponents’ survey. The overwhelming majority of concerns, he noted, were over the project’s height and its set-backs. Revisions being offered by the developer were “only baby steps,” he concluded.

Other opponents spoke of their concerns regarding the loss of green space, further parking congestion on the immediate streets, and the need for written analysis of technical questions covering the prospective impact of site excavation and its affect on the site’s trees as well as on the stability of neighboring structures.

Both opponents and the developer bemoaned the lack of renderings, and the developer pledged to prepare such for distribution to the community once revisions to plans for the proposed new building have been completed.