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Recent Preservation Board Decisions Reflect New Flexibility in Interpreting its Law & Regulations

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

Recent deliberations of the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) are displaying greater flexibility by the Board in how DC’s historic preservation statutes, regulations, and  guidelines are interpreted, and how issues of aesthetic and visual compatibility in add-on and new construction are resolved in settled historic districts such as Mt. Pleasant and the Kalorama Triangle in Adams Morgan.

The Board and its staff are also displaying, in this reporter’s experience, far more patience than previous boards in working with architects in multiple, iterative meetings and hearings — sessions which seek to dramatically improve, and at times, make the applicant/architects’ respective building designs far more acceptable to the Board. The depth and ingenuity of the accompanying staff reports reflect this same trend.

For example, HPRB recently approved a proposal for the conversion of two adjoining row houses on Kalorama Road to a condominium with 17 apartment units. (See, “Kalorama Road Condo Project Objections Heard and Considered by Preservation Board,” InTowner page 1, February 2013 issue PDF; http://tinyurl.com/pw4wnx4.)

This was proposed to be achieved by the developer through the construction of large, three-story additions to the rear of both houses and through the demolition of two rear garages, more than doubling their respective sizes. At a second hearing on the matter, the HPRB staff report noted, “While large, the Board determined the additions compatible given the immediate context of large flanking apartment buildings and found the garages to be non-contributing to the significance of the historic district.” A lengthy, artfully argued staff report supported the project’s ultimate approval. Thus the project marches forward.

Oakwood Terrace

A similar case in both mass and architectural style but differing in the nature of the proposed new construction is that of the erection of four adjoining town houses on a narrow, undeveloped triangular shaped lot at the apex of 17th Street and Oakwood Terrace in Mt. Pleasant. (See, “Controversial Project for Construction of New Row Houses on Heavily Wooded Mt. Pleasant Site Raise Issues of Compatibility & Appropriateness,” InTowner page 1, July 2013 issue PDF; http://tinyurl.com/nwu9d2b.)

Many years in the making, the project’s most recent appearance earlier this year was in the form of a rectangular shaped modernist box set amongst the plantings on this irregular shaped lot; although its 2010 conceptual design review together with the project’s height and massing was renewed earlier this year, the applicant was instructed to study the following issues together with potentially  fundamental design changes. These issues and study areas included:

(1) “Reduction of density and/or additional setbacks of the buildings,” the Chair having noted at this previous hearing that the design seemed to reflect an indecision on the architect’s part as to whether a single large building or separate attached town houses was being proposed;

(2) “The relationship to the detached 3434 Oakwood,” with the irony here being that the proposed new building (with its addresses of 3428, 3430, and 3432 Oakwood) will sit sideways facing what has been the front yard of the large, detached brick structure at 3434 Oakwood Terrace and will face frontally both Oakwood Terrace in the project’s present front façade design and 17th Street in the rear;

(3) “Additional distinction of individual townhouse units, potentially by stepping or staggering them,” which certainly could relate to stepped-down town home units farther down 17th Street on the same side of the street as the proposed new development;

(4) “Revision or removal of the prominent, southern apex of the project,” i.e., toward where Oakwood and 17th Street meet;

(5) “Further development of ornament and details, including removing the upper belt course”; an

(6) “Raising the entrance above grade and providing entrance canopies.”

In addition, the staff report for the Board’s September 26 meeting stated that the applicant had reduced the height of the building by five or six feet with the projection at the apex being replaced by a bay or an enclosed porch, and that changes were proposed to provide “a more distinct and balanced A-B-B-A rhythm on the row.” New problems were identified, however, especially with the project’s proposed windows and even with certain other of the revised plan’s proposed improvements. Nevertheless, the staff recommended that the Board continue to support the development of the project.

Highlights presented by the applicant, architect/developer Carmel Greer of Adams Morgan-based District Design, in her lead-off public testimony included a summary of project changes as reflected in revised design plans. These included the building’s lowered height and lowered retaining walls, the removal of the end bay pointing toward the site’s apex resulting in a shorter looking structure, one now reading as four distinct buildings — this a further result of the Board’s request for a set-back of the two middle town homes. Building materials changed included the selection of Belden brick and the adding of Board-suggested awnings.

Next in appearance before HPRB were the Mt. Pleasant ANC Chair China Terrell, the ANC commissioner whose single member district includes the Oakwood and 17th Street, and protesting neighbors Adam Hoey and Nil Junge, who live near the proposed project on Oakwood Terrace and spoke on behalf of the protestants.

Junge summarized the protestants’ priority concerns as being the following: the size of the project’s massing; the small amount of setback from the street; the apex of the building on the project site; and the structure’s lack of historic district compatibility. A concise and remarkably detailed letter dated October 2, 2013 from Junge and 28 other nearby neighbors was subsequently sent to HPRB Chair Gretchen Phaehler elaborating on these and additional issues, quoting at length from pertinent HPRB preservation guidelines, for example, on the setback issue as it affects the impact of the building’s façade facing Oakwood, and further pleading with the Board to take account of the impact of the building on the side facing 17th Street, the height from the street of the structure’s rear façade being characterized by the neighbors as presenting a “foreboding presence.”

Commissioner Hoey testified that the applicant had taken some of the neighbors concerns into account but asked for more setbacks — without requiring zoning variances — and a request to either make the apex more prominent or remove it altogether; Junge reiterated that the neighbors and the applicant were still unable to reach any agreement or consensus, as had the applicant also stated; and Commissioner Terrell expressed her opinion that the irregular shape of the lot did not allow for following HPRB guidelines, that the six-foot setback for the middle two buildings was too little, that ornamentation for the structure was insufficient, and that for her the flat roof remained a problem. Four other residents testified to similar earlier expressed concerns, adding specifically the issue of the applicant having failed to provide a certified arborist’s report on what the impact might be of such construction on the site’s historic trees, the lack of a landscaping plan for the site, and called-for streetscape drawings for both sides of the site.

Fay Armstrong, president of Historic Mount Pleasant, praised the changes made to the design but noted that more changes were possible. With Armstrong’s testimony  concluding the public witnesses, the Board announced a recess to its September monthly meeting until the following continuation meeting on October 3, 2013, at which time the Oakwood Terrace would be the first order of business. This would occur, as it did, with the Board being assisted by the staff of the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) while deliberating on the staff report, the testimony of the public witnesses, and subsequent letters to the Board, including October 2nd statements to the Board received from the protesting neighbors and from Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose ward includes Mt. Pleasant.

Graham expressed his support for the neighbors concerns and stated that he “can understand the size of this development as intruding into the scale and character of this community” as well as the neighbors concerns over the size, height, and proposed setbacks for the project. He urged the Board to exercise “all appropriate caution in approving this project.”

An additional statement, dated September 30th, was received by HPO staff from Mt. Pleasant ANC Commissioner Jack McKay who sought to clarify the role of the ANC chair at the commission’s meeting four days earlier, emphasizing that the only formal action that had been taken by the ANC on the current project was its resolution of May 21, 2013 requesting consideration by the HPRB of the neighbors’ concerns and asking that the Board explain the methodology “used to determine if an application for new construction meets design and consistency standards in a historic DC neighborhood.”

The October 3rd continuation session found Board members and HPO staff reviewer Tim Dinnee discussing at length many of the issues raised both in the previous week’s testimony — especially that of setbacks for new construction relating to the adjacent lines of setbacks for existing structures — and that of the letters received subsequent to that session. How those issues were resolved or ignored can be found in the findings articulated by Board Chair Phaehler at the conclusion of the Board’s consideration of the Oakwood project.

Offering the customary chair’s motion to adopt the staff report with the addition of stipulated findings, one finds the following items: revise the design to reflect two front facades (i.e. Oakwood Terrace and 17th Street); continue the belt course around the entire building or remove it altogether; provide better detailing on both fronts of the buildings; the Board finds the proposed setback “not incompatible” with the historic district; refine in finer-grain fashion the apex; and work with both HPO staff and an arborist (on the issue regarding trees). On the question of the two-tone colors of the bricks, it was stipulated that the bricks should be of a single color. The motion was adopted unanimously.

Wardman Row

A second project of the District Design firm was also considered during the HPRB’s October 3rd continuation meeting, this for the conceptual review of a proposed rear addition and decks to a house at 2322 19th Street, NW. This is one of a row of nine attached Wardman-built town houses on 19th Street which are further attached to four town houses turning the corner on Belmont Road. These 13 town houses were designed by Albert H. Beers in the Georgian Revival style, said to be the most popular style employed in the design of Kalorama Triangle town houses. And, according to the National Register of Historical Places nomination, “What is special about this design and what relates it to historical precedent is the way the row reads as a single composition, whose stately rhythm is established by the repetition of the classically-inspired details and porches. The approach in massing and rhythm of detail is a particularly successful solution to a sloping site.”

As noted by the HPO staff reviewer, Anne Brockett, “In this proposal, the rear porch would be replaced by an 18-foot deep addition that steps back at the second floor to 12 feet with a three-foot wide balcony. Above this is a roof deck, accessed from the existing third floor.” Continuing, Brockett observes, “The design has a tiered arrangement, stepping back successively at each level from the rear yard to the roof. The rear elevation features extensive fenestration on each floor, framed by paneled wood siding. The balcony and deck railings are proposed as thin horizontal steel cables spanning between wood posts.”

The row of nine handsome Wardman town houses on 19th Street sit atop descending high berms overlooking Kalorama Park; they read from the front as being two and a half stories tall with unfinished basements. In visually reading the photograph of the rear façade of 2322 19th Street submitted by the project architect, District Design’s Carmel Greer, the house reads as four floors: the basement level at grade, and the three levels above appearing as full floors. Labeled “Existing Rear Elevation,” this image is one of three on the third page of the architect’s submission to the Board; it was previously submitted to the Kalorama Citizens Association, which took no position on the proposed addition, and to the Adams Morgan ANC, which voted to recommend HPRB approval of the project.

The second image is labeled “Precedent Image,” and purports to be the client’s, Sapna Mehta and Andy Grimmig, inspiration for the addition being proposed for their 2322 19th Street house. This image is an early evening color photograph of a luxurious appearing but eclectic collection of architectural styles for each of this addition’s three levels above the basement level, the first of which is a large and monumental, high ceiling, classical style room with three sets of floor to ceiling French doors at the back that open between neo-classical pilasters. It is a grand look, while that of the floor above is like something from a far more casual resort building.

The third level is a deck topped by a high trellis-like pavilion sitting on a low brick wall. The basement below these three upper levels is not visible; moreover,  the three above basement levels do not seem to relate to each other nor, more importantly, do they look anything like the third submitted image, a two-dimensional line drawing labeled “Sketch of Proposed Rear Elevation.” To some, this proposed addition looks more like balconies and decks which would project off of small, floor-through apartments in a row house converted into a condominium.

HPO’s staff reviewer, however, asserts in the staff report that “the proposed addition has been designed to be compatible with the purposes of the preservation act as well as the Board’s guidelines for additions.” The staff report continues, “Although it will be one of very few additions to the rears of the ‘Wardman Row,’ it is proportional in scale and respectful of the height of the existing building. Its massing steps back as it gets taller, as is typical of secondary wings to historic row houses.”

Public witnesses chose to disagree, especially next door neighbors and award-winning historic preservation architects Belinda Reeder and Cy Merkezas of the firm Archetype. Reeder especially objected to the magnitude of the proposed massing and the extent of the back yard projection of 20 feet (now 18) and its bifurcation of the rear yard open space of the 19th Street Wardman Row town houses, an ensemble which was sited and built to be a total design. Continuing, Merkezas asked, “Where is the differentiation between new and old?” and observed that the new addition would totally obliterate the rear façade of the house.

HPRB members raised numerous questions regarding materials, the odd, unbuilt-out basement level (now appearing as a recessed first level beneath the fully built-out upper floor) and the consequent lack of connection of the rear façade to the ground level; and the complete removal of the existing rear façade to be replaced by the project’s addition that will extend completely from property line to property line. Several board members expressed strenuous objection to the third floor deck. Chairman Phaehler formulated the following provisions to add to a motion to adopt the staff report: instructing the architect to continue to work with staff in identifying front façade restoration; to pull in the sides of the addition, revealing original fabric; rethink materials for a rear addition that should read as an addition (to a contributing structure in the Wardman Row); and pull in the first floor addition; and remove the third floor deck. The motion was adopted with one member voting no.