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Strong Community Opposition Emerges Over Asserted Out-of-Scale Building Project on 16th Street in Meridian Hill Historic District

Accompanying images can be viewed in the March 2015 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

In a rare display of unanimity on the part of both the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and that of the immediate neighbors and civic and residential associations, the ANC voted without dissent to recommend to the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) that it not approve the Meridian International Center’s proposal to complete its northwest Washington campus with an expanded conference center and a 130 (or 140) unit, eight or nine story apartment building on the 16th Street side of its Meridian Hill property.

Following this historic commission vote, ANC Secretary Ted Guthrie counseled the Meridian Center and Streetscape Partners, the project’s lead developer, and its architect Shalom Baranes to take serious note of the Commission’s action and that of the community organizations and the individuals expressing themselves on the issue. Guthrie reminded as well his fellow commissioners and those attending the packed March 4th meeting that the Adams Morgan community almost never agreed on anything — no matter how small the issue might be. And, however, all seemed in agreement that the Meridian International Center proposal is a large, important, and complex matter.

ANC Chair Billy Simpson, and ANC Planning, Zoning, & Transportation Committee Chair JonMarc Buffa, who guided the committee and the commission through a series of extremely well attended meetings, including a full-scale community forum, further reminded the project proponents — Meridian and the developers — that the Adams Morgan ANC had successfully resolved similarly vexatious and seemingly intractable development issues dealing with compatibility, historic preservation, and impact on the neighborhood in moving forward with such as the former Italian Embassy and Adams Morgan Historic Hotel proposed projects.

The ANC’s meaty disapproval resolution was remarkably informative on the historic preservation and related issues surrounding the project — this in direct and explicit affirmation of the issues raised in public meetings by the many community members who spoke passionately on the issues and provided well organized, written statements. All displayed a well informed understanding of the nuts and bolts of the recently established Meridian Hill Historic District and its written design guidelines — these in addition to the HPRB statute and regulations — and the significance of separate District and Federal landmarking and inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places of the two mansions — White-Meyer and Meridian House — now occupying the Center’s Meridian Hill property, and that of the magnificent, historic landmarked Meridian Hill National Park directly across 16th Street from the Center.

The immediate neighbors to the south of the Center on Belmont Street, the Beekman Place Condominium representing 216 town homes, led the way with a comprehensive document in opposition to the proposed project. The issues raised and positions taken in this Beekman Place document were endorsed in whole and in part by the Board of the 53 owner Crescent Cooperative Apartments at 1661 Crescent Place — in their first ever Board opinion on a land use issue — and by individual owners from both 1661 Crescent Place and the 29-unit Meridian Crescent on the east side of the Center.

The concerns of the Beekman Place owners were concisely summarized in the document’s introduction and included the following: “(1) Size and massing of the proposed structure; (2) Incompatibility of the structure with the Meridian Hill Historic District and the adjacent Meridian International historic mansions; (3) Traffic; (4) Parking; and (5) Impacts of construction and noise on the neighborhood.”

The document further noted that the proposed new structure “would be directly across from Meridian Hill Park, a National Historic Landmark,” and from the site of “where Henderson Castle used to be; and its remaining original castle wall that runs along 16th and Belmont Streets is a contributing element of the Meridian Hill Historic District.”

The Beekman Place document also delves deeply into “design and environment issues,” attacking the scope, height, and scale of the Center’s detailed proposal for its new building — one with eight or nine stories with 130 or 140 apartment units and a large, 300-seat conference center and adjacent office space — all of which would cause the project to tower over both the low-rise Beekman town homes to the south and the historic Meridian Center mansions to the west. Its height, and siting on its small hill, would, the document further asserted — and the project’s architectural renderings confirmed — completely break the existing pattern of structures along 16th Street, a pattern that conforms to the slope of Meridian Hill up 16th Street northwards. Moreover, its proposed abutting of the Crescent Place sidewalk “would create a canyon effect along Crescent Place.”

For its desired zoning and building code variances, the developers are proposing this new building as an addition to the Meridian mansions; the document notes the consequences of this by again citing the historic district guidelines: “Additions to the mansions of Meridian Hill should respect the three-dimensional quality of the buildings and not alter their scale, height, or an understanding of these buildings as private mansions or embassies.” And these same guidelines and principles of the historic district take note of the centrality to the district of Meridian Hill Park: “its physical and visual centrality necessitates that alterations to surrounding buildings take into consideration views to and from this nationally significant urban park.”

Adverse affects on green space and park-like areas in the project proposal were also asserted — with opponents citing from guidelines proscribing that “the deep landscaped front yards and interstitial side yards of Meridian Hill should be retained and maintained as an essential characteristic of the neighborhood.” Other related issues such as parking, traffic, and impact on the neighborhood of construction, noise, and vector infestation await hearings before the Zoning Commission on the project’s planned unit development (PUD) proposal — yet to be unveiled by the Meridian Center.

Individuals testified at length in opposition to the project, following the eloquent summary presentations by Carl Schmid, Beekman Place-Meridian Committee chairperson, who further articulated the group’s opposition to the proposed corner entrance at 16th and Belmont Streets. No one spoke in favor of the project at any of the community or ANC meetings. Hostility to the modernistic design of the new building was universal, several nearby residents also referring to its “K Street” appearance.

Witnesses seemed genuinely puzzled that the developers and their architects continued to assert that the proposed new building respected and related to the mansions already on the property and to the buildings in the historic district; they also objected to the lack of detailed authenticity in several of the key architectural images used in the developer’s presentations — for examples, cropping out the Beekman Place town homes, scrubbing the architectural detail on the 16th Street façade of the Envoy Apartments to the immediate north of Meridian, and depicting the Envoy building nearly flush with the sidewalk when in fact it is set back consistent with the other buildings along the street and in accordance with the indent of the L’Enfant plan.

Additionally, Peter Lyden, Vice President of the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association, the community civic group for the immediate area encompassing the Meridian International Center, testified on behalf of the association’s board that “[t]he Board feels that the design of the proposed building does not fit in with the historic character of the neighborhood due to its proposed size and massing. In addition, we feel that the overall proposed architectural design is an abrupt change of style that does not complement the historic buildings on the property, and surrounding Meridian Hill Historic District.”

The prefatory language of the ANC resolution in opposition to the project includes 15 pertinent “whereas” clauses, all of which revolve around profound historic preservation issues. The resolution itself incorporates the ANC’s findings and in summary calls on HPRB to “[r]equire that the height be reduced.” The resolution further states that the [p]roject as proposed is taller than all of the adjacent buildings and out of character with the neighboring structures in the Meridian Hill Historic District.”

The resolution suggests alternative approaches to the project but further stipulates that “HPRB should insist that setbacks be increased “to avoid a ‘wall’ that would block vista views from Meridian Hill Park’s Grand Terrace and preserve the views of the White-Meyer House and Meridian House as one enters Belmont St. from 16th Street. A significant reduction in the height of the Project is warranted.”

The second provision of the resolution calls for HPRB to “[r]equire that the scale and massing be reduced,” citing the historic district and its specific design guidelines. The third provision calls for a requirement “that the materials be revised and enhanced,” noting that “the current designs indicate the use of six different materials, while other structures in the Historic District use only two or three different materials” and quotes once again from the design guidelines in support of this requirement.

A fourth provision was added to the committee’s drafted resolution dealing with the project’s entrance. Proposed by Commission Chair Simpson, it asks that HPRB “[r]equire a clearly defined central entrance on the 16th Street façade,” concluding that “[s]uch an entrance should utilize architectural and landscape hardscape and softscape elements that celebrate and are compatible with the Beaux-Arts classicism that defines 16th Street and Meridian Hill Park”; this was added to the resolution as a “friendly” amendment, and the resolution was adopted. The ANC’s resolution was to be forwarded immediately to the HPRB in time for consideration at its next monthly meeting on March 26, 2015 and thereafter.