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Meridian Hill Project Gets Cool Reception from Preservation Board; Design Requires Changes

Accompanying images can be viewed in the April 2015 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

A full house packed the large hearing room for the April 2, 2015 meeting of the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) to hear the Board’s consideration of the Meridian International Center’s proposal to construct an “L”-shaped building to the east of the Center’s two national historic landmarked mansions — the White-Meyer House and Meridian House — which sit on the Center’s wholly occupied multi-acreage self-contained property between Crescent Place on the north and Belmont Street on the south, and between 16th and 17th Streets in the newly established Meridian Hill Historic District.

These two existing John Russell Pope-designed mansions face Crescent Place, with their south-facing rear garden terraces high above and overlooking Belmont Street, and the eastern end providing a sweeping view down the slope to 16th Street and the expanse of Meridian Hill Park and the flat plain of Florida Avenue — Washington City’s original Boundary Street.

The proposed new building would be constructed on the site of the Center’s garden-like side yard space, currently used as both a small park and a parking lot between the White-Meyer House and 16th Street. The conceptual design for the building is by well-known Washington architect Shalom Baranes and is essentially of two parts, one being the building’s elevation facing Crescent, the other facing 16th Street. A location for a small entrance to the new building is proposed at the corner of Belmont and 16th Streets adjacent to the entrance to a motor court that would serve the staff and attendees of Meridian’s new office and conference center space, which will include a 300-seat auditorium — together with that of residents and guests of the new building’s 130 condominium apartments.

The new structure would be nine stories tall at the top of the 16th Street side’s high berm and step down to six stories on the Crescent Place side. Two levels of underground parking would be provided and a small green lawn space and underground access would connect the new construction with the White-Meyer House and by extension with Meridian House.

[For an account of the opposition by neighbors and the Dupont Circle ANC to the initial design proposals, see “Strong Community Opposition Emerges Over Asserted Out-of-Scale Building Project on 16th Street in Meridian Hill Historic District,” March 2015 issue pdf page 1; http://tinyurl.com/qcv2vsc.]

The Historic Preservation Office’s (HPO) carefully crafted eight-page, single spaced staff review and analysis of this complex proposal is not for the faint hearted nor for those not steeped in the arcane ways of the District’s bureaucratic rules and regulations – nor, for that matter, in the procedures and precedents of the Board itself.

While the HPRB constantly reminds applicants and witnesses that the Board does not deal with zoning, building code, and land use issues nor those dealing with money and economic consequences but only historic preservation issues, the Meridian case began and concluded with these very zoning, land use, and money issues as the driving force propelling the project forward — in this case, providing the Meridian International Center with a financial engine to fund its continuing restoration and preservation of the two John Russell Pope-designed mansions by means of a partnership between Meridian and Streetscape Partners, represented on this project by Andrew Altman who had served as the director of the Office of Planning in Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration.

This matter of creating a source of assured income was addressed by Ambassador Stuart Holliday, Meridian’s president, who spoke briefly at the start of witness testimony on the need for a funding mechanism to support the Center’s vital historic preservation expenses; 90 percent of which, Holliday stated, are provided by federal government grants — but none of those grants provide any funds for capital improvements and historic preservation. Fellow Meridian board member and committee chair F. Joseph Moravec provided spirited testimony lauding Meridian’s stewardship of its historic properties.

Accomplishing the creation of this commercial real estate arrangement entailed a contortionist twisting by HPO and HPRB of two diametrically opposed concepts — first, to consider this proposed new construction as being an addition to the White-Meyer House for the purpose of combining differently zoned lots so as to increase allowable floor to area ratio, i.e. density, for the project; secondly, to assert that it is not an addition and is simply new construction for an entirely separate structure — this for the purpose of avoiding the far stricter review standards for additions to historic landmarked structures. While perhaps understandable from the possible motivations — maybe even justifiable — of HPRB, it nonetheless serves to puzzle and confuse the community as to the real purposes of historic preservation, especially given the community’s recent and well organized efforts — which were successful — to create the Meridian Hill Historic District in an attempt to further protect such sites as the White-Meyer and Meridian House landmarks from just such large and seemingly inappropriate development proposals.

DC historic preservation terms of art — “subdividing” meaning “adding” or double negatives like “not incompatible” — and HPO staff skill at finding desired precedents among previous, often contradictory actions of the Board add to those actions that further lose community support for the District’s historic preservation program. “Not incompatible” is hopefully on the way out as an accepted term of art, and it appears to be in its absence on the eighth page of the staff report and recommendations for this application.

One consolation for students of the District’s historic preservation process may be a step toward candor in the HPO’s revealing paragraph in its published report noting that “the project is a partnership between Meridian and the development entities and is intended to provide Meridian not only with improved meeting facilities but funds to allow it to continue its on-going restoration of the landmarks in accordance with a preservation plan prepared in 2005 by Archetype, and to establish an endowment for the properties’ long term maintenance. Over the past ten years, Meridian has completed a number of substantial restoration and rehabilitation projects, and was presented with a DC historic preservation award for Excellence in Stewardship in 2013.”

Attendees at the lengthy HPRB hearing were nonetheless presented with an engaging and swiftly moving illustrated presentation — complete with new slides and architectural renderings — by project architect Shalom Baranes, prefaced by his lengthy disquisition on zoning and land use. Witnesses were then called to testify by HPRB Chair Gretchen Phaehler. Those who had read the staff report and recommendations were well aware of a probable foregone conclusion for the hearing — HPRB hearings tend to be more like meetings with public remarks, the meetings being scheduled when HPO and HPRB are ready to dispose of a matter; thus the testimony was somewhat muted. Such testimony was further constricted by a three-minute time limit for the witnesses, most of whom had provided lengthy statements which explored in detail HPRB’s general guidelines for adaptive re-use and new construction projects in historic districts and adjacent or part of landmark structures, and specific guidelines for the Meridian Hill Historic District.

Chair Phaehler publicly commended the witness for the high quality and relevance of their testimony, but no additional time was granted — and indeed, the cast of witnesses was exemplary in both knowledge and eloquence, beginning with such witnesses as Adams Morgan ANC Commissioner and Chair of its Planning, Zoning, and Transportation Committee JonMark Buffa; Rebecca Miller, Executive Director of the DC Preservation League; Stephen R. McKevitt, author of Meridian Hill: a History; Beekman Place Condominium Association board Vice President Pete Quinnan; Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association President Maureen Gallagher; Bob Cook on behalf of Frederick W.H. Carter, president of the board of directors of 1661 Crescent Place; and noted landscape architect and retired federal official Darwina L. Neal submitted a letter carefully analyzing and explaining her objections. Neal’s and the 1661 Crescent Place’s lengthy letter — both of which were new and recent submissions to the Board — were magisterial.

All of these witnesses were opposed to the project as conceptualized in the application, primarily on grounds of inappropriate height and massing; the lack of setbacks that respected the setbacks on Crescent Place of the White-Meyer and Meridian mansions; the failure to respect the rhythm of existing buildings, especially that of the slope of building heights as Meridian Hill descends southward to Florida Avenue; the materials and the number of different materials being proposed for the new building; and the building’s orientation, i.e., the front façade and the entrance as designed as well as its overall design. The impact on views to and from Meridian Hill Park by the proposed new structures was also raised.

Approximately 15 or more additional individual witnesses testified, all but three joining in opposition to the project. Of these three, only former Adams Morgan ANC Commissioner Kathie Boettrich is a nearby neighbor of the Meridian International Center in the Reed-Cooke neighborhood.

Meridian Crescent condominium residents — also spirited in their opposition to the proposed new project — joined in the fray; one of them amused the audience by asserting that he had seen a look-a-like building to that designed for Meridian by Shalom Baranes sitting downtown in the new City Center where, he commented, its architectural design was far more appropriate there than on the Meridian Hill site. Shalom Baranes’ only response to this, and the overwhelming criticism at the hearing of his conceptual design, was to assert that the Beekman Place Condominium had been deemed non-contributing to the Meridian Hill Historic District and thus did not have to be taken into consideration when designing the proposed building.

HPRB concluded the hearing with its questions and reactions to the proposed project and to the HPO staff report, with extensive comments from board members D. Graham Davidson, Maria Casarella, Nancy Metzger, and Andrew Aurbach centering on keeping the 16th Street berm, which corresponds to the slope and wall directly across the street bordering Meridian Hill Park, and protecting the berm’s mature trees; consideration of a Crescent Place or the 16th Street berm as the entrance to the new building, including consideration of a Crescent Place entrance for the conference center and a 16th Street entrance for the residential tower; rethinking how the building works at the corner of 16th Street and Crescent Place; the conformance of the design of bays on those two sides of the building with those of the historic district; softening the commercial look of the façades; incorporating the penthouse structure into the design; general support for pulling the new building away from White-Meyer; and a re-engagement of the District’s transportation department and its Urban Forestry Administration on how to incorporate the berm into the proposed new building as well as how to engage the 16th Street streetscape with the project.

In a dour and seemingly resigned mode, Davidson characterized the project’s design as being “International Style, third generation, [one] that could be anywhere”; continuing, he added that the “new development should relate to each side of [the] neighborhood style.” Furthermore, he observed, “It’s a building that would look very odd from the moment it’s built.” Nancy Metzger offered her reaction to the building’s height, which she found, especially coming up 16th Street, very jarring.

In addition to her own individual comments and questions, Chair Phaehler summarized the Board’s decision by articulating the following: the Board supports the staff report with the subdivision of the parking lot with that of the White-Meyer House, and with the finding that visibility issues have been found to be compatible, with, however the caveats that the entrance must be rethought — either 16th Street or Crescent Place — [the current design] does not announce a new conference center and residential tower, said Phaehler; the design needs to respond better to the John Russell Pope-designed mansions; and the penthouse structures need to be put into the formal design, with no position being taken by the Board on the question of lowering the height by removing a floor until the design is reworked. Adoption of the motion was unanimous.