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Historic Preservation Board Rebuffs Meridian International Developers

Accompanying images can be viewed in the May 2017 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz*

“It’s too damn tall.”

Those were the words of ANC 1C Chair Ted Guthrie as well was the refrain of many Meridian Hill Historic District community members at a contentious hearing of the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) on May 4th to consider revised plans for a high-rise luxury apartment building and conference center on the grounds of the Meridian International Center, which is across 16th Street from historic Meridian Hill Park.

 The city’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) recommended that HPRB approve the developers’ revised plans and design concept, but once again that outcome is far from certain, as the May 4th hearing and the board’s temporary action on the matter now indicate. By a vote of four to three, they have — for the fourth time — sent the developers back to create a yet another revised design concept.

[Editor’s Note: For our prior reporting about this proposed project, see “Opposition to Size of Meridian International Center’s 16th Street Planned Residential Tower and Conference Space Grows,” InTowner, July 2015.]

But representatives of real estate developer Westbrook Partners and architects Perkins Eastman certainly gave their best effort at the hearing. They testified that, in response to a second round of HPRB recommendations and community concerns, they were able to reduce the “perceived height” of the building on 16th Street by a step-back of the building’s 8th floor; reduce perceived mass of the building through a less contemporary design and more strategic arrangement of balconies; blend better with nearby buildings by switching to a masonry façade that also better matches in terms of color; and create a redesigned front entrance that is prominent, distinct, and therefore also in keeping with adjacent buildings.

 “We looked at removing one floor,” said Jon Cummings, a Westbrook director. “But that produced a squat-looking building that didn’t work.” He said the city has forbidden removal of the berm fronting on 16th Street — an earlier recommendation of the HPRB — that rises from the street and thereby affects the building’s overall height.

 Cummings did not explain a seeming contradiction that, somehow, a reduction in perceived height didn’t also produce a squat-looking building. Rather, he insisted that all previous changes recommended by HPRB needed to happen in concert because each change had significant impact on the overall look and feel of the building design.

 Despite the design changes and glossy presentation to HPRB, ANC 1C remains opposed to the project as do many smaller Meridian Hill neighborhood coalitions, condo boards of nearby buildings, and individual residents.

Amanda Fox Perry, the commissioner who represents the single member district in which the Meridian International Center is located, said at the hearing that the developers have not responded in good faith to community concerns and that plans for the building still do not comply with historic district guidelines.

“A reduction in height would be good faith,” Perry said. Yet the building remains eight stories tall. To Perry and many others, that means the developers need to take out at least one floor of the building.

She said the ANC remains extremely concerned about the impact on the Center’s two John Russell Pope-designed mansions — the White-Meyer and Meridian Houses — with their south-facing gardens potentially thrown under permanent shadow, and how the new apartment building might also obliterate views from several vantage points, including Meridian Hill Park.

 Commission Chair Guthrie summed up the angst of many residents: “Shame on you Meridian International. You have sold out for cash. This proposal is too tall. How many times do we have to say this?”

Meridian Center officials — none of whom testified at the hearing — have insisted from the time the project was first proposed to the city’s various review boards that a chief aim of their project is, in fact, historic preservation. At an April 2, 2015, HPRB hearing Meridian’s president, Ambassador Stuart Holliday, testified that Meridian urgently needs a funding mechanism to support its historic preservation expenses as well as capital improvements to the historic structures.

But Meridian has been rebuffed twice by HPRB — following again  the 2015 design review and after a December 2016 review in which board members voted four to one against the project. The board agreed with community members about height and massing of the apartment building as well as the need for a prominent 16th Street entrance to the building that would be more in character with other apartment buildings along that portion of 16th Street that runs parallel to Meridian Hill Park.

In a prepared statement, Westbrook states, “The project team has met with [HPRB] staff several times to discuss the evolution of the design and has subsequently revised and refined the design of the new building accordingly.” The project team has had six meetings with neighbors and members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, additional calls with interested people, and met with the ANC’s Planning, Zoning, and Transportation Committee and the full ANC as the design has evolved; community outreach on this revised design has been extensive.”

But HPRB Chair Marnique Heath, Joseph Taylor, and other board members kept circling back to the issue of the building’s height. They said they didn’t quite comprehend the argument that the building height couldn’t be lowered by one floor and wished the developers had brought some evidence to back up their testimony.

Of the studies of building height the developers mentioned, Heath said to their team, “I want to know what it was you were looking at and why it didn’t work.”

 * Associate Editor William G. Schulz, a resident of Dupont Circle since the 1980s, has been a journalist specializing in science and investigative reporting for over 30 years.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.