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The Masons Get a Qualified Approval from HPRB Subject to Approval of Revised Design Changes

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the December 2018 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz

The neighbors hate it, but DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) on Nov. 29th, gave a qualified green light to the design for a proposed rental apartment building that would sit behind the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple at 1733 16th Street, NW — a national monument on the order of the Jefferson or Lincoln memorials and designed by celebrated architect John Russell Pope.

The Masons own the vacant lot where they would like to build the apartment building — at 15th and S Streets and extending south on 15th to mid-block. Income derived from the development would help fund the organization and its activities

As we reported last month, because the small-scale project is residential only, the Masons have the right to build without requesting any zoning changes from the city.

But opposition to the plan is mounting, especially because the Masons are holding on to their request for a $22 million tax abatement for the project — opposed by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and the city’s chief financial officer — money they say is needed to  make repairs and renovations to the Temple itself.

As well, it may be a public relations blunder that no representative of the Masons, other than their outside lobbyist former DC Councilmember John Ray, has appeared at any of several community meetings to discuss the project — including the always-important HPRB hearing. In the vacuum have arisen charges that the Masons are sexist in their membership requirements and have a history of racism.

Outgoing ANC 2B04 commissioner Nick Delledonne led opposition rallies on the steps of the Temple on November 18th and then again on the 29th just outside 1 Judiciary Square where HPRB was shortly to hold its hearing.

Opponents of the project include homeowners, renters and other individuals along with the Dupont Circle Citizen’s Association and the Dupont Circle Conservancy, which asked for the removal of the top two stories of the building and preservation of green space in the city’s urban core. Another concern is that the building appears too commercial, more in keeping with the 14th Street one block east rather than the leafy, east Dupont enclave between 14th and 16th Streets.

Discussion among HPRB members was sympathetic to these points. Board member Gretchen Pfaehler cited several examples throughout the city where monumental structures are surrounded by green, open spaces.

HPRB member Outerbridge Horsey said that opening the view from 15th Street would be “magical,” though it may mean dividing the building in two.

And member Chris Landis said, “If any part of the city needs a park, this is it. If the city can offer Amazon $1 billion, it can give you a park.”

Although part of the lot right now does consist of manicured green space, it’s difficult to see how the city could suddenly seize the property and/or force the Masons to turn it into a city park. The other part of the lot is an unkempt parking area that could also be described as an eyesore.

But the apartment building project is a long ways from a groundbreaking, despite any momentum the Masons might have. HPRB has requested design changes from developer Perseus, whose building plans will thus have to be re-presented. The developer has pledged allegiance to the project even if the tax abatement request fails, but if the building is scaled down much further as well, the accounting could become difficult for a smallish local builder that understandably would like to turn a profit.

Nevertheless, board members otherwise found the “general concept for new construction and subdivision compatible with the landmark, the 16th Street and the 14th Street historic districts.”

HPRB, however, specifically requested the following:

The floor-to-floor heights should be reduced to 10 feet on the above-grade floors to lower the building’s height and bring its proportions closer to those found in the historic district;

The proportional size of the windows should be reduced and the design of the windows re-studied to have greater variety to be more in character with the surrounding residential neighborhood;

The extent of glazing and width of the projections in the corner pavilions should be reduced;

The pavilion on S Street and its penthouse should be pulled back to open up views to, and provide a more deferential relationship, to the Temple. Redesigning this element as a continuation of the row house vocabulary should be considered;

The stair to the basement areaway should be relocated to the courtyard so that it is not visible from public street;

The cladding materials should be selected to ensure that they are commensurate with the neighborhood and not too dark, and final selection should be made by erecting on-site mock ups;

The landscape plan should be developed with evergreen plantings to screen the basement areaway and guardrail, and to provide the impression from the street that the building sits on a base surrounded by foundation plantings.

When Perseus comes back with a design revision HPRB will hold another hearing — and the opponents are sure to make sure they are heard, too.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.