Georgetown Current

Canoe Club Building Slated for Upgrades

April 27, 2017

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

The Washington Canoe Club has stood at 3700 Water St. NW in Georgetown since 1905, with several additions expanding its footprint over the decades. In 1991, the National Park Service-owned site earned distinction as a historic landmark.

But since 2010, the club has been forced to make do largely outside the historic boathouse building — the majority of the two-story, 11,240-square-foot facility is unsafe for occupation, according to the Park Service. Now the club’s robust selection of canoes and other watercraft sit outside, and users endure portable toilets and outdoor rinse showers in lieu of indoor facilities.

Members are enthusiastic, however, about a plan to restore and even upgrade the boathouse. Earlier this year, the club announced a partnership with Georgetown-based design firm Cox Graae + Spack Architects, which is now working on a preliminary report on possible short- and long-term improvements. Those findings could be available as early as June, according to the firm’s Chris Graae.

Progress can’t come soon enough for the canoe club’s members, who have dismissed out of hand the possibility of demolishing the building or relocating. The club also hopes to secure soon a 60-year renewal of its lease with the National Park Service, which took over the property from the now-defunct C&O Canal Co. in 1971.

“We’ve got this building that’s very expensive to fix up. It’s not ideal,” said Chris Brown, chair of the club’s Boathouse Rehabilitation Committee. “But we’re committed to making it happen. We can’t really see any other alternatives for ourselves.”

The boathouse renovation could require several phases over as much as a decade. (Photo by: Susann Shin/The Current) The boathouse renovation could require several phases over as much as a decade.

An engineer estimated that a full slate of repairs could cost well over $5 million, including fees and contingencies. The club  — which has 225 individual and family members, as well as a handful of junior members and out-of-towners — doesn’t have the reserves for such an undertaking, according to Brown. The bulk of the renovations will rely on donations from members, corporations and the general public, he said.

Thus far, the National Park Service has indicated to Brown that its funding priorities are larger projects like the C&O Canal restoration. Agency spokesperson Ben Helwig said officials haven’t made any funding decisions on the boathouse work.

When most of the club’s functions left the building seven years ago, members fretted about the long-term future of the organization. Early concerns were unfounded, though; after a brief drop in membership, users returned, and the club’s broad range of events and offerings resumed, serving casual river users and athletes alike. In addition to recreational activities, the club frequently hosts youth groups and community events like the annual Potomac River Cleanup.

Still, the building itself, which also includes a ballroom that fits up to 150 people, has structural problems that will only worsen with time. The impact of sustained heavy snowfall remains a concern, though last year’s blizzard was less damaging than anticipated. Cox Graae + Spack hopes to identify relatively easy repairs while a more comprehensive renovation is funded over the next few years. “We want to make sure that if we can’t finish it for a decade, it will be standing,” Brown said.

Graae said his team is considering an approach that would bring the club operations back into the building’s eastern half while a longer repair effort addresses the older western portion. The boathouse was designed for its current purpose, which makes some renovation efforts easier, according to Graae. But the downside is that the building sits on a precarious, flood-prone point on the Potomac River. Any solution will require a delicate touch, as well as input from numerous review agencies including the Old Georgetown Board.

The renovation also comes amid change for the surrounding area. The National Park Service envisions three new boathouses and a new storage building at nearby sites along the Potomac, and the Georgetown Business Improvement District is working to improve Water and K streets, including replacing some parking spots with a bike lane.

The prospect of tighter parking constraints from both initiatives worries Brown, who sees persistent congestion in that area. He has been working with the business group’s transportation manager Will Handsfield on the possibility of using space in nearby commercial parking garages.

This article appears in the April 26 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Upgrades to ‘Gateways’ Pitched in Georgetown

April 20, 2017

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

Five key “gateways” to Georgetown could see upgraded surroundings next year as part of the Georgetown Business Improvement District’s ongoing effort to redesign areas that currently create underwhelming first impressions of the historic neighborhood.

The business group has hired design firm Beyer Blinder Belle — which has offices at 3307 M St. NW, in the center of the neighborhood — to develop concept designs for small-scale improvements to the neighborhood’s primary “gateways.” The firm’s first step earlier this year was to identify those gateways, of which they found five: both M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue just west of the Rock Creek Parkway; K Street near its intersection with 29th Street; Wisconsin Avenue near R Street; and the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge.

The exact nature of the improvements will remain up in the air until the end of the year. Ideas floated at an April 5 community meeting ranged from flowers and decorations to seating and signage. The project will be modest and won’t extend to redesigning street signs or other larger-scale work, according to the firm’s associate partner Kevin Storm.

According to the business group’s executive director Joe Sternlieb, the goal is to keep all efforts inexpensive and to seek government funding from agencies like the D.C. Commission on Arts and the Humanities if eventual designs are particularly appealing. Installations with high costs for ongoing maintenance won’t be feasible, Sternlieb said at the meeting.

Now the design team is working on what the business group calls a “kit of parts” — a holistic array of enhancement ideas that can be applied in varying degrees to each of the five locations.

A few residents at the April 5 meeting pointed out that Georgetown doesn’t currently lack spaces that could be defined as gateways, such as Book Hill Park behind the Georgetown Library. “The nature of ‘gateway’ in general in this neighborhood maybe requires a more subtle, nuanced project,” Storm said.

Storm’s group identified areas of possible improvement at each of the five locations, though. A park near the Key Bridge is disconnected from its surroundings, and vehicular congestion converges with pedestrians for an unholy mix of frustration. On Wisconsin, high walls nearby could be a launchpad for public artwork. The convergence of Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street could lend itself to a more pronounced design greeting westbound traffic. Blank stone walls and the drab structure of the Whitehurst Freeway above K Street could be spruced up.

Though most residents at the meeting appeared supportive of the initiative, a few cautioned against doing too much to meddle with the neighborhood’s existing character, or tackling each gateway in the same manner. One resident pointed to the Dumbarton Bridge on Q Street as an example of a gateway-like landmark that already exists.

This article appears in the April 19 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Old Georgetown Board Rejects Heating Plant Proposal

April 12, 2017

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

Long-gestating plans to redevelop the dormant West Heating Plant industrial site in Georgetown for residential use hit another snag last Thursday, when the Old Georgetown Board advised the project team to revise its design proposal with a closer eye toward preservation.

In particular, board members focused on the difference between rehabilitating an existing building with historic features and reinterpreting such a building for a new use. Developers have characterized the project as the latter, but members of the board, which reviews the design of projects in Georgetown’s federally protected historic district, said at Thursday’s meeting that they’re more inclined toward the former.

“There probably is a path here that is behind a couple layers of foliage that we could all get on and walk to a fantastic solution, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” board member Richard Williams said.

Plans to demolish all or most of the deteriorating heating plant at 2900 K St. NW site first surfaced in 2013 and subsequently underwent several rounds of Old Georgetown Board review with little success. Last month, the Levy Group and Adjaye Architects unveiled their latest designs for a six-story, 60-unit condominium building and an adjacent public park to largely favorable reviews from residents, but neighborhood leaders and other stakeholders were more divided. Overall, the board sided with the skeptics, asking architects to return with designs that reflect more careful attention to maintaining the building’s distinctive features.

Richard Levy of the Levy Group told The Current he found the board’s criticisms disappointing. “From our perspective, what they’re looking for is not in the community’s interest, is not in fact buildable,” Levy said in an interview Tuesday.

His team now plans to review all options before determining its next steps, he said.

At Thursday’s meeting, Tom Luebke — secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees the Old Georgetown Board — characterized the latest proposal as an attempt to “have your heating plant and eat it too.” In other words, he said, plans straddle the divide between preserving the existing site and replacing it with something substantially different.

Board members expressed concern regarding proposals to replace the existing skin of the building facades with more windows, soften some of the building corners and expand several side doors. The board’s Frederick Brangman also disputed the contention that the planned public park will be easily accessible to anyone other than residents of the adjacent building, arguing that its configuration — one story above the street, atop the building’s parking garage — wouldn’t be inviting.

The project team appeared prepared for some of these criticisms. Laurie Olin, a renowned landscape architect whose credits include New York’s Bryant Park, said he did everything he could to maximize access points. But a 20-to-21-foot flood wall on the park’s northern and eastern edges proved impossible to shrink due to zoning requirements, team members said.

The board’s criticisms likely cheered representatives of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the D.C. Preservation League and the Art Deco Society of Washington, all of whom urged the board to dismiss the proposal and direct the project team to return with a more sensitive treatment.

“Current proposed plans call for such a radical refashioning of the building’s original shell that it would be a shadow of its former self,” the Art Deco Society’s David Lefever said, reading a letter from Steve Knight, the group’s president. “We can’t help but wonder if the developer isn’t barking up the wrong tree.”

Jim Wilcox of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) brought up additional concerns that the project violates the D.C. Comprehensive Plan and jeopardizes a sewer line underneath the existing building.

But not everyone shares those concerns. All seven of Wilcox’s fellow ANC 2E members voted on April 4 to support the concept design. Citizens Association of Georgetown president Bob vom Eigen, along with several residents who can see the building from their homes, expressed glowing sentiments during the meeting.

The board did not review or comment on the demolition portion of the project, though several critics including Wilcox cited that piece of the plan among their reasons for opposing the overall application. Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League, said at the meeting that the site’s demolition would set a troubling precedent for future disposition of federally owned buildings with historic significance. But the project team’s Emily Eig argued that more analysis is necessary before the merits of demolition can be weighed.

Once the project clears the Old Georgetown Board, it will require review from the Commission of Fine Arts, the Historic Preservation Review Board and the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation before proceeding through the planned unit development zoning process, which allows construction of buildings with greater density in exchange for public benefits. Levy declined to offer a timetable for the development team’s next action, though he said he has no plans to abandon the project.

“If you had asked me when we acquired this building four years ago how long it was going to take, I would not have said we’d still be at this stage,” Levy said. “We have the community’s interest at heart, and we will continue to work with the community to see this get realized.”

This article appears in the April 12 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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