Georgetown Current

Georgetowners put their 'nesting instincts' to work refreshing local homes

February 2, 2011

By Beth Cope . . . .

Current Staff Writer . . . . .


As kids, Georgetown residents and new business partners Karen Murphy and Robin Jones watched their mothers make house -- a lot.

“I grew up in a military family, and we moved all the time,” said Jones. “My mother, she really had the touch.”

“I do think that we were influenced by our mothers in that they had to make a temporary space a home,” said Murphy, whose father was also in the Navy. “They had to use what they had. They didn’t want to buy things specific to that space every time.”

And that’s just the concept at work in Jones and Murphy’s new business, Refresh Your Nest. The company uses the things you have -- and a few purchased touches -- to upgrade your home.

“A lot of people don’t need a decorator per se … and they kind of like the stuff that they have,” said Jones. “But they want to bring some current style and trends into the house.”

The new job marks a pretty big makeover for Jones and Murphy as well. The former recently moved to Georgetown from Frederick, Md., after selling her public relations/ad agency. And Murphy, who uprooted from Atlanta about seven years ago, has worked as a senior vice president for Smith Barney and Bank of America.

But both say their design roots go deep. Perhaps in part because of their mothers’ influences, both have the “nesting instinct,” said Murphy.

Evenings at Murphy’s childhood homes featured the scraping sounds of the only child’s desire for dynamic décor: She rearranged her bedroom furniture constantly. She also created her own accessories, including a “Flower Power” sign made of shelf paper for the wall of her beige/orange/brown room. (“It was the late ’60s,” she explained.)

In Maryland, Jones was doing the same thing, moving her furniture constantly and making her own decorations. “I was like a little Martha Stewart,” she said. “I had a sewing machine and I was making curtains.” Her bedroom color? All purple.

Jones carried her redecorating interest throughout her young-adult years, when she redid the kitchen of every apartment she rented in black and white, even spray-painting one avocado-green refrigerator white. “And I’d take the icky cabinet doors off and I’d stack the dishes,” she said. “I increased the value of all the places I lived in.”

As a young professional, she translated that design interest into fashion, working in New York for Ralph Lauren and Christian Dior. Family changes brought her back to Maryland, and then to Georgetown, where she met Murphy thanks to a little family matchmaking.

“Her daughter, who was working at Clyde’s one summer, waited on me,” said Murphy. Eyeing Murphy’s group of friends, Jones’ daughter suggested an addition to their posse -- her new-to-Georgetown mom -- and Murphy took her up on it. The two women clicked.

Now they’re excited to be working together. Their first client is a local cooking school that “has a little bit of a mom and pop feel,” said Jones. “We need to help them elevate the image of the studio a little bit so it fits the caliber of the clients they’re starting to attract.”

And they’re looking forward to their first residential clients. Projects will begin with a sit-down to assess the customers’ wants and tastes. “What do they want the feel of the room to be?” said Jones. “Can we shop the whole house [for furniture and accessories]? Are we doing the whole floor?”

She and Murphy will return with recommendations based on the budget -- ideas like paint colors, new fabrics and new layouts -- but they won’t force anything on anybody. “We’re not there to tell them what to do; we’re there to make our recommendations and carry out what they have asked us to do,” said Jones. “We’re collaborating with them.”

The whole process, including bringing in painters and moving furniture, could take just a day or two. And charges will be levied per room.

The pair also offers staging services, preparing homes for sale by reducing clutter, for instance. Though they note that clutter reduction can also be wonderful for someone who is staying put, too.

“If your kids always leave their shoes at the door, there’s often a nook where you can put a basket where they can put them,” said Murphy, noting that entryways are a good place to vastly improve a room. “I sort of start there, because you find that that’s where things start falling apart.”

More information on Refresh Your Nest is at

This article appears in the Feb. 2 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Impasse holds on GU campus plan

January 26, 2011

By Carol Buckley,  Current Staff Writer . . .


Georgetown University officials and neighborhood leaders squared off last week to reprise now-familiar arguments over the school’s recently filed campus plan.

A crowd filed into the auditorium at Duke Ellington School of the Arts Thursday evening to offer opinions to advisory neighborhood commissioners, who were flanked on the stage by university representatives and leaders of community associations in the Georgetown, Burleith, Foxhall and Hillandale neighborhoods.

The neighborhood commission, which is accorded great weight in city processes, will take a position on the plan at its next meeting. Barring any huge surprises between now and then, all commissioners save one -- student representative Jake Sticka -- are expected to oppose the document, which outlines the school’s growth over the next decade.

Debate centered on the predictable hot topics: housing and student conduct. But the evening also revealed a surprising number of unanswered questions as the university and neighbors prepare for April’s zoning hearing on the campus plan.

The most significant of those up-in-the-air issues is a longstanding question mark: Georgetown University Hospital, which the campus plan now subjects to a phased renovation that neighbors worry would lead to years of construction noise and traffic disruption.

But university representative Spiros Dimolitsas confirmed that the school and hospital operator MedStar have been in talks to find a new site for the hospital. Georgetown will work to amend the filed plan if an agreement is reached to build a new facility in one go, he added.

Dimolitsas fueled speculation that the on-campus North Kehoe field is the front-runner location for a new hospital; he said planners have considered whether a medical facility there would make it difficult to route a proposed “loop” road along the western edge of campus, but added that “we don’t think it would be a problem.”

But if the field is available for a new hospital, why can’t it host a new dormitory now, wondered some neighbors at the meeting. Other residents have hoped along the way that the current hospital site could hold dorms once a new hospital is built.

But that’s years away, pointed out commissioner Tom Birch. “To hang our hopes in this plan” that the fate of the hospital will fix housing is a “sorry fiction,” he said.

Transportation issues are another blind spot in the town-gown debate surrounding the plan. University official Karen Frank said traffic consultants have issued a preliminary plan and are working on updates now.

With a proposed increase of 2,100 graduate students -- although some will likely use satellite locations -- the current traffic scenario is likely to change over the next decade. Although the campus plan calls for more bicycle facilities and encourages ride-sharing, the simultaneous proposal for an additional 1,000 parking spots -- 750 for the hospital, 250 for the school -- will counter those efforts, said resident Topher Mathews, author of neighborhood blog Georgetown Metropolitan.

“New parking spaces will draw more drivers,” he said at the meeting.

Neighbors and university representatives also sparred over the proposed one-way loop road -- a low-boil issue that has gained momentum since the plan’s filing. The road, now used only by service vehicles, would route university buses from the Canal Road entrance through campus and back again. It would skirt Glover Archbold Park on the western edge of campus.

Foxhall advisory neighborhood commissioner Kent Slowinski noted that the existing service road has collapsed before and can’t support buses or school shuttles. A landscape architect, Slowinski added that he had developed two alternatives to the road that would allow buses to turn around within campus.

But the crucial objection -- that the road would be on a scenic easement established by the National Park Service in 2003 and would therefore violate that agreement -- is unfounded, said the university’s Frank.

“The road is not on the scenic easement at all,” she said.

But transportation issues and the hospital’s location were only bookends to the night’s main event: the dispute about undergraduate housing.

Georgetown University students made a strong showing Thursday to voice support for the plan, with one undergraduate offering a petition with more than 700 signatories -- few of whom, however, are identified as District residents.

The turnout perhaps reflected an ever-more-heated debate that has raged online since the campus plan was filed. Students have marveled at neighbors who move close to a university but complain about student behavior, and ad hominem attacks on local activists have increased. Neighbors have also taken to the virtual fora, often tarring the student population with one brush as loud, dirty and drunken.

Dialogue was more civil Thursday, with a few residents noting that they welcome living close to some undergraduate renters -- but the concentration has grown too great, they argued.

The two years of discussions that preceded the campus plan were awash in data from the school and residents supporting their positions. Thursday, neighborhood activists offered new figures as a challenge to the university’s claim that it’s doing a good job housing undergraduates on campus.

According to school officials, more than 80 percent of undergraduates live on campus -- more than any D.C. university save Gallaudet. But citizen groups passed out a tally Thursday that questioned that statistic; if the housing percentage is calculated using the higher total undergraduate enrollment -- including older and continuing studies students, rather than just “traditional” students -- the school houses 67 percent of its undergrads.

And Georgetown and Burleith are different from most areas surrounding D.C. schools, say neighbors. In both historic neighborhoods, an increase in student residents leads to more homes becoming group rentals. In other spots, apartment buildings can absorb extra demand.

At American University, for example, where officials are aiming to add hundreds of new beds on-campus, about 1,100 undergraduates now live off-campus but in the surrounding neighborhood. Of those, according to university figures, more than 600 live in two large apartment buildings on Massachusetts Avenue.

Group homes, which neighbors say generate the bulk of trash and noise complaints, are also less common at the Ward 3 school. American has identified 47 homes in several surrounding neighborhoods as group homes rented by undergraduates.

In Georgetown and Burleith -- where a roughly similar number of undergraduates live -- neighbors opposing the campus plan have counted 230 properties used as group rentals by graduate and undergraduate students. Of those, the most densely packed homes house undergraduates.

According to university figures, about 60 percent of undergraduates living in Burleith and 45 percent of those in West Georgetown live in homes that house four students or more. For graduate students, about 30 percent in Burleith live with three or more roommates, while all in West Georgetown live in less crowded settings.

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

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Watergate fights Park Service on new trees

January 19, 2011

The National Park Service faced off this month against angry residents of the Watergate complex who fear some newly planted sycamore trees in Rock Creek Park will block their views and lower their property values.

Caught in the middle of a surprisingly contentious dispute, the National Capital Planning Commission blinked. At its Jan. 6 meeting, the commission voted 8-2 to put off for one month a final vote on new plantings, pathways and other improvements to the narrow strip of parkland that borders the Potomac River near the Watergate. Commissioners have asked the Park Service to see if it can find shorter trees.

“It’s a shame we’re at this point, since the waterfront project has generated so much goodwill,” said Rob Miller, who represents Mayor Vincent Gray on the commission. “Is there any interest in exploring alternatives?”

“I’m sympathetic to the Watergate, but aware of the precedent,” said Harriet Tregoning, the D.C. planning director who also sits on the federal commission. “We have hundreds of trees planted by the river.If every time someone’s view is obstructed, we cut trees down, it would be devastating to the city.”

But even Tregoning wondered if shorter trees would do. “Can they be trimmed?” she asked Park Service officials.

At issue is the last phase of a waterfront improvement project that has transformed the paved-over banks of the Potomac in Georgetown into a park, and installed a bike path and separate pedestrian “promenade” from Thompson Boat Center to the Kennedy Center.

Together, the park and new paths fill the last gap in a roughly 200-mile stretch of trail from Cumberland, Md., to Mount Vernon. This last phase improves public access to a busy stretch of shoreline. It has been widely praised, except for the row of sycamores that the Park Service planted in 2009 to restore trees that lined the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway in the early 20th century. Some died off over time, but the Park Service for many decades didn’t have the money to replace them.

The parkway is a national landmark, its landmark nomination specifically citing “the widely spaced allée of sycamore trees [that] function as a graceful transition between the monumentally designed national Mall and the natural landscape of the Rock Creek Valley.”

Thus the young sycamores that line the west side of the parkway are “historically accurate.” But since mature sycamores can reach up 60 to 70 feet, they could also grow to block the treasured river views from the pricey cooperatives, offices and hotel rooms of the Watergate, built in the 1950s and also a national landmark.

The planning commission, without debate, signed off on the general concept for the park project in 2006. But the Park Service has since tweaked the plan, and residents of the Watergate were so upset about the sycamore trees they insisted the planning commission review it again even though construction is essentially complete.

The residents are asking the Park Service to remove nine or 10 sycamores, replant them where they would be more welcome, and replace them with shorter-growing trees or shrubs. Residents and owners of the co-op complex have even offered to bear the cost.

Debate over the sycamores pits concerns about historic preservation and the environmental benefits of trees -- shade, cooling, and better air and water quality -- against fears of Watergate residents and owners that blocked views will dramatically lower their property values.

That debate came to a head at the planning commission’s hearing.

“Nobody is against trees, but these are so large, a green wall that would totally wipe out the river vista,” testified Nancy Hicks of Watergate East. Hicks said she had recently refinanced her co-op, and that the appraiser specifically noted her river view in setting the value. “All of Foggy Bottom will be impacted in a negative way, with declining property values if river views are destroyed,” she said.

Liz Sara, representing Watergate South, predicted declining sale prices at the complex would “drag down” other real estate prices in Foggy Bottom. Sara called the Park Service’s decision to restore an 80-year-old landscape plan along the parkway “unreasonable and rigid.”

“A 1930s plan could not possibly take into account the evolution of this particular neighborhood,” she said.

Real estate agent Katrina Piano injected a touch of irony, pointing out that waterfront views at the Watergate had become even more desirable with “Roosevelt Island and the shoreline of Georgetown, which has become so beautiful with improvements the Park Service has done.”

The Foggy Bottom advisory neighborhood commission, Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans and D.C. Del. Eleanor Homes Norton submitted statements urging replacement of the sycamores with shorter trees or shrubs.

The Park Service’s position was unyielding.

Steve Lorenzetti, deputy director for the National Mall and the monuments, said replacement of trees -- even those that died decades ago -- is Park Service policy and does not require public hearings or approval.

“These trees pre-dated and post-date the Watergate,” Lorenzetti said. “In the late ’70s, we were not as efficient in replacing trees, and now we’re finally able to replace them.” He said the agency was unaware of any opposition before the sycamores went in.

Lorenzetti also explained why other species would not do. The sycamore, he said, “is a fine tree for us, because they climb up high, so the view [for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists on the parkway] is maintained. … A lower tree will not give you that boulevard, that majestic sense.”

Peter May, an associate regional director with the National Park Service who also sits on the planning commission, said some community residents “strongly support” the new sycamore trees.

“We’re sensitive to this, but there’s a broader benefit that goes beyond people immediately impacted,” he said.

The planning commissioners were clearly torn. They asked if other trees, or perhaps another species of sycamore, could accomplish the Park Service’s goal. “You’d get a funny allée, not a uniform allée,” Lorenzetti replied.

“Would the offer from property owners to pay for removal be accepted?” asked Bradley Provancha, representing the U.S. Department of Defense.

“We’ve never gotten to the funding aspect, because we’re dealing with the historic aspect,” Lorenzetti said.

Miller moved to table a vote for one month and asked the Park Service to research other types of trees.

Tregoning seconded the motion. “I’m not convinced we couldn’t meet the historic plan, yet mitigate some of the concerns of the Watergate residents,” she said.

May and Mina Wright, representing the U.S. General Services Administration, were the only dissenters.

Asked if the delay will cause the Park Service any problems, May acknowledged approval is “not time- sensitive” because construction is already complete.



Current Staff Writer

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

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