Georgetown Current

Heating Plant Receives Landmark Designation

November 9, 2017


Current Staff Writer

The West Heating Plant is now a historic landmark, presenting a potential obstacle to the site’s long-planned redevelopment into luxury apartments and a public park.

The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board voted 5-3 in favor of landmark designation last Thursday, reversing its earlier determination that the 1948 heating plant is unworthy of such a status. Members had planned to review the redevelopment plans — which include largely demolishing the vacant industrial building — but pushed deliberations off to Nov. 16 due to time constraints.

Regardless of the plant’s new landmark status, the project team has no current plans to alter designs for the 110-foot, 60-unit luxury apartment house and 1-acre park.

“Obviously we are very disappointed. It was an unprecedented decision by the board,” developer Richard Levy of the Levy Group told The Current. “But it doesn’t change anything.”

Because the heating plant was already a contributing building to the Georgetown Historic District, the planned demolition needed approval by the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation — who can overrule preservation concerns for an overriding public interest — even before the individual landmark designation. Levy said the team will make its case in January.

The latest landmark application was the DC Preservation League’s second attempt at designating the plant, after the preservation board narrowly rejected a previous attempt in 2015. The organization cited the plant’s historical and artistic significance as grounds for its designation. Completed in 1948, the Georgetown plant was built to serve new federal buildings and relieve Southwest’s overworked Central Heating Plant.

“The size and massing gives the building a monumental presence near the Georgetown waterfront,” Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League, said at the Nov. 2 hearing. The West Heating Plant represents a shift from art deco to the “minimalist moderne style,” Miller said, evident in its “smooth wall plains, linear brick corner embellishments and subtle architectural details.”

The Historic Preservation Office backed the landmark designation, opposing redevelopment plans because the current designs do not “achieve meaningful historic preservation,” according to the agency’s report. The staff also raised questions about the proposed 110-foot height, asking whether it was compatible with the Georgetown Historic District.

The proposal has won broad support from the Georgetown community and federal stakeholders. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved the designs in May, while Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith), the Citizens Association of Georgetown and the Friends of Georgetown Waterfront Park also support the plans.

Richard Hinds, general counsel for the Georgetown Citizens Association, said the Historic Preservation Review Board “made a mistake” with its designation. “The fact that it’s a landmark adds a certain extra hurdle that the developer has to meet,” Hinds said.

Developers contend that the plant is beyond repair. Joel Silverman, the development’s head of construction, said at the meeting the site “is not a building” but rather an “enclosure for a steam plant.” The only viable wall, Silverman said, is on the west side at 29th Street. More than 80 percent of the structure is not laterally supported, Silverman added, meaning it doesn’t have horizontal slabs.

“It was not designed to do anything other than to simply house steam boilers,” Silverman said. Meanwhile, although the steam boilers protected the building from moisture when they were operating, deterioration has escalated since the plant closed nearly 20 years ago. The site is also infested with harmful chemicals, including mercury, lead, asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyl, he said.

Critics of the current proposal argue that the development team should have recognized the constraints presented by the building’s condition when they purchased the property from the General Services Administration at auction in early 2013.

This article appears in the Nov. 8 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Georgetown Kicks Off New Main Street

November 2, 2017

By Zoe Morgan

Current Correspondent

Georgetown has become the latest neighborhood to join the DC Main Streets program, with a planned focus on attracting and maintaining small businesses along the neighborhood’s Wisconsin Avenue corridor.

The Georgetown Main Street group has received a one-year, $175,000 grant from the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development to revitalize the area on, and directly surrounding, Wisconsin Avenue from the waterfront north to Whitehaven Parkway. The city’s seed money is intended to help get the new nonprofit off the ground and is renewable, however Georgetown Main Street will also need to secure its own additional funding.

“The impetus for starting a Main Street is to support the small businesses that are currently on Wisconsin Avenue,” Georgetown Business Association president Sonya Bernhardt told The Current. “And the reason why we are particularly interested in small businesses is because they provide a unique flavor to a community and they are original.” The business group applied for the city’s grant to start the local Main Street, though the new group will function independently, said Bernhardt, owner and publisher of The Georgetowner.

Bernhardt said that the Main Street group wants to retain the small businesses already present along Wisconsin Avenue and attract more to the corridor’s empty storefronts. In particular, she is interested in bringing new restaurants to Georgetown able to match the award-winning eateries operating in other parts of the city.

“We want to be able to create an environment that’s attractive for small businesses,” Bernhardt said. “And to be able to be a supporting arm, and someone that they can lean on, when they get into a situation, or when they need some help.”

Although Bernhardt said it’s premature to know what specific programs and initiatives the group will pursue, organizers intend for Georgetown Main Street to complement the long-running efforts of the neighborhood’s business improvement district through its focus on small businesses in the Wisconsin corridor — rather than on all commercial enterprises, large and small, throughout Georgetown. Unlike the Georgetown BID, which receives a portion of commercial property taxes to fund large-scale programs, the Main Street will rely on donations and grants for its more targeted initiatives.

There are currently 16 Main Street groups recognized by the District, focused on revitalizing existing commercial areas. The groups are generally led by volunteers overseen by one full-time staff member. Other recently established Main Streets include Lower Georgia Avenue, Kennedy Street/Upper 14th Street and Minnesota Avenue.

Georgetown Main Street needs to have an executive director in place by Dec. 1, and interviews for the position are ongoing, Bernhardt said. Once an executive director is in place, a board of directors will be formed. Bernhardt also plans to work to forge relationships with the Georgetown BID and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith). Broadly, the group will work to determine what residents want and what can be done to make Wisconsin Avenue more attractive to businesses.

Georgetown Main Street held a ribbon-cutting ceremony last Wednesday at The Phoenix, a third-generation family-owned boutique at 1514 Wisconsin. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans were among the speakers. “This is a great day for Georgetown,” Evans said at the Oct. 25 event.

The Department of Small and Local Business Development expects the Main Street to raise money independently. Applicants for Main Street grants should be able to match the city funds with money raised from private sources, although there is no minimum required match, the agency says.

“What Main Streets are is really the government putting in the first money,” Bowser said at the event. “And it’s you working hard to secure all of the other programs, and services, and initiatives, and private funding that are really needed to sustain a healthy Main Street.”

This article appears in the Nov. 1 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Heating Plant Proposed for Historic Designation

October 26, 2017

By Grace Bird

Current Staff Writer

Plans to redevelop Georgetown’s vacant West Heating Plant into a luxury condo building may face further delays, with the DC Preservation League launching a second bid to grant landmark status to the 1940s industrial facility.

The Historic Preservation Review Board considered a previous application from the group in April 2015, but voted 4-3 to oppose a landmark designation for the building at 29th and K streets NW. Turnover on the board could change the outcome of the scheduled Nov. 2 decision on the latest application.

Developers are hoping to largely demolish the old heating plant and reconstruct the building as modern residential units with an adjacent public park. The project team has argued that the structure is deteriorated and was never designed to support enough weight for housing.

“I would hope that the board reaffirms the position it took in 2015,” said developer Richard Levy of The Levy Group. “The community is very much behind this project, and the community’s take is that it is an annoyance and an interference. ... We’ll take it one step at a time.”

As a contributing building in the Georgetown Historic District, the heating plant is already protected against demolition or major alteration. However, a property owner can appeal to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation to argue that the change would result in a project of “special merit” that would overrule preservation concerns.

Levy was already planning to take this step with the heating plant, but while he said the full implications of individual landmark status for the heating plant aren’t clear, it would — at the very least — delay the project.

Officials with the D.C. Historic Preservation Office declined to comment for this story pending the Nov. 2 hearing.

According to the DC Preservation League’s application, the West Heating Plant is architecturally distinctive, straddling art deco and moderne styles, and also represents an important piece of District history. “Today, the plant possesses a very high level of integrity required by the National Register [of Historic Places], including integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association,” the application states.

Designed by William Dewey Foster, the plant was built between 1946 and 1948. Until it was shuttered half a century later, the building supplied heat to downtown government buildings, supplementing the overworked 1930s Central Heating Plant in Southwest D.C.

While the Historic Preservation Review Board rejected the plant’s landmark designation, its staff at the Historic Preservation Office backed the application in 2015 and is doing so again this year. The preservation office wrote in a recent report that the plant is a “striking, monumental piece of architecture, classically composed, streamlined and powerful, and thoroughly up to date in its expression,” and that it is historically significant as having served a “mundane but fundamental function” in heating public buildings.

Although Georgetown has been a federal historic district for decades, the Historic Preservation Office said designating individual buildings as landmarks is beneficial because it pays homage to specific sites’ history and ensures they’re treated with great care.

The landmark nomination has drawn objections from various neighbors and Georgetown community leaders. Joe Gibbons, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith), told The Current that the neighborhood has enjoyed “a tremendous amount of oversight” on the redevelopment, and that developers had been responsive to questions and concerns.

Victoria Rixey, a director of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, said she has been confounded by efforts to secure the plant as a landmark.

“There doesn’t really seem to be much historic anything in the application that really seems like new information,” Rixey said in an interview. “Hundreds and hundreds of residents have come to public meetings over the years. Now they’re going to throw a big wrench in the works, and for what purpose?”

But ANC 2E’s Jim Wilcox wrote that the Preservation League’s landmark application was “well reasoned” in a statement emailed to The Current on Monday. “I won’t make a final decision … until after ANC 2E’s public meeting on October 30,” Wilcox wrote.

The project — led by Levy and designed by architect David Adjaye and landscape architect Laurie Olin, both renowned nationally — cleared several hurdles this year.

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved in May and again in September a proposal to demolish the plant and build a 10-story, 60-unit Four Seasons Residences building and an adjacent 1-acre public park in its place. The project would retain the heating plant’s dimensions, its 29th Street facade, the structure of its existing windows and a stone wall at the perimeter of the property.

“Members expressed strong support for replacing the West Heating Plant with a new residential project that would evoke qualities of the historic industrial building, and for rehabilitating its site with a new urban park,” commission secretary Thomas Luebke wrote Sept. 29.

ANC 2E also supported the project’s concept design in September, with commissioner Wilcox abstaining from the vote.

Stephen Crimmins, who has lived next door to the plant for 30 years, said the building was a “coal-belching” blight on the neighborhood and should have never been built in Georgetown. Crimmins said he is thrilled by plans to redo the space with new condos and a park.

“It was a bad idea to start with,” Crimmins said of the original decision to build a heating plant in Georgetown. “The notion of preserving that thing is absurd.”

This article appears in the Oct. 25 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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