Georgetown Current

Latham Project Cleared to Proceed

August 10, 2016

The redevelopment of the Latham Hotel site in Georgetown is moving forward after a brief dispute with neighborhood leaders over the scale and use of a proposed rooftop lounge atop the building.
The New York-based development firm Thor Equities closed on the property at 3000 M St. NW for $53.35 million last month with plans to rehabilitate the vacant 10-story building into a luxury hotel with retail on the three lowest floors.
The Board of Zoning Adjustment voted last month to approve relief from land-use regulations to construct a partially enclosed rooftop deck, and the Old Georgetown Board approved the historic preservation aspects of the project design concept in May. With those decisions out of the way, the developer can proceed with construction, scheduled to begin early next year and conclude in time to open both the hotel and retail by early 2019, Thor’s Joshua Greenwald told The Current.
Back in May, members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) balked at the roof deck proposal, urging the developer to scale back the outdoor portion and consider the harmful effect of noise pollution on surrounding neighbors. Since then, Thor representatives sat down with ANC 2E members and crafted a settlement agreement that limits the volume of noise audible from the street, prohibits amplified music on the unenclosed portion of the roof deck and prohibits trash pickups between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. The document also requires the developer to install 16 bicycle parking spaces in the building and 20 more outside in public space. 
ANC 2E member Bill Starrels told The Current he thinks the resulting document is “very comprehensive as far as possible negative effects on the surrounding neighbors.” The size of the proposed roof deck has not changed from the initial proposal of 2,700 square feet, but the activities there have been limited, he said.
The Latham Hotel and its accompanying restaurant, Citronelle, closed with severe water damage in 2012. An earlier development plan from SB-Urban would have transformed the hotel into 140 “micro” apartment units and front-facing retail. That concept fell through because the developer chose to focus its efforts elsewhere in the city, but Greenwald said Thor’s current design retains most aspects of the original plan, aside from the interior use.
According to Greenwald, Thor CEO Joe Sitt had the idea to launch a development in D.C. after spending time in the area with his two children — one of whom recently graduated from George Washington University, with the other currently attending Georgetown University.
“Over the years, he’s really fallen in love with the Georgetown area,” Greenwald said. “He was looking to purchase a property and felt that it would fit with our portfolio.”
No retail vendors have been chosen for the lower floors, but all options, including grocery stores and restaurants, are under consideration, Greenwald said. The 27,000 square feet of open retail space could be filled by one large retailer or several smaller ones, he said. Starrels said he hopes the developer will consider adding a high-end grocer, like Whole Foods or its new grab-and-go operation, “365 by Whole Foods Market.”
Overall, Starrels said he has heard largely positive responses to Thor’s plan for the site. “It’ll be nice to see a quality project moving forward,” he said.
This article appears in the Aug. 10 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Park Service Releases Boathouse Sites Study

August 3, 2016

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

The National Park Service has narrowed its proposed options for new Georgetown boathouses, with only one development scenario remaining under consideration for the 1,500-foot stretch of riverfront from 34th Street NW to west of the Key Bridge.

In an environmental assessment released Thursday, the Park Service studied a proposal for two or three new boathouses and other improvements, as well as an option that would make no change to the status quo.

The new study is the latest step in an effort spanning nearly 30 years to increase the area’s existing boathouse capacity, which is used by Georgetown and George Washington universities, as well as high school crew teams and members of the public. “This is the final public comment period, so barring something unforeseen it is unlikely anything that hasn’t been addressed over the many years this planning effort has been in progress would be considered or proposed,” Park Service spokesperson Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles wrote in an email yesterday.

Under the development scenario, one 13,800-square-foot boathouse would be situated on a sizable vacant lot between the Key Bridge and the Georgetown Waterfront Park. A second 3,600- to 4,200-square-foot boathouse would be constructed just east of the Potomac Boat Club, as well as a 6,000-square-foot storage facility for canoes and kayaks between the Potomac Boat Club and the Washington Canoe Club. The plan also allows for the possibility of a small boathouse west of the Washington Canoe Club. Under this action alternative, the Washington Canoe Club building would receive a complete restoration, and other smaller improvements would address traffic flow and pedestrian safety in the area.

The current proposal retains the two Key Bridge boathouses that were constants among three alternatives first shown in 2015 and hews closest to last year’s proposed “low-density” option, with the exception of the new plan’s possible third boathouse west of the Washington Canoe Club.

Abandoned concepts from the higher-density options include a 10,000-square-foot boathouse between the Washington Canoe Club and the Potomac Boat Club, and a storage facility just east of the latter. The original size of the proposed boathouse next to the Potomac Boat Club has shrunk in size from 7,800 square feet in the 2015 plan to between 3,600 and 4,200 square feet in the new one.

In developing this final plan for each of the affected sites, the National Park Service factored in ease of access to transportation, as well as its goals of diversifying visitor activities along the riverfront and efficiently spreading out access to water resources. The 10,000-square-foot structure proposed earlier “would not fit onto the site very well,” the study concludes. Other modifications reflect an effort to preserve the aesthetics of the area and its surrounding historic district while enhancing accessibility to the site and establishing accessible connections between the boathouse sites.

The project’s overall purpose, according to the Park Service, would be to add more opportunities for non-motorized boats to exit and enter the river near Georgetown, providing more access points for the expanding culture of water sports in the area. The study states that the existing boathouse facilities are insufficient and that the current configuration leads to frequent conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists.

Although the study has been long in the works, the plans themselves remain in the early stages and could change before construction begins, assuming the Park Service moves forward with the action alternative. In-progress projects — like the condominium development at 34th and Water streets NW, the planned conversion of the West Heating Plant into residences, and C&O Canal trail improvements — could impact future plans, the study states. Meanwhile, the study notes that a group of town houses adjacent to the site of the planned smaller boathouse could become available, in which case that boathouse could as much as double in size.

Early reactions to the new boathouse plan — totaling nearly 200 pages of text — have been mixed.

Rod Mackler, first vice president of the C&O Canal Association, told The Current he’s pleased with this latest iteration of the plans, especially in comparison to earlier ideas that his team felt were less feasible.

The association’s priorities, according to Mackler, include maximizing public access; constructing reasonably sized facilities that don’t dwarf the canal towpath; and situating the largest buildings below the remains of the Alexandria Aqueduct just north of the Key Bridge. This plan does all three, Mackler said.

“My general feeling is that it’s a very fair-minded document. It looks pretty good,” he said. “It responds to a lot of the concerns that we as an organization and individuals have expressed over the 30 years of this project.”

Mackler said he’s particularly happy to see that the largest boathouse will take up the empty waterfront lot, which he notes is covered in weeds and paved over with asphalt. “A boathouse would certainly seem to be an improvement on the status quo of that site,” Mackler said.

Concerns about the exact shape and size of the building remain, Mackler said. His colleagues are particularly focused on ensuring that any construction preserves the “rural” appearance of the canal park looking west from the waterfront park. Overall, the plans strike him as far more sensible than previous designs, which allowed for more and larger buildings, he said.

The plans aren’t without their detractors, though. Citizens Association of Georgetown president Bob vom Eigen told The Current he’s concerned that the emphasis on facilities for kayaks and canoes will leave the rowing teams at George Washington and Georgetown universities competing for space with high school teams and the public, as they do now.

“It’s really disappointing,” vom Eigen said in an interview. “It just doesn’t sound practical to me.”

Georgetown University’s Ryan King wrote in an email that the school is “monitoring the situation closely.”

“We are hopeful the EA lays out a path forward for Georgetown to partner with the Park Service to build a university boathouse that will better serve the needs of Georgetown and the community,” King wrote.

Representatives from George Washington University didn’t respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

In the meantime, vom Eigen said he’ll be gathering interested parties for a meeting on the boathouse issue next month.

Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioners and Georgetown Business Improvement District representatives told The Current they’re reviewing the boathouse study but haven’t come to a consensus yet.

Stakeholders have until Sept. 30 to submit comments on the plan at The agency will also accept written comments to Tammy Stidham, National Park Service — National Capital Region, 1100 Ohio Drive SW, Washington, DC 20242.

This article appears in the Aug. 3 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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EastBanc Project Gathers Mixed Reviews

July 27, 2016

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

The planned five-story development at the current site of the Valero gas station across from Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel earned mixed reviews from the Zoning Commission at a public hearing on Thursday.

Developer EastBanc is pursuing the project at 2715 Pennsylvania Ave. NW as a planned unit development, which provides community benefits in exchange for zoning modifications. Under the current proposal, the existing gas station would be replaced with a mixed-use building with a restaurant on the ground floor and eight apartment units on the four floors above.

Plans for the parkland adjacent to the proposed building prompted concern from the commissioners at Thursday’s hearing. As part of a required community benefits package for projects of this nature, the developer has committed to upgrading and maintaining National Park Service land that lies in front of the proposed building. Details on that project remain fuzzy, the developer admits.

“Everybody’s on board with the concept of the plan, but we have a lot of work to finalize the actual design,” Mary Mottershead of EastBanc said at the hearing. “Part of our proffer is the maintenance of the park. We have committed to do so.”

Commissioner Peter May said he and his colleagues typically prefer to see a design, or at least a concept plan, for a project like that before voting. Mottershead assured him that such a plan will be available before the developer secures construction permits for the building. The commission delayed voting on proposed action for the project until its Sept. 12 meeting, giving the developer more time to negotiate the finer details of its plans with involved agencies.

Other amenities in the community benefits package include improved pedestrian access and vehicle mobility, LEED gold certification for environmental friendliness, and a contribution of $359,604 to the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

The application for the project, which takes up 7,400 square feet of land area, also requests an amendment to existing rules that require planned unit developments to take up at least 15,000 square feet in terms of its footprint. The building is surrounded by areas that the developer can’t claim for itself: M Street NW to the north, Pennsylvania Avenue NW to the south and National Park Service land to the west and east, which project representatives said make the irregularly shaped parcel a worthwhile candidate for an exemption.

Other design considerations prompted concern at Thursday’s hearing. Zoning commissioner Michael Turnbull was particularly critical of the project, focusing on a “monumental chimney” designed to serve a single apartment unit on the top floor, rather than providing heat to the building as a whole.

“What is this, the Donald Trump suite?” Turnbull said. “It’s totally extraneous; it’s not needed for what you’re trying to do.”

Despite complaints, most commissioners agreed that the project as outlined will be a substantial improvement on the current site.

“This is certainly a much better use of this site than the gas station that’s been there as the gateway to Georgetown for a number of years,” commissioner Robert Miller. “I think it’s very attractively designed.”

The project has prompted controversy at various points during its development, and design tweaks have occurred throughout the process. The Citizens Association of Georgetown reiterated its support for the project during Thursday’s hearing, and the community’s advisory neighborhood commission voted to support the project last month.

This article appears in the July 27 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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