Georgetown Current

GU Dorm Location Sparks Design Board Concern

July 10, 2013

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

A proposed new Georgetown University dormitory would help the school fulfill its pledge to begin housing more of its undergraduates on campus soon.

Despite community support, the Old Georgetown Board design review panel has reservations about the plan. At their meeting last Wednesday, board members turned down the proposal pending additional information, worrying about the dorm’s impact on a rare piece of campus green space and on the Georgetown Visitation cemetery.

The planned dorm would house 250 students in seven stories of residential space above one level of classrooms and lounges. It would be located across from the Reiss Science Building near the eastern boundary of the campus, down the hill from the Georgetown Visitation campus.

Building additional on-campus housing was a key promise in the university’s campus plan, which school officials worked out in consultation with community members last year following an earlier contentious process. The university has little open space but plans to add 450 total on-campus beds in the near future, primarily at this site and in an expanded Leavey Center.

The university hopes to break ground on this dorm project in spring 2014, with construction lasting 14 months.

The Old Georgetown Board, part of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, has authority over building projects in the neighborhood because Georgetown is a federally protected historic district. Thomas Luebke, secretary to the Fine Arts Commission, said in an interview that before board members will consider signing off on the current proposed location, they want information on alternative sites the university considered and rejected.

“They are concerned about, for starters, the planning that went into locating this dorm in the one little patch of green on the campus,” said Luebke. “They’re obviously sympathetic to the needs of the university to try to limit off-campus housing, but they weren’t satisfied this is the only choice.”

While board members didn’t comment on the architecture of the planned building — a roughly triangular high-rise with salt-and-pepper brick trim — they said it fits very tightly into its narrow site, Luebke said.

Robin Morey, the university’s vice president for planning and facilities management, said in an interview yesterday that he’s confident the board will be more supportive once the school explains its needs and long-term plans.

The university has identified seven future development sites — moving toward a long-term goal of housing 90 percent of its undergraduates on campus, he said. But the others would be harder to develop quickly, requiring demolition of existing buildings and displacing other functions.

Furthermore, the university is trying to add more density to this section of campus to make for a more vibrant “living-learning environment” that will entice students to reside on campus rather than in the community, Morey said. That makes this “Northeast Triangle” site the best candidate for the time being.

“We will also need additional sites to reach the total capacity. So it’s not like, which sites will we do, but which sites we will do first,” he said.

The Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission had no objections to the dorm’s proposed location at its meeting last Monday. Its two student members, however, questioned the building’s design, as have other students.

“This is one of those last opportunities the campus has to make a new building,” commissioner Peter Prindiville said at the meeting. “The campus needs to represent Georgetown’s heritage and represent the university as well.”

Commissioner Craig Cassey added that creating an undesirable dorm — or one that’s no longer appealing in 30 years — would undermine efforts to encourage students to live on campus.

The university will hold meetings with students, faculty and staff next week regarding the building’s design. The school will also develop and present alternative dorm designs that will be “entirely different architecturally,” with “more traditional” cues, said Morey, allowing stakeholders to offer recommendations.

Morey said there’s “a possibility” of delays resulting from a design revision but that “this has not set us back” yet.

Jeff Jones, a neighborhood commissioner who represents many homes near the university campus, said in an interview that his priorities are to “minimize the impact on the adjacent community and … minimize to the impact on the historic character of the university.” New on-campus housing achieves this in general, and Jones said he trusts the Old Georgetown Board’s judgment on the latter.

“It’s not that they said the green space is off-limits. It’s, ‘Don’t use the green space if you don’t have to.’ I can support that,” said Jones.

The university will present updates to the Old Georgetown Board at its September meeting.

This article appears in the July 10 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Max’s Ice Cream Gets Summer Reprieve

July 3, 2013

By Alix Pianin
Current Staff Writer

After an outpouring of community support, the 20-year-old Max’s Best Ice Cream will be allowed to remain operating in its current Glover Park location through Oct. 31 — before permanently clearing out.

A legal agreement reached by shop owner Mahmood “Max” Keshani and landlords Gail and Barbara Bassin will allow Keshani to continue running the shop through the fall, according to a statement released Saturday by the Bassins’ attorney, Glenn Bonard.

“Max and Gail and Barbara Bassin, the owners of the property, have agreed that this represents a fair and reasonable outcome for all involved,” Bonard wrote in the statement. “It gives Max and the community the benefit of having Max’s Best Ice Cream in Glover Park for the entire 2013 summer and part of the fall.”

The statement had been signed by all involved parties, Bonard added.

Earlier this summer, the Bassins had informed Keshani that his lease would be terminated at the end of June, at which point the sisters would be establishing a new long-term lease with neighboring Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Co., whose property they also own. The new lease will allow Rocklands owner John Snedden to expand.

Max’s, located at 2416 Wisconsin Ave., has been a go-to for Glover Park ice cream fans for the past two decades. Last month, an online open letter at asking the Bassins to reconsider garnered more than 500 signatures, and a “Save Max’s” Facebook page has more than 860 “likes.” The Glover Park Citizens Association also sent a letter asking the Bassins to reverse course.

In May, Snedden said that Rocklands had become a target for harassment, and filed a police report after two inflamed incidents inside.

Snedden said many of the neighborhood complaints have died down since the landlords released a statement of their intentions for the properties. “It seemed like people calmed down after that, and were more considerate,” he said. “We certainly had people who would like to have seen a different outcome reached, but other people just in passing, walking on the street have offered words of encouragement.”

Snedden also noted that the space will be used by an already well-loved local restaurant, and not interlopers from an unknown restaurant group or national franchise.

When reached by The Current this week, Keshani declined to issue a formal statement for both “personal and legal reasons,” but described the situation as “twisted.”

Still, Keshani had nothing but glowing remarks for his devotees in the neighborhood. “Everything I could do over the past 20 years, I did. … I’m grateful for the people who have been supporting me all along,” he said. “They know I’ve been robbed.”

Keshani accepted the property owners’ Oct. 31 compromise on the advice for his daughter Neda, who has taken on a management role at the store, according to Joe Fiorillo, a longtime Max’s customer who has been following Keshani’s travails.

Fiorillo, who is also a Glover Park advisory neighborhood commissioner but has followed the issue as a private citizen, said Keshani is “really taking [the closing] rough.”

Fiorillo said Neda plans to take inventory of the kitchen equipment currently in Keshani’s shop to determine what pieces of machinery — some of which has a value running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars — belong to the building itself, and which belong to Keshani. According to Fiorillo, the family hopes to either work out an agreement to leave behind the equipment for Rocklands for a price, sell it elsewhere or store it.

Snedden has been operating Rocklands for more than 20 years, and has long expressed a desire to expand table and chair space, as well as to add food runners — effectively making Rocklands a sit-down restaurant. The planned expansion will also allow Rocklands to install bathrooms in the restaurant, and provide more space for its growing baked-goods offerings.

“There’s no right and there’s no wrong here. It’s just two guys who each had a business, but never had a personal relationship,” Fiorillo said of Snedden and Keshani.

He also dismissed some residents’ suggestions that Snedden had secured the lease in a way that was not aboveboard.

“[Snedden is] a squeaky clean guy. He supports the community, and he’s very enterprising. It just came at a bad time for Max,” said Fiorillo.

Community members have been trying to offer alternate suggestions for Keshani to possibly set up shop elsewhere on Wisconsin Avenue, but Keshani has been reluctant to entertain moving his ice cream store.

A source close to Keshani who declined to be identified said that “you can’t really address moving with Max, you can’t look for another space. He doesn’t want to hear that.”

Snedden said he hasn’t yet had access to Max’s store but anticipates being able to check it out within the next couple of months.

Renovations for Rocklands’ expansion will begin after Oct. 31, he said, and he anticipates finishing construction by early December.

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

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Group Seeks OK for Halcyon House Use

June 26, 2013

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

The S&R Foundation, now delighting visitors with its intimate concerts and recitals at the historic Evermay estate, has laid out very different plans for the more recently purchased Halcyon House on Prospect Street in Georgetown.

In a new zoning application, the foundation says it wants to make Halcyon House the headquarters for its other major effort: research and collaboration on avoiding and managing catastrophes and natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan two years ago.

The D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment will hear the case for nonprofit use of the storied brick mansion on Sept. 10, when the foundation will discuss its planned measures to prevent an objectionable impact on the community.  The application is also on the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission’s July 1 agenda.

Dr. Sachiko Kuno and Dr. Ryuji Ueno purchased the Evermay estate in July 2011 for $22 million and the Halcyon House a few months later for $11 million. Since then, the Kunos — who made their fortune with Bethesda-based Sucampo Pharmaceuticals — have emphasized their efforts to be good neighbors as they put the two historic houses to charitable use.

At Evermay, dedicated mostly to the foundation’s arts and cultural interests, they promised to limit the number of events and attendees, with valet parking to ease long-standing traffic and parking concerns. Now at Halcyon, although the uses are different, they promise the same sort of limits to reduce the impact on neighbors, according to the zoning application.

The document notes, discreetly, that previous owners of the two houses used them for many events — some profit-making, and “without zoning approval” — that upset nearby residents. Now Halcyon, like Evermay, will hold limited events, but under conditions spelled out in a zoning order.

“Unlike past events, number, attendees, hours and days of events will be limited by conditions of BZA approval,” the application says.

Most meetings, lectures and other events at Halcyon will include fewer than 50 people, and “often under 25,” it says.

“We don’t do weddings,” said Kate Goodall, spokesperson for the S&R Foundation. “My least favorite part of this job is saying ‘no’ to brides.”

Goodall said the Kunos are “very conscientious stewards” of the two historic properties.

The city’s zoning code allows historic homes with gross floor area of more than 10,000 square feet to be converted to nonprofit use, a provision crafted largely to encourage preservation of large estates that most private owners would find too expensive to buy and too hard to maintain. Both Evermay and Halcyon House fit that definition.

The application explains why Halcyon House is “well suited” for its new purpose: headquarters for the foundation’s International Institute of Global Reliance, a think tank dedicated to improving response to and management of natural disasters and other global catastrophes. It will also house an S&R program called “Illuminate,” which encourages “passionate, forward thinkers” to develop and share innovative ideas in the arts, sciences and international relations.

The latter is “akin to an incubator,” according to the application, and will provide “a limited number of emerging entrepreneurs a base of operations for up to six months, to live, work and collaborate.”

Both programs will host meetings, seminars, lectures and retreats, as well as limited fundraising events “to support their mission.” The house will serve as “a gathering place for international experts, scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs, and innovators,” some needing temporary lodging.  

The 1787 Federal-style house has undergone numerous additions and alterations, and it offers “a vast array of room types, sizes, shapes, and configurations,” offering “multiple settings” for various types of gatherings. The foundation envisions no additions to the house or changes to its exterior.

The property now includes the historic main house, attached apartment units and an adjacent town house, all on one lot, totaling 26,000 square feet. The house also offers a library on the fourth floor and studio beneath, added by a previous owner. And since Halcyon was once used as a dormitory by Georgetown University, portions are already divided into compact guest rooms.

As to impact, the foundation envisions various activities throughout the year, but most with only 10 to 20 attendees. Because the programs are “internationally based,” some participants will stay at Halcyon but very few are expected to bring private cars. There are 15 parking spaces on site, more than will be needed by the nine employees expected to work there.

The foundation is also promising a traffic study before the zoning hearing, coupled with a pledge to follow its recommendations. There are already plans to direct drivers to off-site parking lots with a shuttle service for the few events with more than 50 attendees.

The zoning application does state that the Halcyon House is “an ideal venue for corporations sharing the foundation’s goals to host corporate events, meetings and retreats.” But the number of attendees will be restricted, and — as with all events — “attendees would arrive and depart outside peak traffic hours, and under conditions that do not impact surrounding residents,” the application says.

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

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