Georgetown Current

Developers Drop Plans for Latham Apartments

July 22, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

A local developer has attracted significant attention for ambitious plans to create several hundred “micro-unit” apartments in three high-profile Northwest locations. SB-Urban has said its premium furnished units will attract affluent young people who have newly arrived in D.C. and value transit accessibility.

But the company is backing out of one such location — Georgetown’s Latham Hotel at 3000 M St., the first site SB-Urban purchased to build its “urban suites” micro units. Officials told the local citizens association on Friday, and the firm’s Mike Balaban confirmed the plans to The Current on Monday, saying SB-Urban will list the site for sale in the near future.

The firm’s two other “urban suites” micro-unit projects, in Blagden Alley and on Dupont Circle, are still on pace to begin construction within a few months, he said. “Literally the other two projects are [collectively] about the same investment as the Georgetown project, and we have in fact decided that we should prioritize and focus on the two other smaller projects,” Balaban said.

SB-Urban purchased the Latham site for $45.4 million in November 2013, and set about obtaining various approvals for its complex and unusual plans. The firm wanted to convert the old hotel building into about 140 rental units of about 330 square feet apiece, which would be augmented by shared living spaces in the hotel’s underground parking garage. The project also would have entailed razing and replacing some deteriorating M Street retail storefronts.

The Old Georgetown Board ultimately approved the plans from a historic preservation perspective, and the Board of Zoning Adjustment OK’d the proposal to move forward without the 94 parking spaces that such a project would usually require. Developers worked with the local advisory neighborhood commission and, in particular, the Citizens Association of Georgetown on both the project’s design and an alternative transportation plan that included making 42 off-site parking spaces available to tenants.

“We found them good to work with and reached something that we thought was advantageous to both sides,” association president Bob vom Eigen said in an interview. “So we’re disappointed to see after all the work that was done, they’re not going to go through with it.”

Balaban also praised “the quality of the dialogue with the community in Georgetown.” But in addition to SB-Urban’s plans to focus on the other two micro-unit projects, he said another factor in the decision is that there’s likely to be broader interest in the Latham Hotel site than when the firm purchased it nearly two years ago.

“At the time we acquired the site, the hospitality market in D.C. was quite depressed, and that has now long since changed,” he said. “It’s now a very strong market that’s very actively being sought by investors and operators from literally around the world.”

Balaban added that Georgetown is also in great demand for multifamily and commercial use, so investors in those projects may also be interested. “We think it’s a great site and something great will come of it,” he said.

Vom Eigen said he wasn’t prepared to talk about hypothetical future proposals for the Latham site, but he said a hotel that retained its underground garage — rather than converting it to other uses, as SB-Urban had planned — would mitigate the community’s parking concerns.

As for SB-Urban’s other two projects, which also don’t have on-site parking, Balaban said all approvals and permits are in hand. The first project to begin construction will be at 15 Dupont Circle, where 92 units will go into the historic Patterson Mansion, with a new addition behind it; Balaban said work will begin this summer or early this fall. In Shaw, the company will break ground soon afterward on a pair of new buildings at 90 and 91 Blagden Alley. Balaban said both should be open in late 2016 or early 2017.

As for the timing of the Latham sale, Balaban said: “We have engaged a broker and we expect it to be on the market sometime soon.”

The article appears in the July 22 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Hotel Roof-Deck Proposal Raises Concern

July 15, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

The new owners of Savoy Suites Hotel near the U.S. Naval Observatory are in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation that will include overhauling the facade, upgrading the rooms and public areas, and — most controversially — adding a roof deck atop the eight-story building.

Matt Wexler of Foxhall Partners, one of the owners, said the group purchased the property at Wisconsin Avenue and Davis Street in December 2012, and promptly began studying ways to overhaul the 1970s building. They elected to rename it the Glover Park Hotel and have it operated by the Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants boutique chain, Wexler said at last Thursday’s Glover Park advisory neighborhood commission meeting.

The company’s plans don’t call for expanding the building except for adding the rooftop space, which would feature alcohol service and “light fare” food options until 1 a.m. most nights, as currently envisioned. The hotel is now working with its residential neighbors who worry about noise and parking impacts. The Glover Park neighborhood commission voted unanimously to oppose the roof deck’s alcohol license if no agreement is reached with neighbors by the city’s Aug. 10 deadline.

“We would like these negotiations to succeed,” commission chair Jackie Blumenthal said. “But if they don’t succeed we have to file a protest.”

Wexler said he’s confident they will reach an agreement.

“We as the hotel owner have a strong alignment of interest with all of you to get these things right,” he told residents at the meeting. “We don’t want there to be a trash problem. We don’t want there to be a parking problem.”

And about noise and light concerns, added Wexler, “It’s not like we’re a bar under the roof deck — we have 153 guest rooms where our customers are paying to sleep. We don’t want it to be loud either.” And from the neighbors’ perspective, he said, the ground-floor restaurant’s existing outdoor seating has a greater impact: “There’s more noise that’s heard from that street-level patio than could be heard 90 feet up in the air and surrounded by 6-foot-high glass walls.”

The Savoy Suites is a rare high-rise building for that area in northern Glover Park, surrounded on three sides by much shorter structures.

“The views are mostly treetops and the park,” Wexler said in an interview, “and we think that’s something that’s very different about this hotel and unique and we want to take advantage of that. At a lot of the other Kimpton hotels [in Washington], the surrounding views are typically of other buildings.” The roof deck in particular will have “spectacular” views, he said. Current plans call for 136 seats, with total standing capacity not yet determined.

Conceptual renderings of the building — which Wexler emphasized are not yet finalized — show the replacement or removal of various awnings, the removal of metal elements on the upper story, and artwork that would decorate a blank wall facing Wisconsin Avenue. The room layout will see almost no changes, but each room will be heavily updated.

Wexler said he doesn’t expect the customer base for the updated hotel to change wildly, and he hopes that the hotel will also continue to draw community members and their guests. Residents from the neighborhoods near the hotel are eligible to receive a 15 percent discount.

The facade work and renovations to the rooms and hallways are underway and will wrap up by the end of October. As planned, improvements in the sidewalk area will begin next month and continue through October; outdoor work around the porte-cochere will run from September to November; and roof deck construction will last from September through February 2016. The hotel will remain open during the project, though some rooms will be unavailable as work proceeds in or near them.

“We’re just moving forward with a plan to improve the property and make it one that we think will be certainly more upscale than the hotel has been in the past, but also still approachable for community members and neighborhood residents who want to get a good bite to eat,” said Wexler.

The hotel sits at the boundary between the Glover Park neighborhood commission and the commission to the north and east that covers neighborhoods that include Massachusetts Avenue Heights and Cleveland Park. That commission will discuss the hotel’s alcohol license application on Monday.

This article appears in the July 15 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Palisades Filmmaker Traces ‘Tollbooth’ Tale

July 8, 2015

By Mark Lieberman
Current Correspondent

Palisades resident Janice Kaplan discovered Norton Juster’s classic fantasy novel “The Phantom Tollbooth” when she read it to her son Satchel for the first time 17 years ago. Her son liked the book, but she fell in love with it.

Then in 2007, Kaplan found out Juster was scheduled to make an appearance in Satchel’s math class at Georgetown Day School, and she made sure she got permission to attend. After Juster’s talk, Kaplan met the author and got his contact information. The two kept in touch.

That blossomed into a full-time professional partnership — Juster hired Kaplan as his publicist in 2009 — and personal friendship. One of the products of the relationship is the documentary “The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations,” produced by Kaplan, which is making its D.C. debut at a Smithsonian Associates event at the National Museum of Natural History this Sunday at 3 p.m.

The 82-minute documentary, completed in 2013 with the help of two Kickstarter campaigns that raised $60,000, traces the origins of the acclaimed 1961 novel, the friendship that developed between Juster and his illustrator Jules Feiffer, and the book’s decades-long impact on readers of all ages.

As “Beyond Expectations” describes, “The Phantom Tollbooth” story was born out of the author’s childhood frustrations with adults and confusion about the wider world beyond his doorstep. The novel follows a young boy named Milo who is bored by his education and the world in general. When the titular tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room one afternoon, he decides to drive through it in his toy car and ends up in the Kingdom of Wisdom, a land full of puns, magic and danger, where he and his new canine companion Tock are tasked with rescuing the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason.

In the process of making the documentary, the crew found fans who have passed “The Phantom Tollbooth” down to their children and even gotten commemorative tattoos in honor of Milo and his journey — one of Kaplan’s favorite parts of the film. “Everywhere we turned, we found people who had fallen in love with the book,” she said.

Though her communications background included no experience with film, Kaplan pitched the idea of the documentary as the book’s 50th anniversary approached back in 2011. Juster loved her proposal, suggesting that Kaplan talk to his friend Ken Burns, the acclaimed PBS documentarian — but Burns didn’t have time for the project before the anniversary.

Just like that, Kaplan’s adventure as a film producer began.

In an interview with The Current, Juster — now 86 and living in Amherst, Mass. — said that despite his book’s popularity, the concept of a documentary first took him by surprise.

“I had never even thought about a thing like that,” Juster said. “I seem to be the world’s most ignorant author in terms of what you have to do to promote yourself.”

But Kaplan’s warmth convinced him.

“She was enormously helpful to me and seemed to know exactly what she was doing and seemed to be an enormously nice person,” Juster said.

He also said the documentary exceeded his expectations by capturing a snapshot of the surprisingly powerful reactions and broad reach of “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

“It goes by very quickly, and it stimulates an extraordinary amount of discussion,” said Juster. “That’s, to me, the test of a good film.”

From left, director Hannah Jayanti, illustrator Jules Feiffer, author Norton Juster and producer Janice Kaplan (Photo by: Photo by Alexander Porter) From left, director Hannah Jayanti, illustrator Jules Feiffer, author Norton Juster and producer Janice Kaplan
The film is directed by Hannah Jayanti, one of Kaplan’s former colleagues at the National Arboretum. Kaplan also recruited and coordinated all of the film’s interview subjects and ushered the project from idea to execution. Fellow children’s author Maurice Sendak, best known for “Where the Wild Things Are,” grew ill and passed away before he could film his planned segment. Featured players in the finished product include actor David Hyde Pierce, narrator of “The Phantom Tollbooth” audiobook, and Eric Carle, Juster’s friend and author of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

Several Georgetown Day students are also featured, offering their impressions of the book and demonstrating its multi-generational appeal. Max Grosman, 10, shows up in a scene with his sister Hannah, even though Max hadn’t read the book before filming took place in their Spring Valley home. (Max caught the filmmakers’ eye with a periodic table shirt that read “I am so bored.”)

“I was very excited, and it was very interesting for me to actually learn about this book,” Max said in an interview, adding that he finished and enjoyed the book after the shoot.

As for Kaplan, she said the documentary was probably her only foray into filmmaking.

“I didn’t make the film because I wanted to be a filmmaker,” she said. “I made the film because I recognized there was a great story in it.”

She said she never anticipated the amount of work she would pour into the project. “It’s sort of like having children: If you knew how much it cost and how much time it takes, you might never do it.”

Kaplan is proud of the final product, though. During production, she looked to a quote from the book for inspiration: “So many things are possible as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

Tickets to the Smithsonian Associates event on Sunday, featuring Kaplan along with Juster and singer-storyteller Bill Harley, are available at smithsonianassociates.org.

This article appears in the July 8 issue of The Georgetown Current newspapers.


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