Georgetown Current

BID Touts Early Results on ‘Georgetown 2028’

February 5, 2014

By Graham Vyse
Current Staff Writer

“Georgetown 2028” — the bold 15-year plan for transportation, public space and economic development in one of the District’s most iconic commercial areas — formally launched last Thursday.

With a upscale breakfast event at M Street’s City Tavern Club, the Georgetown Business Improvement District announced the official start of its project to an admiring crowd, noting that many of elements of the plan were already in motion.

The project’s key initiatives, unveiled last year, include the creation of a neighborhood Metro station, a revitalized waterfront on the Potomac River, a pedestrian and bicycle bridge to Theodore Roosevelt Island, and aerial gondolas that would carry 4,000 passengers — including potential customers — across the river from Arlington, Va., each hour.

At the launch event, D.C. Council members Mary Cheh (Ward 3) and Vincent Orange (at-large) pledged to champion these initiatives at the John A. Wilson Building. “I’m here with a message of solidarity,” Cheh told the crowd. “I think this vision is extraordinary.”

“I’m behind it 100 percent,” Orange said in an interview. “To have new modes of transportation, being able to go to Roosevelt Island  — that’s exciting stuff to me.”

In an interview after the event, Georgetown Business Improvement District CEO Joe Sternlieb said he already had progress to report on some key components of the plan.

“There are so many things going on — lots of moving pieces,” he said. For example, the business improvement district has secured the private-sector funding needed to study the feasibility of the proposed gondola system.

“What I can say is we’ve got pledges for up to $100,000,” said Sternlieb. The business improvement district plans to ask the D.C. Department of Transportation to match those funds to pay for the study, which is expected to cost no more than $200,000. Sternlieb said he hopes the study can be completed by the end of this year, although he acknowledged that might be too ambitious.

Following the launch event, the business group released a list of project updates it had completed in recent months. These include requesting that the National Park Service install a dock this spring for canoe and kayak launches in the C&O Canal; gaining approval to install new wayfinding signage by next month; and agreeing to create a “streetcar partnership” with Georgetown University and the Transportation Department to examine operational and design issues and to study the feasibility to extending service to the campus.

More information about the project is available at

This article appears in Feb. 5 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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DC Water Aims to Scale Back Tunnel Plan

January 29, 2014

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

“Green infrastructure” solutions could alter two major tunnel projects to control sewage overflow in Rock Creek and the Potomac River, according to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s latest proposal.

The sewage tunnel originally planned to divert wastewater from Piney Branch in Rock Creek could be scrapped entirely, while the planned Potomac River tunnel could be shortened to exclude the Georgetown waterfront. Instead, in those areas the city would invest in $90 million worth of green infrastructure — technologies such as rain barrels, green roofs and permeable pavement that help absorb rainwater.

This new proposal represents a significant change of course for DC Water’s $2.6 billion original “Clean Rivers Project” for sewage overflow, which federal environmental law requires to be in place by 2025. The proposed modifications — which would delay the timeline for some projects until 2032 — will require approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Justice and ultimately a federal court.

Carlton Ray, director of the DC Clean Rivers Project, said the sewer authority (also known as DC Water) intends to work with the federal agencies to get the new plan finalized by the end of this year. The public has until March 14 to comment on the new proposal.

Ray said DC Water has so far devoted $1.3 billion to complying with the original 2005 federal “consent decree.” That includes starting construction of a sewage tunnel system serving the Anacostia River, running from around RFK Stadium to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant.

None of the plans have changed for that tunnel, which is still set to start operating in 2022 — and should provide some relief to repeated flooding problems in Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park. The rest of the project, however, is now in flux.

For Rock Creek, DC Water wants to spend $60 million on green infrastructure — including bioretention devices, rooftop rainwater collection systems and large-volume underground storage — instead of building the Piney Branch tunnel. Installation in neighborhoods mostly northeast of the Piney Branch Creek, such as Brightwood, would be phased throughout separate contracted projects from 2015 to 2032.

For the Potomac River, DC Water would spend $30 million in similar projects in the Georgetown area, including parts of Glover Park, between 2016 and 2028. Instead of the originally proposed tunnel running from the Kennedy Center to the Key Bridge, a smaller tunnel would stop short of the Georgetown waterfront, to be completed by 2030.

Such projects are necessary to stop excess stormwater from leading to sewage spills from the District’s combined tunnels — an outmoded system that’s still in place in about a third of the city.

But when the original “consent decree” for controlling overflows was developed in the early 2000s, green infrastructure technology wasn’t advanced enough to play a big role, according to DC Water materials.

Chris Weiss, executive director of the DC Environmental Network, said to the contrary, environmental advocates were already pushing for green infrastructure back then. “We were screaming and yelling for it. … They almost laughed at us,” he said.

Now, he said, although advocates fully support the use of green infrastructure, there are concerns about the delayed timeline. “It’s taken so long to bring some real relief to the Anacostia River,” Weiss said. “We’re still not convinced that adding another seven years is going to be good for the District — especially the Potomac River and Rock Creek, which will bear the brunt of any delay.”

Ray of DC Clean Rivers said that the staggered implementation of green infrastructure projects means the rivers will see relief earlier than the 2025 finish date slated for the original tunnels. “We’ll start addressing and improving water quality in 2015,” he said.

He added that although his agency is “confident in the technology of green infrastructure … it does take us longer to pull all the pieces together, to work with our colleagues in D.C. agencies and [the National Park Service]. There’s a lot of moving parts.”

DC Water has emphasized that green infrastructure could bring a number of perks the tunnels would not, like creating green jobs, improving property values and enhancing community spaces. Green infrastructure advocates call that “the triple bottom line,” said Bethany Bezak of DC Water, referring to the environmental, social and economic benefits.

The city has already launched its first major round of green infrastructure projects through a design challenge that will devote more than $1 million to up to four winning teams. The challenge will see the projects through construction in 2015.

DC Water hopes to incorporate those projects “into our strategy for green infrastructure for the sewersheds in Piney Branch and the Potomac,” according to Ray.

The overall strategy might also involve providing financial incentives to private property owners, including homeowners, to install their own green infrastructure. “We feel strongly that we have to be successful both in the public space and private space,” said Ray.

According to DC Water, extending the schedule for the Clean Rivers Project, along with deferring other capital projects, would also help reduce the financial burden to D.C. ratepayers.

The public can review more information, and submit feedback, at

DC Water will host public meetings on the plan on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School (1524 35th St.)


This article appears in the Jan. 29 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Ellington Modernization Project Draws Preservation Objections

January 22, 2014

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

The D.C. Historic Preservation Office has moved to oppose key elements of a modernization plan for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, threatening to delay the $82 million project to renovate and expand performance, rehearsal and academic space at the landmarked school.

Since 1974, Ellington has occupied the 1898 Classical Revival structure originally built as Western High School, and the school community says a modernization is overdue. But the preservation office argued in a written report that the Department of General Services’ plans require too much demolition and would be “inconsistent” with city preservation law.

If the Historic Preservation Review Board follows its general practice of accepting city preservation staff recommendations at a Thursday hearing, the Ellington plan would need modifications or further review by the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation. The mayor’s agent could overturn the board only if he deems demolition necessary for a “project of special merit.”

And in the meantime, city preservation specialist Andrew Lewis is recommending myriad revisions and restudy of plans by cox graae + spack architects and Lance Bailey & Associates, including elimination of a visitor parking lot and reading room, and detailed studies to justify why the school can’t adapt its current auditorium and retain interior space in the rear.

“Although none of Western’s interior spaces have been formally designated, the existing auditorium certainly retains enough historic fabric to contribute to the overall significance of the school. The same can be said for the historic gymnasia and the interior of the back bar which are also proposed for complete demolition,” Lewis wrote in his report to the board.

The Historic Preservation Office opposition isn’t the first stumbling block for the Ellington renovation. Some neighbors and the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission object to a proposed rooftop performance space and other aspects of the design, including a vehicle entrance on busy Reservoir Road that architects are reconsidering.

But the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, yet another review body, seemed unmoved by those objections last Thursday, saying operational issues — like noise, lighting and hours for the so-called “Skyview Terrace” — can be worked out between Ellington and its neighbors. The fine arts panel called the overall design concept “very strong,” although it called for some tweaking and a further review.

“I’m confident you can work out functional elements,” commissioner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk told the architects.

And even the neighborhood objections seem minor compared to the Historic Preservation Office report, which recommends against demolition of the original auditorium and “historic gymnasia,” as well as planned modifications to Ellington’s grand front portico and front lawn designed to improve access to the building.

“Though the need for cutting edge arts facilities is understandable, the proposed concept clearly involves substantial demolition of a historic property,” Lewis wrote.

Architects for the General Services Department say the old auditorium “will never meet needs for high-quality theater space.” Removing it and the gymnasiums leaves room for a glassy atrium, new theater and underground parking, architect Christoffer Graae told the Fine Arts commission.

The current design would add about 108,000 square feet of usable space at the magnet school, as well as allowing a modest increase in enrollment from 541 to 595 students. The city wants to begin construction this June.

“Bottom line for us: Programmatically, these are things we need for our programs,” head of school Rory Pullens told the fine arts panel. “But we are also committed to working with the community, design-wise and use-wise.”

The push-pull of the District’s labyrinthine design review process is not unheard of as various school modernization projects move forward. The same architects worked on Wilson High School’s recent transformation, a widely lauded project that was also delayed when preservation officials insisted on retaining an historic smokestack.

Ellington, too, has a smokestack, and it will be retained. “We learned from the Wilson project,” Graae said.

But other design disagreements with the Historic Preservation Office may prove more challenging. “It also appears unlikely that the concept can be revised in a manner that will make it consistent with [preservation law] and still meet program requirements,” the agency’s report reads.

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

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