Georgetown Current

ANC Skeptical of Heating Plan Project

November 6, 2013

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

Plans to demolish much of Georgetown’s West Heating Plant faced opposition Monday, with the area’s advisory neighborhood commission unanimously objecting to key aspects of the proposal.

Commissioners said they could accept the proposed demolition of roughly 70 percent of the 1948 building only with more conclusive evidence that it has deteriorated beyond repair. They also said that if the teardown does take place, a replacement building should not — as proposed — emulate the size and shape of the existing heating plant.

The Levy Group and Georgetown Co. purchased the federal government property at 29th and K streets for $19.5 million in March, with plans to convert it into 60 to 70 Four Seasons-branded luxury condominium units and to create an adjacent public park. But the developers’ structural engineer concluded that the 110-foot-tall building’s imposing bulk concealed underlying weakness — a rusting steel frame, cracked bricks and pervasive moisture.

“It was a very specifically built industrial shell, and while we had high hopes of converting it into an interesting artifact of preservation, we found it’s just not feasible,” engineer Kirk Mettam said at the neighborhood commission meeting.

Under the developers’ plans, which are due for review tomorrow by the Old Georgetown Board, the plant’s 29th Street facade would be retained, and the rest of the building would be reconstructed to match its style, with added windows and floors.

But commissioners said they found Mettam’s conclusion unconvincing. Chair Ron Lewis asked the developers to provide details about why these problems couldn’t be fixed. The commission’s resolution further called for an independent evaluation of the building’s condition, with the developers footing the bill for a report by experts selected by preservation officials.

“Our strong preference … is to preserve a building when we can,” said Lewis. “And so that’s always the starting point here.”

He suggested that the plant’s current condition could still be adequate for some uses, even if the building wouldn’t hold up for condos and retrofitted windows. “There were plenty of other bidders who did intend to preserve the existing fenestration and work with the building on that basis,” Lewis said of past proposals.

To proceed with its plans, the Levy team would need a waiver from the building’s historic covenant, which was intended to preserve the structure from demolition when it was sold by the U.S. government. That idea drew the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“The reports make it apparent that the developer’s own proposal for modification, especially adding additional windows, is what will destabilize the walls,” the trust’s Elizabeth Merritt said at the meeting. “The problem is not the structure of the building itself … but the discretionary additions that the developer wants to make.”

Merritt said all bidders knew they were expected to preserve the building, and this change “makes a mockery of the process.”

Maureen Dwyer, attorney for the developers, said the process allows a developer to demonstrate that demolition is legitimate. “We did a lot of homework on the structural issues and felt these were very important concerns and we were ready to go through that process,” she said.

But even if demolition is OKed, a replacement project would need Old Georgetown Board approval because the site is within the neighborhood’s federally protected historic district.

The neighborhood commission’s resolution states that such a replacement would need to be in “harmony and consistency with other properties” in lower Georgetown.

Commissioners also opposed other details of the proposal, including a roof deck, new windows they said would cause nighttime light pollution, and a glass-enclosed private pedestrian bridge between the heating plant and the Four Seasons Hotel on M Street.

Developer Richard Levy said in an interview after the meeting that many opponents of his plan seem to have misunderstood aspects of preservation guidelines and principles. He said it’s possible he will need to make alterations to the project, but that he does expect it to be approved in approximately its current form.

“In this context we’re long-distance runners, so one little stumble here and a misrepresentation there is not going to stop us,” Levy said.

Not all comments at the neighborhood commission meeting were unfavorable. There was unanimous acclaim for the 3.6 acres of parkland designed by Ignacio Bunster, architect of the Georgetown Waterfront Park. This plan would create a landscaped, grassy open space in what is now the heating plant’s empty coal yard, and install walking trails and bridges where the C&O Canal runs into Rock Creek.

Also, while the Citizens Association of Georgetown has joined the neighborhood commission in seeking further review of the heating plant’s structural integrity, the association said housing in particular is a desirable use of the property, and it supported alterations consistent with the existing building.

Some residents were also supportive of the development as a whole. Nancy Taylor Bubes said she has always hated walking past the heating plant at night, calling it “the armpit of Georgetown.”

“To see a group of local people putting forward such a beautiful plan … to see that area lifted up with parks and everything, it’s just so nice,” she said.

And Stephen Crimmins, a resident of the James Place condominium across the street from the plant who said he was speaking for many of his neighbors, urged commissioners to support a plan that would revitalize the location.

What we’ve looked down on is a tank farm and a coal yard and an ugly industrial plant that’s been derelict,” said Crimmins, adding, “If we don’t take this deal, we’re going to have a derelict parcel for another 10 years.”

Commission chair Lewis took issue with criticisms of the existing heating plant’s appearance.

“Historic preservation isn’t really a beauty contest. It’s not about whether what’s there now is or is not more pleasing than something new,” Lewis said. “It’s rather about preserving styles of buildings through the ages.”

This article appears in the Nov. 6 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Plan Calls for Streetcar Line Under Whitehurst

October 30, 2013

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

A new streetcar line has emerged as the best option for linking Georgetown to Union Station, according to a final D.C. Department of Transportation report on “premium transit” options for the corridor.

The study, published Monday, lays out an optimal 3.4-mile path for the streetcar via K Street and New Jersey Avenue NW to H Street NE — stopping at eight stations along the way. The project would cost an estimated $347.7 million to build, and $9.1 million annually to operate.

Next up, the Transportation Department will start the environmental review and approval process, expected to take one or two years, according to agency spokesperson Monica Hernandez.

With the proposal, the department has refined its broader plans for a “One City” streetcar line cutting across the center of the District, from Georgetown to the Benning Road Metro station in Northeast.

A streetcar was one of several premium transit options the study investigated for the Georgetown to Union Station stretch, along with light rail and different types of buses. After launching research last January with a $1 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, D.C. transportation officials narrowed the alternatives over the summer to two different streetcar routes and one “Bus Rapid Transit” route.

The agency’s final recommendation calls for a streetcar line starting below the Whitehurst Freeway in Georgetown, at K Street and Wisconsin Avenue. It would run beneath Washington Circle to continue downtown along K Street, cutting right via New Jersey Avenue onto H Street and terminating just past Union Station and the Hopscotch Bridge.

For the most congested leg of that route — on K Street between Washington Circle and Mount Vernon Square — the streetcar would travel in a “dedicated transitway” lane; elsewhere it would share lanes with car traffic.

One issue is how the streetcar would be powered, since federal rules prohibit overhead wires in most of the L’Enfant City. Although the report left this question unanswered, it included details on wire-free propulsion methods.

Compared to other options, the recommended streetcar line would offer the most direct route and shortest travel times between Georgetown and Union Station, the report concludes, along with the lowest impacts on private space, car traffic and parking (with a loss of 278 spaces).

The Transportation Department developed its recommendation after hosting public meetings and consulting with various agencies and business groups.  

Jonathon Kass, transportation director for the Georgetown Business Improvement District, said his group is “excited” about the path along K Street, which will provide better access to the Georgetown waterfront and all the offices and recreational opportunities there.

However, Kass said some advocates are hoping to see dedicated transit lanes along the entire stretch of the streetcar route, rather than just the central blocks. “At every turn, we have to pick the option to make sure the streetcar’s fast and reliable,” he said.

Kass also noted the wide variety of opinions on where the streetcar route should start in Georgetown. Many have pushed for a connection to the transit-starved Georgetown University; others want to see links to Rosslyn or the Palisades.

This week’s report builds upon several transportation proposals already on the books. Most relevant are the large-scale plans for a 37-mile streetcar network across the city — starting with the H Street to Benning Road line in Northeast, expected to launch early next year after notorious construction delays. The long-term vision involves extending that “One City” line all the way to Georgetown, as part of a 22-mile priority network that also could include a separate north-south route from Takoma to Buzzard Point and eventually Anacostia.

Meanwhile, a 2009 study laid the groundwork for planning a dedicated two-way, two-lane transitway along K Street between 9th and 20th streets.

Down the line, questions may come up about how the streetcar plans might complement — or conflict with — proposals for a future Metrorail route through Georgetown and downtown.

Kass, of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, said the two transit solutions could work side by side. “We’re hopeful that the streetcar would be a near-term solution,” he said, while a future Metro stop “is essential for making Georgetown more accessible and sustainable.”

The Transportation Department study also looked in depth at an alternate streetcar route starting at a different point in Georgetown, on M Street near Wisconsin Avenue. This option, costing an estimated $390.6 million, proposed using segments of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts avenues, with the streetcar traveling on I Street on its way back.

More information on the study and its findings are available at unionstationtogeorgetown.com.

This article appears in the Oct. 30 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Partial Demolition Eyed for Heating Plant

October 23, 2013

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

The development team that wants to convert Georgetown’s West Heating Plant into luxury condos began building its case yesterday to demolish nearly 70 percent of the old structure, keeping the west wall and constructing a new 220,000-square-foot building that “evokes” the former facility on the same footprint.

“It’s now a block, an obstruction,” said architect David Adjaye at a well-attended briefing at the Four Seasons Hotel, which sits just north of the old federal heating plant and whose management would also operate the proposed residential building there. “This is an incredible moment, when you can make not just a building, but a place.”

As the briefing began, builder Richard Levy lowered the shades facing the hulking 1948 plant so attendees could focus on screens displaying the new design. “They’ve seen the building,” said Levy, a Georgetown resident who heads the development team, before introducing plans to transform what a Four Seasons staffer called “that ugly old building across the way.”

The Levy Group and Georgetown Co. bought the plant at auction for $19.5 million last March. Though it has been vacant for more than a decade, redevelopment is complicated because the structure sits within the Georgetown Historic District. Any exterior changes face scrutiny from the Old Georgetown Board, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, and the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation, who would have to approve the demolition.

But at the briefing, both Adjaye and structural engineer Kirk Mettam argued that substantial demolition is the only way to reclaim it. “This is not a building to be occupied. It’s a shell of an industrial plant,” he said.

Mettam said an initial inspection revealed “lots and lots of cracks” in the brick skin. A closer inspection, after the auction, was worse. Inside, engineers found that water had entered through the cracks, corroding and rusting the metal frame. And the brick skin, it turned out, was largely unattached to the metal frame. “Large unsupported spans of brick” could easily collapse at any disturbance, he said. “By the time you’re done trying to save it, you’ve taken it all down.”

Worse yet, the plant sits atop an aging public sewer line that’s still in use. The D.C. Sewer and Water Authority is deeply concerned that a restoration effort could cause the active sewer to crack, Mettam said.

Architect David Adjaye presents plans at Tuesday's meeting. (Photo by: Georgetown Dish) Architect David Adjaye presents plans at Tuesday's meeting.
Adjaye, a noted architect, said he studied the condition of the buff brick building, then asked himself, “Is there a way to preserve any part of it?” He concluded that only the 29th Street facade — “a noble structure” — along with the plant’s footing and foundation, could be salvaged, or about 33 percent of the original structure.

But in its place will be “a new building, of exactly the same materiality, which mimics, sort of rhymes with, the existing,” the architect said. “There’s a way to evoke the old building, but allow it to have a new life.”

There’s also a big sweetener in the plans — the 3.6 acres of parkland that would be created out of what is now a barren industrial site, inaccessible to the public and covered in part by rusting old tanks.

Landscape architect Ignacio Bunster, who also designed the nearby Georgetown Waterfront Park, has sketched in an elevated, gardenlike area to the south of the plant, with a historic C&O Canal lock to the north opened to the public, and a bike and pedestrian pathway wrapping around to the east, connecting the Rock Creek trail to the Georgetown waterfront.

The project has powerful backers. Former Mayor Anthony Williams is a partner on the development team, and Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans stopped by to argue that it would “bring life back to a site that is dead.” Among other benefits, Evans said, “it’s going to pay taxes. The people who live there [will pay income] taxes and property taxes on a building that now generates zero” revenue.

Levy noted that the start of construction could be several years away. The project will be presented to the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission, and then to the Old Georgetown Board, in November. Mayor’s Agent hearings on the proposed demolition could be more than a year away.

The development team hopes to get a project website up by Monday, when complete drawings and other information should be available at westheatingplant.com.

This article appears in the Oct. 23 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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