Georgetown Current

City Scrambling To Cut Ellington Project Costs

January 7, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, D.C. officials formally broke ground on a $139 million modernization and expansion of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, celebrating the new space and amenities the project would bring to the 3500 R St. campus in Burleith.

Now, with students housed in temporary locations and internal demolition already underway, the Department of General Services is scrambling to scale back a design that proved too ambitious for the allocated funds. The last-minute changes raised concerns at Monday’s Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission meeting, where some residents worried that a budget crunch could compromise the project.

Project officials at the meeting described changes to plans for the 1898 building’s exterior, which will require approval by the Historic Preservation Review Board. They include a rear addition that will stand just three stories instead of the originally planned four, with some of that space shifting underground to take up half of the proposed parking garage. And planned geothermal heating has been abandoned in favor of conventional equipment.

“In pricing up the original plan, it turns out the plan was over budget, so we had to do some trimming to make the budget more amenable,” General Services Department project manager Peter Davidson told commissioners.

Davidson added that he no longer expects the project to be ready in time for the start of the 2016-17 school year: “I am probably going to suggest that given the schedule and time we’ve lost, even though we’ve had the groundbreaking, we may be one or two months late on turnover.”

In an interview after the meeting, Davidson said the agency’s standard process is to first come up with the best project concept, and only afterward determine exactly how much it will cost. “We try to design first to fit the program,” he said.

Davidson declined to say what the original plan would have cost, except that it was “substantially higher” than the $139 million budget. Earlier discussions had pegged the modernization at $82 million.

Monday’s presentation focused on changes to the building’s exterior, as interior work doesn’t require the same public review on historic preservation grounds. In the interview, Davidson said interior programming changes — which constitute the bulk of the cost-saving measures — will be fleshed out more in a Thursday meeting with the school’s faculty and staff.

Most concerns at the meeting focused on the reduced parking and revised plans for rooftop mechanical equipment.

There will now be about 53 underground parking spaces plus 11 or 12 surface spaces, while the earlier plans included over 100 spaces. December 2013 materials from the General Services Department described the school’s minimum parking needs as 80 spaces.

“As part of the value management aspect of the project, we eliminated the fourth floor [of the new rear addition],” explained architect Don Gregory. “And when we eliminated the fourth floor, we had to recapture space in a number of creative ways” — including by reducing parking.

Neighbors also worried about noise from the mechanical equipment, based on their experiences with nearby Hardy Middle School.

“When they would kick in, you could hear it throughout the whole community,” neighborhood commissioner Ed Solomon said of the Hardy equipment. “This is something we want to get right.”

Added commissioner Bill Starrels: “What I’d hate to see happen here is see the city, for the sake of saving money, buy inferior technology.”

Davidson said only “negligible” sound should emanate beyond the property line, but skeptical commissioners requested further details.

The commission’s resolution, however, focused solely on the historic preservation issue, the only matter in which the commission has a formal role. The resolution praises the reduction in size of a glass enclosure on the building’s portico while asking the Historic Preservation Review Board to require an even smaller scale.

Commission chair Ron Lewis also noted that many concerns from residents will be eased through a community partnership process that’s underway with the school. It will stipulate conditions on such issues as event parking and use of the planned new rooftop terrace, which is now slated only for educational uses as opposed to performances.

This article appears in the Jan. 7 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Bird-Watchers Tally Up Park’s Feathered Fauna

December 31, 2014

By Kat Lucero
Current Staff Writer

Bright crimson cardinals, flocks of starlings, woodpeckers with red tips and even rare little winter wrens were among the various bird sightings at Battery Kemble Park as part of the National Audubon Society’s annual continent-spanning Christmas bird count.

In its 115th year, the annual volunteer-driven survey is considered the world’s “longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations — and to help guide conservation action,” according to the bird conservation nonprofit’s main website. From Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 every winter, thousands of volunteers throughout North America participate in this “citizen science” — a term used to describe a research project conducted by novices or nonprofessional investigators.

“We are trying to count every individual bird we see in the District of Columbia. And those numbers are compared against the 114 previous attempts to see how bird populations have changed in that time,” said Nicholas Lund, a board member in the society’s D.C. chapter, which organized the Dec. 20 event. Other D.C. counts took place that day in Rock Creek Park, at Fort Dupont and at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

On the cold Saturday morning at the hilly Battery Kemble Park, around 20 bird lovers from different parts of the city bundled up to participate in the tally, splitting into two groups paired with a guide.

Lund led one group up to the main hill, then toward a grassy knoll, moist from the melting morning frost. Fenceless yards of multimillion-dollar homes along Chain Bridge Road abut this lofty spot on the parkland. Birders peered through their binoculars looking for whatever feathery creatures they came across — sitting on the leafless branches or darting from tree to tree.

“Right now, we’re creeping into a bunch of people’s backyards with binoculars and seeing what we can see,” joked Lund. He noted that other bird-watchers at last year’s Christmas count spotted all kinds of fluttering activity at nearby feeders full of seeds.

Down the hill, the group stopped and tallied what they’d seen so far — chickadees, juncos, white-breasted nuthatches, a large flicker woodpecker, Carolina wrens, robins, blue jays, song sparrows, a mockingbird and, of course, dozens of cardinals. The metallic-sounding chirps of these bright red, black-beaked birds were heard throughout the walk. “They’re everywhere,” one of the bird-watchers noted as he looked around.

Non-native white-throated sparrows were also plentiful at Battery Kemble that day. Every winter, these full-bodied brown and gray northern birds with a yellow, black and white head migrate to the D.C. area from their natural habitat in Canada.

For an urban area like D.C., bird count participant Chris McMurray said that “it’s important to realize that in [D.C.] there’s a lot of wildlife.”

“It’s very accessible. You don’t have to drive out to the country,” said McMurray, who also serves on the board of the D.C. Audubon Society. He added that people need to appreciate the diversity of the urban landscape, especially in terms of policy that affects wild animals’ natural habitat.

On Jan. 24, the D.C. chapter will host the annual C&O Canal Mid-winter Bird Survey, a larger event that requires groups to span the historic 180-mile-plus waterway from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md. The organization has been conducting this activity for the past 15 years.

This article appears in the Dec. 31 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Glover Park Hardware Loses Its Longtime Lease

December 17, 2014

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

Glover Park Hardware announced Monday that it must abruptly relocate from its longtime location at 2251 Wisconsin Ave. next month, having lost its lease for the property with no replacement site yet determined.

The store will begin clearance sales in the new year before shutting its doors on Jan. 15, owner Gina Schaefer told The Current yesterday. Schaefer said lease renewal negotiations broke off suddenly about a month ago. “We had a deal and the landlord decided at the last minute to lease to someone else,” she wrote in an email. The store has been in place in Glover Park since 2005.

“It felt like the worst part of business,” Schaefer added. “We like to think of ourselves as members of the community and a desirable tenant. We are easy to negotiate with. None of that worked in our favor this time.”

Chesapeake Realty Partners, the building’s owner, is in the midst of a redevelopment project to construct apartments behind the older building housing the hardware store and a Washington Sports Clubs gym. The company’s co-chairman and chief operating officer, Josh Fidler, had told The Current in January 2013 that the project wouldn’t affect the retail tenants. Fidler couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday.

Schaefer wrote that she hopes to reopen Glover Park Hardware in the same area soon, adding that “we have a couple of sites we are working on,” though she declined to identify them. “We cannot anticipate how long this might be but we will try to minimize as much as possible,” she wrote of the closure period.

Employees will be shifted to other Ace Hardware stores she owns, including locations in Tenleytown and Woodley Park, and she added that she hopes customers will follow them until a new location opens. “We can’t express enough how much the Glover Park community means to us,” wrote Schaefer.

Jackie Blumenthal, who represents the area on the Glover Park advisory neighborhood commission, said she’d heard about earlier difficulties in the lease negotiations but had thought they were resolved.

“I am reaching out to people right now to see if we can create some kind of pressure to keep Ace Hardware in the neighborhood,” she said. “This will be a terrible thing for the neighborhood if they go.”

Blumenthal said she is also worried about the availability of another suitable space for the hardware store in Glover Park. The former training facility for the International Union of Operating Engineers (Local 99) is available at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Calvert Street, but Blumenthal said it might be too big. “That’s the only space I can think of that would be possible at this point,” she said.

This article appears in the Dec. 17 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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