Georgetown Current

Signal Timing Adjustments Coming to M Street Soon

May 11, 2016

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

Traffic signals on M Street NW in Georgetown may soon be re-timed so pedestrians don’t have to wait as long to cross, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation.

While the agency hasn’t yet determined what the new signal timing would be, spokesperson Michelle Phipps-Evans said Monday that revisions are scheduled to be in place by the end of this month.

The change follows a long-running push by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, which was joined last month by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E. According to the community members, pedestrians at a number of M Street intersections currently must wait for up to 90 seconds for a chance to cross. This delay frequently leads to crowds of pedestrians blocking the sidewalk as they wait.

Until about a year ago, wait times didn’t exceed 60 seconds, which ANC 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) said was an acceptable standard. The business group is seeking a maximum of 45 seconds.

But Georgetown’s pedestrian-heavy main street is also a critical east-west commuter route for cars. Accordingly, the Transportation Department last May made the move to adjust M Street’s signals as part of a broader program to ease traffic into, out of and around the city’s downtown.

“The timing changes were implemented to reduce the constant traffic congestion that has plagued the Georgetown area over the years,” Phipps-Evans wrote in an email. “Before, and even during the implementation of new timings, DDOT’s traffic signal engineers made several observations of traffic patterns (during peak hours), all the while considering the delicate balance among the multiple modes of travel in the District.”

Will Handsfield, transportation director for the Georgetown BID, said this neighborhood has its own specific needs: It’s a pedestrian-oriented shopping district with narrow sidewalks and a healthy tourist trade.

“That’s our competitive advantage,” he said. “They could go to the same stores in a number of other places. The primary part of it is that you can walk in comfort and safety. … If we don’t pay attention to that and try to protect that, we lose this thing that’s intangible, which is how special Georgetown is as a place. The specialness would probably be out-competed by areas that do take that into account.”

In a unanimous resolution passed April 4, ANC 2E prioritized three specific intersections — where M meets 30th, 31st and Thomas Jefferson streets NW. At the time, commissioner Bill Starrels said other intersections in Georgetown have also been problematic, but that these three were the worst trouble spots. He added that car traffic on the side streets is also affected.

The Georgetown BID, meanwhile, is focusing on pedestrian crossing times at all M Street intersections.

Phipps-Evans said the Transportation Department is working with the business group on the signal issue. Handsfield said he’s hopeful that the agency can develop a win-win solution.

“We think we can get all or most of the congestion-relief benefits that the city has delivered and also make it comfortable for pedestrians,” said Handsfield. “I don’t think it’s an either/or choice.”

This article appears in the May 11 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Plans Move Forward at Vacant Hotel Site

May 3, 2016

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

The Latham Hotel site in Georgetown is now slated to be restored as a new hotel, instead of the residential project that a previous developer won approval for a few years ago.

The 3000 M St. NW property — the hotel facing 30th Street and retail storefronts along M — has stood vacant for several years after suffering severe water damage in 2012. Neighborhood leaders and residents are generally receptive to the latest plans despite concerns about elements like a large rooftop deck and a loading area.

Developer Thor Equities purchased the property for more than $50 million earlier this year and subsequently announced plans for a renovated 82-room hotel with several floors of above-ground retail on the street. Current designs include 24 parking spaces accessible by car elevator and a valet parking program. The developer also hopes to incorporate a small bar or lounge on top of the hotel, which will require a special exception from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, to be decided at a hearing June 21.

Representatives from Thor Equities presented the plans to Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) on Monday. The representatives said the firm intends to spend the rest of May working with ANC 2E, the Citizens Association of Georgetown and other neighbors on issues like transportation and loading management.

The neighborhood commission voted unanimously to oppose the proposed rooftop lounge, arguing that the 2,700-square-foot enclosed portion is too large and noting that the Old Georgetown Board, which must register design approval before the project can proceed, typically opposes rooftop establishments as well. Commissioner Bill Starrels recommended the developer shrink the perimeter of the roof deck and said a settlement agreement will be required before ANC 2E signs off on an alcohol license for the spot.

Beyond that — aside from requests for more information and small tweaks on aspects like the south facade and a cooling tower — ANC 2E generally expressed appreciation to the developer for the project’s goal and for working cooperatively.

“It’s going to take essentially an eyesore and an abandoned building and make it into a center of activity,” Starrels said in a follow-up interview. “It will bring people to eat, dine and spend money in the city.”

Starrels told The Current that the developer hasn’t yet indicated a timeline for the project.

At Monday’s meeting, resident John Lever, representing the citizens association, opposed the roof deck and questioned whether the street-level entry and exit will create a “logical flow,” but added his thanks for the developer’s agreeable nature as well. “It’s really rare to see a developer who actually cares about what they’re doing,” Lever said.

The Georgetown Business Improvement District also expects the redevelopment to boost the commercial fortunes of the busy shopping district on M Street, according to Jamie Scott, the group’s economic development manager. The retail frontage on the block will be particularly lucrative, Scott expects.

“Having the space activated is good for the experience of shoppers in Georgetown and good for the commercial district overall,” Scott said.

Some residents had raised concerns about the previous plan for the Latham site: a proposal by developer SB-Urban to turn the hotel into 140 “micro” apartment units with no on-site parking spaces, and to rebuild the M Street storefronts for new retail space. Following various compromises and design tweaks, developers and community leaders generally reached a compromise and the project won various necessary approvals. But SB-Urban, which purchased the property for $45.4 million in 2013, elected to sell it two years later to prioritize its projects in Dupont Circle and Blagden Alley.

This article appears in the May 4 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Viewpoint: Is Modern Architecture Right for Georgetown?

April 26, 2016


By Ray Kukulski

Currently, three new buildings are proposed at the southwest and southeast entrances of our historic village. As you can see in the accompanying renderings, these buildings do not match the style, color and character of historic Georgetown. In the past, review and approval of new construction in Georgetown has proceeded on a case-by-case basis with a few members of the Citizens Association of Georgetown and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E representing the views of our village before the Old Georgetown Board and, at times, the full Commission of Fine Arts. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever asked our community as a whole if Georgetown should retain its historic character. I’m doing so now.

A mid-2015 rendering of plans for the Valero site (Photo by: Rendering courtesy of EastBanc) A mid-2015 rendering of plans for the Valero site

The Old Georgetown Board and the Commission of Fine Arts, the board’s parent body, are responsible for review and approval of the aesthetic character of new or renovated construction in the historic district. They also consider whether a proposed design is compatible with the historic fabric of the community, which does not preclude contemporary designs.

The Old Georgetown Board is a panel of three architects selected by the Commission of Fine Arts, which consists of seven presidential appointees with expertise in the arts. The board’s three members provide guidance to the Commission of Fine Arts on the design of new or renovated buildings in Georgetown.

Three projects under review would occupy key gateway sites: a residential project replacing the West Heating Plant at 29th Street NW and the C&O Canal, at a southeast entrance to Georgetown; a replacement for the Valero gas station across from the Four Seasons Hotel, also at a southeast entrance to Georgetown; and a building to replace the Exxon gas station on M Street NW near Key Bridge at the southwest entrance to Georgetown.

These buildings are all to be modern in design and color and will not blend in or be compatible with the industrial heritage of the Georgetown waterfront south of M Street or the west end of the commercial corridor adjacent to the Car Barn. Washington Harbour and the House of Sweden (as well as the adjacent building to the north) are modern, but they are between the river’s edge and K Street. Buildings to the north generally blend in with a red-brick palette and compatible architecture.

Do Georgetowners want new buildings to blend in with the historic fabric of our village, or is modern architecture with materials that do not match the traditional color palette or design of our late-19th- or early-20th-century buildings acceptable? Do international visitors come to immerse themselves in history or to see modern architecture they could see at home?

A 2014 rendering of the project at the Exxon site (Photo by: Rendering courtesy of EastBanc) A 2014 rendering of the project at the Exxon site

The Georgetown Business Improvement District, the Citizens Association of Georgetown and ANC 2E all work to retain our brick sidewalks and our historic buildings. The Fine Arts Commission requires homeowners to repair original windows rather than replace them with double pane windows that look original. Yet all of them support the introduction of incompatible modern architecture and materials into our historic village. Red brick, stone and wood are the common building materials of our historic buildings, as they were the building materials most available before the introduction of concrete, steel and large sheets of glass. Should new structures here use these modern materials and be designed to take advantage of them, as is done in other parts of the city, or should historic Georgetown remain uniquely historic?

The BID is proposing signs to inform visitors that they’ve arrived in Georgetown. Imagine a sign reading “Welcome to Historic Georgetown, 1751” adjacent to a modern building clad in marble or black glass! Shouldn’t our iconic historic village look historic?

Your views on these questions are vitally important to provide guidance to decision makers as they determine the future look and feel of our world-known historic village. Please offer your comments following this article on whether you consider modern-looking buildings such as these three projects appropriate for the Georgetown Historic District.

Ray Kukulski, a Georgetown resident, is a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and a former president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

A version of this Viewpoint piece also appears in the April 27 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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