Georgetown Current

ANC Seeks Reversal of Improper Work

May 6, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

The owner of 3107 Dumbarton St. should expediently undo renovations to the 1898 home that were carried out without permits, the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission said Monday.

Any alterations visible from the street are governed by the Old Georgetown Board, which oversees the neighborhood’s federally protected historic district. The board hadn’t approved permit applications for the Dumbarton project, which included cladding the brick building in synthetic stucco, altering and raising its roof, removing a chimney, replacing the windows and entrance, and creating new window openings. The city issued a stop-work order and a $10,000 fine in January.

Any resident who has carried out renovations in the Georgetown Historic District is likely familiar with the scrutiny that the board, part of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, pays to details as minute as the type of window frame.

The property owner is now asking the board to retroactively authorize the changes and to allow the half-completed work to be finished. Residents and commissioners at Monday’s meeting expressed disgust at the idea.

“It’s absolutely horrendous,” said commissioner Jeff Jones. “What is this applicant thinking by even trying to propose this, taking our time and the neighbors’ time up by taking us through this? Why don’t they just stop this silliness?”

“I think they’re looking for direction from the Old Georgetown Board,” replied Georgetown architect Rich Markus, who was hired by the owner after the stop-work order was issued.

“Well, they’re going to get a lot of direction,” said Jones.

Tom Luebke, secretary to the Fine Arts Commission, told The Current in January that at least some of the alterations were unambiguously incompatible with the historic district. The Old Georgetown Board is scheduled to review the case tomorrow and has ordered property owners to undo changes carried out without permits. “This is one of the most egregious violations of process we’ve seen in a long time,” Luebke said at the time.

Markus said the owner — Alla Bakhtina of Chevy Chase, Md. — hadn’t entirely ignored the law. “It was actually in the permit process, with a different architect and different people, and at one point they started construction without a permit in hand,” he said.

Bakhtina has said previously that the project began as emergency repair work brought about by a burst pipe, unstable brickwork and shoddy electrical equipment. But commissioners and residents took issue with the project as much as the process.

“ANC 2E believes the extent of the unpermitted work severely damages the historic character of this important colonial revival property,” the commission’s resolution states. “These egregious and severely damaging proposed changes to the historic character of 3107 Dumbarton, NW are completely void of any respect toward the Georgetown Historic District.”

Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans also addressed the issue at the commission meeting. “You cannot, without a building permit, anywhere in this city — especially in Georgetown — put up stucco and get away with it,” he said. “It’s just an activity that cannot take place.”

Evans said at the meeting that he will ask the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which governs building permits, to order 3107 Dumbarton restored to its previous condition. His spokesperson, Tom Lipinsky, told The Current yesterday that Evans plans to send a letter this week.

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

2 Comments   Click here to share your thoughts.

Preservation Board Rejects Landmark for Heating Plant

April 29, 2015

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

The DC Preservation League wants the West Heating Plant to be recognized as a national landmark. Some Georgetowners want the vacant industrial building gone from their waterfront. Meanwhile, developer Richard Levy wants to demolish and rebuild most of its outer walls to make way for luxury condos.

After hearing all those arguments, the Historic Preservation Review Board voted 4-3 last Thursday against individual landmark status, leaving the fate of the plant as cloudy as ever.

The 1948 plant is already considered a “contributing structure” in the Georgetown Historic District, and some witnesses and board members said that individual landmark status would not provide additional protections. Levy, who has been working for several years to find a new use, said his firm is still running the gauntlet of design review panels that could approve or prevent substantial demolition and reconstruction of the massive masonry and metal building at 1055 29th St.

“This is a protected building, and any demolition requires a hearing by the mayor’s agent” for historic preservation, Levy said in an interview later. “The path is the same.”

The preservation league’s Tisha Allen described the building as “monumental, streamlined … Art Deco stripped of detailing,” and said it is significant not only for its architecture but for the role it played in the growth of the federal government.

“For a city with little industrial architecture, the plant stands out. It’s had high artistic value even though it’s ‘just a heating plant,’” said board staffer Tim Dennée.

“We have very few examples of industrial, infrastructure landmarks,” said board member Joseph Taylor, who voted to support the designation.

But Levy’s structural engineer, Kirk Mettam, argued the building is too far gone to be adapted to human use without essentially rebuilding it.

“It’s uninhabitable in its current condition, and can’t be made habitable without demolishing” a substantial portion, said architectural historian Andi Adams, also retained by Levy.

That convinced at least one board member to vote against landmarking. “So much of it would have to be removed that it would be lacking in integrity,” said member Rauzia Ally.

It’s clear the prolonged design review process has used up the patience of some neighbors.

“Our members don’t want this albatross sitting vacant, with toxic materials inside,” said Victoria Rixey of the Citizens Association of Georgetown. “Yeah, it would be great to save the building. But it doesn’t belong in Georgetown. It looks like it landed from Mars. We view the application by DCPL as obstructionist, pure and simple.”

Board member Maria Casarella seemed to agree. The architect is not significant enough to justify landmarking his work, she said, so “what we have is a case for memorializing an ecological disaster.” Casarella noted the federal government built the coal-burning plant to heat new federal buildings in the Northwest quadrant of the city. The plant, later outfitted to burn oil, shut down for good in the mid-1990s.        

Levy’s firm bought the building in 2013 after the federal government declared it surplus. The development plans have been vetted repeatedly at community meetings and by competing structural engineers. Still ahead are design review by the preservation board, the Old Georgetown Board and U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The Levy Group must also convince the mayor’s agent to override historic protections by finding that substantial demolition is needed for a “project of special merit.”

Though it doesn’t short-circuit that process, Levy said later that the board’s decision not to landmark the plant is “a victory for the community. The Georgetown Historic District is more important than any one building.”

Levy said he’s not yet sure if the plans will change, or when he will submit them to the various design review panels. “The community is galvanized around wanting to see something productive at that site,” he said.

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

Click here to share your thoughts.

Foundation to Buy Fillmore School

April 22, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

Burleith and upper Georgetown residents worried about redevelopment of the former Fillmore School are breathing easier, following yesterday’s announcement that Georgetown’s S&R Foundation has a contract to buy the 1801 35th St. site.

The foundation already owns two high-profile properties in the area: the Evermay estate at 1623 28th St. and the Halcyon House at 3400 Prospect St., both purchased in 2011. Started by local couple Sachiko Kuno and Ryuji Ueno,  the foundation serves as an “incubator” for individuals with talent — focusing on music at Evermay, and science and entrepreneurship at Halcyon.

Owning the Fillmore facility will give the foundation space to extend that concept to visual and fine arts — even though its current occupant, the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, will relocate.

“Through S&R’s expansion of arts education at the Fillmore School, we will continue S&R’s commitment to supporting excellence in artistry, innovation and entrepreneurship in an environment that encourages international collaboration,” Kuno says in a news release. “We also are excited to expand our commitment to supporting talented artists in Washington, D.C., especially those from underserved communities.”

George Washington University acquired the property last year when it absorbed the Corcoran’s education programs and its downtown art museum. From the beginning, university officials said the Fillmore property was a key component to the deal — valuable land that could be sold to finance other terms of the acquisition. The Corcoran arts program is being moved to other university-owned properties.

The university reportedly declined to choose a buyer based on anything but the contract price — despite community calls to favor a new owner that would benefit the neighborhood — but a spokesperson said yesterday that the S&R Foundation has multiple benefits.

“We are pleased that the Fillmore building will continue to be used by the purchaser for arts education,” spokesperson Candace Smith wrote in an email to The Current. “The university will use funds from the sale for the renovation of the Corcoran 17th Street building and for programs within the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.”

Details remain skimpy about the foundation’s plans for the 35th Street property, which includes the historic 1893 Fillmore building and its adjacent surface parking lot. The news release speaks generally about the arts use, but foundation spokesperson Shreena Patel said yesterday that she had no further specifics about planned operations, physical modifications to the property or the timeline for moving forward.

But so strong is S&R’s reputation in the community that one neighbor mentioned it unbidden when the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission discussed the property last month. The group was reviewing proposals floated by two other prospective buyers, who would have converted the school into condos and constructed row houses on the parking lot — concepts that neighbors and the commission overwhelmingly opposed as too dense.

“We would love it if a school would buy it, we would love it if that nice Japanese couple would add it to their portfolio, but we recognize they might not do that and it’s going to be developed,” 34th Street resident Greg Kaufman said March 2.

Neighborhood commissioners applauded S&R’s decision to do just that. “The S&R Foundation has demonstrated a sincere track record of addressing community concerns when they acquired two other significant properties in Georgetown,” commissioner Ed Solomon, whose single-member district includes the property, wrote in an email to The Current. “I expect the same positive relationship as the Fillmore project moves forward.”

Commission chair Ron Lewis echoed the sentiment. “The S&R Foundation has strong and growing philanthropic programs and a collegial, good-neighbor approach in the community,” he wrote in an email.

Smith, the university spokesperson, declined to share the sales price for Fillmore, which had been listed at $14 million. “The purchase price will become public when the sale is completed this summer,” she wrote.

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

Click here to share your thoughts.