Georgetown Current

Georgetown Vision Plan Nets Community Support

December 31, 2013

By Graham Vyse
Current Staff Writer

An ambitious 15-year plan to strengthen Georgetown’s business district has won the backing of two key neighborhood organizations.

In the final weeks of 2013, the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission and the Citizens Association of Georgetown both threw support behind “Georgetown 2028,” a proposal from the Georgetown Business Improvement District.

This report — which the two organizations helped draft — advocates large-scale improvements to Georgetown’s transportation and public space. Among its specific initiatives, the plan calls for the creation of a neighborhood Metro station, a revitalized waterfront along the Potomac River, a pedestrian and bicycle bridge to Theodore Roosevelt Island, and aerial gondolas that would carry 4,000 visitors — and potential customers — across the water from Arlington, Va., every hour.

“ANC 2E is pleased to add its voice to those of others in our community in support of the broad scope and creative thinking embodied in the plan,” the neighborhood commission wrote in its resolution. “We applaud the BID and all who have participated for the inclusiveness and productivity of that process.”

In its own resolution, the citizens association acknowledged the formidable task of accomplishing the proposal’s goals, but sounded an optimistic note: “Recognizing that all significant improvements contemplated by the report will proceed through the ordinary regulatory approval process, CAG strongly endorses the overall objectives.”

“Georgetown 2028” is the product of a year’s worth of community meetings, focus groups and online surveys convened by the Georgetown Business Improvement District. In addition to the neighborhood commission and the citizens association, the group involved key stakeholders such as the National Park Service, the D.C. government and many Georgetown businesses.

At a December press briefing on the plan, business improvement district CEO Joe Sternlieb said transportation is the biggest problem facing Georgetown commerce.

He outlined proposed fixes, starting with an accelerated timeline for construction of a Georgetown Metro station. Sternlieb wants the project completed by 2028, not 2040, as currently planned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Although many ideas in Sternlieb’s presentation seemed fairly straightforward — traffic-calming measures, temporary sidewalk extensions, additional streetcars — several were strikingly unusual. For example, the proposal for aerial gondolas was inspired by systems in Portland, Ore., and several international cities, including London.

“Can you imagine a four-minute trip in the air with these spectacular views? It’s pretty amazing,” Sternlieb said. “We’ll be starting a feasibility study in the new year.”

Asked about funding for this and other components of the plan, Sternlieb said it would come from private investment, public-private partnerships and the business improvement district’s own resources.

He pledged to provide specifics about costs by February, but added: “We don’t have any decent ability to estimate yet.” Regardless of the price tag, he said he believes residents will see the projects’ value.

“We think Georgetown is one of the assets that brings people to Washington,” he said. “When people come to Washington, they think about going to the Lincoln Memorial, they think about going to the Capitol, and they think about coming to Georgetown.”

To read the “Georgetown 2028” plan in full, visit

This article appears in the Jan. 1 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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ANC Objects to Aspects of Ellington Renovations

December 24, 2013

By Graham Vyse
Current Staff Writer

Proposed modernizations to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts are facing opposition from the Georgetown/Burleith advisory neighborhood commission.

At their meeting last Thursday, commissioners offered support for large portions of the planned $80 million upgrade for the 1897 school building, but voted unanimously to voice “serious concerns about several elements in the concept submission.”

Commission chair Ron Lewis addressed more than 100 Ellington students, parents and educators who spilled out of the meeting room, explaining his panel’s objections to current designs from Lance Bailey & Associates and cox graae + spack architects, contractors for the D.C. Department of General Services.

“As contemplated, there are elements we see here that are very inappropriate,” he said.

The first major item of concern — a “nonstarter,” according to Lewis — was a proposed rooftop gathering space commissioners said would produce amplified sound in the neighborhood. They argued that this space would be not only intrusive, but unnecessary.

“Numerous indoor performance and gathering spaces are provided in the proposed remodeling plan, and they should be abundantly sufficient,” commissioners wrote in their resolution.

The commission also objected to proposed aesthetic changes to the building’s exterior, including modern-looking orange paneling they fear would compromise Ellington’s classical architectural style and historic character. “A more subtle palette would be advised,” commissioners wrote.

Additionally, commissioners were concerned that new parking spaces on the school’s sprawling front lawn would ruin its visual appeal, and that a Reservoir Road entrance for a proposed underground parking lot would exacerbate traffic congestion.

All of these issues will be conveyed to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, which are slated to consider this project at their meetings on Jan. 16 and Jan. 23, respectively.

Mayor Vincent Gray, who had come to Thursday’s commission meeting to tout his administration’s accomplishments, told the crowd he is sure these issues will be resolved.

“Nothing is going to derail Ellington High School,” the mayor said, pledging to intervene personally if necessary. “I want to make sure that we have the finest performing arts high school in the country, if not the world.”

Commissioner Lewis said he was similarly confident the community could resolve its differences, though he suggested it could take time. He and his colleagues will undoubtedly be held to this promise by people like Ellington junior Kaila Carter, who made a point of approaching Lewis after the meeting. Carter said she told Lewis she wouldn’t benefit directly from the modernization, but she hoped future students would get the top-notch facilities they deserve.

“I told him I’m counting on him,” she said. “I’m putting my trust in him.”

This article appears in the Dec. 25 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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New Plan Scales Back Theater Addition

December 18, 2013

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

Architect Robert Bell is back to the drawing board with his plans to redevelop the old Georgetown Theater, this time working on creating a single-family home instead of luxury apartments behind the historic building.

At his latest meeting with the Old Georgetown Board on Dec. 5, Bell said, members advised him to “go back and redesign, using the [existing] carriage house as the residence” and adding a garden to the lot behind the theater.

In previous iterations, Bell had sought to build a new multistory residential building in the rear parking lot of the theater at 1351 Wisconsin Ave. “Now that building is gone,” he said of his plans.

The architect said the new single-family home he’s designing for the space will be an “exceptional” two-bedroom house, with a “Zen-like” garden and a loggia walkway connecting to the theater.

For the old theater itself, Bell said “everyone’s pretty much in alignment” with his past proposals to redesign the space as a new commercial building, so only minor changes are necessary there.

The architect, who purchased the vacant theater this fall, has refined his plans and filed a new submission in advance of the Jan. 2 meeting of the Old Georgetown Board, which makes recommendations to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The project is slated for review at Thursday’s meeting of the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission.

It’s not the first time Bell has had to make tweaks. “I’ve redesigned it many times,” he said of the project, which he’d already been working on for several years before buying the property.

This latest round of revisions comes after both the Old Georgetown Board and the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission raised objections earlier this month to various details.

The neighborhood commission voted unanimously on Dec. 2 to oppose Bell’s concept for a two-story building behind the theater. In its resolution, the commission criticized that building’s “large footprint, excessive scale and reduction of open space.”

Bell had come to the commission that day after already lopping off a full floor from the proposed residential building, reducing it from three to two stories.

The commission, on the other hand, has supported Bell’s planned redesign to the theater building itself.

“Certainly in terms of the community there’s great interest in having the [theater] building put back to productive use,” commissioner Tom Birch said in an interview. “But there’s no interest in having development in the middle of the block.”

Birch said neighbors will look at the new scaled-back plans with “renewed interest.”

The theater building has been vacant since the National Jewel Center left the space in 2011, losing its lease when the property went on the market for $4.5 million. The building started life as the “Dumbarton Moving Picture Theater” in 1913, with the Heon family taking over ownership in 1949.

After buying the property from the Heons this fall, Bell, a prominent Georgetown architect, floated plans for a new mixed-use development with offices, retail and high-end apartments.

In previous interviews with The Current, Bell said he wanted to rebuild the iconic neon “Georgetown” sign adorning the old cinema, transform the adjacent alley into a walkable street, and create an outdoor sidewalk cafe. He estimated that retail tenants could move into the property by 2015.

In an email last week, Bell said he’s sticking with his original goal “to have the front façade of the theater restored and the restore[d] neon sign up for this fourth of July.”

This article appears in the Dec. 18 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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