Georgetown Current

Neighbors Wary of Density in Fillmore Redevelopment

March 4, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

A pair of informal development proposals hint at the possible future of Georgetown’s Fillmore School property, a 1.2-acre site at 1801 35th St. that’s currently listed for $14 million.

Both envision new row houses along 34th Street — replacing most of a surface parking lot — along with residential apartments in the 1893 Fillmore building. And both have sparked concerns about density, traffic, aesthetics and other issues.

The property is for sale by George Washington University, which acquired the building and land when it absorbed the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Proceeds from the sale will help fund renovations of the main Corcoran building at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. The university has said it expects prospective buyers to include schools and other institutions, as well as developers.

Two companies submitted concept plans for review by the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission and the Old Georgetown Board, but they were withdrawn from consideration at the university’s request.

At their meeting on Monday, neighborhood commissioners instead adopted a set of “community expectations” that they hope the university will show to prospective buyers.

“Bidders should be well aware of what is likely to be welcomed by the community and what is likely to infringe on the community’s view of what should be there — and the consequences that could flow from that,” commission chair Ron Lewis said at the meeting.

Neither of the concepts submitted by developers met all of the commission’s criteria, which call for:
■ the preservation of “most” current open space, including on 35th Street;
■ a maximum of 10 units in the Fillmore building;
■ no expansion or major aesthetic changes to the Fillmore building;
■ any new 34th Street row houses (of which there could be “several”) to match the two-story height, massing and setbacks of nearby homes;
■ a prohibition on residents receiving residential parking permits;
■ access from a 34th Street driveway at the north side of the property rather than a narrow public alley to the south; and
■ the preservation of a 35th Street “tot lot” playground.

Lewis said he wished the university were working proactively with the community. In a statement to The Current, spokesperson Candace Smith wrote that the school must focus on raising money for the Corcoran’s 17th Street building.

“The university took on the responsibility for the renovation with the understanding that the proceeds from the Fillmore sale would be available to partly fund this renovation effort,” wrote Smith. “GW has a strong interest in the Fillmore sale helping to meet significant funding needs.”

The two proposals were provided to The Current by community members. The first, prepared by the Georgetown firm Overmyer Architects for an unidentified client, includes 14 condo units in the Fillmore building and nine three-story row houses (seven on 34th Street and two on 35th Street), with parking and a 10th single-family home in the middle of the property. The plan would relocate the 35th Street tot lot but retain its size. Access would be from the existing driveway on the north side and the southern alley.

The second, prepared by architecture firm Antunovich Associates, is slightly more modest but still denser than the neighborhood commission is envisioning. Six three-story row houses would line 34th Street; 12 units would go into the Fillmore building; the existing tot lot and adjacent open space would remain; and all access would be from a widened 34th Street driveway on the north side.

A number of neighbors who had seen the Overmyer concept spoke out against the proposals.

“That land is going to be built [on] — it’s just a given — but the density is a concern and the egress is going to be a concern,” said 34th Street resident Kathy Thompson.

Greg Kaufman, another 34th Street neighbor, alluded to Sachiko Kuno and Ryuji Ueno, who own two prominent Georgetown estates.

“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,” Kaufman said. “But these are our concerns and we’re very serious about it.”

George Washington University has said it expects to begin reviewing purchase offers in April. The neighborhood commission and Old Georgetown Board will review the design of any proposal once the purchase goes through. Furthermore, converting the Fillmore building into apartments would require approval by city zoning authorities.

Fillmore was an elementary school serving Georgetown and Burleith from 1893 to 1974, when it became the Fillmore Arts Center — dedicated art space for children at various nearby public schools.

That program moved next door to Hardy Middle School’s building in 1998, at which point the city sold the Fillmore building to Corcoran. Corcoran students will use the building through the current semester before relocating to other George Washington University sites.

A previous development plan from firm EastBanc — which also envisioned condos and town houses — was scrapped about five years ago amid community opposition.

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

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Georgetown Library Sustains Water Damage

February 25, 2015

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

The Georgetown Neighborhood Library is expected to reopen the second week of March following cleanup of flood damage, though the library’s Peabody Room will remain closed for a few weeks longer.

On Feb. 13, frigid temperatures caused a sprinkler pipe to burst in the third-floor Peabody Room, which houses a collection of Georgetown historical artifacts dating back to the 1750s. The water then seeped down to the second and first floors of the library at 3260 R St.

Special collections librarian Jerry McCoy said the Peabody Room largely “dodged a bullet” with the burst pipe — no artwork was damaged, and nothing was destroyed beyond repair.

What did get wet, McCoy said, were “five banker’s boxes” full of unprocessed archival materials — a hodgepodge of items that had been donated to the collection. “Unfortunately they were right under where the water break occurred,” he said.

Currently those materials, which include papers, files and photo negatives, are undergoing restoration work in the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown.

McCoy said the process involves freezing the items, then thawing them out. “Once all the materials are dried out, they’ll go back to the Peabody Room,” he said.

He estimated that the collection would reopen to the public toward the end of March.

As for the rest of the library, at least a portion of it should reopen the week of March 9, according to George Williams, spokesperson for the D.C. Public Library system.

Williams couldn’t provide a cost estimate for the total cleanup, which includes replacing drywall and removing wet insulation to avoid the risk of mold. He said the leaking water affected mainly the center of the building, including the foyer area of the first floor, but “there was no damage to books and those types of items.”

As part of the restoration, Williams said, “the architect is going to take a look at ways so we can prevent something like this from happening in the future.”

The R Street library has already seen its share of destruction. Back in 2007, a fire caused by a heat gun devastated the Georgian Revival building, which closed for three years for the $18 million rebuilding process.

“We certainly have a lot of these weird events happening at the library,” McCoy said. “This is the second one I’ve been through, and I hope we don’t have any more.”

Not only are such events “disruptive to the collection,” he said, but also for the patrons and researchers who can’t access it.

McCoy said one of the boxes drenched in the flood previously suffered water damage in the aftermath of the 2007 fire.

That box contained photography from the 1970s, including black-and-white images of different houses in Georgetown. “Those poor photos,” he said. “They got soaked again.”

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

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‘Cat Cafe’ Eyes Vacant O Street Storefront

February 18, 2015

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

Washington’s first “cat cafe” could be finding a home in Georgetown.

The young entrepreneur behind Crumbs & Whiskers — a hybrid cat adoption center and pastry shop — is currently eying the property at 3211 O St. as she wades through the city’s process for opening the first-of-its-kind business.

In an interview, Kanchan Singh emphasized that a lease is not yet signed for the Georgetown site, though she said it’s her “top choice.” She hopes to open her business sometime this summer.

Singh also used the O Street address for her application with the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, for which a hearing is scheduled on March 24. She said the application is meant “to get the ball rolling” even before a lease is secured.

Crumbs & Whiskers needs a special exception from the city as it will technically operate as an animal boarding facility. Additionally, Singh is working with the D.C. Department of Health to find a way to offer food to visitors while they spend time playing with the cats.

The concept is a partnership with the Washington Humane Society, giving a new spin on the cat adoption process. Singh envisions boarding between 10 and 20 cats at a time at Crumbs & Whiskers and bringing them out for (uncaged) play with visitors during the day. The visitors, in turn, would enjoy coffee, tea and desserts, provided and prepared by off-site partners. In addition to cat toys, the cafe would offer board games and books for guests, and it would showcase local art.

“The concept is pretty simple,” according to the cafe’s website, “Cats in cages are sad, so we get them out of there. Anyone without a cat is sad (or should be), so we hook them up.”

The “cat cafe” model has become popular in the U.S. over the past six months or so, starting with the Cat Town Cafe & Adoption Center in Oakland, Calif., and several “pop-up” venues in other spots. The idea is well established in Japan, though there it’s focused more on satisfying a fix for animal lovers who live in buildings with pet restrictions.

Singh, who is 24 and now lives in Gaithersburg, got her first taste of the phenomenon during a trip to Thailand, where she visited a popular cat cafe teeming with Americans and Europeans.

She’s already seeing a lot of interest in her concept in the D.C. area, with attention from The Washington Post and around 4,000 people signed up for her “Gentlemeow’s Club” of early supporters. She plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign on March 1 to raise funds.

The O Street property Singh is exploring would fit the bill nicely because of its basement, which could serve as the boarding area for the cats (and a “timeout” space for those that need a break from visitors). In addition, the building is one of “only a handful” Singh has seen that matches the onerous zoning requirements for an animal boarding facility.

The property, now vacant, most recently served as a variety shop, according to the zoning application.

With the Health Department, Singh said “we’re dancing around what the solution is” for offering drinks and pastries. Initially the agency proposed requiring separate areas — each with its own entrance — for pastries and cat playtime. But Singh said “pretty much everybody I talked to said, ‘No, that sounds awful,’” about the idea of buying food in one area, then exiting and re-entering the separate cat section.

More recently, she said, the hope is to offer complimentary pre-prepared food. Crumbs & Whiskers would charge visitors a cover fee based on the length of their visit — something around $8 to $10 per hour, if it follows the prices of similar U.S. cafes. Visitors could book reservations online.

Singh said the Washington Humane Society has been on board as her partner and adviser “since the very beginning.” Crumbs & Whiskers would in effect act as a foster home for the humane society, which would handle the official adoption process for the cats.

Scott Giacoppo of the Washington Humane Society said his organization fully supports the plans and has worked in depth with Singh on the details. The cat cafe concept is “working in Oakland and a couple of other places, but it’s starting to spread and we don’t want to miss the bus,” he said.

Of Singh, he said: “She’s smart, she’s on the ball, and we have all the confidence in the world” that the business can succeed.

Singh said Crumbs & Whiskers would provide more space for cats than the humane society can do on its own, as well as benefit the cats’ welfare through uncaged play. “Nobody wants cats to be in cages,” she said. “It gives these cats a better life.”

Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner Jeffrey Jones, who represents the area that includes 3211 O St., said his commission will likely weigh in on the cafe’s zoning application at its March 2 meeting.

“Assuming the zoning criteria is met, as well as the health, welfare and safety issues are confirmed satisfactory, I believe the ANC would gladly welcome a cat cafe,” Jones wrote in an email.

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

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