Georgetown Current

Heating Plant Revision Secures ANC Nod

September 14, 2017

By Grace Bird

Current Staff Writer

Plans to redevelop the long-vacant West Heating Plant inched forward last Wednesday, as the fourth iteration of designs for the proposed 110-foot luxury condo building won support from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith).

Opened in 1948 and shuttered half a century later, the art deco industrial building at 29th and K streets NW has drawn divided opinions: Neighbors generally see it as an unsightly stain on the otherwise upscale Georgetown neighborhood, while some preservationists have argued that it has historic significance.

In May, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved a proposal that would essentially demolish the historic plant to construct a new 10-story, 60-unit Four Seasons Residences building and an adjacent public park. The project would retain the heating plant’s approximate dimensions, its 29th Street facade, the structure of its existing windows and a stone wall at the perimeter of the property.

Despite their support for these general plans in May, Fine Arts Commission members requested bolder architecture that replicated the old heating plant in a less literal way. The project team presented these revisions at ANC 2E’s Sept. 6 meeting, in advance of a Sept. 20 review by the Commission of Fine Arts. ANC 2E has also supported past iterations of the project.

The building’s new design is indeed “less suburban” — as requested by the Commission of Fine Arts — drawing more clearly from its industrial past. The proposed east facade has been altered to add an exterior steel frame and large metal balconies, contrasting with its sweeping glass walls, while the condo’s north side is decorated with vertical rows of rusted steel, offset with sweeping window panels. In all, updated designs use a more diverse array of materials in an effort to better straddle the intersection of history and modernity.

The planned 1-acre public park, which would sit on top of the building’s 80-space parking garage on the property’s former coal yard, also saw design revisions after May’s Fine Arts critiques.

The green space, whose construction and maintenance will be funded by the condo building, echoes the industrial plant through an “unexpected combination” of design features, landscaper Laurie Olin of OLIN Studio said at last week’s meeting. These include metal water troughs of different heights, the use of steel, a conveyer belt and several metal benches, contrasted with sprawling lawns and flowering plants.

“Turns out, they’re the same pieces that we had in the previous scheme — it’s just the formal expression now speaks more to the recent history of it as an industrial site,” Olin said. “It is actually much more integrated with the architecture of the building.”

The project has been moving slowly toward construction approval. The Levy Group acquired the vacant heating plant from the federal government in 2013, and enlisted famed architect David Adjaye to reimagine the industrial site as a high-end residential property. The project has faced numerous design iterations amid conflicting opinions about how to respect a hulking yet historic industrial building — and further hurdles remain.

The West Heating Plant project has two upcoming appointments: with the Fine Arts Commission on Sept. 20 and the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board on Nov. 2. The latter hearing will include consideration of a landmark application filed by the DC Preservation League.

Early next year, the project team moves on to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation, who can allow demolition of historic buildings to accommodate a project of “special merit”; and the Zoning Commission, which will review the project’s size, scale, public benefits and traffic impact as part of a planned unit development.

Levy said the project would break ground in 18 to 24 months, but declined to provide an opening date. “My crystal ball is not clear about that yet,” Levy said.

In an interview, Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans said he expects the development to revamp a dilapidated site.

“My concern is that it’s just taken way too long,” Evans said, which he attributed to a somewhat misguided squabble over the plant’s historic status. “Frankly that’s not in my view — it’s very unsightly; a somewhat out of place building for Georgetown.”

ANC 2E chair Joe Gibbons is also looking forward to the project’s completion, saying that the “bold interpretation” reflected in the proposed designs pays homage to Georgetown’s industrial past while looking toward the future.

“We want this project to get started, for people to be walking around, for people to be utilizing it,” he said.


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Key Bridge Eyed for Architectural Lighting

September 10, 2017

By Alexa Perlmutter

Current Correspondent

The Key Bridge may receive decorative lighting on its underside to highlight its distinctive arches, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation, which will hold a public meeting Sept. 27 to discuss options, answer questions and receive community feedback.

The historic bridge between Georgetown and Rosslyn, Va., is in the midst of various upgrades, and the agency said the new proposal is separate from work to install LED fixtures in the bridge’s streetlights.

The Transportation Department studied the architectural lighting concept in 2014, and its work at the time resulted in the current proposal.

“We were currently rehabbing the bridge, so while we were preparing for that, we did a quick bridge facade lighting study that looked at some options,” agency planner Ted Van Houten told The Current. “If we wanted to light the bridge, how would we do that?”

The 2014 study concluded that “uplighting the bridge face along with the highlighting of arches from within will provide the most dramatic effect.” Federal money for the lighting project, however, didn’t come through until 2016, and now the agency is ready to kick off the project publicly at the upcoming meeting.

The lighting plans are now in the environmental assessment process, during which the Transportation Department is getting the plans to 30 percent of the design and preliminary engineering. Meanwhile, it is also going through Section 106 review under the National Historic Preservation Act in order to ensure that the historic architecture of the bridge — completed in 1923 — is maintained and protected. It’s too soon to have a timeline on when new lighting could be installed, officials said.

Van Houten also acknowledged three possible sticking points: The bridge goes over the Whitehurst Freeway; there is marine traffic on the Potomac River underneath; and the air over the river is the approach for planes landing at Reagan National Airport. “We’re working with the [Federal Aviation Administration] and our own safety team. Anything we do for the lighting has to be safe: not blinding boaters or drivers, and not causing a disruption for air pilots,” he said.

Joe Gibbons, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith), told The Current that it’s too early in the planning process for him or ANC 2E to form an opinion on the proposed lighting. 

“I don’t know placement, Kelvin, those types of details,” he said.  “Yes, we need more effective lighting down there, but we have to be aware with what we’re doing and how it fits with the historic preservation and the rest of the community.”

The Transportation Department will hold its public meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Georgetown Library. In advance of that meeting, representatives of ANC 2E and the Georgetown Business Improvement District will meet with the agency, but Will Handsfield of the BID is optimistic.

“We’re not ahead of the community on this one — people really do believe it needs to be lit,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t really affect any function. We’re being subtle, envisioning subtlety and just improving the bridge.”

The idea of lighting the bridge was proposed in the BID’s Georgetown 2028 plan, created in 2013. Handsfield told The Current that the BID did extensive research while formulating its plan. “We had 83 public meetings and came up with about 75 action items, one of which was studying lighting the Key Bridge with architectural lighting,” Handsfield said.

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Ellington Premieres Modernized Campus

August 24, 2017

By Grace Bird
Current Staff Writer

No one, not even Mayor Muriel Bowser, claims that Duke Ellington School of the Arts’ $165 million renovation was cheap.

Instead, most supporters contend that Ellington’s cost, which exceeded its initial budget by nearly $100 million, is justified because it is the city’s only public arts high school.

Bowser made that case at Ellington’s opening Saturday morning on the Burleith building’s front steps.

“Let ’em talk about how much it cost,” Bowser told onlookers. “You’ll see; it’s worth it.”

The Duke Ellington School opened in 1974, taking over the shuttered Western High School building at 3500 R St. NW. Citing deteriorating conditions and a lack of space and modern arts amenities, the District broke ground in 2014 on its large-scale modernization and expansion of the 1898 building, with students shifted to temporary facilities near Howard University.

Three years later, the result is striking both in scale and opulence. The 280,000-square-foot landmark is framed by impressive white columns and boasts a gleaming lobby, dance studios, a fitness center, a rooftop classroom and an 800-person, egg-shaped theater that runs from the cafeteria below-ground and juts through the ceiling.

In certain ways, Ellington comes across as almost palatial compared to the typical public school, an impression reflected in the price tag. Originally pitched as a $71 million project, the estimated cost ballooned over the years to $178.5 million.

D.C. Department of General Services chief project delivery officer JocCole Burton defended Ellington’s budget during an Aug. 17 site tour, saying that the project came in under the final number, at $165 million. Burton said that initial projections reflected a mainstream facility rather than a performing arts school, with necessary elements causing the budget to swell. Additionally, a design competition held midway through the project added square footage, led to delays and ramped up costs, Burton said.  

D.C. Council members aired frustrations about the project last month when, after years of mounting costs and diminishing patience, they were asked to allocate another $4.5 million to finish the job.

“The council was really in a bind,” Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh said in an interview. The request arrived in July on the precipice of the council’s recess, Cheh said, and members were told Ellington wouldn’t open in time for the start of fall classes on Aug. 21 without the last-minute funds. The money would cover costs like floor-cleaning and outstanding permit fees.

“We had to approve things that we thought were beyond justification,” Cheh said. “It was a no-win situation.”

In the end, all but one, at-large member Elissa Silverman, voted to approve the funding. In Silverman’s view, many of the requests were inappropriate — $250,000 to bleach the terrazzo flooring, for example — and reflected a lack of organization.  

“They’re never going to be serious about oversight unless we occasionally say no,” Silverman said in an interview. “We have a finite, limited amount of capital dollars.”

The overruns at Ellington have ripple effects, Silverman added.

“There are many more schools in the lineup,” Silverman said. “When one school goes way over budget, it pushes another one back.”

More than 20 city public schools are scheduled for modernization in the coming year. Ward 4’s West Education Campus is considered to be a high priority on that list, yet its $78.5 million plans continue to be delayed, with designs now projected to start in late December. West is slated to begin construction in February 2020 and to reopen by 2022.

The District’s full-scale push to modernize its public schools began in 2006 and has transformed many deteriorated campuses, drawing scores of new families to the public system — leading, in some cases, to overcrowding issues. However, the modernization initiative comes at a cost: School renovation price tags often end up double the projected amount.

D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson released a report in 2015 that accused the D.C. Department of General Services of poor project management on Ellington in particular. Among Patterson’s criticisms was the decision to redevelop Ellington’s original R Street location. The site was originally a regular high school, and because it is also a historic landmark, the planned expansion had to contend with costly and complicated preservation requirements. Despite this difficulty, Patterson said, alternative sites like the nearby Ellington Field and a property near Union Station were not properly vetted.

Some Ellington representatives appeared to support rebuilding a new school at a different site, based on an email cited in the audit from Ellington board members Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Charles Barber and the school’s former principal Rory Pullens. The email, sent to Peter Davidson of project management company D.C. PEP, professed a desire to build a new facility on Ellington’s field, located at 38th Street and Reservoir Road NW two blocks from the existing school building.

“The current facility was never intended to serve as a school for the arts and its configuration has inherent problems in accommodating the multi-faceted programs included in the Ellington curriculum,” the email stated. “The need to retain the basic historic structure will always limit the extent of which this facility can be made to serve the interests of the school.”

Also, Patterson’s audit concluded that project managers failed to include performing arts facilities in cost projections. The initial $71 million budget, Patterson wrote, did not account for sound-insulated rooms, a dance studio, makeup and dressing rooms, a costume room, a scene construction shop or a box office for ticket sales.

Patterson also concluded that Ellington’s designs did not use space effectively. Ellington’s 600 students would attend academic classes in the morning and performing arts classes in the afternoon — meaning “substantial portions of the facility are unused a large proportion of the time.”

But at-large Council member David Grosso doesn’t see filling Ellington’s vacant slots with other students as a realistic option.

“It’s a simplistic view, to think that we could just pop in other kids,” said Grosso, chair of the council’s Education Committee.

In Grosso’s analysis, Ellington is an asset to the entire city, and the school’s long hours and rigorous curriculum justify its comparatively low 600-student enrollment (575 students were accepted this year). However, the modernization process that started with an unrealistically low cost estimate and required repeated budget increases won’t be repeated, Grosso said.

“Ellington is the end of an era. We now have a full year of planning before we actually budget,” he said. “We’ll budget more accurately upfront.”

Overall, Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans said he’s pleased with the results of the Ellington renovation. However, he conceded that oversight was inadquate.

“There are too many cooks in the kitchen in a lot of these projects,” Evans said in an interview. “Everybody wants to have their two cents about what it should look like.”

At Saturday’s opening, students donned “Straight Outta Ellington” T-shirts, chatting and handing out water bottles to onlookers. To rising senior Ira Lindsay, the new school is a sparkling antithesis to the cramped interim facilities students had been attending.

“We’re very excited,” Lindsay told The Current.

Kendall Barrett echoed her classmate’s excitement, saying she looked forward to beginning her final year at the gleaming campus alongside classmates and teachers who feel like family.

“You walk in, and it feels like home,” Barrett said.

This article appears in the Aug. 23 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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