Georgetown Current

EastBanc Eyes Gas Station for Apartments

July 1, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

At the gateway to Georgetown — between Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street across from the Four Seasons hotel — visitors to the historic neighborhood are currently greeted by a small gas station and a jumble of cars in various states of repair.

But as early as next summer, developer EastBanc intends to begin construction on a new five-story building there. It would house eight 2,000-square-foot rental apartments and a roof terrace as well as a 70-seat ground-floor restaurant.

The firm presented its plans for the building to the area’s advisory neighborhood commission on Monday in preparation for an Old Georgetown Board design hearing tomorrow and Zoning Commission land-use considerations this fall.

Neighborhood commissioners praised the general concept of putting the gas station site to new use, but several were wary of the particular design proposed — a rectangular red-brick building that’s punctuated by deeply recessed balconies for the apartment units. Commissioner Jeff Jones said the prominent site might benefit from a more adventurous design.

“I feel like this is an opportunity — it’s a blank space,” said Jones. “I like authenticity in Georgetown as far as all the different types of architecture that we have. Once we start replicating what Georgetown looks like ... all of a sudden we’re losing some of our authenticity. I’m OK with a modern building here. This is almost pedestrian-like — it’s OK, I guess.”

EastBanc officials noted that the property is deceptively small, just 7,400 square feet, between two areas of National Park Service land. The site held a small church until 1951; it was demolished just before Georgetown’s strict preservation rules went into effect, according to EastBanc.

“I sympathize very much with your comments — we struggled a lot with the building,” the company’s Anthony Lanier told commissioners. “It’s a building that grows on you over time. I like it better today than I liked it at my first impression. It’s a very difficult building to understand, and it’s a very difficult site to build on.”

EastBanc’s Mary Mottershead added that the design, with lots of brick and deep windows, avoids the pitfalls of many new residential buildings, in which passersby can easily see into the units. “Their vision for the site has been not to make a big glass box that lights itself up, but sort of a quiet building,” she said.

Victoria Rixey of the Citizens Association of Georgetown asked EastBanc to make the proposed design “a little friendlier.”

“We feel that this building speaks to the architecture of the West End,” she said. “This is sort of a ’60s style where you have the concrete slabs with the brick infill, and we feel it belongs better in that neighborhood.”

The neighborhood commission voted to support the plans to raze the gas station and construct a new building, and asked the Old Georgetown Board to use its own judgment on the aesthetics of the proposal.

In addition to that board’s review of the project’s consistency with the Georgetown Historic District, the Zoning Commission will need to designate a zone category for a portion of the property that currently has none. Part of the site is governed by restrictions found on the north side of M Street, including a 50-foot height limit, but EastBanc is hoping to instead match the 60-foot limit found at the Four Seasons site and nearby properties to the south. Mottershead said this wouldn’t increase the number of stories but would allow for higher ceilings, especially at the restaurant.

EastBanc will also need relief from parking requirements. Mottershead said zoning rules call for three parking spaces on the property, and the company would rather use its limited land area for 40 to 50 outdoor seats for the restaurant and for a service driveway connecting M and Pennsylvania. She said the new tenants either would not have cars or could lease spaces at commercial garages nearby.

In an interview after the meeting, Mottershead said EastBanc hopes to break ground on the project in 12 to 18 months, with timing dependent upon regulatory approvals. She said the firm doesn’t have a particular restaurant tenant in mind, nor does it have a cost estimate for the project.

According to property records, EastBanc purchased the site for $4 million in March.

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


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Ellington’s Ballooning Cost Sparks D.C. Audit

June 24, 2015

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

Over the years, costs for the renovation of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts have ballooned from $71 million to now nearly $178.5 million. The D.C. auditor is now trying to figure out exactly how that happened.

“That’s an incredible jump in costs in a three-year period of time,” said D.C. auditor Kathy Patterson, whose office announced the launch of the audit earlier this month. She said the findings should be released sometime this fall.

Patterson said the Ellington budget has “been a subject of great concern by members of the [D.C.] Council, mentioned in public meetings and public budget markups.”

Though the modernization project has won praise for promising state-of-the-art upgrades to a crown jewel of the D.C. school system, education activists and community members have also voiced alarm about the costs — particularly as other school modernizations fall by the wayside.

It’s impossible to trace the specific cause-and-effect, said D.C. education advocate Matthew Frumin, but “if we’re going to spend that much money on the Ellington project … a number of schools have to wait longer” for their own modernizations.

Frumin praised the intent of the audit. “I think it’s really important that we figure out why the costs have exploded in the way they have for this project, which threatens to use up a lot of resources that might be used for other places,” he said.

Construction is currently underway at the Burleith school at 35th and R streets, bringing sweeping changes to its 1898-built Classical Revival building. The project’s timeline remains a bit murky — it was originally slated to be complete in time for the 2016-17 school year, and students have been relocated to temporary swing spaces since construction started last fall.

The Department of General Services, which oversees all school modernizations, yesterday summarized the big reasons for the cost increases at Ellington. Spokesperson Darrell Pressley said “the educational program, the building’s [increased] square footage, and the overall construction market conditions” have all played a role, as have historic preservation requirements.

The project’s designs went through a number of public meetings and hearings, and its budget increased by increments throughout. Last winter architects scaled back some of the designs in light of the growing costs. However, the city’s 2016 fiscal year budget sets aside $178.475 million total for the Ellington project — more than $100 million above the original projections.

“Everybody I’ve heard from said the original cost projections didn’t make sense,” said Frumin. “There was always an expectation that costs would go up.”

He noted that that project was always envisioned as creating “a very dramatic showcase” for the magnet arts school. “It’s a great program, and it deserves a showcase, but it was never designed in a very economical way. It was designed to be stunning.”

According to Patterson, the Ellington audit is one of a series of efforts to comply with 2006 legislation requiring regular audits of school modernizations — which she acknowledged the auditor’s office, where she started working about six months ago, hasn’t vigilantly addressed.

But Patterson noted progress, including an audit that’s supposed to come out in about two weeks covering fiscal years 2010 through 2013. The Ellington audit is one of a series of “shorter reviews” looking into more recent and ongoing projects, Patterson said.

She said her office has found that many high school modernizations in the District have exceeded the ideal estimated cost of $210 per square foot. In Ellington’s case, that figure is closer to $1,000 per square foot, she said.

“They’re fairly atypical cost figures for new and modernized high schools,” Patterson said. “What we want to do is really understand what’s behind this.”

The auditor’s office will also be looking more broadly into the policies and procedures General Services Department follows for school modernizations, Patterson said.

This article appears in the June 24 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Pedestrian Deaths Spur Safety Push

June 17, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

A pair of fatal pedestrian accidents in the Wisconsin Avenue corridor last week has prompted a call for safety improvements along the busy artery, and the D.C. Department of Transportation has pledged to investigate solutions.

On Wednesday, 31-year-old George Mina of Arlington was injured as he crossed Wisconsin at Veazey Street in Tenleytown, and he died of his injuries yesterday, according to friends and coworkers. The following day, 79-year-old Northwest resident Margaret “Peggy” Ruth Dickie was hit by a truck at 37th and Calvert streets in Glover Park and died at the scene.

“Safety is our top priority at DDOT, and we are always looking for ways to improve conditions for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers in the District,” Transportation Department spokesperson Keith St. Clair wrote in an email yesterday. “DDOT joins in Mayor [Muriel] Bowser’s commitment to Vision Zero, aimed at eliminating deaths on the city’s transportation system by 2024.”

The group All Walks DC will host a “Vision Zero Walk” tomorrow along Wisconsin, meeting at the corner of Veazey at 6:30 p.m. and walking to Calvert. Additionally, Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh said yesterday that she’s arranging a site visit to the accident scenes with representatives of the Transportation Department, Metropolitan Police Department, advisory neighborhood commissions and the community. Cheh said she’ll be looking at issues that include signal timing and intersection configuration.

“I don’t like to have situations where we’re responding after there’s been an accident,” said Cheh, “but in this case that’s where we are.”

 According to police spokesperson Aquita Brown, the Tenleytown accident occurred at 5:07 p.m. Wednesday, when a pedestrian was crossing Wisconsin from east to west in an unsignalized crosswalk. A northbound vehicle struck him, sending him to the hospital, Brown said. WUSA TV footage showed a Jaguar X-Type sedan with a damaged windshield stopped in the left lane just beyond the crosswalk.

The accident remains under investigation, according to Brown. She couldn’t confirm the identities of either the driver or victim.

Friends and colleagues at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital told The Current that the victim, George Mina, was a pediatric phlebotomist working at the hospital’s 4200 Wisconsin Ave. pediatric facility. He died in the hospital, said colleague Kirsten Hawkins. Brown had no information on his condition yesterday.

A page at youcaring.com, originally for Mina’s medical expenses, will instead go toward his funeral costs, Hawkins said. It’s available at tinyurl.com/mina-expenses.

The D.C. Department of Transportation has raised concerns about crosswalks without traffic signals that traverse wide busy roads, in some cases working to remove them. Officials say they can give pedestrians a false sense of security, because even though drivers are required to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk — as signs at Wisconsin and Veazey state — they often don’t do so.

Although police didn’t say what happened in Wednesday’s accident, transportation officials have said that a common scenario is that a driver stops in the right lane, blocking a left lane driver’s view of the pedestrian and vice versa — at which point the accident occurs in the left lane.

St. Clair said the Transportation Department is studying the Veazey intersection for a HAWK pedestrian-activated signal, similar to those in place on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase. The study will be completed later this summer, he said, and the agency is also looking into other safety improvements at the intersection.

The Glover Park accident also represents a common safety hazard for pedestrians: right turns. Police spokesperson Paul Metcalf said a southbound Peapod delivery truck stopped at the light on 37th Street at Calvert Street at about 6:12 p.m. Thursday, then made a right turn onto westbound Calvert. The truck fatally struck Dickie, who was crossing Calvert from north to south. Metcalf said he didn’t know whether the right turn was made on red or green or whether the pedestrian was in the crosswalk.

The accident is still under investigation, and Metcalf couldn’t identify the driver, who stayed at the scene.

Peapod issued a statement on the accident on Thursday: “On behalf of all of us at Peapod, we offer our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of the person involved in the tragic accident in Glover Park this evening. We will cooperate with the investigation into this matter,” the statement reads. A company spokesperson referred further questions about the accident to D.C. police and declined to say whether Peapod had taken any action against its driver.

St. Clair said his agency will look for any lessons learned from this accident. “MPD is conducting its investigation, so it is too soon to comment on the specifics of the crash or how it might have been avoided,” he wrote in an email. “But DDOT and MPD will collaborate on potential engineering changes at this intersection and elsewhere in the city to help avoid future tragedies like this one.”

Community members around both intersections said they have presented concerns and recommendations to the city that were never addressed. The intersection of 37th and Calvert sits just feet from Wisconsin Avenue, as 37th bears off from Wisconsin at a slight angle just before Calvert. Residents say some motorists drive aggressively while attempting to navigate a complicated traffic pattern and poor signal timing.

Meanwhile, three advisory neighborhood commissioners representing areas near the Veazey Street intersection said the unsignalized crosswalk there has been a known hazard for years. They recommended either installing a HAWK signal or removing the crosswalk altogether, as the Transportation Department hopes to do at several intersections along Connecticut in Forest Hills and Chevy Chase.

A 2009 D.C. Department of Transportation study of pedestrian issues also recommended a pedestrian-activated signal at the Veazey intersection, among other changes along Wisconsin Avenue. The Tenleytown/Friendship Heights advisory neighborhood commission passed a 2013 resolution asking the department to “dust off” its plan and implement the recommendations.

“This intersection being a problem isn’t completely out of the blue,” said neighborhood commissioner Tom Quinn. “It’s been looked at and just not dealt with.”

This article appears in the June 17 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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