Georgetown Current

Revised Ellington Design Wins OK

January 28, 2015

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

A scaled-back plan for modernizing Duke Ellington School of the Arts, necessitated by cost overruns in the original proposal, seems to suit the Historic Preservation Review Board just fine. Board members unanimously approved the less-costly plan last Thursday, calling it “an improvement.”

“All the changes are positive,” said board member Graham Davidson. “The resulting space is better.”

Ellington’s sorely needed expansion and modernization is already underway, with interior demolition having started a few weeks ago and students disbursed to two temporary sites. Preservation authorities, school officials and nearby residents reached a rough consensus on how to update the 1898 building in Burleith — formerly Western High School — last year.

But the D.C. Department of General Services, in breaking down that proposal, found it would cost far more than the $139 million budgeted by the D.C. Council. That forced architects to hastily redraw plans and rethink materials, in a process euphemistically called “value engineering.”

Major cost-cutting changes include downsizing a rear addition from four to three stories, abandoning plans for geothermal heating, simplifying a glassy reading room on the front portico, and shrinking an underground parking garage from roughly 80 to 50 spaces.

Architect Christoffer Graae told the preservation board that upfront costs for geothermal energy — to create some 100 wells dug 600 feet deep on the school’s front lawn — were simply too high. “Geothermal in this context” is too expensive, he said, with energy savings not realized for more than 30 years. He said the school will still have other sustainability features, such as solar panels and a green roof.

A glassy reading room dubbed “The Lantern,” set inside the school’s pillared front, has been refined into a simple rectangle, with lighting less visible, Graae said. The straight glass, replacing a curved shape, will save money, he said. “It will be squared up and simplified.”

As for garage space, “we had to sacrifice some parking to create additional program space. Something had to give,” he said. Planners are still trying to squeeze in a few parking spaces above ground.

And they recently agreed to move the garage entrance to 36th Street, facing Washington International School, and off of busy Reservoir Road. “Neither we nor [the D.C. Department of Transportation] thought it safe to have a garage entrance on the busiest street,” said advisory neighborhood commissioner Ron Lewis.

The change “pleases the ANC and pleases DDOT. It may not please Burleith, but you can’t please everyone,” Graae said.

Finally, the height of a rooftop space — originally called the “Sky View Terrace” and now renamed the “Education Terrace” — has been lowered to cut costs and to minimize its visual impact. That space had been perhaps the most contentious aspect of the renovation plan, with neighbors worried about nighttime noise and rental for outside events.

But a community agreement now limits its use to students only. “No weddings, no receptions; it will simply be for students,” Lewis said.

Board members said they regretted, but understood, the loss of geothermal heat. But they were comfortable with the other changes.

“You’ve come a long way, but preserved core concepts,” said Joseph Taylor. “You have a friendlier solution, much improved.”

It’s still not clear how much the latest changes will affect the construction timetable, although General Services officials said the previously predicted August 2016 completion date could well slide. Darrell Pressley, a spokesperson for that department, said Monday that “no decisions have been made” about revising the construction schedule.

Pressley did note that the two schools now serving as swing space for Ellington students — Meyer Elementary, which is providing academic space, and Garnet-Patterson Middle School, which is housing Ellington’s art programs — were both previously unoccupied and therefore available for extended use.

This article appears in the Jan. 28 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Historic Dumbarton Street Home Altered Without Permit Review

January 21, 2015

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

The chimney and rooftop balustrade are gone, multipaned windows removed, a Colonial Revival front entrance altered beyond recognition, and handsome red brick walls covered in a pale stucco-like compound.

What’s more, all the work was done without permits authorizing work at the imposing 1898 home in Georgetown.

Now residents of the city’s most fiercely guarded historic district are wondering how a new owner could do so much damage to the 11-room house at 3107 Dumbarton St., once occupied by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. And city officials are ordering the homeowner to stop work, pay fines and apply for after-the-fact permits for alterations that probably won’t pass muster with Georgetown’s preservation authorities.

“This is one of the most egregious violations of process we’ve seen in a long time,” said Tom Luebke, secretary to U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and Old Georgetown Board, which is supposed to review all exterior alterations in that federal historic district. Luebke said the board neither saw nor approved the alterations or what he called “a tremendous amount of demolition.”

In the past, property owners have been ordered to undo work that didn’t meet design standards for Georgetown.

The owner of 3107 Dumbarton, Alla Bakhtina, lives with her husband in Chevy Chase, Md., and also owns small apartment houses at 3045 P St. and 1626 Foxhall Road, according to District property tax records.

Bakhtina, who bought the house in October 2013 for $2.9 million, blamed the “poor state of the house” for what she called “urgent repair in order to eliminate risks of danger to the community and the neighborhood.”

Bakhtina, in a lengthy email to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said the repairs began after some pipes burst in January 2014, with water running from the third floor down to the street. Electrical and other systems were also “in absolute dilapidating condition,” she wrote. The stucco, for example, had to be applied to preserve historic brick walls she said were unstable and presented “a direct threat to safety.”

In an interview Monday, Bakhtina added that her contractor applied stucco to the entire exterior, although she had asked only to cover the rear wall. “It was a misunderstanding, all my fault,” she said. “This is an absolute nightmare for me. For a year and a half, I’ve been trying to move into this house.”

The extent of her woes is made clear by a bright orange stop-work order, ripped and retaped to the house’s garage door. “Illegal construction — discontinue all work — $10,000 fine,” it says.

The chronology can also be traced from records at the Old Georgetown Board. Last April the board gave general concept support for a proposal to enclose a rear porch. But that proposal was withdrawn, with Bakhtina’s then-architect withdrawing from the project as well. “I’m out of the picture,” architect Mehrdad Bedroud told The Current.

Then last September the board’s staff started getting complaints about ongoing alterations, which it reported to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. “They demolished chimneys, increased the height and slope of the roof, removed the original railing on the front mansard, removed shutters, applied some kind of yellowish material over the brick,” and replaced multipaned side windows with modern single panes, Luebke said.    

Most egregiously, workers took out an elliptical fan light window above the front door and carved out a large, arched opening instead — now covered crudely by black plastic. The new front door is incompatible with the Colonial Revival home, Luebke said: “We would not support that.”

(Photo by: Brian Kapur/The Current)
Neither the Old Georgetown Board nor the city’s Historic Preservation Office has enforcement powers, but they can report violations to the regulatory affairs department and work with the agency to make sure they are addressed.

“Inspectors have placed two stop-work orders, DCRA held a hearing on the orders and upheld them,” city architectural historian Tim Dennée wrote in an email to The Current. “The property owners have been advised of their due-process rights to seek a permit after the fact. The stop-work orders come with a fine. I believe the code official has held the fine in abeyance while the owners seek a permit.” Regulatory agency spokesperson Matt Orlins confirmed that account.

The Citizens Association of Georgetown, which works hard to maintain the historic district, is also trying to make sure the improper alterations are reversed, and the permitting process followed. The house on Dumbarton Street “sits alone on a bit of a hill. It really is a beautiful property,” president Pamla Moore said.

Moore said the association has been trying for several years to push through a law increasing notice requirements for alterations to homes in historic districts, with notice to immediate neighbors so they can comment, and also report work inconsistent with posted permits.

An amended “enhanced notice” bill won final approval from the D.C. Council in late December. “We’re delighted it passed,” said Moore. But she noted the city has not yet found funding for the single Office of Planning staffer needed to implement the notice requirement. “We’re hoping neighborhood notification will protect some of these historic houses,” Moore said. “We want it to be funded.”

This article appears in the Jan. 21 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Key Bridge Rehab Slated to Begin in May

January 14, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

The D.C. Department of Transportation will kick off a two-year project to rehabilitate the Key Bridge this spring, but it is promising relatively limited traffic disruptions.

The 1925 bridge, which runs between Georgetown and Rosslyn, Va., saw its last major work in 1986, the Transportation Department’s Rick Kenney said at last week’s Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission meeting.

Unlike with the bridge’s 1986 overhaul, motorists shouldn’t expect major traffic disruptions this time. The bulk of the project affects the substructure, with workers accessing the underside of the bridge from a barge, according to Kenney.

“It’s a concrete structure — most of the work is addressing deteriorating concrete,” he said. “You won’t see the workers. They’ll be under the bridge, in the arches, under the deck.”

Other project work includes replacing the streetlights with new LEDs, installing a warning signal to alert drivers when pedestrians and cyclists seek to cross the Whitehurst Freeway exit, repainting the ornamental fence, and strengthening the barrier between cars and the sidewalk.

Those changes will require the closure of each sidewalk on the bridge for 90 days (at different times). There will also be single-lane closures throughout the project’s duration, occurring only in “off-peak times” outside of rush hour, which Kenney said should have “very limited impacts.” The project is slated to last from May 2015 through May 2017, and to cost between $15 million and $30 million.

Kenney emphasized that despite complaints about the Key Bridge’s complex intersection with M Street, this work covers only preservation and restoration of the bridge structure: “It’s not a traffic signal project — it’s strictly bridge funds for bridge rehab.”

Neighborhood commissioners raised some concerns about the project. With traffic, they warned that Georgetown attracts visitors at many times outside the normal rush hour. “On weekends, especially during the warmer weather, which is when you guys are starting, it’s not ‘off-peak’ here starting at noontimes,” said commissioner Bill Starrels.

Starrels also asked the Transportation Department to provide traffic control officers at busy times when the sidewalk is closed, to help pedestrians cross the street at the M Street intersection. Kenney said that might be difficult because the officers are assigned to permanent locations, but some other type of help might be available.

Commission chair Ron Lewis also raised concerns about the plans for LED lights. “Pay close attention to the light color value,” he told Kenney.

“It will be that bright white,” replied Kenney. “It’s not mercury vapor — it will have a different character to it.”

Lewis said the Transportation Department should consider Georgetown’s federally protected historic status and submit its proposals to the Old Georgetown Board, part of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

According to Lewis, the board should be consulted “on anything that changes the current visual appearance including lighting, because that is a very visible, iconic bridge and at night the lighting is basically what you see.”

Commissioners also requested a private meeting with the agency to discuss noise impacts from night work.

This article appears in the Jan. 14 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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