ANC Skeptical of Heating Plan Project

Photo by Rendering courtesy of the Levy Group and the Georgetown Co.
Developers hope to largely demolish and re-create the  building, but some community members want the structure preserved.
Developers hope to largely demolish and re-create the building, but some community members want the structure preserved.

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

Plans to demolish much of Georgetown’s West Heating Plant faced opposition Monday, with the area’s advisory neighborhood commission unanimously objecting to key aspects of the proposal.

Commissioners said they could accept the proposed demolition of roughly 70 percent of the 1948 building only with more conclusive evidence that it has deteriorated beyond repair. They also said that if the teardown does take place, a replacement building should not — as proposed — emulate the size and shape of the existing heating plant.

The Levy Group and Georgetown Co. purchased the federal government property at 29th and K streets for $19.5 million in March, with plans to convert it into 60 to 70 Four Seasons-branded luxury condominium units and to create an adjacent public park. But the developers’ structural engineer concluded that the 110-foot-tall building’s imposing bulk concealed underlying weakness — a rusting steel frame, cracked bricks and pervasive moisture.

“It was a very specifically built industrial shell, and while we had high hopes of converting it into an interesting artifact of preservation, we found it’s just not feasible,” engineer Kirk Mettam said at the neighborhood commission meeting.

Under the developers’ plans, which are due for review tomorrow by the Old Georgetown Board, the plant’s 29th Street facade would be retained, and the rest of the building would be reconstructed to match its style, with added windows and floors.

But commissioners said they found Mettam’s conclusion unconvincing. Chair Ron Lewis asked the developers to provide details about why these problems couldn’t be fixed. The commission’s resolution further called for an independent evaluation of the building’s condition, with the developers footing the bill for a report by experts selected by preservation officials.

“Our strong preference … is to preserve a building when we can,” said Lewis. “And so that’s always the starting point here.”

He suggested that the plant’s current condition could still be adequate for some uses, even if the building wouldn’t hold up for condos and retrofitted windows. “There were plenty of other bidders who did intend to preserve the existing fenestration and work with the building on that basis,” Lewis said of past proposals.

To proceed with its plans, the Levy team would need a waiver from the building’s historic covenant, which was intended to preserve the structure from demolition when it was sold by the U.S. government. That idea drew the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“The reports make it apparent that the developer’s own proposal for modification, especially adding additional windows, is what will destabilize the walls,” the trust’s Elizabeth Merritt said at the meeting. “The problem is not the structure of the building itself … but the discretionary additions that the developer wants to make.”

Merritt said all bidders knew they were expected to preserve the building, and this change “makes a mockery of the process.”

Maureen Dwyer, attorney for the developers, said the process allows a developer to demonstrate that demolition is legitimate. “We did a lot of homework on the structural issues and felt these were very important concerns and we were ready to go through that process,” she said.

But even if demolition is OKed, a replacement project would need Old Georgetown Board approval because the site is within the neighborhood’s federally protected historic district.

The neighborhood commission’s resolution states that such a replacement would need to be in “harmony and consistency with other properties” in lower Georgetown.

Commissioners also opposed other details of the proposal, including a roof deck, new windows they said would cause nighttime light pollution, and a glass-enclosed private pedestrian bridge between the heating plant and the Four Seasons Hotel on M Street.

Developer Richard Levy said in an interview after the meeting that many opponents of his plan seem to have misunderstood aspects of preservation guidelines and principles. He said it’s possible he will need to make alterations to the project, but that he does expect it to be approved in approximately its current form.

“In this context we’re long-distance runners, so one little stumble here and a misrepresentation there is not going to stop us,” Levy said.

Not all comments at the neighborhood commission meeting were unfavorable. There was unanimous acclaim for the 3.6 acres of parkland designed by Ignacio Bunster, architect of the Georgetown Waterfront Park. This plan would create a landscaped, grassy open space in what is now the heating plant’s empty coal yard, and install walking trails and bridges where the C&O Canal runs into Rock Creek.

Also, while the Citizens Association of Georgetown has joined the neighborhood commission in seeking further review of the heating plant’s structural integrity, the association said housing in particular is a desirable use of the property, and it supported alterations consistent with the existing building.

Some residents were also supportive of the development as a whole. Nancy Taylor Bubes said she has always hated walking past the heating plant at night, calling it “the armpit of Georgetown.”

“To see a group of local people putting forward such a beautiful plan … to see that area lifted up with parks and everything, it’s just so nice,” she said.

And Stephen Crimmins, a resident of the James Place condominium across the street from the plant who said he was speaking for many of his neighbors, urged commissioners to support a plan that would revitalize the location.

What we’ve looked down on is a tank farm and a coal yard and an ugly industrial plant that’s been derelict,” said Crimmins, adding, “If we don’t take this deal, we’re going to have a derelict parcel for another 10 years.”

Commission chair Lewis took issue with criticisms of the existing heating plant’s appearance.

“Historic preservation isn’t really a beauty contest. It’s not about whether what’s there now is or is not more pleasing than something new,” Lewis said. “It’s rather about preserving styles of buildings through the ages.”

This article appears in the Nov. 6 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.