Photo by Brian Kapur/Current file photo
The West Heating Plant has been nominated as a historic landmark.
The West Heating Plant has been nominated as a historic landmark.

By Grace Bird

Current Staff Writer

Plans to redevelop Georgetown’s vacant West Heating Plant into a luxury condo building may face further delays, with the DC Preservation League launching a second bid to grant landmark status to the 1940s industrial facility.

The Historic Preservation Review Board considered a previous application from the group in April 2015, but voted 4-3 to oppose a landmark designation for the building at 29th and K streets NW. Turnover on the board could change the outcome of the scheduled Nov. 2 decision on the latest application.

Developers are hoping to largely demolish the old heating plant and reconstruct the building as modern residential units with an adjacent public park. The project team has argued that the structure is deteriorated and was never designed to support enough weight for housing.

“I would hope that the board reaffirms the position it took in 2015,” said developer Richard Levy of The Levy Group. “The community is very much behind this project, and the community’s take is that it is an annoyance and an interference. ... We’ll take it one step at a time.”

As a contributing building in the Georgetown Historic District, the heating plant is already protected against demolition or major alteration. However, a property owner can appeal to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation to argue that the change would result in a project of “special merit” that would overrule preservation concerns.

Levy was already planning to take this step with the heating plant, but while he said the full implications of individual landmark status for the heating plant aren’t clear, it would — at the very least — delay the project.

Officials with the D.C. Historic Preservation Office declined to comment for this story pending the Nov. 2 hearing.

According to the DC Preservation League’s application, the West Heating Plant is architecturally distinctive, straddling art deco and moderne styles, and also represents an important piece of District history. “Today, the plant possesses a very high level of integrity required by the National Register [of Historic Places], including integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association,” the application states.

Designed by William Dewey Foster, the plant was built between 1946 and 1948. Until it was shuttered half a century later, the building supplied heat to downtown government buildings, supplementing the overworked 1930s Central Heating Plant in Southwest D.C.

While the Historic Preservation Review Board rejected the plant’s landmark designation, its staff at the Historic Preservation Office backed the application in 2015 and is doing so again this year. The preservation office wrote in a recent report that the plant is a “striking, monumental piece of architecture, classically composed, streamlined and powerful, and thoroughly up to date in its expression,” and that it is historically significant as having served a “mundane but fundamental function” in heating public buildings.

Although Georgetown has been a federal historic district for decades, the Historic Preservation Office said designating individual buildings as landmarks is beneficial because it pays homage to specific sites’ history and ensures they’re treated with great care.

The landmark nomination has drawn objections from various neighbors and Georgetown community leaders. Joe Gibbons, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith), told The Current that the neighborhood has enjoyed “a tremendous amount of oversight” on the redevelopment, and that developers had been responsive to questions and concerns.

Victoria Rixey, a director of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, said she has been confounded by efforts to secure the plant as a landmark.

“There doesn’t really seem to be much historic anything in the application that really seems like new information,” Rixey said in an interview. “Hundreds and hundreds of residents have come to public meetings over the years. Now they’re going to throw a big wrench in the works, and for what purpose?”

But ANC 2E’s Jim Wilcox wrote that the Preservation League’s landmark application was “well reasoned” in a statement emailed to The Current on Monday. “I won’t make a final decision … until after ANC 2E’s public meeting on October 30,” Wilcox wrote.

The project — led by Levy and designed by architect David Adjaye and landscape architect Laurie Olin, both renowned nationally — cleared several hurdles this year.

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved in May and again in September a proposal to demolish the plant and build a 10-story, 60-unit Four Seasons Residences building and an adjacent 1-acre public park in its place. The project would retain the heating plant’s dimensions, its 29th Street facade, the structure of its existing windows and a stone wall at the perimeter of the property.

“Members expressed strong support for replacing the West Heating Plant with a new residential project that would evoke qualities of the historic industrial building, and for rehabilitating its site with a new urban park,” commission secretary Thomas Luebke wrote Sept. 29.

ANC 2E also supported the project’s concept design in September, with commissioner Wilcox abstaining from the vote.

Stephen Crimmins, who has lived next door to the plant for 30 years, said the building was a “coal-belching” blight on the neighborhood and should have never been built in Georgetown. Crimmins said he is thrilled by plans to redo the space with new condos and a park.

“It was a bad idea to start with,” Crimmins said of the original decision to build a heating plant in Georgetown. “The notion of preserving that thing is absurd.”

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

1 Comment For This Article

William Bateson

Historic? No, it is ugly! Maybe it would be best repurposed as a supertax prison or a depository for Confederate monuments. Or, maybe it could be replaced with something useful and beautiful.