Old Georgetown Board Rejects Heating Plant Proposal

Photo by Rendering courtesy of The Levy Group
Although the proposal won public support, the board sought a closer connection to the existing industrial building.
Although the proposal won public support, the board sought a closer connection to the existing industrial building.

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

Long-gestating plans to redevelop the dormant West Heating Plant industrial site in Georgetown for residential use hit another snag last Thursday, when the Old Georgetown Board advised the project team to revise its design proposal with a closer eye toward preservation.

In particular, board members focused on the difference between rehabilitating an existing building with historic features and reinterpreting such a building for a new use. Developers have characterized the project as the latter, but members of the board, which reviews the design of projects in Georgetown’s federally protected historic district, said at Thursday’s meeting that they’re more inclined toward the former.

“There probably is a path here that is behind a couple layers of foliage that we could all get on and walk to a fantastic solution, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” board member Richard Williams said.

Plans to demolish all or most of the deteriorating heating plant at 2900 K St. NW site first surfaced in 2013 and subsequently underwent several rounds of Old Georgetown Board review with little success. Last month, the Levy Group and Adjaye Architects unveiled their latest designs for a six-story, 60-unit condominium building and an adjacent public park to largely favorable reviews from residents, but neighborhood leaders and other stakeholders were more divided. Overall, the board sided with the skeptics, asking architects to return with designs that reflect more careful attention to maintaining the building’s distinctive features.

Richard Levy of the Levy Group told The Current he found the board’s criticisms disappointing. “From our perspective, what they’re looking for is not in the community’s interest, is not in fact buildable,” Levy said in an interview Tuesday.

His team now plans to review all options before determining its next steps, he said.

At Thursday’s meeting, Tom Luebke — secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees the Old Georgetown Board — characterized the latest proposal as an attempt to “have your heating plant and eat it too.” In other words, he said, plans straddle the divide between preserving the existing site and replacing it with something substantially different.

Board members expressed concern regarding proposals to replace the existing skin of the building facades with more windows, soften some of the building corners and expand several side doors. The board’s Frederick Brangman also disputed the contention that the planned public park will be easily accessible to anyone other than residents of the adjacent building, arguing that its configuration — one story above the street, atop the building’s parking garage — wouldn’t be inviting.

The project team appeared prepared for some of these criticisms. Laurie Olin, a renowned landscape architect whose credits include New York’s Bryant Park, said he did everything he could to maximize access points. But a 20-to-21-foot flood wall on the park’s northern and eastern edges proved impossible to shrink due to zoning requirements, team members said.

The board’s criticisms likely cheered representatives of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the D.C. Preservation League and the Art Deco Society of Washington, all of whom urged the board to dismiss the proposal and direct the project team to return with a more sensitive treatment.

“Current proposed plans call for such a radical refashioning of the building’s original shell that it would be a shadow of its former self,” the Art Deco Society’s David Lefever said, reading a letter from Steve Knight, the group’s president. “We can’t help but wonder if the developer isn’t barking up the wrong tree.”

Jim Wilcox of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) brought up additional concerns that the project violates the D.C. Comprehensive Plan and jeopardizes a sewer line underneath the existing building.

But not everyone shares those concerns. All seven of Wilcox’s fellow ANC 2E members voted on April 4 to support the concept design. Citizens Association of Georgetown president Bob vom Eigen, along with several residents who can see the building from their homes, expressed glowing sentiments during the meeting.

The board did not review or comment on the demolition portion of the project, though several critics including Wilcox cited that piece of the plan among their reasons for opposing the overall application. Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League, said at the meeting that the site’s demolition would set a troubling precedent for future disposition of federally owned buildings with historic significance. But the project team’s Emily Eig argued that more analysis is necessary before the merits of demolition can be weighed.

Once the project clears the Old Georgetown Board, it will require review from the Commission of Fine Arts, the Historic Preservation Review Board and the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation before proceeding through the planned unit development zoning process, which allows construction of buildings with greater density in exchange for public benefits. Levy declined to offer a timetable for the development team’s next action, though he said he has no plans to abandon the project.

“If you had asked me when we acquired this building four years ago how long it was going to take, I would not have said we’d still be at this stage,” Levy said. “We have the community’s interest at heart, and we will continue to work with the community to see this get realized.”

This article appears in the April 12 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.