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The Historic Preservation Review Board endorsed a scaled-back plan necessitated by cost overruns in the original proposal.
The Historic Preservation Review Board endorsed a scaled-back plan necessitated by cost overruns in the original proposal.

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.