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Georgetown to see condo blitz

By Carol Buckley

Current Staff Writer

One of the most notable features of the recent housing-market crisis in D.C. was the screeching halt called to the city’s condo boom. Even in parts of the city where values remained high, construction plans for high-dollar condominiums vanished into thin air.

Now, some of those projects are warily getting back on track, but perhaps no neighborhood has seen more confidence placed in the re-emerging market than Georgetown. Four residential projects are now in the pipeline for the area. Two are new construction, and two more propose to redevelop historic properties.

Recent numbers suggest that that faith may be well-placed. New assessment figures show the neighborhood’s condominiums increasing in value, while single-family homes fell slightly.

Three of those four projects are products of Georgetown-based firm EastBanc, a development outfit that has grown from its first purchase in the mid-1990s -- an M Street town house -- to dozens of residential, retail and commercial holdings in the historic neighborhood.

Two of EastBanc’s projects were just introduced to residents last month and would add new condominium units to a Wisconsin Avenue site abutting the C&O Canal, as well as the highly visible parcel opposite Key Bridge now occupied by a gas station.

The canal site will hold nine large units -- some with three bedrooms and a den -- clocking in between 2,500 and 4,000 square feet, said EastBanc’s Mary Mottershead.

And the M Street site will have between 35 and 40 units sized from 1,800 to 2,300 square feet. Both projects could come online by early 2014.

The projects’ designs are still in flux, due in part to Georgetown’s unique assembly of design-review boards. As in other historic districts, the local advisory neighborhood commission weighs in on building projects. But unique to Georgetown’s federal historic district are the next two steps: the Old Georgetown Board and its parent panel, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Both bodies of federally appointed architects carefully pick apart the materials, massing, fenestration and more for each design, as well as a project’s relationship to its surroundings.

The Old Georgetown Board’s opinions have already led to the first round of changes for both projects. The Wisconsin Avenue site -- currently home to a Verizon switching building -- would sport more brick and less stone under the current design. And the M Street structure has also seen some alterations, largely in its window design.

But the neighborhood’s design-review panels are not likely to consider the main objection that residents have raised to the five-story structure.

The owners of Prospect Street homes above the proposed condominium now enjoy sweeping river views that would be truncated, though not obliterated, by EastBanc’s structure.

“I can see this taking $1 million off my property value,” Prospect Street resident Jack Davies said at a recent community meeting.

But EastBanc’s plans are matter-of-right, Mottershead pointed out at the same meeting. That means that no zoning request will trigger a hearing where neighbors could ask the city to trim the project’s height.

The building’s roof would not rise above the ground level of the existing town homes, but roof structures will. And Davies and his neighbors, under the current proposal, would look out on a roof with a swimming pool and three rooftop structures, as well as a green roof.

“We’ve tried to reduce the rooftop structures,” said Mottershead, noting that standard building roofs can devote one-third of their space to utility and other add-ons.

The design-review boards have sparked significant changes in the two Georgetown projects closer to realization, which have also been impacted by market forces and neighborhood activists.

EastBanc’s closest-to-construction project is a redevelopment of the Georgetown Post Office on 31st Street. The granite-faced, circa-1850s structure was once a customs house and the office of the last mayor of Georgetown; by late 2013, it and a rear addition will house nine units that will be either rental apartments or condominiums, according to Mottershead.

The building became available when the U.S. Postal Service decided to sell it and a host of other holdings. The property will retain a small post office.

The post office’s evolution tracks the uncertainty in the housing market over the past few years. First proposed in late 2009 as a project that would include town houses on an adjacent lot, plans then targeted the spot for office space. Then EastBanc reversed course again to propose residential units at the site.

Georgetown neighbors learned of the post office project at the same time that they heard about another redevelopment in the pipeline: that of the vacant Hurt Home at 3050 R St.

The proposed conversion of the 1897 structure by development firm Argos Group into a spot for 15 condominiums got a boost last week with initial approval from the Zoning Commission for a map amendment and a parking-related special exception.

Like the post office project, plans for the property, once a home for the blind, have undergone a transformation since they were first introduced. Developers were the only respondents to a city request for bids to use the site, and they initially proposed 46 units in the original structure and an addition. Neighbors expressed concerns about the density and traffic associated with such a plan, and Argos Group eventually agreed to a far smaller project that will be confined to the existing historic envelope.

This article appears in the April 13 Spring Real Estate section of The Georgetown Current newspaper.