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Heating Plant Plan Faces ANC Questions

By Brady HoltCurrent Staff Writer

The planned West Heating Plant redevelopment is facing lingering concerns over demolition of a building within the Georgetown Historic District and the scale of its replacement.

The Levy Group and the Georgetown Co. are hoping to convert the vacant industrial complex at 29th and K streets NW into a new 10-story luxury condo building and an adjacent public park. They’re hoping to tear down the monolithic heating plant and replace it with a similarly shaped but slightly smaller building with monumental architecture designed to fit in with the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Memorial.

At Monday’s meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith), most comments about the plans were favorable. The current building has few fans aside from ardent preservationists, and developers say it’s structurally unsound. Many have lavished praise on the proposed replacement designed by renowned architect David Adjaye.

But for all of the plaudits expressed by residents and individual commissioners, though, ANC 2E’s two written resolutions aren’t glowing.

“We join with many who seek a design that is both architecturally inspired and sympathetic to Georgetown’s setting,” reads the first resolution, regarding an Old Georgetown Board application for the new building. But aside from saying that “ANC 2E appreciates the evolution of the design for the structure” and looks forward “to the continuing review and the development of the design,” the unanimous resolution offers no praise for the current proposal.

“The massing of the building and the height of the structure are inappropriate to the location and out of scale with the historic district of Georgetown,” the resolution reads. Suggesting that the new building’s height shouldn’t exceed those nearby — which are six stories tall — it continues: “The proposed scale and massing present an oversized structure dominating the Four Seasons Hotel to the north and looming over the structures to the west.”

Commissioners also raised concerns about possible light pollution due to the proposed size and number of windows, and asked the board to ensure that a large building wouldn’t impose upon Rock Creek or the C&O Canal, which meet at the property.

The resolution does praise the park south of the building, which would sit one story above ground atop a planned parking garage.

The commission’s second resolution, adopted on a divided 6-2 vote, promotes a “pathway for analysis” for the various historic preservation authorities who must decide whether to grant the developers’ request to demolish the existing heating plant. Although it doesn’t directly state any opposition to a raze, the resolution asks various questions about the appropriateness of the demolition. “We do not suggest an answer to any of these; we simply note the issue,” said commission chair Ron Lewis.

Commissioner Tom Birch countered that the group risked “opening old wounds” about already debated topics. Birch was one of the two commissioners who opposed the resolution on the raze.

In an interview yesterday, Richard Levy of the Levy Group said he couldn’t speak to “the politics of the ANC” but that the commission’s votes were a positive step overall.

“That’s a long way from where we were two years ago,” he said. “They could have just come out and said they oppose demolition as a bad precedent, and they didn’t do that.”

Regarding the height issue, Levy said some compromise might be possible. “They did not reject the design — they suggested modifications which will get discussed as we go forward,” he said.

He also noted the support from other community groups, including the Citizens Association of Georgetown and the Friends of the Georgetown Waterfront Park.

The project team has two active proposals for the heating plant site: the new building, which would have a smaller footprint than the current building and setbacks at the upper stories; and an iteration that preserves more of the shell of the existing building and retains its size and shape. Levy said Monday that his team strongly prefers the former option; the citizens association echoed that position.

The building would include about 60 to 70 luxury Four Seasons Residences condominiums, priced at the top of the market at the time the project is completed, Levy has said. In a tweak since the plans were presented in December, new metal railings have been added to the balconies to give the building a more residential feel.

On Monday, there was one vocal opponent to the project in general: Ray Kukulski, a former chair of the commission. “People come here to see history, not to see buildings that they can see anywhere back home,” he said.

Commissioners rejected that argument. “If we were to build a Federal-style building here, it would be a facade and we wouldn’t know the difference between the new building and one that’s actually historic,” said Jeff Jones.

“I think it would be to the credit of Georgetown if we were to receive a really fine example of contemporary architecture to add to the menu of architecture that we offer,” added Birch.

The project’s next step will be an Old Georgetown Board review, which will take place on Thursday.

This article appears in the Feb. 3 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.