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Mayor’s agent to make call on firehouses

By Elizabeth Wiener Current Staff Writer

The long-delayed expansion and renovation of the Palisades firehouse now faces another hurdle: The Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation must approve plans to widen and heighten the vehicle doors before building permits can be issued.

The red-brick station at 4811 MacArthur Blvd. is the latest in a string of historic — and sometimes outmoded — fire stations caught in a clash between the fire department’s modern needs and the city’s strict preservation law. Renovation of the Cleveland Park station is faced with the same conflict, which could also affect renovation of fire stations in Foggy Bottom, Georgetown and elsewhere.

Plans to renovate the 1925 Palisades station and put a new ambulance bay on its east side are already about seven years behind schedule. Fire officials initially delayed the already-funded project as a separate preservation dispute stalled renovation of the Tenley firehouse — they didn’t want two nearby stations closed at the same time.

The Palisades project got moving again two years ago. Bids were taken to erect a prefabricated steel structure on the grounds of the Dalecarlia Reservoir as a temporary home for Engine Co. 29 so that service wouldn’t be interrupted during construction. The prefab building is now ready for use, fire officials say.

But in 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finished phasing in tighter standards for diesel emissions, requiring filters and other equipment that add to the size of emergency vehicles. That makes new fire engines, pumpers and some ambulances big enough that they can barely squeeze through the narrow doors of some of the city’s older fire stations. Officials realized it made no sense to go ahead with building renovations if they didn’t resolve the door problem.

Now the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is trying to ensure that all renovated vehicle bays are 12 feet wide and 12 feet tall to accommodate the bigger equipment. But that requires a redesign of some historic facades, and a trip back — fire officials belatedly realized — to the preservation board.

And if the board says no, as city preservation law seems to require, the fire department must appeal to the mayor’s agent, who could approve the changes if he finds that “the operational needs of a public safety facility constitute a public interest” with higher priority than historic preservation.

The fire department is already going through that drill with the Cleveland Park station, which is to be renovated under the same construction contract as the Palisades station. Bids have already been taken, but the mayor’s agent must rule before either project can move forward.

The preservation board’s hearing on the Palisades station last Thursday focused on the distinct architecture of that facility, and how to enlarge the doors with the least damage to its facade. The Colonial Revival station is just one story tall, with semicircular windows over each of the two vehicle bays.

“As much as we love to see you every month, it would be nice if we could review two or more at the same time,” said board chair Catherine Buell, facing fire officials, their architects and the new Department of General Services, now in charge of most municipal construction.

City architectural historian Tim Dennée explored the options, noting that design of the original facade, was “carefully worked out by the original architect.” Rash changes, he said “can give it a cartoony appearance.”

The doors could be widened by taking out a center brick pier, but fire officials fear that would mean a loss of vital vertical support. The doors could be widened on both sides, but that would disturb symmetry of the fanlights, Dennée said. Board member Maria Casarella suggested putting wider doors on the addition, but officials explained that it’s designed to house an ambulance and wouldn’t be long enough for a fire truck.

Dennée asked if the openings could be slightly shorter than planned. “The fire department has told us they cannot live without 12 feet,” said architect Anwar Iqbal. “The vehicle height is 10 feet, 4 inches, but sometimes the ladders are not perfectly folded, or personnel may be standing in the cab.” Although the latest fire engines are only 8 feet wide, they have mirrors sticking out on each side, project manager Ralph Cyrus explained.

Ultimately, the board voted against the proposed door changes, punting a decision to the mayor’s agent. “Our hands are tied,” said Casarella. “As a preservation board, it is frustrating. As a citizen of the District, I want the fastest truck to get to my house.”

“You just don’t blow out the doors,” said board member Joseph Taylor. “But we have to have safety, because of the nature of the business you’re in.”

The mayor’s agent hearing on the Cleveland Park station is set for Feb. 24. Because of notice requirements, it’s too late to schedule the Palisades case the same day. That will mean a separate hearing, probably in March.

Fire officials hope that schedule doesn’t throw off the construction timetable too much. Battalion Chief David Foust, who oversees construction, said bids on the combined Cleveland Park/Palisades renovations were opened in November, but the contract has not yet been awarded. He’s hoping the contract can accommodate any changes required by the mayor’s agent, and said the two projects could be separated if necessary.

Other historic D.C. fire stations in line for renovation include those at 2119 G St. in Foggy Bottom, 3412 Dent Place in Georgetown and 4930 Connecticut Ave. in Forest Hills, as well as a half-dozen others.

Each has distinctive architecture, so the proposed door widening presents distinct design issues. “In some cases, a planning solution might offer an alternative location that relieves an obsolescent but beautifully designed building from unfortunate alteration,” Dennée wrote in his report to the preservation board.

The board has already approved door-widening projects on two historic firehouses where the changes proved less problematic.

This article appears in the Feb. 1 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.