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New Heating Plant Designs Unveiled

By Brady HoltCurrent Staff Writer

Developers planning to remake Georgetown’s West Heating Plant site into a luxury condo building last week shared a dramatically redesigned proposal, which retains much less of the existing industrial facility than in earlier concepts.

The project team has been working since 2011 to convert the former federal facility into Four Seasons residences — 60 to 70 condominiums associated with the nearby hotel. On the prominent site bordered by 29th and K streets NW, Rock Creek and the C&O Canal, the Levy Group and the Georgetown Co. propose to demolish most of the existing monolithic heating plant, rebuild it as housing and construct a public park in the adjacent open space.

During reviews by the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission and the Old Georgetown Board this past year, some critics have asked the project team to retain more of the existing 1940s building, which is protected as part of the neighborhood’s historic district. But others, who consider the large industrial facility to be a blight on the neighborhood’s landscape and skyline, hoped it could just be removed.

At a community meeting on Wednesday, the developer presented two new schemes. The first is a tweaked version of the earlier proposal, which essentially restores and adds windows to the existing building, while replacing walls that the project team says have deteriorated beyond repair.

The second retains the basic shape and location of the heating plant but not its structure. This version separates the building vertically into three sections, and replaces the familiar expanses of tan masonry with a grid of darker stone, marble and glass. Both new proposals also share a revised park layout.

Architect David Adjaye said at the meeting that the two options — which will go before the neighborhood commission and the Old Georgetown Board in February — reflect two possible approaches to the project.

At first, he said, “we really tried to look at celebrating the building itself, the postwar industrial building and how we could transform that into a residential building but still really honor the nature, mass and architectural language of the building.”

But Richard Levy of the Levy Group said that some preservationists have reconsidered whether such alterations make sense, given the amount of the building’s historic fabric that would have to be lost regardless. “Someone very high up in the preservation process said, ‘I wonder what David could do with a free hand ... if there were no constraints, and if you looked not to celebrate the building but the site.”

So in crafting the second option, Adjaye looked at the D.C. skyline and saw other prominent buildings near the Potomac waterfront — the Watergate, the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Memorial. With the additional glass and a less imposing shape, he said, “the building becomes much more soft and much more background … rather than a form that’s up in the air.”

In another change, this new proposal would sit 10 feet farther from the C&O Canal than the current heating plant does to avoid “imposing” on the waterway, said Adjaye. This reduces the project’s size from about 220,000 square feet (including the basement) to about 171,000, Levy told The Current, but he said the less square building would be better suited to a residential layout.

The other design option, meanwhile, also saw some changes compared to earlier proposals. A controversial bridge connecting the building to the Four Seasons Hotel has been eliminated, and an atrium was added facing 29th Street. The new iteration also proposes 29th Street as the main entrance to the building, rather than the driveway entrance suggested in older designs. In the new scheme, that driveway — which also accesses a parking garage below the new raised park — would be a secondary drop-off point. The park also covers over more of the driveway and has a new stairway from its northwest corner down to a creekside path.

Residents at the meeting generally preferred the alternative proposal that discards most of the existing heating plant. “It’s a world-class architect doing world-class design … rather than trying to replicate a monstrosity of a heating plant,” said neighbor Stephen Crimmins.

One resident, however, suggested that the proposal looked like an office building. In an interview Monday, Levy said Adjaye took the concern to heart and is tweaking the facade. Overall, Levy said, “I was incredibly pleased — when you’re in [a meeting] like that, you don’t know what you’re going to hear.”

Levy added that he also got positive feedback when he floated the designs privately to community leaders earlier this fall. “I think there was a tremendous amount of support wherever we’ve been for the new scheme,” he said.

Levy said his team would be comfortable proceeding with either of the two design options his group shared last Wednesday, but he said he’d prefer to build the more drastic departure from the heating plant.

Although he cautioned that he can only guess at this point how long various approvals will take, Levy told The Current that he hopes the building will be completed in four to five years. In addition to the Old Georgetown Board, the project will need to go before the mayor’s agent for historic preservation to allow substantial demolition of a historic building. Levy hopes to have that approval in August, then to begin nine to 12 months of work with the Zoning Commission on land-use issues. And even then, the industrial site will need extensive remediation before construction can proceed.

The payoff for all this effort is potentially quite lucrative. Levy said at the meeting that the condos could sell for $2,000 per square foot if they were available today. “We expect it will top the market, whatever the market is at that time, and that’s what affords the community benefits,” he said — mainly, the public park and its new access to the creek and canal.

For the park, developers recently hired landscape architect Laurie Olin to replace a previous firm. His revised design is larger (because it covers more of the driveway), and now features a rectangular water feature parallel to 29th Street, with a pergola to its west and a tree-covered small hill to its east. The new plan also includes additional landscaping to help screen the park from the Whitehurst Freeway, along with historically accurate paving materials, such as wood blocks, right along the edge of Rock Creek.

This article appears in the Dec. 16 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.