As a citizen with only a tangential connection to the real estate business, I have never had the opportunity to view the design and approval process of a large planned urban development up close. The upcoming Parks at Walter Reed project offers the chance to peel back the layers of regulations and guidelines and understand how our city balances competing goals of economic vitality, sustainability and historic preservation.
I witnessed two important meetings on this topic last week: The ANC 4B Design and Review Board meeting regarding the new “Town Center” buildings and the Historic Preservation Review Board meeting on the mixed-use building at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Aspen Street NW. So far, I would have to say that this process is more complex than untangling a Gordian Knot.
Town Center Building at the ANC 4B Design and Review Committee
On last Wednesday, the ANC 4B Design and Review Committee (DRC) held its regular meeting at the Shepherd Park/Juanita Thornton Library. The proposed “town center” buildings in the northeastern corner of the Walter Reed campus were the main topic of discussion. These buildings are slated to replace the hulking main hospital building and replace it with retail and residential use.
After hearing a thorough overview of the current state of the plans from Katie Wiacek and other members of the development team, the Committee offered many comments, ideas and questions.
DRC members David Harrison and Jennifer Simpson expressed disappointment with the current design features of the center building. Mr. Harrison thought that, as a new addition to the District, this space should be “really, really special” instead of something evoking “early Southwest” of urban renewal infamy. Similarly, Ms. Simpson suggested that the center building should be “remarkable and memorable”. Later, an audience member suggested that it reminded her of the current FBI Headquarter Building downtown.
The existing “heritage” trees are important to all stakeholders and the developer has gone to great lengths to preserve as many of them as possible and include them as design elements in the overall architectural composition. DRC member Tanya Topolewski, a landscape architect by trade, offered a contrarian viewpoint: She stated that if she had her way, she would have given the architects leeway to remove as many of 20% of the existing trees to give the team the flexibility to create important sight-lines throughout the site. She also injected the valuable idea of a tree succession plan. “Trees are not forever,” she said. The team should be planting new trees now to replace the ones that are currently nearing the end of their expected lifespans. The developers seemed surprised and delighted to hear that feedback.
The theme of reaching for an “iconic” (but undefined) vision for the town center buildings continued throughout the rest of the meeting. An audience member even cited Plaza Mayor and the Champs-Elysées! Here, I think, the goals of economic viability, preservation and design quality begin to conflict with one another. Our community design leaders need to seriously balance these goals when making recommendations for future updates to this project.
Georgia and Aspen Mixed-Use buildings at the Historic Preservation Review Board
On Thursday, the development team sat before the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). Videos of past HPRB hearings can be found here.
The focus of this hearing was building “V/U”, the mixed-use buildings planned for the corner of Georgia Avenue and Aspen Street NW and the result was not pleasant for the development team.
The main issue cited was the “massing” of the building in proximity to the historic General Officers Quarters buildings. Some community members and the staff of the Historic Preservation Office have concerns about the new building “looming” over the existing historic homes. Other concerns included the proposed colors and materials of the buildings and retail signage styling.
Unfortunately for all, after eight hours of testimony, the HPRB ran out of time and was unable to complete its deliberations on the case. This means that the developers won’t even hear the HPRB’s suggestions until the end of May and won’t be able to reply until the June meeting. We all know that “time is money” in the real estate business, so this was clearly a sub-optimal result. Victoria Davis, design principal at Urban Atlantic, pledged that her team would continue working up until the next meeting with hopes of being able to move forward.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of these concepts and vocabulary are new to me, so I will keep my commentary to a minimum. However, even a layman can see that many of the stated goals of the development authority, the HPRB, the ANC and the developer are in conflict here in important ways. Developers and architects must be pushed to produce their best work: These are buildings that are going to be with us for a century and change the essential character of the surrounding neighborhoods. At the same time, it is easy to see the viability of the project groaning under the constraints that the community, in the form of the review boards, wants to place on it. Where to strike that balance will be the key factor in the success of this project.
The latest Walter Reed materials can be found on ANC4B’s website.