Friday, October 31, 2008

The Clarksburg Quagmire

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If you don't know where Clarksburg is now, you can say you heard of it here first. Next week, the Montgomery County Planning Board (MCPB) will undertake a two session review of plans for, and potential approval of, the Clarksburg Town Center (CTC) that would see 1,213 units of housing dropped 35 miles northwest of the District.

The CTC is described by its developer, Newland Communities, as "a New American Classic Town" - one that was essentially dropped wholesale into a rural community when Phase I was undertaken in 2001 and brought approximately 1400 new residents to the area. Phase II, however, is a different animal. And despite the body blows to the real estate market and the general tanking of the "suburban town center" concept, the developer plans to see it through.

Aside from rental and homeownership housing, the linchpin of new development on the 270-acre parcel will be the retail hub. It will feature shopping, dining, a pharmacy, a grocery store (initially planned to be a Giant, but Newland has since parted ways with the retail developer behind the deal, Regency Centers) and the requisite parking – all amenities which are currently lacking in CTC’s present state. Extra perks also include the construction of a new public library, an outdoor amphitheater, a new 1,200 square foot recreation center, and, lastly - for that small town touch - a memorial in tribute to the town’s founding family, the Clarksburgs. Designs are being handled by Torti Gallas and Partners.

Over the past five years, Newland, the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee (CTCAC) and the MCPB have found themselves locked in a long and tedious stalemate – one that seems on the verge of breaking with next week’s decision.

While plans for the development stretch back 13 years, Newland stepped up in 2003 when it purchased the completed Phase I project from original developer, Terrabrook – after the initial Phase II plans had received the go-ahead from the County. Come summer 2004, CTCAC brought apprehensions about setback and height regulations before the Board, which subsequently held a string of violation hearings that stretched on for more than a year.

Eventually, the Office of Legislative Oversight was called in to review the case and identify exactly what was causing the protracted delays – and wound up faulting the MCPB itself in a surprising twist. According to their report, the Board had “sent confusing and mixed messages to the community, and failed to carry out a timely, thorough fact-based investigation.” Moreover, even the Montgomery County system was partially to blame as the CTC project was “subject to a regulatory process that lacked predictability and reliability” and “underlying ambiguities in the County’s laws.” The end result of the findings was a landmark for the Montgomery County regulatory system – since 2005, the County Council has had much stricter oversight of MCPB activities.

With that debacle finally settled, a final set of plans comes before the Board on November 6th and Newland is betting its chips on this hearing. Just weeks ago, Newland sent current CTC residents postcard mailers expressing the need for their support if the project is to get approval.

And it appears that it will. County staff have already conditionally approved the plan, and while the developer has yet to make a total figure for the cost of the development public, County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett has recommended a $15.5 million allotment of county funds that would go towards improvement of the local infrastructure and construction of the library. Bozzuto, Craftstar, Miller & Smith, NVHomes, and Porten Homes have already been selected as builders for the massive undertaking.

Axis Condos

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

L is for Lease

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More office development has arrived in the corridors of power (aka the Downtown Business Improvement District). DRI Development has brought an 11-story, 170,000 square foot building to 1331 L Street NW, only five blocks from the White House. While the building primarily serves as the new headquarters of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), the SmithGroup-designed, glass-faced project also has 11,000 square feet of retail space on the block for would-be tenants.

The project is energy-efficient all the way - from the LEED gold certification (a rarity for District office space) to the "hybrid vehicle preference" parking spaces. The glass facade ostensibly admits the maximum possible amount of natural light and saves on energy costs. (Although admittedly, five high speed elevators don't sound like too “green” of a luxury). The facility’s amenities include a ground-floor fitness center, a landscaped rear court, a private rooftop terrace and "a crystalline glass tower element" over the building’s primary entrance.

Once the building was completed last spring, it sold to MBA - who now occupy only a third (approximately 68,000 square feet) of their latest acquisition. The rest -both retail and office – are being brokered by Transwestern, the parent company of DRI. A Transwestern retail leasing agent, Alex Walker, says “a restaurant and possibly a cafĂ©” are planned for the site, but a timeline for such developments is still up in air. With the market still in what is best described as “rough shape,” this could be opportunity to snatch up space in a prime downtown parcel that still has that new development smell. That is, if you don’t mind sharing an office with the same guys who milk you for mortgage payments every month. High speed or not, that could be an awkward elevator ride.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Yards Parks Itself on the Anacostia

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A new twist in Forest City's development plans for The Yards was revealed today as Mayor Fenty announced the addition of a $42 million dollar riverfront park - that's $42 million for a park - to the sprawling 5.5 million square feet of redevelopment already underway in the surrounding area.

"This is the project that will project the District of Columbia forward from the standpoint of renovating, modernizing, accentuating, bringing to life, and restoring this great neighborhood adjacent to the Anacostia River," said Fenty from inside the vacant warehouse that will soon house the Yards' Boilermaker Shops.



Simply dubbed The Park at the Yards, the 5.5 acre park is being designed by New York-based landscape architects M. Paul Friedberg and Partners and was touted by Ward 6 City Councilman, Tommy Wells, as the new “front porch” for the Southeast Waterfront. If that is indeed the case, the park seems to be more country club terrace than whittling stoop - the plans currently on-hand call for “well-landscaped ‘outdoor rooms’ with seating areas,” “a riverfront courtyard” that will feature retail and dining on three sides, “a water feature” in tribute to the Washington Canal, “a great lawn” that could potentially host live entertainment and “a scenic esplanade” that will connect foot traffic to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. Forest City is also in talks to bring a marina to the site as well. The Mayor equated the park to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Chicago’s Millennium Park, as a draw for local residents and tourists alike “for generations to come.”


“It’s a great amenity for the city. It’s welcoming to families. It’s welcoming to children. It will be welcoming not just our residents, but to everyone in Ward 6 and throughout the District who come,” said Deborah Ratner Salzberg, President of Forest City Washington. “It will be a true world-class location…to eat, play and just to relax and have fun.”

The Park represents a unique facet of development at the Yards, in more than one regard. First and foremost, it is the product of a public-private partnership between Forest City and the District, which teamed-up to secure the federally-owned parcel from the General Services Administration (the terms of that deal were not disclosed).



Secondly, it was financed through a Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILOT) initiative, described by the Mayor’s office as “the District…selling a bond against future taxes…generated by the surrounding development.” Ahh, the 'generations to come' will be the ones paying for it. Thirdly, after Forest City completes construction, all maintenance and programming of the park will be turned over to the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID). The BID’s Executive Director, Michael Stevens, characterized their involvement as including everything from planting flowers to plowing snow.


Construction is planned to begin this January, the developer hopes to have the park open in time for the Nationals’ 2010 opener (a sentiment most certainly shared by DC and Nats' higher-ups). The Park at the Yards is the second such space planned for the immediate waterfront area (the other being Diamond Teague Park to the west) and the capstone to Forest City’s plans for 2,800 condos/apartments, 1.8 million square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of retail at the Yards.


“This is going to be one of the greatest places in America to live,” said Councilman Wells.

Law Enforcement Goes Underground in Judiciary Square

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Judiciary Square will soon become a tourist mecca - once the new National Law Enforcement Museum is built on (or, rather, under) the 400 block of E Street, NW. Okay, it may not be the new go-to spot for tourists, but construction is expected to get underway nonetheless in the first quarter of 2009.

If all goes according to plan - in this case, the National Capital Framework Plan - the 90,000 square foot underground museum would extend under E Street and be accessible by two above-grade entry pavilions separated by a 100-foot wide shared plaza. Currently the site of a parking lot between District of Columbia Court Building C and United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Services, the plaza would make Judiciary Square a new draw for tourists - and give deadbeats something to do while waiting for their turn in the docket - and serve as a “natural extension” of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, already located in the square.

The placement of the museum next to the memorial that inspired it is no coincidence. The genesis of the project came in 2000, when Congress and President Bill Clinton enacted a measure calling for the establishment of such a museum. Fundraising endeavors were then passed off to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in their roles as de facto developer, which got to work clearing the project with the seemingly endless list of local and federal authorities with overlapping jurisdictional interests.

Eight years and a million feet of red tape later, the museum will finally begin construction in 2009. Utilizing designs by Davis Buckley Architects and Planners, the museum will sport exhibition rooms, a gift shop, a theater and an underground atrium with skylights that peek into the plaza above. The mission of the museum will be to be lead visitors on a journey from “the first days of the night watch in the 1600’s” up to today’s high-tech era of CSI-styled detective work. Using exhibits designed by Christopher Chadbourne and Associates, the museum will highlight “historical artifacts, manuscripts, books, oral histories and other information that chronicle the development of America's civil society.” Or it might be like the aborted City Museum, a multi-dollar downtown museum that resulted in too few tourists too make it financially viable.

Then again, maybe not. Marcello Muzzatti, an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and President of the Fraternal Order of Police of Washington, DC (DC-FOP), testified before the City Council this week regarding the project and has no doubts about its potential. "[Ward 2 Councilman] Jack Evans is really in favor of it because he knows it's a whole marketing strategy for downtown," said Muzzatti. "You've got the Spy Museum, the [Koshland] Science Museum, the Newseum - all that area, in the past 10 years, has just exploded. It is going to bring more visitors into Washington, DC and our museum, you have to understand, is completely unique."


The project has finally been approved by all the agencies with a finger in the development pie (District of Columbia Office of Planning, National Parks Service, US Commission of Fine Arts, etc.). All that now remains is to begin spending the $80 or so million that has been donated by prominent benefactors such as Panasonic, DuPont and Motorola (in exchange for product placement within the museum, of course), and police organizations such as the DC-FOP and the MPD (who recently organized a 5K run that raised $10,000 for the project). Fundraising is still very much underway and the NCPC is currently working with the adjacent courts to develop a perimeter security plan that is satisfactory to all. Clark Construction will serve as the general contractor once the project goes to ground.

For those who care, the oldest of the Judiciary Square buildings is the Old Courthouse, designed by architect George Hadfield, and originally intended to be the District's city hall. The courthouse was built in stages from 1820 and 1849. Maybe when it’s complete, they can slap the museum on tour including the Navy Memorial, the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Building Museum and explore the unmined history of the rest of the Village People. Okay, maybe not, but think about it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Wizards Owner Bringing Magic Back to NE Housing Project

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John Stranix, formerly of Clark Construction and now of Stranix Associates, is spearheading an effort - via the Pollin Memorial Development, LLC - to bring a 125-unit development to the ever-expanding Minnesota Avenue corridor in northeast Washington.

Named for the family of Washington Wizards owner, Verizon Center visionary, and generous District benefactor - Abe Pollin - the $18 million Pollin Memorial Community Development would transform a 450,000 square foot chunk of Ward 7 into "91 row dwellings, eight three-unit apartment buildings and five flats, amounting to a total of 125 residential units" - for a total of 193,688 square feet of new development. This would be the second such memorial public housing development in the District - Pollin previously opened Southeast's Linda Pollin Memorial Housing project in 1967.

Bounded by Hayes, Barnes, and Grant Streets, NE and Anacostia Avenue, the new Pollin complex would replace the 49-year-old Parkside Additions public housing project on the site with 83 homeownership units and 42 “rental replacement public housing units” – affordable housing targeting renters at or below 30% of the area media income. While the current Parkside project is described by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) as “functionally obsolete,” the new affordable units would be reserved as a “one-for- one replacement” for current tenants.

The redevelopment of housing would be complemented by new internal streets and a new “intimately-scaled” neighborhood park that would fall at the end of what is now Cassell Place, NE. This would include a new playground and landscaped area with trees and benches – all of which would front on the row houses, in order to allow for easy child supervision.

The site is a composite of property belonging to 3 distinct entities – the District of Columbia, the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA), and the National Parks Service (NPS). The developer courted the approval of all of those landowners back in 2006 and received approval for the project from NCPC last year.

Despite the multitude of parties with stakes in the site - current residents not least among them - the District posits that redevelopment is in the best interests of all involved including those of the greater Minnesota-Benning corridor. "Regarding the [area's] comprehensive plan, the development will further some of its major themes," said Matt Jesick, Development Review Specialist of the DC Office of Planning, in session before the District of Columbia Zoning Commission. "It will replace an older public housing development with newer affordable housing. It will compliment existing and proposed development in the neighborhood. It will preserve approximately 43 percent of the site as an undeveloped natural area and it will promote enhanced public safety and provide for diversity in the community." Enterprise Community Partners, who are financing part of the Wheeler Terrace public housing redevelopment in Southeast, have also issued a statement in support of the project.

Using designs by Torti Gallas & Partners, the project aims to begin construction in August 2009.

Coming Soon to a Howard Theatre Near You: Development

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By this time next year, the old Howard Theatre should be well on its way to recapturing some its lost magic. Ellis Development Group and Martinez & Johnson Architecture have been charged with restoring the historic theater to its original purpose - albeit with a few modern twists. The building will retain its original size and basic interior configuration as the 98-year-old music hall is restored to one of Washington DC's premier live entertainment venues. This is Ellis' second planned project for 7th & T Streets NW - they have also been selected for the colossal Broadcast Center One project on the same block.

The update will consist of what the developer describes as "three overlapping components." The first of these will include the reintegration of a "medium-sized" stage into main audience chamber, which aims to accommodate 500-600 concertgoers. The backstage area, or "Stage House" as they say in the biz, is to be outfitted with all of the state-of-the-art, modern amenities found in any venue worth its weight in Victrolas: theatrical rigging, motorized winches, soundproofing and the rest. A new level will be added 25 feet above the stage, in order to accommodate administrative offices.

Another phase of the historic revamp will include the addition of a new upscale restaurant, meant to accommodate up to 300 customers at any one time. Cuisine at the waiter-serviced eatery and bar is being described as “upscale,” with more details to be hammered out as the project approaches its targeted 2010 completion – and 100th birthday. A 1,200 square foot kitchen will round out the area.

However, the component of the most immediate significance to the local Shaw community is the “education area” – a pair of class-cum-rehearsal rooms directly underneath the stage. In keeping with the developer’s pledge to “enrich, educate and enlighten,” the space will be available to the local artistic causes.

And what would a DC landmark be without tchotchkes for sale? Rounding out the theatre’s redevelopment is a 600-s.f. museum and gift shop that will presumably detail the musical hall’s rich history as a host for acts like Duke Ellington, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Redd Foxx; faces you will now find on a coffee cup or mousepad, we suppose.

"We have 60% of the cost solved and we need to raise the rest to try and retire the debt, and/or raise as much we can to begin construction," said Chip Ellis of Ellis Development. The not-for-profit associated with the developer, Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc., will continue to accept donations until the project is complete.

According to Ellis, the $25 million worth of renovation procedures are expected to commence in Auguest 2009. Whiting-Turner will serve as the general contractor on the project.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

New Condo Opens in Columbia Heights

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A new condominium will open its doors this weekend when the Cityscape on Belmont condominium in Columbia Heights opens to the public today. Bethesda-based Bogdan Builders started construction on the 28-unit building in September of last year, and expects settlements before the end of the year.

Located at 1330 Belmont Street, NW, the building will feature ceiling heights from 10'8 to 15'4, traditional interiors, and limited outdoor parking, with prices to start at $384,900. The wood frame construction features an exterior skin of brick on the facade, and while it's not "another architectural masterpiece!" - the predictably hyperbolic realtor-speak of the sales team - it does sit on the hill in Columbia Heights, giving it views of the city from the rear. Half the new condos will be on one level, the other half on two, a few with private roof decks, and each with exposure on the north and south facades.

Cityscape on Belmont, known until now as Belmont Vista, was designed by Zahn Design. Bogdan purchased the land four years ago in a deal struck nearby at the MacDonald's at 14th & U (ew.) Bogdan's newest project joins a chorus of adjacent developments in what adds up to a busy construction site, all now under construction, including Level2's View14 (170 residential units), the Solea (59 units), and the Nehemiah Center, which has just begun demolition, to be eventually replaced by a large apartment building, all within feet of the entrance of Cityscape.

Bogdan's self-proclaimed style is "suburban style" in the city, having previously built sprawling houses in Potomac; recent examples of their urban handiwork are available at Logan Station, the Villaggio, and the Ivy at Harvard.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sky-Low Prices in Randle Highlands

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Just days after the District went public with a proposal for the redevelopment of the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus, PERS Development, LLC is opening the doors on the Sky DC condo development - "apartment homes" in Southeast's Randle Highlands neighborhood. It's a move they hope will dovetail with the Department of Homeland Security's proposed move to the area and draw "more working class individuals...towards this part of the District."

The $4 million development at 1620 29th Street SE got its Sky DC moniker from the so-called "million dollar view" available from the rooftop deck. Totaling 17,000 square feet, PERS is offering amenities like built-in iPod docks, bamboo floors and temperature controlled wine coolers to court "new homeowners and young professionals" – a cause reflected in the relatively low $200,000 price points for the condos. The project was designed by Bethesda based architects, Easta Inc.

This is PERS’ fourth project in the District and the developer plans on branding it just as they have the others – with “a signature waterfall in the front exterior”. Furthermore, the developer describes itself as the “Carmax of Condo Buying” - due to their “no haggle, lower than market prices” – a point you can debate in person when they hold their second open house this Sunday.

Post your comment about this project below.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New High-Rise Art-itecture in Silver Spring

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There's a new highrise coming to a prime slice of Silver Spring real estate - at 8711 Georgia Avenue. Currently the site of a parking lot and bank drive-thru, the creatively-titled 8711 Georgia Avenue Parking Lot, LLC (a nome de plume of original owner Zalco Realty Incorporated that was passed onto Guardian Realty Investors, LLC after the site was sold in 2007) is looking to build a 13-story, 152,740 s.f. mixed-use building between Georgia and Cameron Street with office space, retail and, in a surprising twist, an arts plaza designed to serve as an “urban oasis” at the northern end of the Silver Spring Central Business District.

Utilizing designs by WDG Architects, 8711 Georgia plans to bring 148,278 square feet of office space and 4,462 square feet of ground floor retail to the site with “illuminated entrance features” on all four sides of the proposed building and frontage on the future Fenton Street extension - amenities intended to highlight the public arts plaza.

The elliptical plaza - being designed by local artist Martha Jackson-Jarvis - would lie on the newly extended Fenton Street and contain four separate sculptural components. The first and most complex has been dubbed the “Wave Wall,” which is described as a “flowing mosaic of brightly colored materials of many sizes and textures” that will “undulate like waves.” This will lead directly into another smaller mosaic wall. Three-dimensional sculptures – intended to “be approached, touched and studied from all sides” - will sit in front of both walls. A mid-block pedestrian arcade will provide a link between the plaza and Georgia Avenue.

Preliminary plans for the project were approved by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) way back in 2006, the final draft was approved today. Presumably, it was a rather easy decision for the M-NCPPC to reach – the project is but two doors down from their headquarters and, quite literally, in their own backyard. Ziggy Schelec of Zalco Realty, who will still oversee leasing and management of the building, described the project as being “on the fast track” with a final timeline for construction to be established next week.

If it does, it would be one of the few. Most of the recent real estate projects in Silver Spring - Silver Place, the Ripley Project, 814 Thayer, and Studio Plaza, to name just a few - have intentions to move forward, but are finding it either impossible or impractical to do so in the current environment.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

St. Elizabeths Plan Envisions Massive Redevelopment

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The District announced a new plan today to kickstart redevelopment of the old St. Elizabeths mental institution in Ward 8. If approved by the District Counsel, the series of projects will beef up one of DC's poorest neighborhoods with nearly 3 million square feet of mixed-use development. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning were on hand today to announce the release of the St. Elizabeths East Redevelopment Framework Plan, which recommends transforming the hospital’s eastern, District-owned flank into five neighborhoods, "each with their own character," and pushes for the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) proposed relocation to federally-controlled St. Elizabeths West. The government transferred ownership of the eastern portion to the District in 1987, while retaining the western campus for its own use.

The Plan is sprawling in its scope – the size of the District-owned eastern half alone measures in at 173 acres. Together, construction on the two campuses - separated only by Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, SE - would be second only to the revitalization efforts underway on the Southeast Waterfront in terms of size and scope.

“I think what we have proposed…will not only benefit the people who live in Ward 8 and east of the river, but, just as importantly, the entire city,” said Fenty.

Redevelopment at St. Elizabeths East would create up to 2 million square feet of new mixed-use projects and 750,000 s.f. of renovated historic space. The proposed neighborhoods (pictured, below) are being broken down into the North Campus, Maple Campus, Town Square, CT Village and Metro Station; each would feature a distinct blend of commercial, retail and/or residential space, in addition to “civic and community” areas. The northern portion of the site has been reserved for DHS office space and parking – a move made to sweeten the deal for the Feds, no doubt (more on that in a bit). Meanwhile, the historic St. Elizabeths Hospital, its new 435,000-square foot secondary building and John Howard Cemetery on the grounds would be retained.

The Plan also includes provisos for a cohesive link to the two local Metro stations and MLK corridor, where the City is betting on seeing an influx of retailer and developer interest.

On the western campus, DHS’ proposed relocation would include the construction of new, secure headquarters meant to accommodate roughly 14,000 government employees. If and when the project moves forward, it would mark the first time the federal government has ever crossed the Anacostia River, according to Congresswoman Norton. DHS currently lacks a consolidated headquarters, with offices at different locations throughout the city.

The impact of such large workforce on the environment, Metro capability and local traffic is still being evaluated, while the inclusion of the site in the proposed southeast street car system is still a possibility.

The District will submit the Plan to the City Council next month with a decision to follow in December. A Request for Proposals regarding the DHS parking lots and offices is planned for December as well, the District hopes to break ground on that phase of the project in the first half of 2009. Norton described development as moving along an “unusually fast track.”

The Plan is the product of more than 5 years of parallel development by the General Services Administration (GSA) and the District. According to Norton, it's has been included in the Bush administration's budget for three straight years, but has only been able to move forward, ironically enough, since the Democrats came to power in Congress. The challenge now lies in convincing that same body that moving DHS to another, federally-owned piece of property in Southeast would be beneficial and, most importantly, cheap. It would appear that the future of both East and West hinges on a decision by the federal government; if DHS settles on another location or Congress blocks the site, it could be a deal breaker for both halves of St. Elizabeths.

“There will be great potential here if we continue to do it right. The city and the government will work closely together, as we have on projects in the past,” said Norton.

A budget for the project is forthcoming, and Norton will be holding a town hall meeting tonight from 5:30 - 7:30 PM at the UPO /Petey Greene Community Service Center (2907 MLK Jr. Ave SE) to disclose more details and listen to questions from the public. Another community meeting will be held at St. Elizabeths on October 28th.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Construction Underway at 1015 Half Street

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Concrete poured into the ground in Southeast last Friday as construction at 1015 Half Street got underway. A product of a partnership between Opus East, LLC and Prudential Real Estate Investors, 1015 will feature 442,000 square feet of office space, complemented by 21,000 square feet of ground- level retail, in the thick of Washington DC's burgeoning Capitol Riverfront neighborhood.

Aiming for March 2010 completion, the 10-story, WDG-designed building boasts a 2-story lobby, 8 1/2' ceilings, and views of the Capitol and Anacostia River. The development team also plans a green identity, employing recycled building materials, water-saving plumbing features, a 60% green roof and taking advantage of the site's proximity to the Navy Yard Metro to achieve a LEED Silver certification. Opus East is serving as the general contractor for the project.

The site may be notable to longtime District residents as the former home of the Nation nightclub and, for those with longer memories, the Capitol Ballroom. The project was initially under the control of Potomac Investment Properties, which turned it over to Opus in July of last year for a pre-bailout price of $41.5 million. The project is currently budgeted at $135 million - a small figure compared to what the development team stands to gain, if 1015 and the glut of other Capitol Riverfront projects currently underway can weather the economic downturn.

2000 Wilson Finally Making Rubble in Clarendon

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2000 Wilson, the oft-delayed Clarendon apartment complex, has finally taken its first steps towards fruition. The Taco Bell franchise and abandoned Dr. Dremo's occupying the site are now being demolished to make way for 141 rental apartments and 36,000 square feet of ground floor retail.

Developer Elm Street Development initially planned construction late last year of what was first intended to be a condominium project (that's just so 2006), but now forecasts an open-ended 2010 completion target. Dr. Dremo's, the beloved neighborhood bar that used to stand on the site, closed its doors last January in anticipation of imminent demolition.

With that out the way and approval from the Arlington County Board locked, the WDG-designed project can now move forward unimpeded. The development is bounded by Wilson Boulevard, North Rhodes Street, Clarendon Boulevard, and North Courthouse Road, but confusingly carries a street address of 2001 Clarendon Boulevard despite the 2000 Wilson title; meaning the next hurdle for the project lies at the feet of the marketing team.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Industry Insight: Sami Kirkdil and Meral Iskir of SK&I Architectural Design Group

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Since its' inception in 1999, the SK&I Architectural Design Group has been one of the go-to names for striking, sophisticated architecture in the DC area. With mixed-use projects like Wisconsin Place in Friendship Heights, Union Row in Columbia Heights and an upcoming slate that includes Lot 31 in Bethesda, and the Washington Gateway and Constitution Square in NoMa, their designs will soon be more prominent than ever. Sami Kirkdil, President of SK&I, and Meral Iskir, Executive Vice President, took the time to sit down with DCMud and talk about their approach to architecture, the current effects of the housing market on an architectural firm, and what the District might look like a few years down the line.

How did you get your start in architecture?

MI: I originally studied back in Turkey and then studied again here at Catholic University. I’ve continued to work steadily since I initially came here 40+ years ago. I spent some years with CHK, then Sami and I started this firm. We’ve been doing all kinds of architectural projects and just working, working and working.

SK: I think my introduction to architecture was through my father’s friend – an architect friend. When I was a kid, he used to do sketches of buildings and give them to me, and that kind of intrigued me. I was basically good at math, science and art, so I thought, “Hey, this might be the thing for me” in high school. I knew what I wanted to do, so I went to college and have been practicing for the past 25 years.

I think that you are the most happy when you’re working hard and designing. Obviously, there’s a lot of red tape and a lot of things that you have to do, but designing and doing a project is the fun part of it. I think that’s what drives us towards the future. Somewhere along the line our specialty became mixed-use, residential design. In the last 8 or 9 years, we’ve done a lot of big residential projects. It was just the right time and the right place. There weren’t that many firms focusing on residential and we’ve had a head start on that game. We’ve grown from a two person firm to a 50+ person firm. We’ve kept that steady, but didn’t want to grow out of control and maybe lose the quality of our work.

What kinds of projects appeal to you personally and, by extension, your firm?

SK: Generally, our cup of tea is more complex projects that play in the urban realm, fit into the neighborhood and create a nice home for the people who live in it. There are always new ways to put together interpretive designs with the way buildings go together, basically.

How would you typify the developer /architect relationship? Are some harder to please than others?

SK: We might be a little different than a lot of other firms. I think our expertise is that we understand the development process as well the developers. Basically, what works and what doesn’t work. We can reason with them when it comes to what design ideas might propel them in a specific area. They don’t necessarily have to educate us; sometimes we try to guide them. We want to become their partners. We want to understand their theme and their dilemma. We want to give them an edge.

MI: Of course, our position allows us to work with different developers. This is kind of an advantageous position in the sense of understanding and thinking about a project through our own experience. It kind of enriches our understanding of what goes on in the market and allows us to show leadership through our designs. We’re not doing the architecture for ourselves, but for our clients. At the same time, we can control the quality and accomplish the best we can within the given conditions.

If you change one thing about the DC development process, what would it be?

MI: Getting to a better place where there is an appreciation for the architect’s efforts. That is lacking in general, as far as I’m concerned.

SK: Well, there are good things and bad things about building height. I think that’s one thing that would be good to look at. There are some instances where it creates a very walkable city. On the other hand, architecture becomes challenging when everything’s 13 or 14 stories. It couldn’t be a bad idea to have more height in some locations. I think, given that our resources are now more limited, we have to densify our cities. To me, densifying the city, outer suburbs, or Metro locations with higher height and higher density is probably something that would be good for Washington.

On that note, you built Union Row above a Metro station. What kind of challenges did that pose?

SK: Lots, actually. Part of the problem with that site was that it was an assemblage – a bunch of little pieces. But our real plight was the Metro tunnel running from 14th Street and curving down towards 13th Street. That part of the site we couldn’t actually build on. What we did was have the building’s shape follow the route and then we put our girders and columns right along it. We could only put two levels of parking there, while the rest was three levels. It was a long, lengthy process of getting approval from Metro and testing and excavation.

MI: In addition to that, we also had to provide access to the existing warehouses that were there – in addition to upgrading and renovating them. We tried to create a kind of plaza-like structure there. I think we were successful in the view from the main street and were able to manipulate the design in such a way that it gets your attention.

You have also been contracted for one of the largest projects in NoMa (Constitution Square). Can you give us a bit of insight into how NoMa might look in, say, 5 years?

SK: Well, instead of 5 years, let’s say 10 years. I think, potentially, people are wishing for the same thing that happened to Chinatown. We were there 9 years ago with Massachusetts Court at 4th and Mass and couple of other projects that did not go through. Today, if you look at Chinatown, they have all the nicest restaurants in the city. In a way, it’s surpassed DuPont, northwest Connecticut Avenue, in terms of pizazz. NoMa wishes that they’ll be seeing the same quality and caliber of that development. Obviously, the Verizon Center and all that retail is a big advantage and we want to see similar kinds of things in NoMa.

The project we’re doing is mixed-use – an office building, a hotel, a Harris Teeter grocery store and apartments. The hope is to create a critical base of retail, residential and office space, so that you’re not building up an area that shuts down at five o’clock. Since 2000, if you look at the city and our projects, we are trying to create a 24-hour living space that has a life cycle with offices and retail. You’re not necessarily commuting; you’re living, shopping and working in the same place. You’d hope that NoMa becomes that.






MI: I think the fundamental approach is understanding how neighborhoods and areas stay alive, rather than just a being a place to go to in the daytime and empty in the nighttime. I think they want a good foundation for a better future this time.

How much work do you do outside the metro area?

SK: We have done international work over the years and, if you look at our career, we’ve done all that stuff. If you look at the past 9 years, we were really busy and did not want to grow. We used to turn down almost 20% of the work that came in the door. We were cherry-picking the projects that we’d do. Obviously, circumstances have changed, so we’ll probably be looking at doing projects outside the area. We’ve done projects up and down the East Coast from Miami to Boston.

MI: We were involved with many projects outside the area, for example, Harbor East in Baltimore. We did an 18-story project there that was mixed-use – again, with retail.

How does the current economic situation affect an architecture firm?

SK: I’m sure the whole development world is living on fumes. Obviously, with the current financial market, there’s very little money available. There are two things going on. There are great projects that have secured financing to do private work; and there is some entitlement work that will go forward. People are hoping that the market will turn around and it’s that optimism that’s the driving force. I’m sure there will be a great opportunity to have any kind of product out there in a year or two. Once the economy turns back, the first people out of the gate will make out the best. Once the market steams up, you jump in to catch a piece of it. We have some clients that are in a cycle where they’ll be delivering in 2011, 2012, 2013 and they’re hopeful that their financing is intact. Other clients think the market is going to shrink. And it is shrinking because the capital behind what you can finance is zero. We are hearing it every day, it’s tough out there. We’re going to see a lot more competitive pricing. For the first time since we’ve opened our doors, we’re actually out there chasing RFPs.

MI: Generally, lots of architecture firms are actually shrinking. At the time, some of the other ones are looking abroad to the Middle East and so on. But everyone’s affected.

What was the most challenging project you’ve ever worked on?

SK: I think every project’s a challenge. Our specialty is – even though we’re a mid-size firm – we tackle really complex projects. One of our projects that’s under construction, Wisconsin Place, had basically three or four different teams. The garage was done by different architect and structural engineer and parts of the building were done by another architect and structural engineer, so there was a lot of interface coordination and collaboration between all these different teams. A “who does what?” type of deal, so Meral championed that effort and it took us a while. We had to wait for other firms to finish their work.

The other project we’re currently working on is going to be very complex - Lot 31 in Bethesda, which is now two parking lots across from Barnes & Noble. There was a very complicated entitlement process and we’re now full throttle in the design process. It’ll take a while to get it built because what we’re doing is, basically, taking Woodmont Avenue away [laughs]. We’ll be digging into the rock for five levels and building a column-free garage. Then, we’re doing a 9-story building on one side and a 5-story building on the other.

MI: Thinking about it while Sami was talking, I think every project has its’ own challenges. You have to try to design it in such a way that the building will look unique, but still serve the neighborhood and be able to get through the approval processes. You have to work with the contractors and combine with the developer’s needs to make the project as successful as it could be. I don’t want to sound conceited, but I think our experience is such that we are good listeners and can point any issues before they become a problem. It forces us to make every project a 360 degree success.

Every project has its’ own unique expectations and character. They’re like your children. Every one of them has a different personality and the challenge is having happy and successful children, in a certain sense.

If you could work on any project, what would it be? A dream project...

MI: Is there such a thing as a dream project? Human beings always change and what you liked yesterday could change tomorrow. When I look back at some of the projects I’ve done, I liked them then, but not necessarily today. At the time you might think of it as a dream project, but tomorrow you could always say, “Was it really?”

SK: It’s tough, but the kind of project that allows me to be wild and think freely is a dream project. That said I can’t design a house for myself because I’m my own worst critic. When it comes to designing your own thing, it’s not easy. I’m very deliberate and straightforward in designing projects for others. For myself, I’m terrible because I want to accomplish much more than I can handle – the program, the aesthetics, the budget. If you design something today and look back at it in a few months, you might say, “No, maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do.” Your tastes change. It’s a process that keeps your brain sharpened.
 

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