Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Kennedy Street Woes

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What could make a neighbor wistful about a large subsidized housing project that is planned for the site of a once historic building? A giant, trash-filled, oozing hole in the ground where the building once stood. One year after plans were released, Washington Communities Inc. (WCI) demolished a dilapidated, historic apartment building (pictured below) at 809 Kennedy Street in January to make way for a District-subsidized housing project. Shortly after demolition, neighbors notified authorities about a smelly, gray, leaking liquid left over after the building came down. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) investigated the property, gave the owner opportunity to respond, and is now fixing the problem with District contractors. District officials intend to file upwards of $10,000 in fines and costs for the muck-filled carcass that it was left to clean when the site was seemingly abandoned.

Michael Rupert, Communications Manager for DCRA, said his team is currently on site cleaning the mess left behind by the contractors, New System Demolition and Excavation, and will probably be busy for at least another three days. New System tore down the building, but quit before removing any of the debris when the property owners allegedly failed to pay for the demolition and cleanup. Since January, debris of brick, wire and metal have filled in the empty foundation. When the snow melted and rain came, the foundation filled with run-off, hence the ungodly smell filling the street.

Sadly, the owner tore down the 2-story, 16-unit apartment building, with some architectural significance, partially because DCRA required the demolition in response to complaints about derelict living conditions in the former housing project. The former landlord - owner of what the Washington Post called "one of the most troubled buildings in the city," and that has now left a rotting cesspool in its place - plans a 70-unit affordable housing project on site. Subsidized, presumably, with tax dollars. According to DC tax assessment records, WCI President, Richard Deeds has owned the property since May 2002. DCRA will recoup costs by placing a lien on the property, which will either be paid in any sale of the property or levied against next year's taxes, according to Rupert. Until the contractors complete draining the stagnant water and removing debris, the actual total cost is unclear.

WCI previously bought out the building's tenants following complaints of below-freezing temperatures from residents, critiques from the DC Council and a lack of funds of DCRA. Kind of makes you pine for the handsome building the city let them tear down without, it seems, much of a plan.

Washington, DC real estate development news

Dupont Trolley RFP Pulls Into the Station

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The District is seeking developers to utilize a neglected piece of prime real estate 20 feet below Dupont Circle. The Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development released an RFP today for the Dupont Trolley Station. Interested parties will have until June 3rd to submit a response, which would then go before the ANC for review and comment. The District had attempted to issue the RFP in December, but postponed in order to give the ANC more time to draft a statement of preferred development, now attached as guidelines for the RFP. Today's action indicates the District is looking for groups interested in using all or just sections of the underground station, but will select no more than two groups to use the area.

A previous RFP for the site devolved into a lawsuit that lasted long enough for (most) people to forget the tunnels existed. The newest RFP would be a lease between the District and the chosen team(s). Responses can be to develop either the entire sites (East Platform, West Platform and tunnels) or part of the site (East or West platform plus tunnels). The RFP suggests respondents consider the Creative DC Action Agenda and the Retail Action Strategy. Both planning tools seek to "stimulate creative use, support the creative economy and facilitate vital commercial areas."

Citing the desire for a "creative, yet sustainable use," the District makes it clear that projects should not come with ideas and empty coffers. "The District is not prepared to offer subsidy or financial assistance."

In February, the Dupont ANC2B submitted a statement to the DMPED that detailed their hopes for the future of the Dupont Underground. The ANC wants a development that "meets the needs of the present" without taking away to the potential for future use of the area as a transit station. The ANC added that the development needs to be safe and accessible to all DC residents and that the design should make the entrances more inviting. Referencing the likely application of the DC Arts Coalition for the Underground, the ANC indicated that an arts use would be acceptable as long as the project could demonstrate necessary funding for development and upkeep. At the end of the day, the conclusion was just about any use is better than the vacant state of the property at the moment.

The RFP has come back to the forefront, thanks in part to the Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground, spearheaded by architect Julian Hunt and the Washington Project for the Arts. Along with several other arts groups and galleries in the area, the group proposes a new gallery space below Dupont along the P Street near many existing above-ground galleries. In January the Arts Coalition indicated it would compete for the RFP when it is released; now we will see just who their competition will be.

Washington, DC real estate development news

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

20 M Street SE Secures Booz Allen Hamilton Lease

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The underdog southeast ballpark neighborhood has something to boast about today: 20 M Street, SE secured a lease for nearly 30,000 s.f. from Booz Allen Hamilton, bringing building occupancy up to 70%. While other potential projects sit as big gaping holes, Lerner Enterprises and WDG Architect's 20 M Street has scored a series of victories in snagging leases from the General Services Administration, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and now from a coveted private entity. Both the BLM and Booz Allen Hamilton will move into the neighborhood this year; Booz Allen Hamilton will be the cool kids on the top floor.

The 10-story, 190,000-s.f. office building contains four levels of below-grade parking, 10,971 s.f. of retail space and was the first LEED Gold certified building for core and shell in the District. The building sits across from the Navy Yard Metro and a block away from Nationals Park. Hmm, who wants to bet how many season tickets Booz goes in for this year?


Washington, D.C. real estate development news

Unforgettable: The New Alexandria Skyline

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The forgettable glimpse you see of Alexandria today as you whiz by on the beltway could one day be transformed into a striking world of glass towers, reaching upwards of 30 stories into the northern Virginia skyline. A new mixed-use project, pending approval, would create a defining skyline for the City of Alexandria, add a revitalized metro entrance at Eisenhower Avenue and create over a million s.f. of retail and residential on what is currently a surface parking lot. Hoffman Towers, the residential and retail portion of Hoffman Town Center, will go for review before Alexandria's various planning entities throughout April. The future building sites are on the 11th and 12th block of Eisenhower Avenue next to the metro station.

The Hoffman Company's creatively named Hoffman Towers will deliver an estimated 1,200 new rental apartments and upwards of 70,000 s.f. of retail, likely to include a 50,000 s.f. Harris Teeter grocery store. The plan for Block 11 is one massive building with two towers: the east tower will reach 22 stories and the west tower, adjacent to the metro, will rise 31 stories. The west tower will measure in at 370 feet in height, making it one of the tallest building in the DC area. Five levels of below-grade parking will provide over 700 spaces. A surface parking lot will also remain on part of the block to serve the grocer - apparently state utility power lines overhead render the site unusable for construction. Block 12 will also house a behemoth, a 28-story building with nearly 800 below-grade and surface parking spaces.

Designed by Davis Carter Scott Architects, the towers received a bit of a beating from the Design Review Board (DRB) in July and November 2009. The DRB critiqued the massing of the buildings as "boxy" with all three towers at the same height and commented on the problems with the depth and frontages of proposed retail. Particularly problematic was the design for the Harris Teeter, which planners described as not being "fully integrated with the project or the Eisenhower East neighborhood" because the store faced inward, rather than fronting a main street. But since then, the developer and architects seem to have made sufficient changes to warrant a DRB approval and move forward with planning review.

The planning staff report describes the updated design as "slim, very tall towers" of masonry and glass. Though originally designed to be broader and shorter and uniform in height, the planning staff requested for a less boxy design. To avoid the "plateau" appearance, the new articulation provides a gradual step down in building height as the block moves away from the Metro. Staff said the buildings will be a "symbol of the transformation of the Eisenhower valley."

In exchange for height and density exceptions, the developer is providing 50,000 s.f. of residential space for upwards of 50 units of affordable housing. Additionally, Hoffman will donate $3.3 million to the city's affordable housing coffers. The developers have agreed to aim for LEED certification or a similar standard set by the Green Globes program.

Hoffman recently reached an agreement with WMATA on the Eisenhower Metro improvements. The development rights for the station belong to the Hoffman family, who in 1978 gave to WMATA the property that became the Eisenhower Metro. WMATA will handle station improvements through existing grants. Hoffman will redesign the area on the surface, including reworking the bus and taxi circulation and relocating the Kiss & Ride lot. Design and construction of Eisenhower Station Square, a large open public space adjacent to the new and improved Metro station, will be a joint effort.

New skyline, new residential, new metro, oh my! It sounds too good to be true, and odds are the project is a long way off. You can continue to blink as you pass Alexandria on your commute.

Alexandria Virginia real estate and development news

Design by Democracy

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If it’s true that two cabinet members, 31 congressmen, 12 senators and 14 judges are counted among the most celebrated residents at the The Westchester, at 4000 Cathedral Ave NW, it may also be said that the 79-year-old co-op is steeped in democracy.


In the spring of 2008, when the time came to consider restoring and renovating the structure’s storied interior – its public spaces that had been redesigned once before by mid-century design doyenne Dorothy Draper – the Westchester’s board of directors elected to put democracy in action and recruit hundreds of member-owners in the decision-making process. With four distinct buildings, each with its own lobby and personality, the project was to be massive in scope and scale. Defined by elements both from the 1930s (steel fanlight windows; etched art deco elevator doors) and from Draper’s reign in the 1950s (wing chairs; crown sconces; a broad brass interior railing), the Westchester was also saddled with more random components such as an outdated mechanical unit in a closet. A June 2009 press account of the arrest of former State Department official and alleged Cuba spy Walter Ken Myers and his wife, long time residents of the property, reported that the building had “shabby carpets,” something the 13-member board of directors took quite seriously in its restoration/ renovation plans. With a preservation architect hired to mastermind a plan, efforts to redefine The Westchester without sacrificing its historical elegance would require a marshaling of innovative forces, and more than just a simple nod to its back story.

Democracy and Demography

“When we started the process, we started out with a town hall meeting,” said board member Susan Stine, noting that the eldest member of the diverse Westchester community is 102 and at the other end of the spectrum, a brand new baby is about to be born. “We showed historical photographs; we talked about the process and how you make decisions, and we talked about our guiding principles (these included maintaining architectural integrity, enhancing the feeling of community, and effecting sustainable improvements into the future).” Stine, principal of architecture and planning firm Redteam Strategies and a Westchester resident, is no stranger to commercial design and understood that “a lot of times in large companies, people don’t get the sense that they have any choice. With something as dramatic as their lobbies, they really want a lot of choice,” she said.

Feasting on Feedback

Stine admits she and the board learned a great lesson when making their initial presentation to the member-owners. “It was too much information,” she said, noting member-owners were overwhelmed by the process that included lobbies, laundry areas, basements and management offices. “We thought we were showing them a kind of concept that would go out over years, and they thought too many decisions had already been made without their input.” Extremely grateful for the feedback, the board took a step back and decided it was just as important to communicate to the owner-members and get their buy-in as it was to adhere to history and make everything beautiful. Recalling to the unfortunate carpet issue mentioned in the press, Stine realized that “everyone focuses around carpet…in my career I’ve always noticed that it’s a big decision, so we narrowed things down to just the carpet, and knew once people understood that, other decisions would be much easier,” she explained.

Surveys, workshops and focus groups soon followed, replete with old Westchester photographs strategically placed in elevators (part of the education process) and image boards on easels that reflected carpet patterns like damask or Moorish, along with color palettes, and explanations of the design concepts behind each pattern. For example, the concept behind the Moorish pattern was interpreted as “elements found in our architecture such as the porte-cochere - inspired by existing wrought iron details in entry gates, railing and grilles.” Additionally, every household received five dots they could spend in any way they wanted, Stine said, “…the dots showing the strength of their preferences.” Describing the process as “fascinating,” she said it was done over two days where residents visited the image boards, sometimes repeatedly, and got to inquire of the board about why things were done the way they were. They conferred with their neighbors, their families, and as a community, and then each household applied its dots to what it liked best. (Moorish won!)

Casting an eye to sustainability, Stine noted that the original concept was to replace carpeting with stone, but that the cost was determined to be prohibitive. To that end, she said member-residents were also concerned about overall funds, thinking they would be charged a special assessment for any changes to public spaces. Another town hall meeting addressed the issue. The chosen carpet will come from South Africa, it will be made of durable wool and nylon, on a green pad with low-or no-VOC adhesives, and have a projected 25-year lifespan.

With work scheduled to begin in July, and paint and upholstery choices on deck in its town hall design process, Stine said that The Westchester board – which also appointed resident committees for the project – is fortunate to have distinguished members of the architecture, design and communications industries on those committees. “We have so much (resident) talent and commitment here. We’d go on trips to the design center,” she recalled, affirming “you couldn’t buy” this kind of personal investment.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bromptons Comes Back

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The Bromptons at Cherrydale, a 22-unit, mixed-use townhouse condo project at 3800 Lee Highway, is making a comeback - no small feat for a project that was built in 2005, heavily litigated, nearly taken down, then built again. The Ed Peete Company began construction in 2005, soon finishing the townhouse portion of the site, but Arlington County found multiple building code violations in the multi-family portion and ordered the building torn down. Despite that, the building sat abandoned, until now.

Arlington County issued a stop work order to the developer back in 2006 - and stop it did - and the unfinished hulk sat forsaken, forcing the County to issue a demolition order in November of 2007. Peete appealed the order, received an extension, but still missed the extended demolition deadline, causing the County to file suit to enforce the order - or confiscate and sell the property. But in May of 2009, Peete reached an agreement with Arlington to post a $250,000 escrow account with the County and remediate, and in December of 2009 began replacing balconies and windows to bring the structure back into building code compliance. And talk about deadlines - the agreement stipulated that the County had to the right to demolish the whole building if strict construction deadlines were not met.

According to Steve MacIsaac, Arlington County Attorney, the original construction problems were "innumerable." "There were serious structural problems with the building. The building facade created so much stress on the front it could have come down." MacIsaac says that the frame has been structurally reinforced, with new brickwork on the facade, and that county building inspectors are working with the Ed Peete Company - now officially R15,


LLC
- to ensure a code-friendly building. "The building will be safe," MacIsaac reassures us.

It all started so well, with the building selling out in 2004, a great year to be in condo sales. At least the Cherrydale saga is expected to end later this year when the building completes. The wood-framed condominium will offer 22 units on floors 2 through 4, with 4 commercial spaces on the ground floor, located next door to the fire station. At a minimum, there will be one less eyesore on the morning drive, and commuters won't have to worry about real estate crashing down on them. Well, at least not literally.

Arlington VA real estate development news

Camp Springs Eternal

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If there are no sadder words than "what might have been," many planners must be feeling a bit melancholy these days, not the least of which would be developers of the Town Center at Camp Springs in Prince George's County. If ambition were reality, the Branch Avenue Metro would have joined other metro-oriented developments like Silver Spring or Clarendon, or maybe at least Twinbrook, but then Father Economy intervened. And though several residential projects have delivered, the promise of retail to round out the community is unfulfilled, and the site closest to WMATA's vast surface parking lots remains a sandbox.

In 2008, Archstone secured approval for a massive 19-acre mixed-use development, the Town Center at Camp Springs. The Town Center plans called for 801 rental apartments and 65,359 s.f. of retail to attract young professionals and employees of several nearby federal facilities. Though groundbreaking was supposed to begin this past fall, like so many projects, the Town Center remains another undeveloped Metro site, another victim of the times.

Peter Jakel, a Communications Manager for Archstone, told DCMud, "the project is planned for a future construction start, but we have not yet established a definite start date." An all-too-familiar chorus for a promising metro-oriented development.

In 2008, Archstone Senior Vice President Rob Seldin described his project as a sort of tipping point for the County, that drawing in young professionals and their entrepreneurial spirit would mean jobs and a new tax base. Seldin explained that, historically, "in PG County, it is typically very difficult to have housing approved, so really, what's been happening is these highly educated, highly skilled, highly compensated workers have been systematically disenfranchised, so they go to Arlington." The horror. Camp Springs would, according to Seldin, offer the same Arlington appeal to the young professional demographic and draw them into Prince George's County. But now that many college-educated, potential-homebuying, young professionals are unemployed and living at home, the Town Center at Camp Springs target market has dwindled.

The project, when begun, will deliver in three phases. Ideally, the first phase will offer 416 units, a 7,000 s.f. private club house with pool, followed by the second phase with similar amenities and 385 units. Phase three will be the retail space, all designed by The Preston Partnership, LLC. What year this will happen, no one seems willing to guess.

Other nearby metro-centric projects have fared better. Metropolitan Development's Metroplace at Town Center, situated between Auth Way and Suitland Parkway, began leasing its 397 rental units in 2006, and report being 92% leased. Across from Metroplace are two more residential projects, Chelsea Way and Tribeca, both developed by Wood Partners. Without the added value of retail from Town Center, however, Camp Springs will continue to be relegated to the category of sprawl rather than high-density metro-oriented development.

Prince George's County real estate and development news

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Feds Seek Lots More Space for Homeland Security Despite St. Elizabeths

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After all the speeches, ceremonial shoveling and $3.4 billion tab, St. Elizabeths, the largest federal construction project since the Pentagon, will not actually serve as the ultimate uniter of the disjointed Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A core 14,000 DHS personnel, just under half of its DC area employees, will relocate to 4.5 million s.f. of space in the massive federal project, also future home of the Coast Guard headquarters. And yet on April 1st, the General Services Administration (GSA) will issue a request for proposals (RFP) for DHS - 1.1 million s.f. of leased space in the DC metro area to consolidate employees.

In her statement yesterday to the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security Elaine Duke, Undersecretary for Management at Homeland Security, said the DHS currently occupies over 7 million s.f. of office space in 46 locations throughout the DC area. Currently over 180 leases are set to expire between now and 2015. Bob Peck, Commissioner of GSA's Public Buildings Service, said the consolidation will maintain the four federally owned properties - St. Elizabeths, the Nebraska Avenue temporary HQ, the Secret Service Building and space in the Ronald Regan Building - as well as two standing long-term leases. The RFP will add another one to three locations for which new leases will be awarded in 2011 with employees moving in two to three years thereafter.

The space at St. Elizabeths is a significant step towards consolidating some of those widespread agencies, but it is far from being the panacea. DHS's new southeast HQ will serve as an "epicenter for DHS leadership, operations coordination, policy and program management." Everyone else will be reconfigured into government-owned buildings and long-term leased properties, with the hopes that an agency spread across more than 40 properties can be consolidated into a cozier 7 to 10 locations.

Though it is hard to imagine that a Pentagon- esque project is already insufficient to meet the needs of the agency for which it is being built, over-sized, empty commercial space in the DC area will get a boost. Properties like southwest's Constitution Center with its 1.3 million s.f. of space, blast-proof windows and in-house water filtration system leap to mind. There might even be available space in NoMa. Mike McGill, spokesperson for GSA in the National Capital Region, said the RFP does not require all 1.1 million s.f. of space to come from one location, smaller parcels may be eligible for consideration. GSA "is not against new construction, but we realize there is a lot of vacant existing space" in this climate. (We had heard the same rumor).

The new DHS site is funded partially through $650 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In total, the Recovery Act allocated $200 million to DHS and $450 million to GSA for construction of a new DHS headquarters at St. Elizabeths, $162 million of which will go to the Coast Guard facility alone.

Washington, DC real estate development news

Friday, March 26, 2010

H Street Goes Big

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Score yet another win for H Street. The dare-we-say trendy neighborhood that is sometimes maligned for its beleaguered street front, but just as often loved for its gritty resurgence, is closer to getting one of its biggest projects to date. The H Street Connection, a 433,000 s.f. residential and retail project that will fill two full blocks along H Street, cleared a major hurdle in its path toward District approval. Developer Parcel Seven Associates (a.k.a. Rappaport Companies), has been given approval recently by the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), an event that is certain to make its stock go up when the project goes before the Zoning Commission (ZC) for review.

Designed by architects Torti Gallas, the new project will likely get a zoning hearing this summer. The ANC's support will be given weight during the hearings, which come now after more than two years of conversations between the developers and the community. A development of this size will certainly be transformative, but its larger effect may be suturing the voguish Atlas District with the still struggling corridor to the east, roughly from 3rd Street to 10th Street, where major developments are planned but seem on indefinite hold.

The H Street Connection's 52,000 s.f. of retail and 346 to 423 rental units will fit into the space between 8th and 10th Streets NE, replacing a one-story strip mall built in 1987 and occupied by stores like GameStop and RiteAid. The community gave a big thumbs down to the iteration first presented in November 2007; a letter from the ANC described the design as a "monolithic contemporary facade." The development team has since adjusted the design to create the appearance of multiple buildings more in line with the "rhythm and architectural style" of the surrounding neighborhood. In keeping with the community's requests, the massing will sit in the center and rear of the new structure, allowing the sides to step down to better match the surrounding two and three-story townhouses. The developer is asking for a density of of 5.0 FAR, less than the 6.0 allowed in the PUD zoning application.

Below-grade parking will add 340 residential spaces and 65 retail spaces, with garage entrances off 8th and 10th Streets. According to ANC 6A Commissioner, Dr. Drew Ronneberg, "the city has a strong interest in having the site host 100 additional city-owned parking spaces that would serve retail establishments outside the building."

Among other concessions, the developers agreed to a laundry list of community benefits to mitigate traffic congestion and encourage "green" living. The project will have to meet LEED silver requirements, though does not have to seek actual certification. There will be bicycle spaces aplenty in the parking garage, and lockers and showers for retail employees who bike to work. The developers agreed to provide one $20 SmartTrip Card to all initial and future residents up to $15,000, to fund up to $45,000 for a bike share station on undefined public property (quite a bit less than the Union Station bike hub cost), provide car sharing spaces, and pay for a one-time, one-year car sharing membership for initial occupants to max out at $19,000. We can see the marketing materials already.

Ronneberg said the ultimate goal behind the community amenities was to "help catalyze...the development of H Street" and that after hammering out the amenities over the past six months "there's certainly nothing major the ANC asked for that did not make it into the package." Chip Glasgow of Holland and Knight, attorney for the developers, said "we have been working with the ANC for a couple of years and it has turned out to be a very good process. We are very pleased with the result...and people are excited."

Glasgow indicated he hopes to be in front of Zoning in April or May and to have a hearing "sometime this summer." As for a timeline thereafter, he would not speculate, though Ronneberg suggested a 2012 start would be the earliest the community would expect anything.

Washington, DC real estate and development news

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Next Stop: Bikestation

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Great buildings often serve to rouse us from our torpor; “WAKE UP! PAY ATTENTION!” No building does this more grandly than a great train station. Emerging into the grand hall of Union Station, the space is like a fanfare of trumpets announcing the king’s arrival. In the 1960s and 70s just as our cities fell into disrepair, so did many of their great train stations. Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station was torn down to make way for a modern sphincter of a train station. Our own Union Station was in jeopardy of a similar fate for many years. Washington was lucky to wake up from that fever dream with Union Station intact. Stations say volumes about the health of a city, more than a remote airport ever could. And so it is quite exciting that an important and beautiful new station has opened in Washington.


Last October, Washington’s first Bikestation opened at the west end of Union Station. Developed by Mobis Transportation Alternatives and designed by one of Washington’s most innovative architecture firms, KGP Design Studio, the diminutive, 1700 square foot kiosk has great ambitions: to remake Washington’s transportation infrastructure. This Bikestation, the first of its kind on the East Coast, is the beginning of what advocates hope will become a network of similar stations across the city.

You’ve heard these promises before—probably from a shabbily dressed, middle-aged man with granola stuck in his beard. But this time the message is delivered by Washington’s sexy, triathlete mayor. The Bikestation is not merely some utopian effort to reduce traffic, or our dependence on foreign oil, or the distance between our asscheeks—although it will accomplish all these.

The Bikestation solves what urban planners call the “last mile” problem. In New York, the average distance between subway stations is just over a half mile, about three Manhattan blocks. In Washington, because of building-height restrictions, our population is more spread out. Washington’s Metro was designed with a station every mile and a quarter, roughly the distance between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Most American’s won’t walk across the room to change the channel. The rule of thumb for planners is that American’s won’t walk more than quarter mile for anything. So this leaves much of DC hopelessly remote for anyone not behind the wheel of a car.

Enter the Bikestation. With covered parking spaces for 150 commuters’ bicycles, lockers, restrooms, changing rooms, and a small bike repair and rental shop, it contains everything one needs to travel that last mile, as long as that last mile is within a mile radius of Union Station. So if you’re headed to a Senate subcommittee hearing on the obesity epidemic in America, you can grab a bike at Union Station and pedal over in less time than it would take a cabbie to navigate the barricades on Capitol Hill.


Washington’s Bikestation is far more than a noble urban idea; it is also an exquisite jewel of a building. Waiting expectantly at the west end of Union Station’s grand beaux arts facade, it’s overturned prow, all glass and steel, looks like the Acela has pulled in on a side track. One boards the building midway along its fuselage, just a few dozen paces from the top of the Metro escalator. If the exterior is a glass boat, the inside is all boat too--unadorned steel structure and rigging. Its louvered hull of a roof is suspended by three massive steel keels spanning stem to stern. All the glass makes the interior feel larger than it appears from the outside.

Each of the glass louvers opens to allow breezes to wash through the building, carrying the sun’s heat away. The glass is fritted with white ceramic lines to reflect much of the sun’s heat away from the interior and reduce the greenhouse effect, a risky gambit in Washington’s August swelter. The building is certain to become an example of high-performance, passive sustainable design, but we won’t know for another few months whether it is an example of success or failure.

Nattering historic preservationists may be scandalized by this sleek object’s proximity to Daniel Burnham’s beaux arts masterpiece, but KGP’s strategy is straight from the National Trust’s playbook: make the new distinct from the old while respecting the scale of the historic building. From the west, looking at the broad side, the Bikestation looks strangely at home against the backdrop of Burham’s ornate portico. Tilted and curved, it takes a moment to realize that the west wall of the Bikestation echoes the exposed roof trusses on the end walls of Burnham’s unpretentious concourse building to the north of the more ornate main building.

Others will complain that the building’s $4 million budget is wildly overpriced considering a shipping container would have done the job. In fact, $3.2 million of the budget was funded by grants from the Federal Highway Administration, which views the project as a critical experiment to gauge the viability of bicycle transportation in American cities. Most other Bikestations—all on the west coast—are little more than sheds and reflect the attitudes of the car culture toward bicycling. This investment in this Bikestation gives Washington its best chance of establishing the bicycle as a critical facet of Washington’s transportation network.

As DC plans other Bikestations, we should hope that they continue to ennoble them with such great architecture. KGP’s building is not only a test case for bicycling in Washington, it is a test case for ambitious, modern, sustainable design in Washington. Hopefully both will succeed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Giant Mess of Greenbelt Station

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If it continues on its current course, the planned, $2 billion Greenbelt Station development may well go down as one of the biggest - though certainly one of many - debacles of mixed-use, high-density construction in the region.

Greenbelt Station is the brainchild of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and the late A.H. Smith Jr. whose estate still owns most of the land that hugs the beltway just south of where I-95 blends into the beltway.

It was Smith's father who first began mining the land around the (then) rail road tracks in 1916 and created the asphalt plants that supplied the I-495 portion of the Capitol Beltway the raw materials that built it.

In 1996, WMATA announced that it would be redeveloping its part of the land adjacent to the Metro. Smith Jr. approached Metro about combining their efforts and creating a ginormous, high-density, townhouse and shopping development. Lessard Architectural Group was brought in to create a site plan, showing the nuts and bolts of how the separately-owned portions of the development could link together. And with that, the ill-fated Greenbelt Development was born.

For his part of the project, Smith took on a partner, developer Daniel Colton. Together they formed GB Development to develop the South Core and, until 2007, their townhouse/retail/multi-family residential project seemed to be on track for a 2008 groundbreaking. But then things got messy.

The development was supposed to be the apotheosis of a from-scratch, mixed-use community, with retail, entertainment, office space, hotel, and literally thousands of new homes in the heart of Prince George's County.

Designed by SK&I, the 240-acre parcel was to be split between a South Core of Pulte Homes townhouses and a North Core consisting of 2.3 million s.f. of office and retail space, plus 2,200 new homes. Built between neighborhoods where pickup trucks populate the driveways of unassuming one-story homes, and where there is no architecture to speak of, the development would replace a large mining operation still in use, a large surface parking lot, and at least some of the forested hills - with died-in-the-wool neocontemporary suburbanism at a Metro station.

But then everything that could go wrong, did. And today Greenbelt Station finds itself tangled in news of bankruptcy, allegations of fraud, dissolving partnerships, and inaction. Assistant Planning Director for the City of Greenbelt, Terri Hruby, tells DCMud that as far as she knows, the Smith portion of the development is "basically on hold," adding that to date "what's been approved has been a concept plan and one portion of the townhouse site plan. Another plan has been submitted, but hasn't gone anywhere."

In the northern part of Smith's parcel, Urban Design Supervisor Steve Adams, from the Prince George's County Planning Department, says that his department has "heard through the grapevine now and then about various commercial enterprises that might be trying to get something going in the northern part," but adds skeptically that, "nothing has come in to date."

Hruby speculates that "with the financial times being what they are," it's unlikely movement is going to happen in any part of the development any time soon and says that "there are still over-arching issues the developer needs to address." Like how to get someone to finance a gargantuan new suburban development project, for instance.

Bottom line: It's unclear if the developers even have the financing they need to move forward and they won't be getting a green light from planners unless they can make assurances that they are financially viable enough to follow through with road improvements and other existing land covenants.

This all brings us to the question: Who's developing this mixed-use masterpiece, anyway? On paper at least, the developer for the Smith parcel is Metropark LLC. But who are the entities behind Metropark? That's a question that leaves even city and county planning officials scratching their heads.

In December of 2007, Smith died at the age of 74, leaving the project jointly in the hands of his estate and with his business partner, Daniel Colton.

According to a 2008, WUSA News 9 Now report, Patrick Ricker, a developer working with Colton on the Greenbelt Station development, became the subject of an FBI raid aimed at high-level officials with ties to fancy development contracts. That same report revealed that Colton had once served time in prison for bank fraud and that the Greenbelt Station Development itself had also become part of the FBI's investigation.

After the fallout, Colton filed for bankruptcy in 2009, severed his ties to the project, and left the community at large even more exasperated and confused.

Hruby can tell us that original partner in the townhouse project south of the tracks, Pulte Homes, is now officially out of the project, but says that "there have been several town home developers and I don't know who the current players are."

Edward J. Murphy, Town Administrator for the adjacent Berwyn Heights community responded in much the same way, saying that as far as their town planners know, "the developer for the entire Smith project hasn't changed," but "the people that run the development have."

Murphy was equally fuzzy on details about who's now running Metropark LLC, which is not so surprising when you take into account that since 2006, at least nine different partners and LLC's have been cited as partners in the joint Smith-Metro Greenbelt Station project.

Now it's time for some more bad news: the saga over the Smith family parcel is matched on the WMATA land, where developers are suing Metro for backing out on an agreement that would have allowed Greenbelt Ventures the rights to develop the Greenbelt Station Towne Centre.

For its part, WMATA representatives have failed to respond to DCMud's inquiries into where its part of the development stands now. When a public agency won't return your phone call about very public project, assume the worst.

Maryland Real Estate and Development News

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Unamusing Dupont Follies

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Five Dupont townhouses, vacant since 1998, got another zoning hearing on their fate today, and may actually be near approval. Some blame the cantankerousness of DC real estate tycoon Morton Bender, who obtained the property 1988 through his N Street Follies (NSF), first planning the site as an office, then as residential, and now a hotel. Throughout it all, the site has had a history of community opposition, law suits and copious ill will.

Recent spurts of progress, such as approval for a planned 98-room hotel from the Dupont Circle Conservancy, have been sullied by bouts of reticence as the project team sought repeated delays in scheduled zoning and historic reviews. Fear not Dupont, something will give in the ongoing saga of N Street Follies. The Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) just completed a hearing on the case and, pending additional documentation and responses, will issue a decision on June 8th; the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) will likely issue a decision this spring as well. Just one problem: the neighboring Tabard Inn is in a fight to the death against the planned hotel, which would allegedly diminish the quaint charm and revenue of the boutique inn.

Andrulis Janezich Architects, the latest in a series of architects to have worked on the NSF plan, presented a design that will leave the historic townhouses at their current height, but will add a five-story rear addition, bringing the building's height to 57 ft., short of the maximum height of 65 ft. The architect says the planned rear addition will not be visible from the street; though the street is not what concerns Tabard. The hotel would have a 3.99 FAR (the max is 4.0) and will occupy 87% of the lot.

An Office of Planning (OP) staff report indicated that the "mass is broken up by a 2,400 s.f. interior courtyard, which is enclosed with a glass curtain wall," and recommended approval. The Tabard team naturally challenged the helpfulness of the courtyard from the perspective of the street. But since originally filing an application, the team has reduced the number of parking spots from 98 to 58 and may be compelled to reduce that number further by the BZA. NSF argued that the proposed design has been scaled down and designed "with the Tabard in mind," though comments from BZA members trended toward skepticism on that score. Ultimately, the NSF team pointed to approvals by the OP staff report and the HPO staff report, suggesting that the BZA follow suit.

Represented by Arent Fox, the Tabard argued that the height of the proposed building, especially the rear addition, would dwarf the neighboring inn, blocking natural light to the outdoor dining area, parts of the indoor dining room and to guest rooms facing the new structure, making some "unrentable." Citing business concerns, Jeremiah Cohen, the General Manager of the Tabard Inn, said that the outdoor patio with its diffused natural light is a unique wedding venue; wedding business is about 15% of hotel's total revenue. Not to mention the lost customers and guests thanks to construction noise and dust should the project be approved. At least one BZA member noted that just because the NSF plan does not max out the allowable height and density does not mean the design is deferential or compatible with neighboring structures.

The BZA review was full of courtroom-style drama without the suspenseful sound effects of Law and Order (though it could have used some after more than a dozen hours of testimony). A June decision date, however, may not resolve anything. HPRB will likely issue a decision in May, but if BZA in denies the application, a new design may have to go back for HPRB review all over again. This battle might end, but the war is likely far from over.

Washington, DC real estate development news

Four Years Later, Arts District at Hyattsville Chugs Along

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Hyattsville in PG County is not exactly the center of "urban chic" in the DC Metro area, but a mixed-use project, lead by EYA with retail by StreetSense, is vying to stake a claim to being Maryland's H Street. Most of the residential in the West Village, the first phase of the Arts District at Hyattsville that began in 2006, has sold. After several years of threatening to do so, the development team this month broke ground on the retail element of the second phase, the East Village, and has signed on tenants: Tara Thai, Busboys and Poets and, most recently, Yes! Organic Market. Construction on the one-story retail element is scheduled to begin in earnest in May and to complete by fall 2010 with occupancy in late 2010 or spring 2011; construction on the East Village residential element is expected to begin late this year.

The $200 million Arts District is a new, 25-acre residential neighborhood off of Route 1 in PG County (a.k.a. Rhode Island Avenue in D.C.), just two miles from the District border and two miles from the University of Maryland. Jack McLaurin, a Principal at Lessard Group architects, said his firm tried to create a "depot main street architecture" for the project, hearkening back to old railroad towns, since a railroad line runs along the property. Lessard "tried to funk it up" to make the new project look like "someone had come in and revitalized an area that had been there for a long time." Faux adaptive reuse?

The project is delivering in two phases: the West and East Villages (i.e. East or West of Route 1). The West Village includes 132 townhouses, 10 of which are live-work space for artists, and the rehabilitated Lustine showroom, which serves as a community center with an art gallery and gym. Aakash Thakkar, a Vice President at EYA, said 102 of the residential units are settled, most are built, and the team "hopes to have it sold and completed by the end of 2010." To put it in perspective, sales began on the West Village in 2006.

The East Village will include 41,000 s.f. retail, 275 multi-family units and 183 townhouses. The project originally was to have fewer multi-family units, but EYA recently received approval from the Prince George's County Planning Board to add an additional 198 units in one, four-story building and to reduce by 21 the number of townhouses. Thakkar said at this time EYA has not decided whether the multi-family units will be rental or condos and that construction on the three buildings will not begin until early next year. The townhouses, however, should start sales as early as this April, with construction set to begin in the 3rd quarter of this year.

McLaurin said the West Village has more of an art deco feel than the updated design for the East village, where the team simplified the design to reduce costs. "No vinyl siding" the architect assured DCMud, but "we tried to work with interesting color combination with the brick and hardie panel." The multi-family buildings are broken up to look like a series of taller townhouses, and to keep with the depot idea, the multi-family buildings have space for ground floor retail or artists work spaces, with "larger window patterns" and "doors on ground level units." McLaurin said he wanted to create a "distinct" feel, so that people would know they were not in "anywhere U.S.A."

Guy Silverman, Managing Principal at StreetSense, said his company is the majority owner on the retail, but has been working closely with EYA so that the two developers are "very aligned...in terms of how we envision the Arts District." Silverman said this will be the first location for both Yes! Organic Market and Busboys and Poets and that the choice of Hyattsville "speaks volumes" about the project and the developers' efforts to create an urban neighborhood feel. Tara Thai is also signed on, bringing the total spoken-for retail space to 60%. StreetSense is now looking tenants like a yoga studio, a drop off dry cleaners, a small spa or maybe even an organic pet food store to fill the remaining space.

Hyattsville real estate development news

 

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