Friday, October 12, 2012

Designing Eden



Q&A with Ron Schneck of Square 134 Architects
By Beth Herman

As a mixed market rate and subsidized housing development, Eden Place at Beulah Crossing—with Phase 1 at 400-414 Eastern Avenue NE—in some ways has been seen as a bellwether of revitalized multifamily housing in D.C., but not for obvious reasons. DCMud spoke with Principal Ron Schneck of Square 134 Architects about the firm’s role in making aesthetics a key component of affordable housing.

DCMud: Tell us about the genesis of Eden Place at Beulah Crossing.

Schneck: Under the Fenty regime, there were a series of RFP’s put out to galvanize underutilized city-owned sites in the District. Washington Interfaith Network was involved with this one, specifically Beulah Baptist Church.

DCMud: What makes this housing project different?

Schneck: We chose an Arts and Crafts style. There’s always a site plan condition that’s governed by economics, and the problem with large townhome developments typically is you always fluctuate between designing individual town homes vs. a block of buildings that create one mass. The more material and colors that you can have at your disposal makes (the former) a lot easier.

DCMud: Tell us about the site.

Schneck: The existing site was public housing that had been abandoned for many years—a real blight on the community. The church identified the site, and we worked with two development groups: UrbanMatters Development Partners LLC and Denning Development, who partnered with Beulah Baptist Church—which was critical in convincing the community that this was something it needed. NCD Management was integral as they provided development and construction management.

DCMud: What is the time frame?

Schneck: Eden Place at Beulah Crossing is being developed in two phases, with the first broken up into two different buildings on Eastern Avenue NE. Part A of the first phase, along Eastern Avenue, has been completed and is occupied. Part B of Phase 1 is probably going to be finished by the end of the year if not sooner. There are to be 63, approximately 1,500 s.f. units altogether when Phase II along Dix Street NE and 61st Street NE is built (estimated completion 2013).

DCMud: Describe the interior space.

Schneck: Most are three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, and there is the gabled space. They’re big, inhabitable bedroom or playroom-type bonus spaces. These townhomes have really nice finishes: hardwood floors; brushed nickel; chrome; some with stainless steel; Energy Star appliances; nice interiors that are market rate. The first floor is contemporary open concept.

DCMud: Is it fair to say the neighborhood is undergoing a lot of revitalization, which doesn’t stop with Eden Place?

Schneck: There’s more development scheduled to go on around it—plans to take over abandoned structures.

DCMud: How do you frame this and your role in it?

Schneck: The reason I’m doing multifamily housing right now is we’ve more or less maxed out the suburbs. Everyone understands that they don’t want to live 60 miles away from where they work. That’s why the housing market is so strong in D.C. because everyone’s moving back into the city, and it’s not just young professionals anymore—it’s families. (The Office of Planning reports about 1,100 residents moving into the District each month.)

DCMud: So what kind of design gauntlet does this throw down for you?

Schneck: The challenge for architects is to try and find a language and a style that is appropriate for that new demographic, which is ‘the family in the city.’ Granted, this is not downtown, but it’s not suburban and also not urban. It’s that buffer area that I think we’re going to be seeing more and more of. People want to live in the city.

DCMud: Speaking of the city and its challenges, what area impresses you the most?

Schneck: I’m a big fan of Penn Quarter. When I first came to D.C. in 1996, the neighborhood did not exist or at the very least had nowhere near the vibrancy it has now. It reminds me that D.C. is a big, international city, and it happened so quickly that it’s now a dynamic area. Penn Quarter and Columbia Heights are the two neighborhoods that happened seemingly overnight. In a couple of years’ time, they have completely transformed and impacted the surrounding neighborhoods.

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