Thursday, December 03, 2009

Retail vs. Office Space Showdown on DC's H Street

An empty lot could become one of the first new commercial enterprises on the 1200 block of H Street NE, if the developer and the community can see eye to eye. I.S. Enterprises owns the lot and is applying to build a 4-story commercial building in the reemerging restaurant and arts district of H Street, but the developer has some appeasing to do before the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) gives a seal of approval. An October review before the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) was delayed 60 days to allow the developer time to work with the ANC, which had summarily opposed the planned structure. But with the 60 days up and another hearing scheduled next week, the project has yet to come back to the ANC with any changes or compromises.

The developer's plan is for a four-story building with ground floor professional services "such as investment and or insurance brokerage firms" with the top 3 floors set aside for the owner for office space. The lot is relatively small, so the owner is looking for zoning relief for density, seeking a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 3 rather than the permissible 2.5 FAR. The zoning requirements also stipulate that first floor ceiling heights come in at 14' to accommodate ground floor retail, but the owner would like to have 10'6" ground floor ceilings and no retail. In asking for these adjustments, I.S. Enterprise puts itself at the mercy of the ANC and the BZA, which must approve it, and can therefore mandate its standards.

According to ANC records, the organization sees the property as an opportunity to embrace the H Street Overlay and continue to develop uses favored by the community; they are unlikely to change their mind. The group strongly opposed the four story height arguing "all the other structures on the block are two stories." The ANC also objects to the overall design of the project stating "it does not reflect any of the architectural elements found on H Street." The ANC further objects the planned ground floor use, preferring retail. Though the ANC's approval is not required, the BZA will give weight to the ANC's position.

Washington DC real estate development news


Poopeepoo said...

Just build it already. There are a lot of bldgs on H that are four stories or higher! AND they're right next to two story bldgs! In this economy, if someone wants to build, let thm do it. It'll add variety. Trust me , this isn't Georgetown. There's all kinds of wired architecture on H. Look at the funky church with the two giant lion statues out front! Build this and they will come !!

IMGoph on Dec 3, 2009, 8:49:00 PM said...

agreed. h street is broken up enough with broken lots that claiming a uniform height doesn't make sense here.

of course, a 10 story building would make no sense, and i definitely don't want to see the remaining buildings that we do have torn down.

i think, though, if this building is well-designed, a 4-story building would not be a bad thing for the street.

Anonymous said...

Maybe make them build a ground-floor space that is more amenable to future retail use but, for chrissake, four stories is walk-up height. This is perfectly appropriate for the neighborhood and good for the city.

Anonymous said...

This "design" is just ugly. It looks like a kid did it with Legos.
If you're going to build something new, there's no reason to do this unless you're cheaping out.
The ANC is right that the building should reflect the historic architecture of H Street since the developer has the opportunity to do that.
And we need retail! Not ground level office space.

Brian White on Dec 4, 2009, 7:50:00 AM said...

I'm definitely in favor of some office space coming to H Street. this isn't what I want to see though. It's utterly without character. And why is the developer fighting 14' ceilings in the first floor? Who knows what use the building will have years after it's built? You should design a space that can adapt to future uses.

Facet Squared on Dec 4, 2009, 8:16:00 AM said...

Ugh. Enough with 'the historic charicter of the neighborhood.' H St. has been bombed out for 50 years, and now all of the sudden we're hearkening back to days of grandeur. Should we refuse them indoor plumbing and electricity and other 'modern' things as well? Historic preservation-ism is a horribly naive means of land planning. This is Washington, DC, not Gettysburg, PA.

Hillman said...

I got no problem with four stories.

But the building does look pretty plain.

And in return for going four stories they should be required to have retail on the first floor. It's a retail block.

Skinnytree said...

@ Facet:

Yes, local public pressure for better architecture that complements existing buildings is totally "naive."

Rather, we need to shut up and bend over and allow developers free reign!

We absolutely need more of THIS on H-street:

Anonymous said...

No problem with height. Big poblem with no retail storefront.

sloth said...

i wish they could build taller. ground floor retail should be encouraged and incentivized, but not enforced.

Anonymous said...

Do not "just build it already". Here are some reasons why this building is not appropriate:

Professional Office Not a Preferred Use:
The H Street Arts Sub-district regulations describe what are "preferred uses" in the zone. Professional offices is not a preferred use.

Floor Area Ratio:
The H Street Arts Sub-district regulations down-zone non-residential use (from 1.5 FAR in C-2-A) to a 1.0 FAR for new construction. (Note, the original post references 2.5 FAR as allowable, but that only applies to buildings with residential use). Asking to build a building with 3X as much density as the zoning allows seems unreasonable.

Failure to Comply with Design Requirements:
The H Street Design Requirements require that all new buildings fronting H Street devote at least 50% of the street frontage to display windows. This building does not do so.

Furthermore, the proposed building does not contribute to the overall character of the street nor does it comply with other design requirements outlined in the H Street Strategic Development Plan. A basic requirement for a special exception is that the proposed building does contribute to the character and goals of the strategic plan.

It would probably be a good idea for the owner to engage the services of a registered architect who could advise him or her on the zoning issues and assist with the approvals process. According to the City's online professional licensing lookup tool, the individual listed as the architect does not appear to be registered to practice architecture in the District of Columbia. The DC Office of Occupational and Professional Licensing should also take a look at IS Enterprises' website which indicates the company offers architectural design services. If they do not have a properly registered architect on staff, doing so is probably illegal.

While the facade design is absolutely terrible, I think opposition should focus on issues of zoning compliance. One can not, and should not, attempt to legislate personal taste (and in this case there are plenty of other legitimate reasons to oppose the project).

I wish we had images of the floor and site plans so we could evaluate the proposed structure's compliance with lot occupancy, setbacks, etc. My suspicion is that there are other problems with the design as well.

Anonymous said...

Big poblem with no retail storefront.

Yes, without a retail storefront, there will be no place for retail establishments on H St to locate, given the complete lack of vacant space for retail anywhere in the area.

Professional offices is not a preferred use.

My experience on certain parts of H St is that the "preferred use" is apparently boarded-up windows and vacant lots.

If you all think retail is so important, guys, why don't you actually start a retail establishment there? What's your problem? You obviously think that there's such pressing demand for it that an office building would crush the aspiring retail that would spring up there.

Tom Veil on Dec 4, 2009, 2:32:00 PM said...

I didn't think that the Historic Character of H Street allowed for buildings that have their windows intact.

IMGoph on Dec 4, 2009, 2:33:00 PM said...

anon poster: (would it kill you to at least use a pseudonym so we can direct responses to the right person?)

read this by richard layman. it thoroughly explains why this is a bad design for this building.

Kavakos said...

I'm the anonymous that wrote about the lack of preferred use, excessive FAR and requirement for retail storefront. I'll try to think of a catchy moniker by the end of this post.

I think Richard Layman's piece is a nice summary of the rationale behind the 50% show window requirement and is well put. Nice job.

For those concerned about the height, I personally don't have an issue with 4 stories. In fact, if I understand their facade drawing correctly, it looks like the building is only 40'-7" tall. Zoning allows this building to be 50 feet tall and, as compensation for requiring a 14 foot first story, you're allowed an extra 5 feet of height, so they could build it 15 feet higher, provided they don't blow through the maximum allowable density. Height and number of stories is not the problem from a zoning perspective.

Excessive FAR, inappropriate use and failure to comply with the design guidelines are legitimate and sufficient reasons for rejecting the applicant's requests without the height issue.

Regarding appropriate use, I doubt anyone has a problem with professional offices in the H Street Corridor - however they don't belong in the Arts and Entertainment Sub-district or on the ground floor. They belong in the upper floors of the Retail Sub-district which runs from 7th Street to 12th Street. That's not just my opinion, that's what the zoning says (See Section 1322.2.ll). If the public decides that professional offices are appropriate in the Arts and Entertainment sub-district, fine, but we need to change the zoning regulations before building them.

Alan Page on Dec 4, 2009, 6:59:00 PM said...

a few reasons why this building design should be challenged: (1) immediately across the alley from this building is a residential block of lovely historic two story houses. a four story building towering over them will be unsightly, to say the least, and doesn't fit well visually with the rest of that block which is a problem because (2) the 1200 block of h street is one of the few h street blocks that is RAPIDLY developing, specifically on the side of the 1200 block where this development is proposed; why affect the visual character of a block packed with successful businesses of a similar character (nightlife/restaurant) that have been successfully marketed together as a destination spot? what type of city sees successful renovation on a block of similarly situated buildings and approves the construction of a building twice the size of surrounding "block marketed" retail without any ground floor retail? huh?

if this entire block was desolate, like say the 300 block, i could see an argument for it, because there's nothing going on there at all. but on the 1200 block? NO. i say they should hold out for a blueprint with ground floor retail and two stories in height to visually match the rest of this successfully (re-)developing block.

Jerry said...

People: Some houses are 4 stories. DC residents' fear of heights is absurd. And did you note that this is on H Street? Which, I guess I need to point out, is a commercial district with a trolley line about to be built down the center. To see that a rowhouse is too big is absurd on its face. I would argue for the need for a taller building to give the neighborhood some needed density. If you can't deal with 4 stories on one of DC's main arteries, please move out to the country where you won't be bothered with density, sidewalks, retail, and other such nuisances.

Anonymous said...

There need to be some corrections to the story as reported in DCMUD.

1/. There has not been a subsequent meeting with I. S. Enterprises, though the Economic Development and Zoning committee, at the request of the developer, scheduled a special meeting specifically to hear from them.

2/. The matter is before the Board of Zoning Adjustment, not the Zoning Commission.

3/. The H Street Overlay requires 14 foot high ceilings to make the space usable for retail in any future use of the site, and to retain a visual continuity with the commercial facades of the rest of the block and the street as a whole.

4/. The permissible FAR in the H Street Overlay is 1.0 for non-residential use, not 3.0; and the underlying FAR is 1.5 for non-residential use in this C-2-A zone.

The H Street Overlay requires that new and rehabilitated structures “be consistent with the historic character and scale of the Overlay District” – this proposed structure is not.

The developer seeks the extra building height because of the proposed use of the upper floors as office/professional space. Unfortunately the mandatory stairs and exit aisles appear to take about 30% of each floor’s space – one of the reasons that the Overlay requires residential use on the upper floors.

The proposed office/professional, as opposed to retail, use is something I will support as an ANC 6A Commissioner. It adds needed commercial diversity to the street.

I know the ANC hopes to work with the developer to fill this vacant lot.

David Holmes

Commissioner, ANC 6A03

dw (dash) holmes (at)

IMGoph on Dec 7, 2009, 11:11:00 AM said...

commissioner holmes: thanks for bringing additional enlightenment to the conversation here. it's much appreciated!

Shaun on Dec 7, 2009, 11:18:00 AM said...

David: Thanks for providing additional information, though we'd prefer you not say "corrections" since we did not actually misreport most of those facts you provided. We did miss the BZA vs. ZC distinction, which will be corrected. However, the FAR of 2.5 we reported was based on information about the C-2-A base zoning from an ANC6-A report here: Thanks for your readership and keeping us on our toes.

Anonymous said...

EIFS!? That doesn't belong on H ST!

Anonymous said...

Is this the place that poured a foundation, concrete floors, and added some concrete block behind the plywood on the site? If so, do they have permits?

Anonymous said...

Pretty hilarious how a project so small brings all the planners--armchair and otherwise--out of the woodwork while your stories on megadevelopments go uncommented.

kavakos said...


The report you point to shows an base FAR of 1.5, not 2.5...The property owner's variance application (posted as part of the same pdf) indicates that FAR 2.5 is allowable for HOUSING in the HS-H (Housing) Subdistrict. The property is in the HS-A (Arts & Entertainment Subdistrict) and is commercial so his statement is irrelevant. The Zoning allows a higher FAR for housing because housing is considered more desirable at the upper levels of buildings on H Street according to the Strategic Plan. There's a clear rationale for that and it is explained in the planning documents. The plan was developed with extensive community input.

Thanks for posting the link though - that was the first time I saw the floor plan.

Now, about that plan: The floor plan makes absolutely no sense. It's not a plan at all really, at least not one that meets code. I suspect it was created as a diagram to depict the most possible space one could take up for circulation to try to make the argument (unsuccessfully) that the zoning is overly restrictive.

The corridor doesn't even connect to the front entrance. There is reference to a fire control room being between the two, but it is not shown and is not required since this isn't a high rise building of 75 feet or greater. Also there is no connection to the rear where the one parking space is going to be.

The applicant claims a desire to have two separate occupancies but from the plan it appears that the upper floor tenant has to enter and exit through the first floor space. Building code (and common sense) prohibit one tenant egressing through another tenant's space.

The corridor adjacent the stair is completely unnecessary, particularly on the first floor which the applicant says is going to be single tenant.

I'd have to check but, I believe business uses require two means of egress if over one story in height. Residential buildings, if fully sprinklered, may have a single means of egress if they have no more than three stories above the ground plane and no more than four units per floor.

The applicant says one parking space is required, but actually two are required per code (See my previous post). This is especially important since the applicant has indicated that 10 people (plus the people in the separate tenant space on the ground floor) will be occupying the building. If this was a residential building it would likely have only 3-4 occupants on the upper floors due to small unit size.

The statement about the show window is laughable. It isn't a show window at all. The H Street Design guidelines lay out clearly the requirements for show windows fronting H Street.

kavakos said...

Also, check out the construction cost on the application. The applicant indicates they are going to construct the building (approximately 3,150 SF?) for $80,000. That's about $25 per square foot. Typical construction cost in this area is $120-200/SF. You don't have to include finishes in construction cost for permit application processes, but $80k is likely the cost just of the structure. The absurdly low cost is clearly a crass attempt to minimize permit fees or a display of complete ignorance by a party who claims to be in the construction business.

The applicant's cover letter begins by describing the minority ownership of the firm. The fact that the applicant is a 100% minority owned DC based company is completely irrelevant. DC has a highly developed minority business program specifically designed to assist minority owned companies get access to projects involving public funds. This is a privately funded project on private land and the owner's race, gender, etc should have NO bearing on the consideration of his application. To start of the request with that statement suggests that the applicant feels entitled to special consideration on the basis of his minority status, to which he is not. (FYI - I have no problem with DC's LSDBE program but it is not relevant to the issue at hand).

Lastly, many of us do follow and support or oppose large scale developments with the same rigor as the small ones. The fact of the matter is that most larger projects are undertaken by professional development teams (including attorneys, architects, planners, historians, engineers, etc) who understand the zoning and building code rules. A larger scale developer would not have been likely to attempt such a poorly conceived project and if they did, they would have done it through the PUD process where the public is allowed to approve deviations from the rules in exchange for certain public benefits (proffers). The PUD system doesn't always work (should I say rarely works?) and many of the proffers offered are complete B.S. or are things the developer would have done anyway due to market demand, but that's a whole different topic......

Whew! Maybe I need to start my own blog!


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