Friday, July 30, 2010

For Two Young Boys, Universal Design Will Alter Their Universe

By Beth Herman

Imagine the world from a single spot on the floor, in a small wheelchair where most things extend beyond your reach. For two growing boys in Virginia, a conventional home with inadequate access on almost every front limited their participation in family life and put the burden, in every sense of the word, on their parents. Everyday tasks such as entering and exiting the house, bathing, studying and recreation challenged backs and brains; the need to do better for their family becoming a decade-long mission for aerospace engineer and Navy Captain Andy Cibula and his wife, Jennifer.

California transplants who’d “looked at 100 homes” in Reston, Springfield, Chantilly and other places during relocation efforts in 1999, their quest to find a ranch home for their first physically challenged child (the younger child was not yet born) was compromised by doorways and hallways not wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Finally settling upon a rambler in Reston, a restrictive home owner’s association handicapped a planned expansion after the birth of a second child with cerebral palsy in 2001, precipitating a move in 2003 to a four-bedroom, 2,500 s.f. rambler in Oakton - purchased with the intent to bump out the back of the house.

“We met with a few architects and no one was listening,” Jennifer Cibula recalled. “Bob (Robert Wilkoff, President, Archaeon Architects & Planners) was open to anything and everything, with a background in accessibility issues. The combination of the two really sold us,” she said.

Scion of late renowned industrial designer William L. Wilkoff, who’d pioneered many of the nation’s forays into universal, or barrier-free, design, was president of ASID (American Society of Interior Designers), served on the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and co-authored Practicing Universal Design: An Interpretation of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), the younger Wilkoff carefully identified inherent design challenges in renovating an existing home that needed not only to accommodate disabled and growing children, currently ages 12 ½ and 9, but to enrich their lives as well.

With initial meetings in 2003, and various medical and other issues precluding the family’s full immersion into the project until 2008, Wilkoff set out to create an environment that would embrace the children and eventually also support their mother, whose burgeoning orthopedic problems (she sometimes uses a cane) are the result of years of heavy lifting. The quest for specific products, fixtures and features that worked with the boys’ capabilities and limitations had many iterations over five years, Wilkoff said, noting that products came and went from manufacturers. Preliminary plans to expand through the back of the house were later jettisoned in favor of a complete renovation, with demolition (or “deconstruction,” where items are taken apart, inventoried and repurposed at another site) begun on July 15 and the family taking up temporary residence down the block.

“The house is elevated off the ground by four or five steps,” Wilkoff said, noting the Cibula’s had to lift the boys in their wheelchairs several times a day. Inside, they could move through the halls and into their bedrooms in wheelchairs, but bathrooms and kitchens did not conform to the children’s needs. A finished basement down a flight of stairs with play space, adjacent to the garage where the family’s handicap van parks and lets them out, was also out of the children’s reach.

Among the first orders of business is a full elevator to utilize the basement, though according to Wilkoff the challenge lies in codes for residential elevators that have a maximum footprint which will not accommodate two wheelchairs. “Their mom has to be with both kids – get them both into the elevator and move them up and down,” Wilkoff explained. “Otherwise, you’d have to put one in, go up, come down, put the other one in, which is just insane so we are seeking a special exception to code without the expenditure of putting in a commercial elevator, which costs three times as much.”

Taking Root
In the boys’ bedrooms which will flank a common bathroom, a ceiling track will allow a push button-controlled lift to travel from their beds to the bathroom, with a turnstile ferrying the boys to shower, bath or individual lavatories which can move up and down 18 inches as they grow. Fold-down grab bars will punctuate the space and can disappear when not in use. Precluding the need for heavy wheelchair transfers by their parents or a caregiver when lavatory-bound, the boys can be rolled from bed into a suspended harness which goes up and down. For dressing, rods and shelving in the closets drop down where the children can access them from their wheelchairs.

In the bathroom, a tub with sliding 30-inch door will facilitate movement from a wheelchair, should the boys not be in the lift, directly into the tub. “There have been accessible tubs around for a long time with little swing doors,” Wilkoff said, “but the problem was that they’d been designed for somebody who could walk into them. This tub is elevated to the same level as the seat of a wheelchair, so someone can slide themselves in and close the door.” Where the shower, which is separate, is concerned, Wilkoff said “…basically the entire bathroom is built as a shower; there’s no curb and the floor pitches over very gradually toward the actual shower space so any water that spills (from other sources) will roll over to it.” In the parents’ bathroom, a similar no-threshold shower and a tub conceived for transfers (not the same as the one in the boys’ bathroom) will also accommodate Jennifer if her condition worsens. Back in the boys’ bathroom, a push button-operated changing table that folds against the wall will move from floor all the way up to table level, where the children can be dried and dressed.

According to Jennifer, because their older son has the use of one hand with very good dexterity and his brother, though more challenged, can operate push buttons and the like with some focus, it was important to have a kitchen and family room that encouraged their participation in various activities. To that end, at the push of a button the kitchen counter will raise and lower 14 inches for wheelchairs to slide underneath and cabinets on wall-mounted, articulated lifts will descend to wheelchair height where the boys can open doors and retrieve objects. In the family room, desks will move up or down to accommodate different wheelchairs as the children grow, and wall cabinets that store school supplies will function on the same principle as those in the kitchen. The finished basement, with an exercise room, is also home to the train room, where Andy Cibula keeps large-scale trains that the boys love. “They run them all around the yard, so we’re building this room with a mini-garage door so they can go from inside the house, drive around the yard and come back,” Wilkoff smiled. On this level, just outside the elevator, a “wheelchair corral” will provide storage for pieces of equipment not being used in the house.

In Full Bloom
Outside the front door, Wilkoff indicated plans became “tricky” when the home’s elevation had to be raised even more than the old structure - the impetus, low headroom in the basement. As such, a series of complicated ramps in the guise of a meandering walkway with engaging landscaping will be created to facilitate the boys’ egress as they wheel down to grade level and out to the bus, a distance increased by the design but originally deemed “55-60 feet as the crow flies,” according to Wilkoff.

Aesthetically, because interior spaces are large and high, hall ceilings will be visually broken up for the boys’ interest. The bottom cord of the roof trusses will protrude through the ceiling in one place, and a deep bench storage seat at the end of the hallway will invite them to sit and read or play.

“I don’t think people realize good design can be compatible with this kind of functionality,” Wilkoff said, explaining that to Archaeon Architects & Planners, this is not an issue at all. “When you walk into this house, it’s going to be a custom, beautiful home. No one will look at it and say it looks a little bit like a nursing home or hospital facility, something very important to Andy and Jennifer and to the boys as they grow up.” In fact, very much in the Cibulas’ plans is the practicality of a caregiver feeling comfortable in the house for the rest of the boys’ lives when their parents are gone.

“If you take all of the elderly now, and the preemies (premature babies) who all died in the past – now they’re surviving with these disabilities,” Jennifer said. “Ten years ago they didn’t make it, but they do today,” she added, affirming the increasing need for design, without stigma, that both facilitates and enriches their lives.

Washington D.C. design news

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Big Bear Cafe Mauled By Angry ANC Members

Every hipster's favorite independent coffee house seems to be tangled up in a web of bureaucratic tape as it attempts to expand its business; and nagging NIMBY'ers don't seem to be aiding their cause. The Bloomingdale-based Big Bear Cafe's recent attempts at getting a proper liquor license, along with its appeal to the local ANC for their support in such endeavors, have been heavily covered by local blogs. But for fans of Big Bear Cafe the news being reported hasn't exactly been peachy. Last week ANC 5C lettered a harshly worded official report voicing the commission's strong and unanimous opposition to Big Bear Cafe's liquor license application. The letter accused Big Bear of, among other things, "operating illegally" (without proper zoning documentation) since 2007. It seems these allegations were a bit sensationalist in nature, and generally inaccurate. Owner Stuart Davenport and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) confirmed that the premise has grandfathered permission to operate as a commercial entity, having existed as a zoning exception for over a century.

But as Davenport and Big Bear look to expand their operations, they've petitioned the Zoning Commission for a map adjustment that would grant their property C-2-A status (currently zoned as 4 - A residential), thereby allowing more leeway in the business's efforts to increase capacity numbers, to freely expand onto the sidewalks and public space, to hold musical events, poetry readings, and the like, and to sell beer and wine to customers. Zoning officials were not much more sympathetic than the rabble rousing ANC commissioners. On Monday Zoning agreed to set down a public hearing of the applicant's case, but did so with stonewalled faces, and seemingly obdurate concerns. One panel member expressed his reservations about what might happen if the potentially C-2-A-zoned property changes hands in the future. "Theoretically it could be torn down and rebuilt ten feet higher," he worried. "We've seen that happen, where a skinny apartment building is constructed in the midst of several row houses, and it just doesn't fit - it doesn't work." Board member May, proved he too had been watching the local blog forum drama unfold when he timidly said: “There are some legitimate concerns in the neighborhood about the use of this property. The existing use seems to be a very comfortable fit…but gee, a liquor license there, or a sidewalk cafe? I’m not sure.”

Foregoing the normal prerequisite ANC support, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) heard Big Bear Cafe's request for a liquor license early on the morning of the 26th. If approved Big Bear would be able to please customers who might want a little whiskey in their coffee. Liquor could be served until 1AM outside and 2AM inside on Friday and Saturday. On weeknights, patrons could enjoy their cocktails until ten in the evening. No ruling on the case will be made for 60 to 90 days, as ABRA must allow time for a subsequent "status hearing" and potentially a "protest hearing" if complications and objections cannot be solved through party mediation. It seems that any chance of making it safely through the ABRA application process is heavily reliant on Big Bear's ability to quell the local ANC's fears of their neighborhood quickly deteriorating into the mass hysteria of a late night in Adams Morgan. The time frame also allows for the applicant to negotiate the zoning map amendment process prior to its reappearance before ABRA. Another Commission hearing has yet to be scheduled, and won't happen for at least another 40 days.

These melodramatic happenings don't just make for juicy blog content, they also have serious implications. One question that arises from the flames: how can such a popular business that has faithfully served the community for several years - in an area that has a dismally minuscule number of retail and restaurant options - be so angrily opposed by residents? Big Bear Cafe was even granted the Mayor's 2009 Environment Excellence award. Granted, that sounds like a meaningless certificate a third grade teacher would give to make sure all her students felt appreciated, but still! Another logical question is: why is the ANC bestowed the authority to raise such a hissy fit? It seems the large majority of the community is in support of the business's plans (600 signed a petition in support of the liquor license application), but the ANC has given a symbolic megaphone to a minority of elected curmudgeons in opposition. When an organizations only real power is to say no to things, it's apparent that they are more likely to conjure the zeitgeist of prohibition-era attitudes in order to play devil's advocate. How can residents expect property values to improve if amenities like restaurants, bars, and markets are not readily incorporated into the community? For awhile at least, patrons of Big Bear Cafe will have to settle for a caffeine induced buzz, or go elsewhere.

Washington D.C. Real Estate Development News

WMATA Gives B.F. Saul OK to Develop Near Wheaton Metro

Already a major player in the District's real estate development game, B.F. Saul will now head a team of developers charged with bringing a mixed-use project near the Wheaton Metro station to life. This is just another materialization of a well-established effort by WMATA and its Director of Real Estate Steven Goldin to promote increased density, mass-transit-directed residential, retail, and office space through the Metro's Joint Development Program. "Selection of the B.F. Saul team for the Wheaton redevelopment project mirrors the successful strategy Montgomery County employed with Silver Spring," Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett said. The parcel is part of 10 that were offered up as development opportunities just last January.

The new development will certainly help address many of goals set out by Wheaton Central Business District and Vicinity Sector Plan, including their hopes to: "Reinvigorate Wheaton’s downtown by creating a walkable community with a distinct identity; create a vibrant mix of jobs and housing; design quality public spaces inviting to pedestrians; and foster an environmentally sustainable community." Sounds delightful. Developers will also be expected to do all of the above while "preserving Wheaton’s ethnic diversity." The original plan was laid out in 1990, before the red line had surfaced in Wheaton. Since 2006 the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) has taken it upon themselves to update the plan; the augmented plan is to be unveiled at a Montgomery Planning Board public hearing today.

While Metro has successfully completed a total of 21 transit oriented development projects so far, including notable Maryland-based developments such as Bethesda Metro Center, Grosvenor, Twinbrook and Wheaton (east), others like Greenbelt Venture's plans around the Greenbelt stations have wallowed in the rubble of inaction for years; just this year plans set for the area surrounding the Largo station were put on hold after the group of developers filed for bankruptcy.

In an effort to make this 8.2 acres only one working part of a more comprehensive and expansive redevelopment of downtown Wheaton, B.F. Saul will look to cooperate with existing local businesses and land owners such as the Westfield Wheaton Shopping Center to peacefully incorporate the new projects into the established community.

Wheaton was listed by Governor Martin O'Malley as one of the initial projects in a newly unveiled state Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) program, which will continue to encourage similar developments by bolstering them with funding, tax credits and other financial incentives and tools.

B.F. Saul will spearhead a team that includes Silver Spring-based Torti Gallas and Partners Inc. as lead design architect, as well as Rockville-based Loiederman Soltesz Associates Inc. as civil engineers, responsible for levelheadedly carrying out the architectural plans.

The Wheaton project will be the beneficiary of $200,000 in planning funds, compliments of the deep-pocketed Maryland Transportation Department.

Wheaton, Maryland real estate development news

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

West End To Get Independent Movie Theater At Former Site Of The Inner Circle

For D.C. film nerds and pseudo-intellectual George Washington University students in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the Washington-based Circle Theater chain was an oasis of obscure, independent, foreign, and cult films and documentaries; and may be so again in just a few months. Built in 1911, the original Circle Theater at 2105 Pennsylvania Avenue stood as the oldest film venue in the District for almost ninety years. To the chagrin of $1 matinee frequenters, it was demolished in the late '80s to make way for a 12-story office complex. Although its various sister-theaters (Circle West End 1-4, later the Inner Circle 1-4, as well as Inner Circle 5-7) held on to life for some years after, they were subsequently bought and sold, each now demolished or out of operation for several years. But luckily for those Washingtonians nostalgic for the art-house film chain, the one remaining venue unscathed by wrecking balls will be resuscitated and reopened this fall. Josh Levin, a New York film producer and distributor has leased the building formerly housing Inner Circle 5-7, and has plans in the works to reopen the venue as the West End Theater.

Circle Theaters first expanded to include the West End property (1101 23rd Street NW) on August 17, 1977. In 1985 the chain amassed another property just a block north at 2301 M Street NW, a three auditorium venue that sat 94, 78, and 55 people. This theater became the Inner Circle 5-7, and later simply the Inner Circle when the Inner Circle 1-4 was torn down to build the Ritz Carlton residences (adjacent to the hotel).

The movie house has not shown a film since 2003, but that will change soon, as the property is set to become the new West End Theater. A few seats will be subtracted from each of the three viewing rooms, in order to make the venue a bit roomier and classier, but of course without losing the intimate feel. The cinematic repertoire will remain much the same, showing "first-run independent films, art house, documentary, and remastered classic films." No significant structural changes are needed as the venue "still has the projector systems, platters, sound systems, screens, seats and concessions line exactly where they were when the theater closed in late 2003, early 2004," according to Levin. Going inside to discover the eerily but cleanly foresaken theater was a bit "like a science fiction film," Levin told the West End Friends, "where the humans have been erased but everything else remains."

While the multiplex is not equipped with a kitchen, Levin plans to serve salads and sandwiches in addition to traditional theater snacks - think Jujyfruits and popcorn. He is also pursuing a full liquor license to serve beer and wine, with the hope of offering cocktails as well. Levin presented his plans to the ANC last week, and an application should go before Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) shortly. There seems to be some apprehension from some members of ANC2A concerning small details of the liquor license, but no serious roadblocks stand in the way of Levin's plans - ABRA is well-known for its strong pro-business tendencies.

Even though major renovation is unnecessary, the interior will be refitted to some extent: the seats will be replaced, as will the drapes, the bathrooms redone, and lighting fixtures updated. "A luxury screening room setting with plush leather seats and real food and drinks," is Levin's aim. On July 21st, Josh confirmed his business intentions via the internet, assuring film geeks on the website Cinema Treasures (dedicated to iconic movie houses) that West End Circle Theater would soon be moved from the "old listings" to the "new listings."

The architect of the original Circle Theatre was A.B. Mallett & Co/Luther Ray. Ray was well known during his time as a designer of restaurants and commercial store fronts, and also did considerable business producing large porcelain enamel signage for local businesses. Pictured right is an old rendering of the design for Hahn Shoes (located at Seventh and K Streets NW) drawn by Luther Ray. Although the Art Deco styling of the Circle Theater was faded and crumbling by the time obscure foreign films like the Italian classic Bicycle Theives or Ladri di Biciclette (1948) made its way onto the reels, the theater remained a film-buff favorite for over two decades. Jim and Ted Pedas took over the cinema in 1957 as local law students and ambitious film-enthusiasts. Their repertory cinema venture was so successful, they not only expanded into a chain operation, but also founded Circle Films, an independent film production company. The brothers along with two other business partners produced many of the Coen brothers early cult favorites, including: Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), and Barton Fink (1991).

Washington D.C. Real Estate Development News

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Christmas Architects

Yes, Virginia, Maryland and D.C., there is a Santa Claus. Though they may not see themselves that way, to the residents of Ward 8’s embattled Wheeler Terrace, 1217 Valley Ave. SE, Old St. Nick came in the guise of Wiencek & Associates, a 30-member Maryland and D.C.-based architecture firm whose primary focus is community building, one crime scene at a time.

“I can’t say it was the worst of the buildings we’d seen in D.C.,” firm President Michael Wiencek said of the initial 113 units spread among seven structures (during renovation, three more units were added), “but it was not a place you’d choose to live if you had other choices. It had lots and lots of problems: a lot of moisture in the building; falling ceilings and damaged floors; the sewage backed up into the basement. People were robbed at gunpoint regularly in that area. It was one of the District’s top 14 crime hotspots.”

Point of Sale

When Wheeler Terrace’s former owners decided to sell, under TOPA (D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act) residents were given the option to purchase the property and formed the Wheeler Terrace Tenant Association. The group eventually chose the Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC) as developer for the 133,000 s.f. site, with 25-year affordable housing renovation veterans Wiencek & Associates in tow.

With housing projects such as Edgewood Terrace, Southern Ridge and Overlook at Oxon Run in their fight book, Wiencek explained that when they approach a project such as this, the goal is as much a social renovation as it is a physical one. There are matters of crime and conscience to be considered, with aesthetics often impacting the end result.

With a slogan that says “Let us welcome you home,” Wiencek said he wants people to have a sense of place. “I always talk about the kid who never really wanted to bring their friends to their house because it wasn’t a place you wanted to show. But then when you get done, you can say, ‘That’s my home. Come on over.’”

Point of View
In the case of Wheeler Terrace, as with many affordable housing projects, he admits budgetary constraints warranted trade-offs with exterior plans and finishes that would have included green roofs, green screens and trellises, which yielded to critical interior components such as bathrooms, insulation and ventilation. Built in the 1940s as housing for WWII veterans (Richard Nixon reportedly lived nearby as a junior senator), the garden-style units were saddled with antiquated, inoperative and even dangerous mechanical systems, leaky steel casement single glaze windows and moldy finishes, among other things.

Though champions of dozens of public and general multifamily housing renovations, in the last decade with green building still a nascent yet burgeoning trend Wiencek & Associates typically fought a losing battle for sustainable solutions in its public housing designs due to economics. Where Wheeler Terrace was concerned (and though Wiencek’s initial 2006 funding submission was not green) the D.C. Green Building Act, which mandates various levels of LEED compliance, went into effect during the design process so that construction became less about standard practices and more about best practices. “In the past, you were sort of laughed at if you tried to push people,” Wiencek said. “But now, three years later, we’d be laughed at if we didn’t make it green – absolutely green.” The firm goes the extra step in achieving this by integrating green charrettes into the planning process: intensive workshops where the project’s decision-makers collectively address sustainable issues.

According to James “Jay” Wilson, Wheeler Terrace project manager for Wiencek & Associates and task force member of the D.C. Green Building Act, pursuing grants from the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) helped facilitate the kind of “healthy construction” the firm desired. With asthma and other respiratory illnesses pervasive among residents - largely children - of public housing due to moisture, mold, filthy ductwork and high voc (volatile organic compound) issues, Wiencek & Associates moved to install hard surface flooring in place of carpeting in each unit’s common areas, reducing particulates. Thicker filters were installed on all the HVAC equipment, as well as using low-voc paint and other finishes, and urea/formaldehyde-free cabinets. Tantamount to that, where the average unit wasn’t required to have outside air produced in the building prior to the Green Building Act (Wiencek said if you turn on a bathroom fan in most city apartments, there’s nothing replacing the air, and often nothing is even pulled out), at Wheeler Terrace fans are on a constant circuit - meaning they are always on - so units are continuously ventilated; there’s always a fresh air exchange. In fact, per the parameters of the NCHH grant, resident health will be followed over the next 10 years to see if healthy construction has made a difference.

Hot Point

“Usually in the winter time, you have to heat air that’s 30 degrees up to 70 degrees to heat the unit,” Wilson said, referencing the ground source heat pump mechanical system – or geothermal heating – installed at the site. One hundred wells go down 350-450 feet, utilizing a glycol mixture which prevents freezing, among other things. “Now you’re heating a water mixture, which comes in through a heating chamber in the building, always at a constant 55 degrees, so it ends up being 35 percent more efficient than a typical system,” Wilson explained.

Speaking to “CPDC’s altruism,” Wiencek indicated the mechanical system cost the developer a lot of money. “Most developers would never elect to do this because they’d say ‘I’m not going to get payback,’” Wiencek said, noting the $7-10,000 per unit overage vs. a standard system. The thinking behind this is that in affordable housing, you’re trying to get the resident to pay for utilities because then they respect them and are more likely to use them efficiently, according to Wiencek. “The residents will have lower utility costs, but it did cost more in the first place.”

Point Well Taken

In proud pursuit of LEED Gold, Wilson noted the documentation process is nearly finished and if achieved, Wheeler Terrace may be the first Section 8 affordable housing development in the U.S. to garner it.

“It’s great advertising for the city, the developer,” Wiencek said. “One of the neat things about the kind of housing we do is that we get a lot of joy out of helping people - changing people’s lives,” he added, noting residents respect that they’ve been given this great opportunity and crime is significantly down since the renovation. “You really raise the bar on living in that neighborhood.” The grand opening will occur this Thursday, July 29.

Photography by Eric Taylor,

Recognition From HPRB A Long Time Coming For Neglected Southwest House

Formerly home to the Southwest Community House Organization (SWCH), a now defunct non-profit social organization that had served the encompassing low-income neighborhoods of southwest D.C., a historic black and white, detached brick house at 156 Q Street, SW is once again the James C. Dent House. Last week the Historical Preservation Review Board gave its blessing of historical protection to the property and recommended to the National Park Service that the home be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The home is located on Buzzard Point, the urbanized sector of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.
The southwest quadrant of the original city of Washington has a long and storied past, and is home to some of the oldest buildings in L'Efant's originally planned cityscape. Often forgotten as an original site for the many large, gracious river front mansions that housed much of the political elite, the area is most frequently chronicled for its reputation as a shabby neighborhood of awkward racial diversity. In 1920, Washington Star journalist John Harry Shannon (aka "The Rambler") wrote of the areas frequently overlooked but nonetheless pedigreed heritage:
"It is not easy to name a member of an old South Washington family whose grandfather or grandmother did not live between the Arsenal and the two rivers. Thousands of men and women now living in the 'parks: 'heights' and 'terraces' will cast their thoughts back to the old family home on the Navy Yard or the Island. It was not many years ago that Northwest Washington was commons, pastures, bog, forest, rugged hill and steep ravine. What is now South Washington was then all Washington, with the exception of a narrow fringe of settlement north of the Avenue."
Early nineteenth century plans for the construction of stately homes and a bustling commercial district never quite fully materialized, and for over a century the southwest, consisting mostly of what is known as "the Island," remained a modest residential host to the rowhouses, tenements, shacks, and even the odd tent of blue-collar workers, the majority of them African Americans with a small portion being working-class whites (predominantly Jewish). Although the increasingly putrid James Creek turned Washington City Canal and a series of explosions at the Washington Arsenal cemented the area as one of the less desirable parts of the city, the neighborhoods were symbolic of the ever fleeting American dream for the newly emancipated, as many freed African Americans had looked to build new lives and legacies on these lands since the days immediately following the Civil War.
Perhaps no Southwest resident is more emblematic of this dream of social and economic ascension than James C. Dent. Born into slavery in 1855, Dent grew up a farm laborer in the tobacco country of southern Maryland. Dent eventually made his way to southwest D.C. as a laborer, mostly employed in a lime kiln, and married a Virginia seamstress. In 1885, his wife Mary and several parishioners founded the Mount Moriah Baptists Church. Several months after it opened the first pastor stepped down, and in May of 1886 Dent took his place and proceeded to take the church to prominence within Washington's black religious community - overseeing it's transition into several newer and nicer buildings (it is now located on East Capital Street, NE), and serving as pastor for over 22 years.
In 1906, in an unusual move indicative of the racial and economic disparity of the area, Dent hired a white architect to build a house to replace the modest, timber-framed dwelling he had lived in with his wife for many years. William James Palmer, a prominent rowhouse architect, was commissioned for the design. During the year of construction, Palmer, whose body of work was largely concentrated in Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, was praised in the Washington Post for designing a row of houses in Mt. Pleasant that exhibited "architectural beauty, stability, and refinement of taste." A couple non-residential, Palmer-designed properties of note include Union Methodist Episcopal Church, as well as the Navel Lodge and AME Church on Capitol Hill. While Dent's home may seem rather average in appearance compared to the contemporaneous homes of the designated historic districts to the north and northwest, the detached brick edifice was no doubt a remarkable anomaly among the many surrounding shacks on Buzzard Point, and even more exceptional for having endured the "urban renewal" of the 1950's that saw many of the areas homes and churches razed.
As the setting of a unique American story, in which an African American man made the transition from slave to property owner to middle class professional within a single generation, the HPRB has designated the James C. Dent House a D.C. Landmark. In doing so, a small but unique part of the narrative of racial progress within the nation's capitol will be forever preserved. The building is now owned by PEPCO, and has stood vacant since SWCH left in 2004. Washington D.C. Real Estate Development News

Monday, July 26, 2010

La Vida VIDA: New Affordable Senior Housing in Brightwood

Zavos Architecture, Dantes Partners, Hamel Builders, VIDA senior housing, Washington DCLa vida living is about to get easier in Washington D.C. District-based VIDA will break ground tomorrow on a new residential project in Brightwood, adding 36 residential units in a new building structured for affordable senior housing.

Formerly known as Educational Organization for United Latin Americans, the newly renamed 501(c)(3) that serves over 600 DC-area seniors annually is getting ready to add another 36 units to its stock. Located on Missouri Avenue on a now vacant lot, VIDA will build affordable senior housing in Ward 4, where the largest concentration of the District's seniors live. This is the first time VIDA is developing housing, with financing that got creative. The development team - comprised of VIDA Senior Centers, Dantes Partners as the Development Consultant, Zavos Architecture and Design, NDC Real Estate for property management, and Hamel Builders as General Contractor - used a multilayer financing approach. Tapping into federal stimulus programs (Section 1602 Tax Credit Exchange), Neighborhood Investment Funds (NIF), private bank debt and an Enterprise Green Communities grant, the development secured financing for an area that has seen little new residential development since the financing bust several years ago. "We were fortunate to have been selected as an innovative Zavos Architecture, Dantes Partners, Hamel Builders, VIDA senior housing, Washington DCproject that served a unique need. We were lucky enough to have partners who believed in our vision," said Jordan Bishop of Dantes Partners.

With four stories of new affordable and accessible rental units, the five-story independent-living senior center will provide services that include meals, music, presentations, dancing, minor checkups, medication management, "spiritual activities," and private van transportation, and of course bingo and chess. The project is being billed as "transit-oriented development," despite the lack of a nearby Metro station, which makes it easier to get the zoning variance of 4 parking spots rather than the required 6.

Zavos Architecture and Design, a firm with experience in non-profit, affordable and sustainable community-oriented development, designed into the project a number of "quality of life improving" and energy reducing features. Those include a vegetated roof with walk-on terrace space to manage storm water, reduce heating and cooling loads on the building and provide outdoor green space for residents; permeable parking and other drive areas to allow storm water to filter naturally into the ground and reallocate infrastructural funds to services; high-emissive roofing rather than traditional EPDM to deflect the sun's heat and reduce associated cooling costs; privately metered electricity and hot water to encourage reduced consumption (for a generation always yelling at you to wear a sweater and turn down the heat, that shouldn't be an issue); improved indoor air quality through the installation of non-toxic and non-allergenic flooring; and the maximization of daylight in all units to minimize the use of artificial lighting and improve indoor environmental quality.

"I am most proud of having been able to fit so many services in such a small building. Envisioning people spending the latter part of their lives in this building is something we took seriously. We have designed a quality place for them," remarked Tim Daniel, the project architect for the VIDA-developed housing.

While the elderly account for 12% of the District’s population, retirement age individuals make up over 18% of the population of Ward 4. VIDA has traditionally served the District’s Latino senior citizens, but it is expanding its target demographic to meet growing needs in other populations, specifically identifying African-Americans and immigrants of Caribbean and Brazilian backgrounds, among others.

"The initial goal was always to provide high quality senior housing at affordable rental rates (50% AMI - Area Median Income) and to combine this with space on the ground floor to provide services specifically targeted to seniors. With the recent closing and groundbreaking, we are well on track to achieving these desirable goals," said Jordan Bishop of Dantes Partners. The groundbreaking will take place at 10:30am.

Washington DC real estate development news

Anacostia River Town Gets Makeover with Clean River Approach

When a small town two miles northeast of Washington DC on the Anacostia River pondered its flooding problems, tarmac-like streets, lack of an urban center and the health of its residents, an urban design solution came to mind: the green, efficient and attractive redesign of its main residential strip; but the real beneficiary was to be the health of the Anacostia River.

The township, a short bike ride away from DC, revels in its small-town feel and celebrates its connection to the Anacostia. Bike paths run the length of the river, here just north of where the Anacostia's two branches merge, the river at this point so shallow that scattered rocks serve as a footbridge in several places. But poor urban design plagues cities and towns across the United States that - like Edmonston, MD - were built in the post-automobile era. For decades, Edmonston's outdated and ailing infrastructure has been collecting industrial contaminants from paved areas and funneling them through the drainage systems into the Anacostia, floating through Washington DC into the Chesapeake. Despite the river's small size, flooding was a problem because of Edmonston's extremely low-lying position among surrounding towns with sprawling shopping centers and gargantuan parking lots that pushed water outward, requiring steep levees on the riverbanks. The city's streets were engineered for width and speed, despite frequent intersections and stop signs, leaving the car unrivaled on main street, with retail and foot traffic nonexistent.

That was the old Edmonston. In a single-handed bid to slow down traffic, encourage non-vehicular circulation and beautify the city, the suburban town began a makeover of its streets last year, expecting that its neighbors will emulate its efforts to maintain a healthier Anacostia.

With a boost from federal stimulus funding through the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Edmonston's Mayor Adam Ortiz initiated a project to green the town's main street. Applying smart growth principles, the plan for revamping the town's central artery includes the restoration of the native tree canopy to reduce urban heat island effect; wind-powered, down-pointing streetlamps with energy-efficient LED ballasts; four new bike lanes with permeable brick paving; wider sidewalks connected to regional bike trails; bump-outs to slow down traffic; and, most importantly, 90% on-site rainwater capture.
The plan exceeds the Maryland standard, which requires that the first inch of rainwater be captured for treatment on 50% of all impervious surfaces. Through the inclusion of rain gardens with bioretention cells on either side of the street, the plan provides for 1.33 inches of stormwater capture on 90% of all paved surfaces. Runoff drains into the rain gardens through sloped curb cuts with traditional curbside drainage in place as a fail-safe measure. On top of improving the town's image, the urban planning measures are expected to nearly eliminate the unfiltered runoff that can overwhelm the river.

The initiative will start small, greening just two-thirds of a mile of Decatur Street, creating a communal space primarily belonging to pedestrians, bikers and runners, and lastly the automobile. "Cars don't have rights; communities have rights,” Mayor Ortiz said in a lecture he delivered on July 8th at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC as part of a series on green building practices. Thanks to $ 1.3 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, Ortiz says his shovel-ready project sustained engaged citizen support, generated 50-60 new green jobs, and employed a 70 percent majority of local, minority-run consulting firms such as VMT Contractors and G&C Consultants of Prince George's County.

In the near future Edmonston plans on applying for more federal funding to expand its greening efforts. Speaking with DCMud, Mayor Ortiz said the town would be begin with its main thoroughfare then progress to industrial streets such as Buchanan St. and 49th Avenue. He distinguished between the tangible and intangible effects of redesigning Decatur Street, which will serve as a park as much as it will a street, but community spirit and resident activity will create the sense of place. "Decatur Street is not about getting from point A to point B. We're looking at it as a sole community asset because it serves community purposes as public space,” he said.
Besides encouraging healthier lifestyles and celebrating the increasingly popular notion of a vibrant street life, the improvements on Decatur Street are expected to increase property values in a town where most single family homes are two-bedroom Sears model homes and ranches selling from $80,000-190,000, down 40 percent from two years ago. Plans include connecting Decatur Street to regional bike trails via the Hyattsville spur and the MBT bike trail, tying Edmonston to DC and the National Mall and regional trails. Bikers, runners and paddlers from the DC metropolitan area will have new and improved access to Edmonston, which boasts a model streetscape with interpretive signage explaining all the improvements to and history of Decatur Street.

Equipped with its own public works department, school system and local police force, and seeking resources to forge its own sustainable future, Edmonston officials do not shrink from holding the town up as a potential leader in urban planning and redesign. Immediately adjacent Bladensburg is duplicating storm water management efforts in a large waterfront park along the Anacostia.

Unlike bigger west-coast towns like Seattle and Portland, which have implemented green street initiatives on a much larger scale, Edmonston's 1500 residents are committed to setting a regional example in active, healthy communities with a vibrant street life, not only for the Washington, DC area, but also the mid-Atlantic. Mayor Ortiz equates sustainability with responsibility and calls for best practices to become common practices. More than anything, Ortiz hopes that Edmonston's success will serve as a model for other small towns in the Anacostia watershed. Committed to open-source information sharing, the town of Edmonston has made detailed information on the project available through the town's website.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Historic Shaw Residential Project One Step Closer

The chances of a Shaw townhouse and neighboring empty lot becoming a small residential project are higher now that the project team has cleared the hurdles of Historic Preservation. Recently, the Historic Preservation Review Board approved the recommendation of the HPO to accept plans for the renovation of a "contributing" building within the Shaw historic district and construction of a five-story addition. The current site is two stories of decrepit red brick, far from inhabitable or appealing. Rubble, weedy overgrowth, and trash fill the back lot.

But that may change soon if developer Paul Robertson and architect Brandon Walsh of Robertson + Walsh Design continue with their plans for the renovation and construction project at 1431 11th St. NW. The recent report filed by the Review Board describes the current building as "modest," "Italianate," and "dating from the 1870's."

The Review Board is clearly also mindful of the discrepancy in this part of the Shaw historic district, writing in their recent report that: "the Board has acknowledged that 11th Street is somewhat more compromised than the rest of the historic district in containing numerous vacant lots, a relatively large percentage of non-contributing buildings and a fractured historic context that lacks a strong sense of history of place." For these reasons the Board has been instructed to be more liberal in their review of projects for 11th street, so to encourage redevelopment that respects the current history but allows for greater density and subsequent improvement.

The partnership with architect Brandon Walsh is a fresh one, but they do have a few other projects in the works, including a single family home in Arlington, a vacation home in West Virginia, and a rooftop terrace addition at the Dancebotique. The team has still found time to finalize the schematic design drawings and plans for their project at 1431 11th St. NW. A courtyard will replace the rubble in the back lot, separating the current building from the new five story structure, designed for condos, which will approach the back alley and stand roughly fifty feet higher. Robertson and Walsh say that the simple and clean industrial feel of the design is in keeping with and inspired by the traditional warehouse buildings that often abut alleys, side streets, and back lots of federal style townhouses in the area.

When probed about the inspiration for the design of the planned condominium, Brandon Walsh explains that although no particular building was specifically referenced, the general body of work of McKim, Meade & White guided the styling decisions of their project. McKim, Meade & White were a prolific architectural firm at the turn of the century, regularly contracted for all sorts of buildings, big and small, up and down the eastern seaboard. "McKim, Meade & White seemed like an appropriate reference when Steve Calcott of the HPRB suggested an early 1900s warehouse look." Walsh went on to say "there are plenty of steel and glass curtain wall designs going up around town, so it's refreshing to see something with a little historical context." The few notable buildings of MM&W in the District include both the East and West Wings of the White House, Roosevelt Hall of the National War College, and the National Museum of American History, as well as the Boston Public Library (pictured, left). Walsh wouldn't commit to many style specifics, details of the units, or building materials, as he wants to allow for flexibility as they wade the tricky waters of financing. He did confirm that they are leaning towards large iron, industrial-style windows, and are always looking to experiment with unique materials.

Washington D.C. Real Estate Development news

Friday, July 23, 2010

Yet Another Affordable Housing Project For Columbia Heights

The contract to design, develop, and build a 37-unit affordable housing project at 1421 Euclid Street, NW has been awarded to Euclid Community Partners, a triad consisting of Dantes Partners, Perdomo Group, and Capital Construction Enterprises. Developers and city officials say this $11.5 million Justice Park project will offset gentrification trends in the area, and help Ward One and Columbia Heights to remain a diverse and multi-dimensional community. The rental apartments will be marketed to those in the local workforce making no more than 60% of the Average Median Income (AMI). Mayor Fenty, Ward One Councilman Jim Graham, the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) Valerie Santos, and ANC1B Chairman Gail Holness were all in attendance to officially award the winning contract, and voice their support for the project. Other proposals competing for the contract offered mixed-income developments with only small portions designated as affordable housing units. Clearly affordable "workforce" housing was the priority of the Mayor and his staff, as he elaborated
on his delight at finalized contract, saying: "there was a lot of talk, scrutiny, and debate at city hall about this project ... but we are all glad that the talking has stopped, and the action has gotten back on track."

Questions were raised in the competitive bidding process for this project, but Dantes Parnters now has several opportunities to produce and prove their critics wrong, as principal Buwa Binitie and his company have become actively involved in the development of several other District-owned properties. Binitie and Dantes Partners are bearing the entire load of development responsibilities for the VIDA Senior Residences project at Brightwood and the 5-story, 44-unit residential building on Chapin Street. They have also partnered with EastBanc Inc. as regular favorite project-winners of the Fenty administration, sharing development of the long-neglected West End fire station, library, and police unit buildings, as well as the Hine School redevelopment.

The current 12,325 s.f. Justice Park will cease to be a place for public recreation and become home to construction equipment sometime in mid 2012. That is if the PUD application process or financing struggles don't slow down the project, a common story line for many other developments. In the meantime, a new Justice Park will be constructed across the street on a District owned plot of land that Fenty describes as "lower to the ground, closer to the street, and more accessible to kids, seniors, and families." In addition to the modern design, efficient appliances, class A amenities, front and rear balconies, and rooftop terrace being offered at the new building, Dantes Partners has also agreed to fund the yearly maintenance costs of the new park on the south-side of Euclid. Banneker Ventures, teaming with Regan Associates, will develop the park using a budget of $750,000, but have yet to contract an architectural firm for the design.

Fenty and Santos each stressed their "ongoing commitment" to affordable housing, a rebuttal to the criticism for lack of action on Parcel 42 and other vacant District lots that has angered some city residents, even inspiring protests. But as Councilman Graham's website brags, federal funding has been undoubtedly strong for "workforce" housing: 2,500 units of low-income housing have been preserved and renovated and $256 million of public and private funds have been spent on affordable housing in the last five years. While some detractors contend that affordable housing serves to concentrate poverty and devalue adjacent property, Jim Graham insisted that they were ensuring that "our firefighters, our librarians, our new teachers, and many others" have access to affordable housing. Dantes Partners has projected that their two-bedroom units will cost roughly $1,400 per month, significantly less than the average market rate condo.

The unveiled renderings look suprisingly derivative of the general style of the Villagio apartment building next door. In addressing the press and community members, Buwa was careful to thank the Villagio and its owners for their cooperation and support during this initial design process. For the future residents who aren't lucky enough to have a view of the new park from their balconies, they are at least afforded the next best thing: some quality people watching, looking down on the adjacent BP gas station (and who doesn't look down on BP these days).

The ANC expressed support for the design and the project, but Dantes Partners, along with PGN Architects, will work with the community, ANC, and Zoning Commission to further refine their drawings in the coming months. The developers will seek a nine percent tax break through the District Housing Finance Agency's Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). And if that bid is rejected, the development team will be awarded a non-competitive four percent tax credit, and hope for an additional $4.1 million District subsidy.

Washington D.C. Real Estate Development News

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Live Webchat: NCPC's Comprehensive Plan

Ever wondered how DC's monuments are planned, and how the federal buildings are located and designed? Join Senior Urban Planner David Zaidain from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) today (Thursday) at noon as he discusses federal elements of the National Capital’s Comprehensive Plan, the federal government's long term urban planning vision for the city. NCPC is in the process of updating the plan, including everything from the look of the Mall and urban waterfronts to security and foreign missions. This is your chance to become involved. The discussion will focus on the following topics:
  • How the Comp Plan serves the region
  • The elements of the Plan
  • The Plan's role in guiding federal facility location, transportation, etc.
  • The Plan's policy impact on local/regional development
  • Why the Plan is being updated
  • The addition of an Urban Design Element
  • Opportunities for public involvement

Betting on Bethesda: The Net Zero Energy House


The Olympics are a memory and few in D.C. are high jumping in the searing summer heat, but in the case of Bethesda Net Zero Energy House, an architect’s leap of faith may surely result in winning the Gold - or even Platinum: LEED Platinum.

“Jimmy Carter had solar panels on the White House,” Meditch Murphey Architects Principal Marcie Meditch recalled, an image which may have fueled her vision from time to time and compelled her to build a 4,000 s.f. net-zero energy “spec” house in Montgomery County’s comfortable, cohesive Bannockburn community. Mulling over the concept for a year or two, concerns about building a market-rate house that was green and had a net zero energy footprint - or used as much energy as it produced - and which would sell in a conservative market had precluded immediate action. “I couldn’t find a client,” Meditch said, recalling the “serendipitous meeting of a friend of a friend” at a conference whose mother had recently passed away. The mother’s mid-century wood frame slab-on-grade house in Bethesda had not aged well and needed to be sold, but the family didn’t want a “McMansion” built on the property in its place.

With siting a key requisite, Meditch recognized the potential and seized the moment for her energy efficient home that would make the best use of the sun, as well as of passive natural energy from water and cross ventilation.

Nature and NASA
“We believe that the best place to start when you’re trying to do energy efficiency is not by conceiving of all the high-tech things, but rather how do you create a house which is thermally efficient, has very efficient walls and proper placement of windows,” said project architect Mike Binder. “If you look at the plan for this house, it’s very simple, for instance the living room windows are right across from each other…so air can flow through the house and cool it naturally rather than having to use mechanical energy. There’s a very strong element of sustainable design that has nothing to do with technology but is more about using what nature provides already,” he said.

Nature withstanding, yet conceding that “nobody lives in this area without air conditioning,” Binder, who was a NASA engineer and literal “rocket scientist” before transitioning to architecture, said a ground source heat pump was designated for the house: two wells planted 375-feet deep that store air at a constant ground temperature of about 50 degrees. In the summer, instead of trying to take the heat from the 78-degree air inside and push it into the 95-degree air outside (a huge expenditure of energy), it is taken from the house and mitigated in the ground. The same principle applies to winter air, where rather than creating heat from the 30-degree air outside, it is culled from its constant 50-degree base in the ground.

With an energy-efficient envelope warranting extreme insulation, Meditch Murphey Architects used a layer of insulation on the outside of the house’s framing to act as the first line of defense. Additional insulation was used between the studs, which Binder explained typically act like a “thermal bridge” for energy loss: energy getting into and out of the house. And with a structure that is essentially sealed the way this one is, an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) preconditions or removes the heat, cold and moisture from the air that’s leaving and puts it into the air that’s entering, according to the seasons, which saves on energy.

Light and Water
On the roof, a flat-panel photovoltaic solar array and flat-panel solar hot water collectors harness and utilize available energy, as does the home’s recirculation loop which uses the cold water supply as a return. “When you turn on the hot water in the bathrooms, unless you’ve got tankless water heaters in each of them, which would be costly, there’s this lag time while you’re waiting,” Binder said, noting all the potable cold water gets flushed down the drain in the meantime. “We take that water and actually put it back into the cold water line, and it goes right back to the hot water heater, so nothing is wasted.”

Where lighting was concerned, a combination of LED lights, halogen and other incandescent types were used in the five-bedroom (one is part of an au pair suite), four-bath home, with halogen used in strategic locations such as bathrooms and the kitchen. “LED’s are still a little cool in their color rendering,” Binder said, noting a more balanced light is important “when you’re looking at your face or when you want to see what color your food really is.” He added that the firm doesn’t subscribe to the tenet of “energy efficiency at the expense of all else, including comfort.”

Wood and Glass

To that end, bathroom features are a confluence of sustainability and aesthetics. Custom vanities were crafted by Ray Amos of Pennsylvania’s New Oxford Studios, whose philosophy mandates using reclaimed lumber. Flooring in much of the home is maple from a sustainably-managed forest, where documents show the trees were harvested without impinging on the ecosystem. In the basement, engineered flooring called Eco Timber, a composite that includes a plywood layer, means the highest quality wood is reserved only for the top where it is visible. In the kitchen, substrate for the cabinets is particle board which, instead of being made with traditional high-VOC binders, has a high recycled wood content that is low-VOC with no formaldehyde added to help promote the home’s indoor air quality.

When the home, not yet finished, sold quickly in the fall of 2009, new homeowner Ann Luskey got involved early enough in the process to choose her own tile for the kitchen and downstairs floors, according to Binder, selecting Ecocem (part cement; part cellulose fiber) which is entirely recycled. Countertops are Eco-Terr, which is cement and polished, recycled glass. “It looks like Terrazzo because of its really beautiful finish,” Binder explained, “but it doesn’t have to be shipped all the way from Italy.”

Earth and Trees

Outside the home, Joan Honeyman of Jordan Honeyman Landscape Architects selected trees endemic to the region that would not require artificial irrigation. The trees, deciduous to open the home’s exterior to the sun in winter, will grow as high as the eaves, and not the solar panels, in order to shade just the house in the warmer months. Eco-Lawn, a drought-tolerant grass which requires no watering once it’s germinated and no fertilizers, was also used. All of the patio areas around the house were constructed with pavers: essentially bricks without grouting around which water can flow into the cracks and soak into the ground. Pervious concrete used for the driveway, which Binder said resembles Rice Krispies, allows water to penetrate through to an underlying gravel bed and ultimately to the ground beneath. A flat roof over the master suite and garage was designed to be green, but the architects weren’t sure they could afford it so took a step back. However Luskey, with a background in design, resourcefully went to the Mall at the end of the 2009 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, where 20 collegiate teams had built solar powered homes, and wrangled a green roof destined for the green roof graveyard. “She has maybe half of the area covered. Hopefully some day the house will have a complete green roof,” Binder said, noting the house was designed to be able to evolve easily with its occupants’ needs.

Endorsed by the owner and angling for a LEED Platinum rating, the architects didn’t know until the spring if the grass would come in properly, a prerequisite for the USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) LEED inspection which is pending this month. During construction, the architects made ample use of government subsidies for energy efficiency such as property and income tax credits and loan programs from the state, which meant that somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the cost of the home that sold for $1.8 million was defrayed. “They are essential in making these things attractive to people from a financial point of view,” Binder said.

Photography by Anice Hoachlander

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