Despite support from the neighborhood ANC and historic staff, the Historic Preservation Review Board last month rejected designs for a 6-story building along the east side of 14th Street, agreeing with some neighbors who have organized to fight the proposal.
The opponents, Doug Johnson and Craig Brownstein, warn that this project will make the neighborhood become “like Ballston,” claimed it will “hulk over the entire block, casting neighbors into constant shadow,” and posted some pictures with the caption “Wallachzilla.”
HPRB asked architect Eric Colbert to redesign the project, with particular attention to the Wallach Street setback. HPRB chair Catherine Buell told me that the board felt this “will change character of this narrow street in particular,” and that the board “has consistently ruled that buildings have to be set back.”
But there are plenty of buildings adjacent to narrow streets, not set back, that exist and more importantly don’t ruin the character of the street. Here’s one from right near my own house (and thus not the same historic district as the Wallach one):
The Wallach proposal has 6 stories adjacent to narrow Wallach Place, with the bottom one larger. This building has 6½ stories. Yet I’ve walked past this building countless times, and never thought, ugh, this building is so tall and imposing! If it does cast a shadow, I’ve either thought, “It’s great there is shade on this hot day,” or, “It’s too bad this building has so many ugly air conditioners sticking out and dripping on the sidewalk.”
And the feel of the street is just simply not ruined by the building. Yes, it helps that there are large trees, which hopefully Wallach can gain as well over time. But even without them, such a building can easily coexist with small row houses. These ones near the building are only 2½ stories above ground.
Johnson and Brownstein seem to hold a minority view among active residents in the neighborhood. The ANC and its design review committee both approved the project. The HPO staff report also endorsed it as consistent with preservation.
Johnson and Browstein say “nobody told us about” the project. But some other active residents have pushed back on that assertion, noting that it had come up in neighborhood meetings and on the neighborhood email list.
Their biggest concern seems to be parking. They write, “Traffic whizzing down Wallach will increase and street parking (which is to say what barely exists now) will evaporate; ... Residents on T and Wallach who share the same alley will face exponentially more trouble negotiating in and out of their off-street parking spots; ... What is in the developer’s own terms “a building for interns” is being air-dropped into a neighborhood that’s now more Sesame Street than Soho.”
There are, as always, better solutions to parking. As they note, U Street already has scarce street parking because the neighborhood is popular. Keeping people out doesn’t solve that. Besides, if the building is really for interns, and right by the Metro, how many will really bring cars to DC or even register cars here? Interns are probably the ideal neighbors if you’re worried about on-street parking.
And as someone who lives near large apartment buildings, I can assure them that people don’t park in the alleys unless they’re allowed to. It’s not harder to get in and out of an alley parking spot just because an apartment building is down the block. The only issues are how wide the alley is and who’s parked at the houses on either side.
HPRB, and Johnson and Brownstein, did all agree that the building looks a lot like others in the neighborhood. If HPRB can push for the highest quality architectural work, great. But this is a side issue and not really a preservation one; buildings that look just like others in a historic district are, by definition, compatible.
ANCs are notoriously biased toward opposing projects. HPO staff tend to take expansive views of the historic preservation laws. It’s too bad the HPRB is forcing reductions in a project which all of these groups support, one which is not that different from other buildings, and which won’t really destroy anyone’s neighborhood.