Conceptual floor plans. Images from the developer.

On Monday evening, CastleRock Partners, the development team selected by Howard University after a decades-long back-story for its Howard Town Center project on Georgia Avenue at V Street, presented its concept for the site at a meeting hosted by the Pleasant Plains Civic Association.

As part of its long-term ground lease agreement with the university, which the developers said should be signed within a week, the project must include a grocery store and the developers were looking to include approximately 450 apartment units. Otherwise, the developers stressed that their proposal was in its initial phases and things like design and potential tenants were subject to change.

That’s good, because the Howard Town Center proposal as it stands needs some work. Here are the areas of contention:

Connecting W Street: In 2005, the City Council adopted the Duke plan, a small area plan for Shaw and U Street. One of the key components of the Duke plan was guidance for public realm improvements in the neighborhood, including knitting together the superblocks into a better grid. Tim Kissler of CastleRock told the at-capacity room Monday evening that “what we have is basically what’s drawn in [the Duke] plan.”

Except it’s not. The Duke plan connects W Street between Georgia and Florida Avenues. This project as proposed would prevent that from happening, instead using that area as an underground parking ramp.

Duke plan proposal for W Street.

Howard University needs to better connect with surrounding neighborhoods. There are few better ways to do that than to stitch together the missing street grid that separates the university from the neighborhoods to the west. As it stands, this proposal fails to achieve this community goal. The Town Center proposal includes a mid-block pedestrian cut-through, but it’s located closer to V Street. Perhaps it would be more effective closer to W Street, where the connection is actually missing.

Parking: Since the exact amount of retail is not yet determined (the number floated Monday was up to 125,000 square feet, including the grocery store), the developers wouldn’t put a number to the amount of parking they plan to include. They acknowledged the forces competing over parking, with the DC Office of Planning pushing for fewer spaces than required and potential retail tenants (on whom project financing depends) interested in more suburban amounts of parking. It looks like OP has learned the lesson of DC USA, even if retailers have not. When a neighbor raised the issue of the water table hampering underground construction, Tim Kissler told her that it just costs a lot of money to build deep. Since all of this project’s parking will be underground, there is a big opportunity cost to building as much parking as retailers demand. That money could be used for a lot of other things that actually make the project better.

Affordable housing: The project is participating in DC’s Inclusionary Zoning program, but the developers are only meeting the IZ minimums, proposing that 8 percent of the residential units be priced below market value. This was a big concern for many residents at the meeting, who were dissatisfied with such a low number.

Sidewalks: A DDOT representative at the meeting noted that Georgia Avenue’s sidewalks are their narrowest at this project’s location. Despite the high-traffic retail proposed for this project, the developer didn’t provide for wider sidewalks in this draft plan and seemed reluctant to do so when asked about it by a neighbor. DDOT’s representative said that this is something DDOT will be negotiating with the developer. This project is also within Georgia Avenue’s Great Streets plan, and the timeline for streetscape improvements on lower Georgia Avenue coincides with the construction timeline for this project.

8th Street streetscape: One neighbor raised her concern that 8th Street, NW would become a de facto alley for this project, with loading docks and insensitive design not unlike DC USA’s treatment of Hiatt Place. While there will be loading docks, residential units will also be located on the upper floors of the project along 8th Street. The devil will be in the details for 8th Street - loading docks may move or become larger or smaller, drastically affecting the quality of the streetscape.

Conceptual rendering of Howard Town Center. Photo from the developers.

Although the developers stressed that their $150 million proposal shown Monday was preliminary, they also laid out an aggressive timeline for development despite the sluggish economy, with groundbreaking in one year and another 18 months until the project’s completion. The developers said that they decided not to go through the Planned Unit Development process because it would have taken too much time, and the project is not seeking any zoning variances. PUDs give the public, through the Zoning Commission, an opportunity to improve the design and push for benefits for the community.

While an improvement for Georgia Avenue, the project as it stands barely meets the minimums for responsible development. Because the developer isn’t planning a PUD, citizens will need to work hard to ensure the developer improves the product.