“This neighborhood doesn’t need any revitalizing,” said one resident who lives near 5333 Connecticut Avenue, NW, throwing back into developer Jane Cafritz’s face a newspaper quote where she said the proposed glassy, 9-story, 263-unit residential building would revitalize the neighborhood.
Hearing this, the crowd of Chevy Chase DC residents, most over 50, erupted into applause. Over 200 residents packed the Chevy Chase Community Center Wednesday evening to hear about the project firsthand from Jane and Calvin Cafritz and their team.
One side of the parcel abuts Military Road, the major east-west corridor across the top of the District. The other borders Kanawha Street, a very narrow residential street featuring mostly mid-sized bungalows.
At the outset, Mrs. Cafritz promised the skeptical audience that the glassy design that had been circulating widely was, in fact, not the building they planned to construct. She promised a forthcoming website to collect input on design and other concerns, which would give architect Eric Colbert, one of DC’s most prolific residential apartment designers, an opportunity to revisit the design.
Not what Cafritz plans to build.
Zoning permits the building as of right
A group of residents has been actively organizing against the project, but their influence is limited because the Cafritz proposal will be completely “as of right,” or fitting into the existing zoning without needing any special approvals.
Attorney Whayne Quinn explained the area’s zoning and noted the building conforms to all requirements. It will cover only 45% of the lot. Quinn said that the project would be only half the size of the Kenmore building, 2 blocks to the north, with half the floor-area ratio and half the units, although one neighbor commented that the Kenmore itself ought not to be something the Cafritzes would be proud to emulate.
The building will be 90 feet, the height allowed under zoning, Quinn explained. However, one neighbor questioned whether they should measure the height from Connecticut Avenue or Kanawha Street. A representative from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) confirmed that the Cafritzes could measure the building from either, and it looks like the they will choose the method that will provide the greatest height.
The height issue was one that resonated with the neighbors, many of whom complained about the sun shadow the building will create during the winter. None of the Cafritz team rebutted or discussed this complaint.
In one of the livelier and more bizarre exchanges, the owner of several abutting residential apartment buildings admonished the Cafritzes for building a 9-story building on a block of 8-story buildings, saying to do so is taking advantage of the neighbors.
Another neighbor raised the common complaint about school overcrowding, and argued that those moving into the development would cause additional strain on the system. In a prior meeting, Councilmember Mary Cheh had taken another neighbor to task for a similar statement, letting him know that it was the right of any resident to have the city school their children. Certainly, school overcrowding is a real concern, but Cheh was correct to point out that this is not reason to prevent anyone from living where they want in our city.
Design tries to reduce mass along Connecticut, Kanawha
Colbert said he designed the building to have more mass along Military Road. A break and driveway on Connecticut Avenue will make it appear less massive from the front.
The Cafritzes’ landscape architect said they plan to provide mature trees and as much of a green buffer as possible between the building and homes on Kanawha Street, and to the rear of the building. He argued that the smaller lot occupancy would permit more trees. Despite this, some complained that mature trees would need to be cut down, as these trees lie in the proposed building’s footprint.
Grainy photo of proposed footprint.
The development team’s presentation emphasized that the building would embrace green elements, in construction, use of materials, energy consumption, and rainwater management. However, when pressed on the environmental benefits, the architect admitted the building was not seeking any LEED certification, because the process of doing so was “too expensive.”
Almost the entire crowd applauded a neighbor who asked why the building could not be brick instead of glass. She said the glass made it look like a building at 9th and K Streets.
Mrs. Cafritz seemed open to changing the glass, although in continued questioning it did not appear Colbert, the architect, had yet started to think about this change. Also, the Washington Post reported today that Mrs. Cafritz told subsequently Councilmember Mary Cheh they plan to stick with glass
Colbert spent considerable time explaining how a glass building would be energy-efficient and that interior light would not shine on neighboring homes, although he admitted there would be considerable sun reflections from the glass.
Traffic analysis doesn’t please opponents
DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented a traffic assessment which found the building would not have a significant effect on traffic. Zimbabwe explained to the crowd that they should expect traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue to get worse over the next decade, with or without the building.
DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented information about the current traffic levels in the area. Traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue has actually declined slightly between 2006 and 2011 according to DDOT’s traffic counts, Zimbabwe reported, which drew derisive laughs from the audience.
The traffic analysis predicts that the new construction would add 97 cars to morning rush hour and 127 cars to evening rush hour, but DDOT does not view this as likely to have a significant effect on traffic.
“any intersection where one has to wait more than one light cycle is a failed intersection”
This drew murmurs from a skeptical audience. One neighbor, describing the traffic backups each rush hour on Military Road as it crosses each intersection from Western Avenue to Rock Creek Park, pointed out the classic traffic engineering rule of thumb that if drivers need to wait more than one light-cycle, the intersections are all “failing.”
Zimbabwe argued that this is precisely the type of project that will help cut down on area traffic. Residents will have a shorter commute downtown, and could would walk the ¾ mile to Metro. At this, the crowd erupted into laughter.
Later in the evening, one of those laughing at this statement shouted out, in complete sincerity, “why isn’t the building installing geothermal heating?” Perhaps I was the only one who found that ironic.
Can the building avoid straining the alley?
One of the main issues neighbors raised, and one that might be easy to solve, is the project’s intent to use the existing residential alley for both a 197-space parking garage and delivery access. Currently, only the 20 or so homes that are on the alley tend to use it, so there would be a marked increase in traffic.
However, DDOT policy does not permit additional curb cuts into to the property. Zimbabwe explained that DDOT wants to minimize the number of separate entrances off a street, each of which create the opportunity for conflicts between turning cars and other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, just as in an intersection.
A solution came up that could satisfy both DDOT and residents: widen the curb cut for the alley, so that the building vehicle entrance is not directly off the alley but immediately next to the alley entrance.
DDOT can’t forbid residents from getting parking stickers
If traffic flow issues drew a skeptical response, the increased impact the project would have to on-street parking brought even more consternation. One neighbor handed DDOT his own parking assessment of Kanawha Street, where he said it is already difficult to find parking after 10 pm at night, He estimated he’d need to walk 4 blocks to find a parking spot after the building is completed. This fired up several in the audience, one of whom shouted, “bad parking rules.”
Zimbabwe explained that while the block was not zoned for Residential Permit Parking today, DDOT would permit residents to obtain RPP stickers if they petitioned DDOT to do so, as is its policy for other blocks.
The DC Council considered a bill last year that would have let building owners work out a deal with DDOT where their building would never be eligible for RPP, or not for a set period of time. However, a group of councilmembers, led by Chairman Mendelson, voted the bill down.
It appeared to me there that the neighbors expressed a few very valid concerns. It should be possible to address each, at least to a certain extent.
- It would be nice for the Cafritzes to work on ways to minimize the building blocking sunlight for nearby residents. However, I would imagine them reluctant to relent even a bit, because the neighbors might seek a far greater reduction in height than they may be comfortable with.
- The glass façade seems to be one where the Cafritzes are ready to listen to alternatives. Red brick was the consensus of the audience.
- A parallel driveway immediately adjacent to the alley entrance would seem to address the concern about alley access.
- The parking/traffic conundrum seems difficult to solve. Neighbors who want more underground spots would then see more traffic in the neighborhood, and might then complain about more cut-through traffic on other streets.
- LEED certification ought to be in the cards. Or, at least, the Cafritzes should consider doing what Douglas Jemal did at the Babe’s site, which was to design the building to LEED standard but not actually undergo through the expensive certification process.
- How the property sits on the land will continue to be a bone of contention. The site plan did appear to have as much of a buffer as possible to the rear and along Kanawha Street, although much of the open space it devoted to a rear garden area for building residents. It would not appear the Cafritzes are willing to have a smaller footprint and more massive building sited closer to Connecticut Avenue, as such building would not permit him to have the same number of smaller units that he contemplates.
Mrs. Cafritz said a website would open soon for the community to offer comments. Beyond that, it is hard to know how willing they are to have more meetings with interested neighbors, given that the project is as-of-right.
Correction: The original version of this article erroneously reported that Sam Zimbabwe had said that traffic would increase in the future, when in fact he said that it had decreased (slightly) in the past. It also said that DDOT had conducted a traffic study for the building; DDOT instead reported some information about traffic in the area, but does not do its own traffic studies for matter-of-right buildings.