Image from JBG.

The architects of an 8-story apartment building at 13th and U streets, NW have tweaked their design after the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) came close to asking to remove a whole floor. Instead, they’ve aptly demonstration how it’s possible to make a building feel less large without actually making it much smaller at all.

In December, HPRB heard from JBG, the developer who owns the site, and their architect David M. Schwartz about their plans to replace the low strip mall complex containing Rite Aid, Pizza Hut, and other stores with an attractive apartment building.

Historic preservation staff favorably recommended the building, which they said “has many of design characteristics that are found in traditional apartment building design and which would result in a compatible relationship with its surroundings in this location.”

The composition has been organized with three vertically-oriented towers so that it doesn’t look squat or horizontal; the corner balconies and paired windows help reinforce the vertical emphasis. The rhythm and proportions of fenestration on the residential floors is consistent with historic apartment buildings, while the first floor is designed and articulated to reinforce the street’s pedestrian scale and retail character.

A number of nearby residents, however, objected that it was too large compared to nearby townhouses. The board split fairly evenly, with a number of members suggesting deleting a floor. Graham Davidson, who calls buildings “too tall” with great frequency, praised the building as beautifully designed, but still felt compelled to come down on the side of lopping a floor off despite the fact that it would disrupt the elegant proportions.

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler convinced the board to simply ask JBG and Schwartz to try to do something on the 13th Street side, farthest from other large buildings. This week, they will go back to the board with a revised design that makes some small tweaks, but ones that staff believe have addressed the board’s concerns.

Previous (top) and current (bottom) designs for the front of the building.

The rounded corner at 13th and U is one story shorter, and there is a more pronounced cornice line at 7 stories that runs along the whole side of the building. Balconies along the top floor in “hyphen” spaces between the center, left and right “tower” elements are deeper as well, and on the back side facing Wallach Place, there are more balconies to break up the solid mass of the building.

Previous (top) and current (bottom) designs for the front of the building.

The staff report says:
The revisions illustrate how relatively small changes in massing can substantially change the perceived height, weight and bulk of a large scale building. While harder to appreciate in photographs of the model … these changes result in a very different reading of the building. … The result is a building which reads lower, lighter and more varied at its roofline, and which relates more compatibly with its surrounding context.
I thought the last design related compatibly enough, but this design ought to placate the board, if members can look beyond the simple number of floors. This change also clearly illustrates how developers and architects can address concerns without actually shrinking the building very much. Neighbors unhappy with a proposal often focus on its total height, but a fairly short building can look imposing while a much taller one does not (just look at some of the beautiful apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue, for instance). Rather than pushing for fewer floors, neighbors should push for better design and small changes at the corners that can make a difference in a neighborhood’s look and feel. HPRB, meanwhile, should praise the architect for these changes and get the project on its way to being built as soon as possible. Update: HPRB voted unanimously to support the revised design.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.