Some Adams Morgan leaders have said “no” once again to a proposal to replace an ugly 1970s bank building at the corner of 18th and Columbia. Redevelopment would destroy what’s now a plaza, but does it have to? If neighbors got over some “height-itis,” maybe not.

April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

For most of this year, controversy has swirled around proposals from PN Hoffman to redevelop what’s now a two-story SunTrust bank building dating to 1973 and a brick plaza. Hoffman’s initial proposal left a much smaller (but more attractively landscaped) plaza at the corner. Opposition was immediate, and took two forms.

Some people, like the “Save Our Plaza” group, focused most on the plaza itself. The place has some history involving the neighborhood’s past efforts to push for fair lending to low-income homebuyers from the Perpetual Federal Savings bank, which used to use the building. Others simply feel that an open gathering space at Adams Morgan’s central corner is a worthwhile part of the urban environment.

The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Others, like Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A zoning committee chair JonMarc Buffa, focus opposition mostly on the size of the proposed building. Much of the 18th Street strip is three stories high, while this building would have been six or seven to the cornice line (plus a set back penthouse).

There are buildings of similar height in the immediate area, but many people including HPRB member, architect, and stalwart opponent of height (except on his own buildings) Graham Davidson said it was too tall and too massive.

September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

Many others, like the commenters on this Borderstan article, argue that Adams Morgan could benefit from more residents (helping neighborhood retail besides bars and late-night pizza places thrive), that DC needs housing, and besides, this is private property.

Open space isn’t a bad thing, but neither are buildings. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

How about a plaza AND new housing?

While this is indeed private property (though the city’s historic preservation process has wide latitude to control what’s built), there’s some merit to the argument that in a well-planned Adams Morgan, it would still be good to have a plaza here.

My neighborhood has a large circular park right at the Metro station. Even though it takes a lot of land away from being used for needed housing, it’s a terrific amenity and I wouldn’t want it developed.

However, that doesn’t mean I want to keep people out of the neighborhood, either. I support building more housing on other sites and would support taller buildings around the circle where they are low.

What is the priority for Adams Morgan residents? If the plaza is the most important thing, they could propose that instead of shrinking the building, PN Hoffman makes it even taller, but in exchange leaves more of the site open. Or want to minimize height? Then the plaza, which is not public land, probably has to go.

Site plan showing the current building.

I’d go with more height and more plaza space if possible. Tall buildings at prominent corners are actually a defining feature of DC (to the extent any DC building is “tall”) and other cities. This marquee corner would be a great spot for something really dramatic that could anchor and characterize Adams Morgan. All of the proposals were architecturally conservative, and have gotten even more so in subsequent revisions. This is why DC has a reputation for boring architecture.

The best vehicle for such an arrangement would be what’s called a Planned Unit Development. It’s a more involved process that gives a developer more zoning latitude in exchange for benefits to a community. Hoffman hadn’t been pursuing a PUD, perhaps hoping for a quicker turnaround in the process, but if neighbors agreed to support something with more density and more plaza space, it would reduce the uncertainty of doing a PUD and open up possibilities for a better project.

I don’t want to represent that something is possible that might not be: I haven’t talked to PN Hoffman about this possibility. Making a building taller adds construction cost; I’m not privy to the dynamics of their deal to control the land. But in most projects, there is some opportunity for give and take if neighbors really were willing to prioritize asking for one thing and being more flexible on another.

Not a lot of activity. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And let’s not kid ourselves — this plaza is nothing special. It’s hosted a farmer’s market, but Hoffman has said they’d work to relocate it to another large expanse of sidewalk right across the intersection. For most people walking through Adams Morgan, this spot is just the ugly dead zone in between the interesting commercial strips in various directions.

A smaller but well-designed plaza could be more useful. A larger AND well-designed one could be even better, and potentially even feasible if height weren’t such a bugaboo.

Unfortunately, area activists don’t seem likely to suggest a taller building and a better plaza. Instead, the Save Our Plaza people seem almost as angry about the number of feet proposed for the building; their petition actually mentions the height first, before the plaza.

A more detailed plan could help

The DC Office of Planning created a vision plan for the neighborhood last year, and it in fact cites the plaza as something to hopefully preserve. But there was no official policy change to protect it, nor did that plan consider offsetting zoning changes to add more housing elsewhere in the neighborhood. The plan had good uncontroversial ideas (better wayfinding, more green roofs, public art) but doesn’t actually determine where new housing can go.

The zoning for this site allows a building atop the plaza. Historic preservation is almost wholly discretionary and the preservation board doesn’t publish detailed written decisions, making it impossible to know what is and isn’t acceptable.

If DC’s practice was to devise more concrete plans, we could imagine having a clear vision that lays out how much housing DC needs, what proportion of that would be fair to allocate to Adams Morgan, and a strategy for where to put it and where not to. The zoning could then match this vision instead of bearing at best a passing resemblance.

Instead, it seems that the only thing that would satisfy Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C is virtually no change at all. That’s not reasonable; the city is growing, and so should Adams Morgan’s core. But neighborhood leaders can think through how they’d best accommodate that change, and the government could help. And maybe this site could still have a better building and a plaza at the same time.