Developers of the Hine school near Eastern Market unveiled the latest iteration of their plans last night. It’s not the most beautiful Capitol Hill building, but historic review should improve the project as long as it doesn’t also accede to some bad ideas from opponents to try to shrink the project and push it away from the street.

On the EMMCA blog, Larry Janezich posted some photos of the presentation:

Photos from EMMCA.

The project contains a number of sections that will be designed as individual buildings, some commercial, some residential. Some will have brick, to reflect brick on nearby buildings, while others will use slate or clay tile. Some portions will be taller than others to give a varied roofline and emphasize entrances.

Unfortunately, developer Stanton Eastbanc hasn’t posted their presentation online, forcing people to judge the project based on lower-quality photos of projected slides that don’t necessarily reflect the colors correctly. Even so, just a good sketch doesn’t say everything about the materials used or really how a building will look when completed.

Jenkins Row. Photo by jsmjr on Flickr.

For a successful recent example, look to Jenkins Row, the apartment complex containing the Harris Teeter a few blocks away at the corner of Potomac and Pennsylvania Avenues, SE.

Jenkins Row takes up about half of a pretty large block, but it doesn’t look like a huge building from the street. To avoid visual monotony, the building has a number of different facades that read like different buildings.

That tan brick section with the metal bays doesn’t look bad in person. While it is clearly contemporary, it fits in fine with the nearby townhouses. It’s just a reasonably well-done new building in a historic neighborhood. Its ground-floor retail addresses the street well, and the facades have a clear top, middle, and bottom.

Historic review will, and should, push to improve architectural quality. Being right at Eastern Market, perhaps a higher level of detail than Jenkins Row, and high-quality materials, are especially appropriate. What’s not appropriate is efforts to push for a uniformly low building that stands away from, rather than engaging, the street.

Yesterday, EMMCA also listed a number of objections from a group called “Eyes on Hine.” They object to a “monolithic” appearance, but primarily seek to address that by shrinking the building rather than breaking up the visual appearance architecturally.

One recommendation is to remove a 5-story section on the corner of 8th and D and a 5-story piece above the 8th Street entrance. But taller sections are one great way to reduce monotony. As for the height, an earlier presentation from the developer (PDF) shows that there are, and have been, similarly tall buildings in the area. 5 stories will not “destroy the neighborhood” in any way.

The EOH letter also criticizes the 4-story bays, which the architects added to meet resident requests that they make the building look more residential. Instead, it asks for more and varied setbacks on the building, and to create a recessed entrance on 8th.

However, on 14th Street, NW, the ARTS overlay review recently criticized recessed entrances, which zoning had encouraged. Those lead to dead spaces that take away from potential residents and stores without actually adding useful public space.

Reducing connections between the building and the street would not improve the project. 8th Street is the closest very close to the Metro, and ideal for the “quiet retail” Stanton Eastbanc is proposing, not wide buffers. More space could serve sidewalk cafes, but that probably would not constitute “quiet retail” or please residents across the street.

Ironically, many blocks of Capitol Hill have long, unbroken rows of townhouses, all with the same setback. Except for variations in color, often they are all nearly identical. On many blocks, there is little to no setback from the property line.

We’ve seen this same reaction over and over, from Ravenwood Park to Wheaton to Brookland to 14th and U. Anything that’s even the same height as some neighboring buildings but taller than others will “destroy the neighborhood” and “choke off light and air.” Everything is “too massive” unless it’s virtually invisible.

Enough is enough. Buildings are a part of metropolitan areas. Some of them are taller than others. Blocking any reasonable, attractive buildings that are just a tiny bit taller than one’s house should not be a right.

This project is very reasonable in size. It’s hard to tell how good the architecture is from these limited drawings, but if community input and historic review can lead to a more attractive building occupying the same envelope, it will pay off in residents who can patronize area businesses, tax revenue for DC, eyes on the street to make the neighborhood safer, and an attractive building people can enjoy having in the center of this beautiful neighborhood.

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.