Last night, residents across Ward 6 got an update on the Stanton/
Eastbanc project proposed for the former Hine Junior High School site.
I came to the meeting prepared to criticize the structure, having reviewed the renderings last week, but left with the overall impression that this project has many positive qualities.
Many of these could be lost if the fervor of some of the project’s more dogmatic opponents succeed in altering the design between a scheduled HPRB hearing in April and subsequent Zoning Commission review.
About 40 residents gathered for the meeting at St. Coletta’s School, which, for all of you fellow architecture nerds, has a fantastic Michael Graves interior even more intriguing than his design of the exterior.
Truth be told, I am a little concerned about the structure proposed for the corner of 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s a dominant glass block girded with undulating ribbons of brick, conveying a feeling more of Southwest DC’s prevailing brutalist style than that of late 19th-Century Eastern Market.
After an extensive presentation by architect Amy Weinstein—an expert in the pattern language of the Hill—I was convinced that the project strives to integrate into the neighborhood in very innovative, yet historically sensitive, ways.
A human scaled plaza (maybe more appropriately termed a “piazza”?) on C Street graciously engages the Adolf Cluss-designed Market Hall in conversation. The plan blurs the division between the pedestrian and the vehicular, articulating a Dutch-like concept of shared spaces.
These qualities will enliven the streetscape while honoring the very ancient concept of a central market that, in this instance, reaches back to the Jefferson Administration and remains the heart of the Capitol Hill community.
Given this fact, it’s understandable that passions should run so high. But among all of the hyperbole of “too big” and misinformation surrounding the development process, are the arguments against the project based in reality?
The foundational argument of opponents is that there has been a lack of community engagement in this project. While not mentioned last night, this assertion has been bandied about by more than one ANC 6B commissioner and Ward 6 civic association, has been made by individuals on the always-colorful New Hill East listserv, and was a central issue in the contentious 2010 ANC election.
This is more urban legend than fact. There have been numerous opportunities for the public to participate in this discussion, going back to at least 2009 prior to the city’s selection of a development team from a pool of capable respondents to the initial request for proposal. This myth should be put to rest if we are to have a productive discussion moving forward.
Development is complex. Even with a background in planning and historic preservation, there are frequently issues on which I need to seek more experienced and knowledgeable opinions. Some of the comments made by ANC 6B commissioners last night indicate that a more nuanced understanding of the planning, architecture and historic preservation fields is required.
One commissioner, who should know better, expressed concern about the proposed public courtyard on the interior of the project. This public space would be accessed from either C Street or Pennsylvania Avenue and provides valuable pedestrian connectivity mid-block.
This senior member of the Commission cited the social problems and crime such a configuration would create and asked if “MPD had been consulted about this” (a new level of project review, perhaps?) This surely sent Jane Jacobs spinning.
One freshman commissioner aggressively asked the development team if they would pursue a LEED-ND rating and if so would they comply with the 20% open space requirement. I am imagining a frantic Google search for “LEED-ND” at 5:00 in advance of a 6:00 meeting.
Here’s the bottom line. The Hine site represents a rare opportunity for transit-oriented development in the heart of our community.
Problems with the design are one thing and, as presented, they are few. Size is another matter entirely. To say we are opposed to anything of this size is to disregard the many opportunities such a project at its current ratios and composition presents.
Of the three business owners who came out to the meeting—one small bookseller, one hair stylist and another on behalf of a popular clothing and house wares boutique—all openly welcomed such a project for the additional customer base it would attract.
All were enthusiastic supporters of the project and their perspectives helped to ground the discussions in the pragmatic, something we should consider in a neighborhood where debate rages about the proper retail mix. As one supporter of the project pointed out, we need to think about this project within a larger context and how it will support sustainable growth.
We would be mistaken to weigh the concerns of those neighbors immediately surrounding the project greater than those from throughout Ward 6 and across the city. The future of DC is a denser one, but with that density comes a promise of more vibrancy and options that by my unapologetically urban-centric way of thinking, will result in a better quality of life.
Ryan Velasco is the former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for 6C07 and former chair of ANC 6C’s committee on Planning, Zoning and the Environment. He holds a B.A. in Historic Preservation and Community Planning from the College of Charleston and is an alumnus the of GW University’s DC Neighborhood College. Proximity to Eastern Market directly influenced his decision to live on the Hill.