Last week, Mexican architect Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos presented his designs for two new major mixed-use projects in the West End. The two buildings will infuse a neighborhood bordered by classic but staid rowhouses and filled with boring or even depressing institutional architecture with some creativity of design.

All images courtesy of TEN Arquitectos.

The two separate projects, from Georgetown development powerhouse EastBanc, are part of a deal with the city to replace the neighborhood’s aging public library and fire house.  EastBanc will get the development rights to the city-owned parcels in exchange for incorporating a new library and fire station into the mixed-use developments. The library project, to be built on three adjacent parcels along L Street NW between 23rd and 24th Streets, will devote about half of the first two floors to the library, leaving the rest of the ground floor for retail spaces, and will be topped by 10 floors of high-end residential units.
The fire station project, on a smaller single parcel at the corner of 23rd and M Streets NW, puts the fire house on the first two floors, reserves the next two for a squash club, and will be topped by four stories of workforce affordable housing. Reactions to the building design have been positive and negative, though few would argue with Norten’s characterization of these dilapidated sites as the “missing teeth” in a neighborhood which is otherwise filled with high-end residences, hotels, and offices. Norten interestingly described the West End as a neighborhood ripe for architectural individuality. Wedged between the pomp and formality of downtown and the quaint nostalgia of Georgetown, the site calls for “freshness, energy and dynamics” that the other two, and even the West End itself to some extent, lack. The library is certainly eye-catching at first, but a closer look reveals what is, at its heart, a relatively standard glass-box building.  Still, there’s intrigue in the design which allows the developer to build close to the maximum allowable square footage yet uses setbacks and overhangs to evoke something far more interesting than the glass, steel and concrete boxes that fill the entire development envelope of countless parcels throughout the city.
The exterior at first strikes the viewer as a pixelated glass amoeba, undulating in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. At second glance, the patterns become clearer as each side of building creates a 3 dimensional arrow drawing the viewer’s eye around the building.  Unfortunately, this pattern which repeats itself on each side makes the building loom at each left-hand corner where the top floor appears to overhang the rest of the mass, particularly in comparison to the right side which presents increasingly deep setbacks as it rises from the 6th floor. While the the step-backs create some balconies throughout the fa├žade, there are just as many step-outs where, not only are there no balconies, but the unit above blocks sunlight to the unit below.  These step-outs rankled at least one neighbor in the building to the north. The woman was distraught that, while she bought her condo knowing that the site would be redeveloped and she would lose her southward window view, the overhanging levels on the proposed design would even eliminate the view from her patio, something she never anticipated.
Initial renderings show a street-level façade that is far more ordinary than the building above it. Luckily this is counteracted by the views into the library, which will feature a block-long “undulating wall of books” that runs the length of the interior.  This design allows the library to be transparent and inviting, Norten said, while enlivening the façade from a distance with the amalgam of colors from the books.
The fire station project presents an even more engaging design.  It stands as a stark contrast to the monotonous boxes that crowd the street behind it.  Where large street-facing projects sometimes attempt to break this monotony horizontally, mimicking contiguous small-parcel development, here Norten engages the viewer vertically, differentiating each of the uses with a new facade styles, colors and sizes.  The negative space within the parcel envelope provides a much need reprieve from the standard Washington office cube. Architectural merits aside, the projects boast a number of outstanding urban features that will contribute to the vitality of West End and the larger neighborhood.  The squash club above the fire station building will be open to the public on an hourly basis as opposed to requiring costly memberships like most sports clubs.  Among the half-dozen courts will be several with designated spectator seating to accommodate squash matches and tournaments of local schools and universities.  The stories above will provide 52 units of affordable, workforce housing in a neighborhood otherwise awash in luxury condominiums, apartments and row houses. Household income for those units will be capped at 60% AMI, around $62,000 for a family or $48,000 for a single renter.  Full-time students will not be eligible for these units, allaying some community members’ fears that they would quickly be filled with students from neighboring Georgetown and George Washington Universities. The library will get a new home, in an open, airy space which, Joe Sternlieb of EastBanc emphasized, will attract a much broader segment of the community. In response to neighbors’ observations that the current building is often mistaken for a homeless shelter, Sternlieb responded that, in a bustling, open library the predominance of the homeless is significantly diminished, making a safer place for all users. To maintain the library, 85% of the deed and recording taxes on sales of units in the building will be placed in a maintenance fund designated for the West End Library. Parking for residential units is provided in a 202-space, below-grade garage.  At approximately one space per unit, this is high for a building within blocks of a metro stop and every other imaginable neighborhood amenity.  But, the project will replace 114 current surface spaces, and, considering the high income brackets of future residents and units sized to accommodate even couples with small children, may encourage relatively low per-capita car ownership for the target demographics. The building will also boast 108 bike parking spaces in the garage as well racks along the property frontage.  One of the ANC commissioners asked if Mr. Norten would be willing to design special bike racks to fit the style of his building design, which Norten readily agreed to.  Sternlieb also pointed out that EastBanc is in discussions with DDOT about incorporating a future Capital Bikeshare station. Both projects will seek a minimum LEED Gold certification. If any remaining qualms of the neighbors can be allayed without major changes to the design, the West End could soon become home to two of DC’s more interesting architectural specimens.