View from Pennsylvania Avenue. Image from the developers.

A few Capitol Hill residents gave long and sometimes angry speeches yesterday against allowing mid-rise buildings at the Eastern Market Metro at a hearing before the Historic Preservation Review Board yesterday.

But the Historic Preservation Review Board avoided letting height hostility co-opt historic preservation, and instead adopted The Historic Preservation Review Board has still to decide many issues, while an excellent staff report focused on other issues with the project’s design.

The project will create four separate buildings, some residential and some commercial, on the block between 7th and 8th Streets SE north of Pennsylvania Avenue, including a public piazza. It will also reconnect C Street across the site, which can be closed on weekends as 7th to add even more public space.

The buildings will range from 4 stories across the street from townhouses to 7 stories right on Pennsylvania Avenue. On some residential façades, ground-floor units will have separate entrances to resemble the townhouses nearby. On the commercial streets, the buildings will have ground-floor retail and possibly some retail on the floor immediately below ground as well.

Opponents of the Hine project focused on a key word in the historic preservation law: “compatible.” Any project in a historic district must be compatible with the neighborhood. But what does “compatible” mean?

To many people, a project is only compatible if it’s no larger than any other buildings. One resident, in fact, argued that no project in a historic district should be allowed to be more than a single story taller than any other building nearby. Since Eastern Market is 2 stories, that means he opposes anything more than 3.

But that’s not what “compatible” really means. Already on Capitol Hill are some 2-story buildings across the street from 5-story buildings. There are some 6- and 7-story buildings. Another resident argued that those buildings aren’t compatible either, and shouldn’t be built if they were proposed today. That’s not how the historic district rules work. Compatibility takes into account all the conributing buildings in a district, not just the shortest ones.

The man also argued said this would become the tallest building between the Library of Congress and around 11th Street, SE. That is based on the building’s tallest point, which is only a small piece of the building, but even so: it’ll be the tallest between the next Metro station to the west and the next Metro station to the east.

That’s how an urban form ought to look. Buildings right on commercial corridors and at transit nodes should be the largest, with smaller buildings like townhouses in the spaces between.

Fortunately, the Historic Preservation Office agrees. In an excellent staff report by Amanda Molson and Steve Callcott, HPO argued that the height of a building is not the only criterion for compatibility, and that at this prominent corner, something taller may be just what belongs in the historic district:

The Board’s design guidelines for new construction do not explicitly lay out an acceptable ratio of the height of new construction to surrounding buildings. Instead, the guidelines state: “Perhaps the best way to think about a compatible new building is that it should be a good neighbor, enhancing the character of the district and respecting the context.” As has been shown in historic districts throughout the city, this can be done with taller new construction if careful attention is paid to the design, proportions, materials and other characteristics that collectively work to achieve compatibility. …

The Pennsylvania Avenue office building will be the project’s “beacon” as viewed from the avenue, attracting the attention of riders emerging from Metro and drivers on the avenue. It will also likely be the tallest building on Pennsylvania Avenue. However, being the tallest building doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be incompatible with the historic district. This location facing the commercial corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street is certainly the most logical place to locate taller construction.

Historically, the Wallach School, while not as tall as the proposed office building, provided a similar punctuation on the avenue with one of Capitol Hill’s most important civic buildings. Given the breadth of the wide avenue, the relative hierarchical importance of this building in the totality of project, and the site’s frontage on a L’Enfant square and adjacency to a Metro station, additional height in this location is not inappropriate provided that the

building is otherwise designed to “enhance the character of the district and respect its context.”

The staff report had plenty of specific quibbles with design elements. It suggests angling the top floor of the office building to provide visual interest and reduce a bit of the perceived massing. (One thing height opponents often don’t realize is that small changes to a roofline can greatly affect how tall a building looks, without changing how tall it really is.) Likewise, they suggest shrinking some of the retail bays or adding projections.

HPO staff also recommend rethinking the design of the northern residential building, which was designed as a “single pavilion” to evoke elements of Eastern Market. The staff feel that Eastern Market shouldn’t get a “companion” and remain distinctive, and want to replace horizontal architectural elements with vertical ones, a common request HPO has also made elsewhere.

After much debate, the ANC came up with a resolution that also supports the overall density, though they do also ask to lower the heights of several buildings, creating two somewhat incompatible requests. Maintaining density while decreasing height might be possible if the developer can move some more retail and mechanical equipment to basement levels, though this is probably only feasible to a small degree.

The ANC made several other reasonable recommendations, including keeping the central courtyard open to the public instead of just to residents, and rethinking some of the architectural aesthetics that yielded negative reactions from residents.

There are plenty of architectural elements that could change for this project, and the design review that comes with historic preservation regulation as well as community involvement often makes buildings look much better than the initial proposals. Preservation the and ANCs are filling a valuable role when they focus on these elements.

If preservation instead gets hijacked by those who simply oppose new residents or don’t want to look at any moderate-sized buildings, it not only starts to stretch beyond its mandate but risks politically alienating the majority of residents who think more neighbors and more stores to patronize would be lovely.

HPRB has deferred some of the decisions to next month. They should be very restrained in those to avoid cutting down on the overall ability of the project to bring in new residents and stores.

Update: The original version of this article suggested that the HPRB had fully adopted the staff report. Instead, they made comments in support of many elements but deferred other decisions. I’ve updated the post to reflect this.

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.