April 19, 2011
Ms. Catherine Buell, Chairperson
Historic Preservation Review Board
Office of Planning,District of Columbia
1100 4th Street, SW, Suite E650
Dear Ms. Buell:
We write on behalf of a coalition of over a dozen households on the 300 block of8th Street, S.E., across the street from the proposed Hine School Development Project. Although we support mixed-use development for theHineSchoolsite, we believe that the current Stanton-Eastbanc design exceeds reasonable limits for the height, massing, and proportion for new construction within a historic neighborhood and that such radical disharmony threatens to undermine the surrounding neighborhood’s cultural and historical integrity. We are united in calling for a project more compatible with the neighborhood’s established character and residential nature.
This letter focuses specifically on the concept design for the proposed residential building bounded by the 700 block ofD Street, 300 block of 8th Street, and the 700 block of the reopenedC Street, S.E.(hereafter called “8thStreetResidentialBuilding”). We raise three concerns about that structure: (a) its elevation and massing; (b) its disharmony with the scale and style of the historic neighborhood, including setbacks, rooflines, and facades; and (c) the proposed commercial use at theD Streetend of the building, a factor influencing its design.
Because comprehending the massing and scale of the entire Hine School development relative to surrounding structures will be essential to informed community input about this important project, we also urge HPRB to support our request (made repeatedly to the developers over the last two months) for a site context model.
Elevation and Massing
To paraphrase Frank Lloyd Wright, Capitol Hill was “born rather than built.” The amalgam of architectural styles and historical eras, from the farmhouses of the early 1800s to the bungalows and Wardmans of the twentieth century, gives Capitol Hill its charm, its romance. The modest proportions and human scale of the older buildings and diversity of visual experience, like the diversity of our neighborhood, draw new residents and thousands of tourists every year. As the DC Comprehensive Plan states, “The community’s attractive housing stock, living history, low scale, and proximity to the U.S. Capitol make ‘the Hill’ one of the District’s most celebrated and attractive communities.”
The houses on the block across from the proposed 8th Street Residential Building range along the spectrum of typical Hill designs, reflecting the area’s architectural evolution. Two pre-Civil War frame farmhouses, three Victorian townhouses, three houses built together in 1899 and retaining their original facades, front stairs, and fences, Barrett Linde townhouses constructed after World War II, and in the alley at back, surviving frame carriage houses, all present in a microcosm the eclectic variety that gives Capitol Hill its charm and attractiveness. None of the houses exceeds three stories; most of them present modest, unpretentious faces to the street.
The developer’s current design calls for a structure far out of proportion to its surroundings. The 8thStreetResidentialBuildingwould present a massive, continuous, unbroken facade, looming dozens of feet and several stories over the facing structures in the 300 and 200 blocks. The current design soars almost six stories alongD Street, and up five stories in an “apartment building entrance” mid-block, further mocking the more modestly scaled houses on the east side. Such an inappropriate design would degrade the nature and feel of a street that currently serves as a pleasant “gateway” to residential neighborhoods to the north, its canopy of trees and colorful gardens offering an inviting alternative to the bustling retail and restaurant activity to the south.
To justify the proposed height and massing of the 8thStreetResidentialBuilding, the architect has shown photographs of multi-family buildings elsewhere on Capitol Hill, yet each example featured a five- or six-story building surrounded by two-story and three-story rowhouses. No example filled an entire block; instead, the adjacent lower rowhouses stretched for the majority of those blocks, preserving a modest scale more characteristic of the Hill.
To follow the design principles articulated for DC “New Construction in Historic Districts,” the Stanton-Eastbanc building’s scale should respect “the prevailing scale of its neighbors,” “existing building heights,” “the massing of neighboring historic buildings,” “the rhythm of its neighbors as well as that of the street,” and “the existing proportions of neighboring buildings.”
Four stories (or the 40-foot height limit comporting to current R-4 residential zoning along8th Street) should be the maximum height for the entire8th Street ResidentialBuilding, including the southeast (D Street) and northeast (C Street) sides and the proposed apartment entrance mid-block.
Setbacks, Rooflines, and Harmony
DC “New Construction in Historic Districts” design principles also state that “the roof shape of a new building should respect those of its neighbors.” Roof shapes along the 200 and 300 blocks of8th Street(as well as surrounding residential blocks) vary considerably. Corner towers and articulated parapets alternate with flat roofs. The dominant anchor buildings surrounding the proposed development include the gabled and turreted Grace Church condominiums, gabled Southeast Public Library, gabled Eastern Market building, and pleasant corner roofline of the Haines department store building.
As currently designed, the8th StreetResidential Building frontage would stretch unbroken fromD Streetto the restoredC Street, with flat rooflines and flat frontages. Far from offering variation to this monolithic stretch along8th Street, the exaggerated and raised mid-block apartment entrance suggests a design out of harmony with theneighborhood and merely serves to exaggerate the development’s massiveness.
Variation in height and roofline are essential elements of Capitol Hill’s residential character. If the 8thStreetResidentialBuildingis to respect that character, then its rooflines and setbacks should be more varied. Rather than pushing up an additional story, for example, the mid-block apartment entrance might be lowered and pushed back into the property, with a suitable streetside garden, thereby creating an inviting open, green space and echoing the current school entrance.
At present, there is varying and wide setback of city-owned land on the east side of 8th Street, and the current public land on the west (school) side stretches even further.
These varied setbacks of the currentHineSchool, combined with the playground and unpaved areas, have provided open spaces in the neighborhood for almost half a century, making the street a spacious, reassuring entryway to Eastern Market and the residences to the north. The massive size and scale of the entire Hine Development demands deeper, more varied setbacks in order to avoid a starkly institutional visual impression out of harmony with its residential setting.
The current Hine Development Project concept appears to exhibit a flagrant disregard for elements explicitly encouraged in the DC Comprehensive Plan, such as establishing gradual transitions between large-scale development and nearby lower, smaller buildings like single family or row houses [Policy UD-2.2.4], avoiding monolithic or box-like building forms or long blank walls which detract from the human quality of the street [Policy UD-2.2.5], complementing the established rhythm of existing and adjacent facades [Policy UD-2.2.6], avoiding overpowering contrasts of scale, height and density [Policy UD-2.2.7], and breaking large structures into smaller, more varied forms to “reduce harsh contrasts and improve compatibility” with adjacent structures and neighborhoods [Policy UD-2.2.8]. Policy UD-2.2.9 encourages protection of neighborhood open space. In the case of the current design, the only open space remaining would be a gated courtyard and garden reserved for Stanton-Eastbanc tenants.
To retain the residential integrity of the neighborhood, we oppose any commercial or retail operations in the portion of the8th StreetResidential Building fronting along D Street. Insinuation of retail, office, or restaurant uses into a neighborhood that has historically been residential would threaten not merely the character of the 300 block of 8th Street but of other surrounding residential blocks.
The developer has used a proposed commercial use to justify inappropriate “storefront-style” window openings (or features that could be adapted to be storefront windows) in the tall, modernist building facade along the 700 block ofD Street. Such design seems in jarring disharmony with the surrounding neighborhood and a serious threat to maintaining residential uses along 8th Street.
History of the Neighborhood
Section 101.2 of the DC Historic Protection Act notes the expressed purpose, among other goals, of safeguarding “the city’s historic, aesthetic and cultural heritage.” Policy HP-1.1.2 explicitly calls on decisionmakers to adopt an “encompassing approach to historic significance,” recognizing social as well as architectural history, neighborhoods as well as individual buildings, the representative structures as well as the “exceptional.”
The developers of the Hine project are fond of referring to three- and four-story Victorian-era houses built to signal an owner’s prominence and wealth, but Capitol Hill history also rests on the middle class, on the skilled tradesmen who worked at the Navy Yard, on the journalists, grocers, and schoolteachers who grew up in more modest two-story dwellings built in the late 1900s, and the federal workers who purchased the post-World War II townhouses. A “multitude of citizens both famous and ordinary” have made Capitol Hill their home and, per HP-1.1.3, “historic preservation should bear witness to the contributions of all these people,” and to their homes and neighborhoods.
The plot of public land on which the Hine School Development would be built has historically been either Native American campground, farmland, residences, or schools. Previous public buildings on theblock–WallachSchool, Victorian-era Hine School, and the current Hine School–all occupied less than half the block at the time, leaving open space for surrounding residents. After construction of the current school, open spaces designated for sports activities like tennis and basketball (areas now converted to parking and flea market) occupied the other half of the block. The existing Hine buildings provide pedestrians with views of Eastern Market. For the first time in history, if the Stanton-Eastbanc design is approved, no open space on theHineSchool block will be accessible to the entire neighborhood. Instead of a public playground or park, Stanton-Eastbanc’s gated inner courtyard and mid-block “garden” would be for private use by its tenants.
Although certain additional concerns are traditionally part of the PUD or zoning review, we believe that they are intimately related to the impact created by a development of the proposed size and scale in this residential neighborhood.
a. The Negative Impact of Increasing Density in an Already Dense Neighborhood.
The “feel” of our historic neighborhood is established in part by its two- and threestory rowhouses, and in part by how the neighborhood is used.Lotsize, height, and other building restrictions have preserved the pleasant human scale of tree-lined Capitol Hill streets. A monolithic development will add an influx of people and traffic comparable to that of busy downtown blocks. Increased density is an historic preservation issue. Encouraging and enabling vastly increased private passenger, truck, and trash vehicle traffic will dramatically exacerbate the current density and, in the added burden of vibration and pollution, threaten the integrity of surrounding historic structures.
District of Columbiaplanners acknowledge the neighborhood unity of Capitol Hill, calling it a “city within the city,” with urban streetscapes of a scale that continually evokes a sense of its varied history, with successive blocks of well maintained yards and structures, and pleasant variation and occasional whimsical architectural features. In various public meetings, the Hine Project developers have justified their proposed height and massing as necessary to achieve “smart growth,” but that, in fact, is a phrase better applied to stopping suburban sprawl. It is a justification inappropriately applied to a neighborhood which is already a model of density and smart urban living, with the three R’s (residences, retail, restaurants) within walking distance of public transportation options (Metro, buses, Circulator, bicycles, taxis, and pedicabs). Neighborhood residents already leave their cars at home. Moreover, recent studies now show that simply increasing urban density for the sake of densification does not necessarily produce the promised environmental reward. Individuals in the new Hine Development apartments may leave their cars in the garage but the increased concentration of vehicular traffic, congestion, vibration, and pollution created by an inappropriately dense complex—imposed upon an already dense neighborhood—will have a serious detrimental impact on the health of residents and pedestrians and on the integrity of adjacent historic structures.
b. The Need for More Comprehensive Traffic Analysis at the Design Phase. Swift passage of emergency vehicles along8th Streetis essential to the public health and safety of residents to the north of the proposed development. At our first meeting with developers and their traffic consultant in February, residents noticed that the traffic studies had not accounted for the greatly increased congestion, exacerbated by closure of streets surrounding the Capitol, already occurring on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons, or during major sports events at Nationals and RFK stadiums or events on the Mall.
Although we understand the impulse to reopenC Streetas part of an overall restoration of the L’Enfant plan, two aspects of its reopening will have a potentially adverse effect on the surrounding neighborhood: the proposal that the block be open to vehicular traffic and the selection ofC Street(rather than either7th Streetor Pennsylvania Avenue) as the parking garage entrance/exit for passenger vehicles.
Increased vehicular congestion at the intersection of C and 8th Streets will pose a potentially serious threat to pedestrians, to normal traffic flow along8th Street, and to efficient and rapid transit of emergency vehicles. Because the selection of garage entrances/exits are an essential aspect of the overall concept, we have called for more detailed “24/7” traffic studies and projections during the design phase.
c. Environmentally Responsible Development. We believe the Hine Development project should embody the ideals of environmental sustainability, aiming at the highest standards of “green” demolition, construction, design, and use, without destroying or degrading the surrounding neighborhood. Environmental quality, however, also encompasses such seemingly subtle assaults on the public health as noise. Eighth Street serves as a major route for emergency vehicles, with sirens screaming during rush hours or other times of increased congestion such as Saturday mornings. We are especially concerned that an unbroken facade on the 8th Street Residential Building would raise noise levels, both normal and peak, to unacceptable and unhealthy levels at street level, for residents and pedestrians alike. Attention during the design phase to the unintended consequences of the development’s streetscape and facade may help to avoid future public health problems.
Historic Preservation and Accommodating to Change
The concerns we raise are not new to historic preservation and urban planning discussions. During 2005 and 2006 DC Comprehensive Plan workshops, Capitol Hill residents explicitly mentioned the potentially negative effects of unrestrained growth “on quality of life and community character,” the encroachment of non-residential uses into rowhouse neighborhoods, development that threatened the architectural integrity of Eastern Market, and infill development incompatible with the prevailing density and architectural fabric of the surrounding community [Section 1507.2]. And they urged “that any future development on surplus public property should conform to the prevailing density and architectural fabric of the surrounding community,” and expressed “particular interest in retaining row houses and building new row houses to keep the Hill an attractive place for families.” In a February 12, 2008 resolution, ANC6B stated that the “Hine site is a key location at the heart of the Capitol Hill neighborhood” and therefore “any future use of the site [should] match the scale and character of the surrounding neighborhood,” and on June 30, 2009, ANC6B reaffirmed that the development project should “blend in with the surrounding historic district” and “avoid design approaches that may dominate or overwhelm the surrounding blocks.”
At the time of the 2005/2006 community meetings, Capitol Hill was already in the “vice grip” of development occurring in NoMA and the Near Southeast Waterfront and Stadium areas. Today, that construction has generated the predicted economic success but it has also increased traffic and demand for community services. Although the Hill has evolved and endured over two centuries, our neighborhood, as noted in the Comprehensive Plan, “remains fragile and vulnerable to change.”
In closing, we believe that the current concept design for the Hine ProjectDevelopment is not compatible with, does not harmonize with, and potentially threatens the historic character of the neighborhood surrounding Eastern Market and the Capitol Hill Historic District. The massive, block-sized building plan evokes corporate standardization, anonymity and conformity, rather than the historical traditionalism that characterizes this neighborhood now. We also support the concerns raised by neighborsin the 200 block of 8th Street and by the Eastern Market Metro Community Association.
Throughout discussions with the developers, our criticisms have often been met with a claim that economic growth and a desire for density around public transportation hubs should trump any concern for maintaining the character of a historic district, a dichotomy that we believe is spurious because the residential neighborhood surrounding
Eastern Market is already a model of reasonable urban density, a walkable, pedestrian friendly place where nearby residents leave their cars at home. We support the DC government’s effort to spur economic development and to bring jobs and affordable housing to District residents, but at one recent meeting, a neighbor asked, “At what point does unconsidered ‘growth’ extinguish a neighborhood’s historic character and subvert the goals of the historic preservation movement? Where do you draw the line?” We believe that the Hine Project developers can create an alternative design concept far more responsive to and compatible with the neighborhood in which it will sit for the next 99 years. We hope that the Historic Preservation Review Board will agree.
Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, Ph.D.
President, 300 Block Coalition
Vice-President, 300 Block Coalition
Vice-President, 300 Block Coalition