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West Heating Plant redevelopment clears significant hurdle

Daniel J. Sernovitz | 1/14/2019 | Washington Business Journal

A Bowser administration official has approved the long-planned transformation of the West Heating Plant in Georgetown into about 80 luxury Four Seasons condominiums, a key step toward ending a protracted debate over the World War II-era building's historic redevelopment.

Peter Byrne, a hearing officer for the D.C. Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation, issued an order Friday supporting plans to substantially demolish the former heating plant at 1051-1055 29th St. NW. The building’s 29th Street facade would be preserved and integrated into a new, 10-story multifamily building to be reconstructed to the same mass and 110-foot height.

In his 12-page order, Byrne argued the loss of most of the building's historic fabric would be more than offset by the project’s community benefits, to include replacing the facility’s former coal storage yard with a 1-acre public park and at least $2.8 million in contributions to D.C. affordable housing efforts. The District's historic preservation law allows for the demolition of a protected historic property, which the West heating Plant has been designated, if it can be shown that doing so is "necessary in the public interest."

"The special merit of the project clearly outweighs the net loss in historic preservation," Byrne wrote. "The land use improvements and community benefits expected here are very substantial and strongly supported by the community."

Byrne imposed several conditions on his order, including that the development team makes good on its promised public improvements and community benefits before the District issues approvals for various stages of the planned development. That includes contributions to the D.C. Housing Production Trust Fund and the creation of a public park connecting Rock Creek Park with the Georgetown waterfront.

Byrne’s order followed a two-day hearing in July at which representatives for the D.C. Preservation League opposed the project and argued its public benefits do not go far enough to make up for the loss of a building as significant as the West Heating Plant, both as an example of art moderne architecture and as a government Public Works Administration project developed in the 1940s.

The DCPL has 30 days to appeal Byrne's decision. Executive Director Rebecca Miller said she has not had the chance to review the decision and her group has not determined yet whether it will appeal.

Developer Richard Levy called Byrne’s order a validation of his team’s efforts to build community support over nearly six years to take what many consider to be an eyesore and convert it into something that contributes to the neighborhood. Levy and his team — which includes Levy’s The Levy Group, the Georgetown Co., and Four Seasons Hotels Inc. — will still need to win several more layers of approval before they can break ground.

“This, as you are well aware, is the culmination of a long and rigorous federal and city review process,” Levy said in an email. “And based on the responses I have received from the community, this is not only a red letter day for our project, but for Georgetown and all of D.C.”

Levy and his team, Georgetown 29K Acquisitions LLC, hope to break ground about a year from now on the project, designed by renown architect David Adjaye and landscape architect Laurie Olin. That will depend on several things falling into place, including the approval of a map amendment imposing W-2 zoning on the property to permit the proposed multifamily building.

Georgetown 29K's vision has gone through several iterations since the team cast the winning, $19.5 million bid for the federally owned property in 2013. The team determined the building's condition has deteriorated too much to be adaptively reused, arguing the demolition-and-rebuild option is the most economically viable path forward. Its current plan calls for a more conceptual reinterpretation, with the building's north and south facades being rebuilt with a nod to the its industrial heritage and its east elevation, overlooking Rock Creek Park, with a predominantly glass facade.

Oversight groups including the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and D.C Historic Preservation Review Board issued conflicting recommendations, with the CFA offering its support and the HPRB finding the proposed demolition inconsistent with the District's historic preservation law.

The HPRB didn't completely pan the project, however, and in its recommendation, it urged the Mayor's Agent to allow design flexibility in considering how the structure should be recreated if it were to be partially demolished and rebuilt. That recommendation gave rise to Byrne's order.

 

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