Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Historic Preservation Tuesday: 16 Grant Circle and the landscape of DC's avenues and circles as an element of the city's identity

123.11_McClelland_DC_Map.jpgThe original design of the city by L'Enfant intended for circles and squares to become staging points to showcase states, although that idea fell by the wayside, as the city's avenues instead were named in honor of the states.

These days, the circles (and squares) are a mix of exclusively residential zones, mixed use, or fully commercial.

After some back and forth, the L'Enfant design was extended to what was originally Washington County, after Georgetown, Washington County and the City of Washington were all combined into one consolidated jurisdiction in the 1890s.

As this part of the city was built out, avenues and circles--not squares like Lincoln Park or Stanton Park in northeast and southeast Capitol Hill-- were created,although there aren't as many circles and squares as there is in the L'Enfant City.

Wardman style rowhouses on Grant Circle in Northwest DC.

Grant Circle is a residential circle(with a church prominently occupying a small section, on New Hampshire Avenue NW in Petworth.  For the most part the houses around it are "Wardman-style" porch front rowhouses, constructed in the 1910s and 1920s.

16 Grant Circle is a detached house that pre-dates the construction of the rowhouses around the rest of the Circle.

It has been acquired by a developer who intends to make it over/demolish the building and replace it with 6 condominiums, taking advantage of the mass and height potential that remains in the lot that results from the zoning code.

Front elevation, 16 Grant Circle.  The nomination describes the building as a Colonial Revival Hip Roof Cottage so now I know the form.  It's a form of what is earlier type called a four square.

There isn't a Grant Circle historic district to provide protections to the building or the landscape.

Jumping into the fray, a group called the Off Boundary Preservation Brigade has submitted a historic landmark nomination for 16 Grant Circle NW, a residential property, in an attempt to stave off the change.

Side elevation.

It's hard to "handicap" the likelihood of the nomination being approved.  I'm doubtful.

Typically, it's very difficult to succeed with the landmark nomination of an individual house, unless the building/site meets a very high bar in terms of the criteria that support nomination (such as particularly distinctive architecture, key landscape features, association with key figures in history, architecture, or historical events, etc.).

Although I would argue that there is no doubt that if all the houses around the circle had been nominated to be in a "Grant Circle Historic District" it's likely that such a nomination would be approved.

This aerial view of DC's Logan Circle (image from Wikipedia) shows how circles and avenues shape DC's cultural landscape.

2.  This gives me the idea that city preservationists should be more proactive and put create a set of "circle historic district" nominations to put forth the idea that this built environment form is worth protecting.

By way of comparison, Logan Circle is part of a historic district, but the district covers eight blocks around the Circle.

Similarly, areas around Seward Square, Lincoln Park, and Stanton Park are designated historic as part of the Capitol Hill Historic District.

With circles like Grant or Sherman, I am suggesting a triage measure, and focusing on just getting designated the buildings and the circle itself, rather than trying to create a larger district beyond the circle.

Rendering, Cafritz apartment building, 5333 Connecticut Avenue NW3.  Similarly, we need to be more proactive in protecting the building stock and urban design of the city's avenues.  As it happens the Massachusetts Avenue Historic District runs from 17th Street NW to Observatory Circle, providing a similar precedent to Logan Circle.

If a similar district existed on Upper Connecticut Avenue NW it would have likely prevented the glass curtain wall-based design of 5333 Connecticut Avenue NW from going forward.

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At 7:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Layman- thanks for the time and effort you devote to urban advocacy. Id like to take this opportunity and invite you to reconsider your position on the Grant Circle project. Replacing oversized and obsolete structures on under built sites with medium density, economical, modern housing is essential to the successful urbanization of DC's inner neighborhoods. The structure at 16 Grant Circle is neither historically significant or complementary to the urban fabric of the circle. Barriers to by right development like the petition you reference work against densification and urbanization. The pending landmark application for this property is a veiled 'nimby'-ism masquerading as historic preservation.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

there are different things going on here. We can argue about obsolete or not. And over and under housing. And urbanism.

My problem with the proposal is how it will change the ensemble on the circle.

Doing a bigger building there could work, but it will still be out of sorts compared to the rest of the circle because of the inability to make symmetrical similar developments in similar places around the rest of the circle.

But you're right it isn't necessarily "size" being the issue, as the church varies in size from the houses.

... but I don't really understand the point about "urbanization of DC's inner neighborhoods." They are urban already, and comparatively dense, for Single Family Housing. Certainly Petworth is as dense as any R4 neighborhood in the core, comparable to my old H St. NE neighborhood

Be that as it may, yes, the landmark nomination is motivated by the desire to reduce the likelihood of change.

I do understand the point about further densification, but not about "urbanization" for the reason I gave before.

FWIW, I think developments such as these should be targeted to commercially zoned areas.

And that if such a project goes forward on this site, which is likely given the minimal likelihood the landmark nomination will be approved, I'd much rather see a "new" building that is architecturally and contextually comparable to the "old" buildings a la the discussion by Stephen Semes, rather than some "modern" building that is not likely to age well.

In any case, I think the issue of surgically inserting new housing or intensification of housing sites in extant neighborhoods dating from 1935 or so, and earlier is contentious and very difficult to do well.

So far, I can't think of any good examples of people doing a particularly good job of it.

Anyway, the site isn't big enough to do something like this?

But it'd be fine to do something like this, taller of course, because taller buildings are fully appropriate on corners.

At 8:22 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the bays/projections of the apartment buildings on this page of listings from the Oak Park, IL historic district would be good models from which to design a "new" multiunit building for this site which would be context sensitive and appropriate.

I could probably find more. I just use as a search term "craftsman style apartment building"

I suppose from a symetry standpoint, you could do something in an architectural style similar to St. Gabriel's Church or even the Petworth United Methodist Church, which are both located on the circle.

At 8:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best example of inserting modern medium density housing into an existing urban context is the circle you mentioned as being wonderfully historic. Much of the south east quadrant of logan circle was constructed after 1995 and exists now as multi-family condominiums. As for urbanization- I would consider grant circle and surrounding areas to be effectively suburban in density. Not until you get north of 15k are places truly urban. Logan Circle is a perfect example of the type of urbanization I am referring to.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Wasn't that spearheaded by Jim Abdo? Yes, he's exceptional (so is EYA in terms of the rowhouse type) doing infill/new construction that is fully compatible with historic building stock. Abdo did a decent apartment building on the 1400 block of RI Ave. NW as well.

But he is EXCEPTIONAL. The owners of the property on Grant Circle have done no project that rises to that level. I can't think of many others (one would be the three large rowhouses at 500 E. Capitol St. NE that were constructed, ironically, on the Capitol Hill Baptist Church "parking lot"--constructed through demolition--that touched off the creation of the local preservation law).

I'd say that the Logan Circle buildings are the exception that proves my rule of the necessity of design review requirements for the entire city, regardless of whether or not an area is designated.

What I guess I don't understand is why we don't have other small scale developers who do work equal to that of Abdo in his early days.

Mostly they are just bottom feeders.

I am working on another housing related piece and I am referencing a book by Patrick Condon about Vancouver, where he wrote:

In the 10 years between 1990 and 2000, 40,000 new residents found homes in the city's older single-family and low-rise residential neighbourhoods, a number equal to the number accommodated in downtown towers.

During this period, Vancouver architects and city planners learned that residents do not object to added density so much as they do to the feel and appearance of density. Not wanting to engender unnecessary resistance, architects learned how to design buildings that looked and felt like the low-density buildings next door.

Large facades were broken into pieces scaled to the roof, dormer, window and facade forms of nearby residences. Roof pitches of new buildings were steeply sloped and highly articulated to mitigate four-storey heights. Building fronts were provided with as many individual entrances as possible for the same reason.

If these small developments were done well, I think there'd be a lot less resistance. But almost uniformly they are done badly, and we have no tools in our current regulatory framework to address the problem.

Note there are a couple of architects, David Bell, Eric Colbert, etc., who could do decent designs for such projects. But the developer has to want to have decent architecture to begin with.

At 6:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This developer would have no problem with community input on the design. it doesn't affect his bottom line. stopping the project does. the petition you reference seeks to stop the project completely. this is unwarranted and, frankly, puts everyone's back against the wall. it's not productive or reasonable. by the way- have you seen what is being proposed? As for the Eric Colbert's of the world- they bottom feed as much as any other architect- more , in fact. they just have had the luxury of removing their names from projects that don't photograph or publish well. regardless, I generally don't think of million dollar investments as 'bottom feeding'.

At 6:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be fair, Eric's dogs are generally not a reflection on his talent or that of his studio- but he does have his dogs.

At 6:39 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Eric Colbert is like Walmart. He is capable of pretty damn fine work (e.g., the Gables apartments in Takoma are nice, although they were originally intended to be condos, which is part of it), but if a client isn't in the market for "fine work" he'll do whatever.

wrt the particular point you make (1) there is no good framework for dealing with "better design" in the city, other than having a historic district or landmark, (2) I am not familiar with many examples of neighborhoods working with developers to produce better work outside of the preservation framework (not that it's always the best framework either), (3) but fwiw, I think the chance of the preservation nomination being approved is much less than 50%, based on similar efforts by myself and/or others in the past--which taught me to only go through the work of preparing and submitting a nomination if I believed there was at least a 70% chance of success.

At 6:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

oops, what I meant about walmart but didn't explain has to do with their entry into urban markets. Walmart is now committed to urban markets, but they have no commitment to urban appropriate design. So if a developer comes to them with sites they want and an urban appropriate design (e.g., JBG) that's fine. But it's fine also if a developer comes to them with a site they want and a single use barely appropriate or inappropriate design. They won't "push" the developer "to do something better" because they don't care.

I don't know Eric Colbert, but I think he's happy with the commission and not challenging the client to do something better.

... the problem with the Walmart lesson is that most people haven't learned it. It happens that the two "urban appropriate" Walmarts are happening solely because of the developer, and had nothing to do with DC Office of Planning or DC building and zoning regulations. (The E. Capitol store looks like it might end up being decent, but it's not broken ground yet.) Obviously, the Georgia Ave. store is a major disappointment in many ways, which I have discussed previously.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Thomas Woodruff said...

Dear Anonymous,
Many in the neighborhood would like to see the plans for the development. Where/When can they be seen?

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Moka Moh said...

Interesting list.... the best buildings in Wellington? i think the notion to restrict it to the last 60 years is a curious one - its somewhere in the middle between Best New Architecture and Best Architecture ever. Of course, if you are doing old stuff, then it makes it a lot more difficult. Do people like a building just because it is old? Maybe in NZ they do, but in London they can afford to be a lot more picky. Old does not necessarily mean good. العاب فلاش برق


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