Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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So far, the buzziest news about the massive redevelopment planned for the Fannie Mae headquarters, a 10-acre site at 3900 Wisconsin Ave. NW, has centered on a supermarket. Wegmans, producer of extra-large grocery utopias, will open its inaugural District store underneath the 228,000-square-foot headquarters building as early as 2021. D.C.-based Roadside Development and North America Sekisui House, a Japanese building firm, acquired the site last year through a joint venture for $89 million. Their plans include additional retail and housing.

The project’s size and price make it one of the District’s most closely watched redevelopments in recent memory, even earning it the distinction of “Deal of the Year” for 2016 from Washington Business Journal. The development team announced the Wegmans component at a May retail conference in Las Vegas that Mayor Muriel Bowser and nine out of 13 D.C. councilmembers attended. (They threw a party there, too.)

But the project is also notable for how it will modify and reuse an existing structure. Just this summer, the joint venture filed an application with D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office to designate the red brick Fannie Mae headquarters, built in the mid-1950s, as a landmark. 

Why would a for-profit development team pursue historic preservation when it has the option to demolish an old building in favor of new ones, theoretically maximizing its profits? The team plans to work under current zoning rules, so it doesn’t need any variances to begin construction.

The answer is threefold, and the reasons are practical and financial. First, says Roadside founding principal Richard Lake, the Fannie Mae building is in “terrific shape,” and is expected to remain occupied by the federal mortgage giant until the end of 2018. New headquarters for Fannie Mae are under construction at The Washington Post’s former address, 1150 15th St. NW. About 3,500 Fannie Mae employees will move to their new, glassy building downtown.

Lake explains that an occupied, well-kept property with functioning utilities is easier to maintain and ultimately incorporate into a redevelopment than an empty one is. He speaks from experience. Roadside has led upscale historic preservation redevelopments, such as City Market at O in Shaw and Cityline in Tenleytown. The company was also a partner in a failed effort to redevelop D.C.’s ailing Grimke School near the U Street NW corridor. After years of anticipation, a major deal with the District imploded last December. (Another development team later brokered an agreement with city officials for that historic site.)

“I think that our task is not to screw it up,” Lake quips of the four-story Fannie Mae headquarters structure. “But the fact that we’ll be able to put that building into good use … that’s terrific for us.”

The team’s application for landmark status makes much of the building’s Colonial Revival style, which D.C. architect Leon Chatelain, Jr. used to evoke the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia. Formerly occupied by the Equitable Life Insurance Company, the structure recalls postwar boom times for American insurance companies, according to the applicants.

In Lake’s telling, Roadside’s approach is “holistic,” meaning it considers how a given property has served its community and what uses it’s currently missing. At the Upper Northwest site, Roadside and NASH are looking to replace the daytime activity Fannie Mae’s employees have brought with seven new buildings of both for-sale and rental housing, Lake says. The exact breakdown, though, will depend on market conditions.

The team wants to transform the property’s expansive lawn along Wisconsin Avenue into a community space to feature various events, and the back of the Fannie Mae building into a “town square.” There may also be a hotel of up to 150 rooms, several restaurants, a health club, and a movie theater. The team is in talks with prospective tenants, but none except Wegmans has been announced. 

Lake says the density of the site will increase as one moves north so as to match the profile and height of townhomes in McLean Gardens to the south. “It’s our neighbors to the south who will be the most affected by the activity,” he notes. “We wanted to get together with them early and often, and we’ll continue to.” 

A separate four-acre site to the north, at 4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW, is set to be privately redeveloped into a mixed-use project, too. And across the avenue from the headquarters building, Sidwell Friends School plans to expand its campus by adding its lower school, currently in Bethesda, on adjacent land it bought from Fannie Mae and The Washington Home, a former nursing home. They obtained the latter in a contentious deal that upended the lives of elderly residents and their families.

All this prospective development has some neighbors concerned about impacts to parking, traffic, and neighborhood character. Here’s where the second reason for keeping the Fannie Mae headquarters structure comes into play, this one no less calculated than the team’s economic motives for choosing historic preservation. Upper Northwest residents have vocally opposed new projects of significant scale, including—recently—a family homeless shelter.

“Like it or not, the reality is everyone knows that building,” Lake admits. “This building was going to be kept one way or the other, probably really more so because the community wasn’t going to let it fall down. [The landmark application] was a way to give them comfort that we were going to protect this building, this legacy, this iconic structure through this process.” Lake notes that his team held multiple community meetings on the project and conducted a survey to solicit design input.

The olive branch appears to be paying off. Angela Bradbery, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area in which the site is located, says residents are pleased with the decision to preserve the headquarters structure, and excited about the prospect of using the lawn as community space. She says many are still concerned that 39th Street NW, behind the site, may see a big jump in vehicular traffic (and possibly greater stress on street parking, too) from Wegmans shoppers. The development team will soon submit what’s known as a “large tract review” to D.C. for consideration of these potential effects, but some remain worried about cumulative impacts.

“It’s an attractive building,” Bradbery says. “For lack of a better word, it’s a handsome building, and it’s stately.” But right now, she points out, Wisconsin Avenue can already be a “parking lot.”

The third reason to keep the existing Fannie Mae headquarters building has yet to come to fruition. The federal government administers historic tax credits, and developers can leverage them into hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in cost-savings. Lake says the team is “in the exploratory phase” of seeking those credits, pending a final hotel deal for the site.

“What I can say is that to get tax credits is meaningful,” he explains. “If we were able to secure them, that would certainly help us and the things we’d try to accomplish at the site through that.”