Get our free newsletter
A few years ago, architectural designer Lex Ulibarri set out to make a stretch of Wisconsin Avenue NW as ugly as possible.
First, he calculated the maximum square footage the land could handle. Then he started cramming structures into it, a parking garage here, a 10-story condominium complex there, another seven stories on top of the Mazza Gallerie. North of Western and Wisconsin Avenues, he sketched in dozens of enormous, austere boxes.
At one point, Ulibarri got stumped, so he decided he needed some inspiration for bad, pedestrian-unfriendly architecture. “I went down to Rosslyn a couple times just to feel the ambience,” he says. “I had to put on a really ugly hat in order to come up with these ideas.”
It’s not surprising that uglying up a neighborhood didn’t come easy to Ulibarri. The 44-year-old Takoma, D.C., resident’s principal impulse is to create wonderful places, not hideous ones. His Rosslynification assignment was, strangely enough, intended to preserve the existing architecture: A Friendship Heights neighborhood group hired him to illustrate the worst-case scenario should proposed zoning regulations allowing 110-foot-high buildings go into effect.
Ulibarri’s talents are in high demand among the District’s community activists these days. New construction in Washington usually follows a familiar script: Developer wins a no-bid deal to build, and the plan is rubber-stamped by the city’s Office of Planning; the community complains about the intrusion, is worn down by the developer, and ultimately capitulates. But since 2003, Ulibarri has provided neighborhood groups with alternative designs to the hulking suburbanesque buildings that developers often force city residents to accept. Ulibarri’s work, by conceding that development will take place and instead focusing on influencing its design, neutralizes a developer’s favorite tactic: branding community activists as just a bunch of NIMBYs. “We’re not anti-development,” explains Ulibarri. “We’re just anti–inappropriate development.”
Sometimes Ulibarri’s reputation makes his services attractive to both sides of the debate. During the Friendship Heights project, Ulibarri was introduced to a local advisory neighborhood commissioner who asked him to envision a best-case scenario alongside his Rosslyn redux. He happily agreed; that rendering depicts a Friendship Heights with abundant green spaces and building heights that increase gradually.
Ulibarri got into the community-planning game shortly after he moved to Washington from New Orleans four years ago. He picked up design-build jobs almost immediately, and one of his first projects was a renovation for a Tenleytown couple who happened to live behind Martens Volvo on Wisconsin Avenue, a site that was being eyed for an apartment-complex project. The couple, none too excited about having a giant building towering over them, recruited Ulibarri to conceive a different potential structure.
So Ulibarri put together a proposal calling for varying roof heights, pedestrian corridors, and even a whimsical turret here and there, all without reducing the number of housing units. It stirred up enough support in the community that the developer, Donohoe Companies, was not only denied approval by the city but was also ordered to consult with the community before submitting another proposal.
That got the designer’s talents noticed—the Martens project led to the Friendship Heights assignments. And when Ulibarri presented those at a community meeting, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Nancy Macwood took notice. She had been working to push through a renovation of the Giant supermarket on Newark Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW, but the store’s sister company, Stop & Shop, which makes real estate decisions, had trouble coming up with a plan that would accommodate both the sloping topography and a previous agreement with the neighborhood to preserve certain parts of the facade.
Impressed by Ulibarri’s work and the way he seemed to grasp the community’s desires, Macwood approached him to do some drawings on behalf of the ANC to try and get things moving. “Lex has a very comprehensive way of looking at an issue,” says Macwood. “He looks at how that particular problem is related to the overall context of the area, the street patterns, and the residential patterns.” Ulibarri’s alternative design was so compelling that Stop & Shop’s architectural firm even hired him as a consultant for the project.
Despite his success—Martens Volvo is still there, Friendship Heights hasn’t turned into Rosslyn, and the Cleveland Park Giant will reflect many of his design principals—not everyone is an Ulibarri fan. His work has made him notorious within the Office of Planning. In a September 2005 e-mail exchange about community resistance to development near the Takoma Metro station, one office staffer notified director Ellen McCarthy that the neighborhood group had “enlisted the assistance of an architect named Lex.”
“Lex is, I’m sure, Lex Ullibarri [sic], who isn’t even a real architect,” McCarthy responded. “His card says ‘architectural designer’….Basically, he’s a hack who comes up with plans for citizens who don’t like density.”
“He really is the Lex Luther of Planning,” Jennifer Steingasser, a senior staffer, chimed in.
The Takoma tiff involves a piece of Metro-owned land—currently a park, bus turnaround, and parking lot—that the transit authority wants to sell to Bethesda-based developer EYA. Metro’s goal in selling the land—besides making money for itself and the city—is to promote transit-oriented development, guided by principles such as reducing automobile dependency and increasing pedestrian- and bicycle-originated transit trips.
But the EYA plan calls for an 89-town-house compound serviced by labyrinthine interior streets, with a two-car garage for each unit—not exactly the best way for Metro to gain new riders. Two weeks after he was recruited by Takoma ANC member Faith Wheeler, Ulibarri created an alternative plan that preserves much of the existing site. With a parking structure underneath the town-house complex, the bus turnaround and the park would be left largely intact. Ulibarri’s park also features a sculpture garden, fountains, and an adjacent pedestrian plaza, and it allows for bicycle racks, a kiss-and-ride, and expansion of the bus bays.
“A lot of people think of Takoma as the sort of Birkenstock crowd who’s just fighting anything that’s growth-oriented,” says Ulibarri. “That’s not the case at all. We’re actually in a position where if [Metro] insists on selling this piece of property, we just want them to plan it in an intelligent way.”
Ulibarri credits his hometown of Grand Junction, Colo., for giving him his sense of proportion. Wedged between twin mountain ranges and an expansive blue sky, the small city in western Colorado’s high desert country was surrounded by natural architecture. “In the West, things look like they should be there,” Ulibarri explains. “When I’m in the West, I understand my scale for things. There’s a context there.”
It’s that desire for balanced creations that drives Ulibarri more than, say, eco-friendliness. “It’s not that I’m a particularly green person,” he says. “I don’t drive a hybrid vehicle. I recycle to the best of my abilities, but I turn the heat up when it’s cold outside.”
Ulibarri also admits that, no, he “isn’t even a real architect.” While an architecture student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he caught on with a few golf-course-clubhouse projects, and they were lucrative enough for him to quit school to pursue more full-time opportunities. He’s worked on myriad projects during his career, including a waterfront casino in New Orleans, spa buildings, and all manner of hotel and resort sites, mostly in Hawaii, all of which were serendipitous training for tackling problematic urban planning. “I see resort work as designing the ideal community where everybody wants to go and live forever,” says Jack Rudd, a Boulder-based architect who has known and worked with Ulibarri for two decades. “My sense is that he began to overlap the patterning of resorts into cities and towns.”
Though Ulibarri says that the alternative plan for Takoma has plenty of support in the community, Metro and the Office of Planning have been less receptive. In fact, Ulibarri has had trouble getting them to take even a look. Metro responded to charges that it was excluding residents from the planning process by putting on a March 4 workshop. Ulibarri put together a presentation for his plan but learned at the door that no alternative designs were allowed.
EYA’s plan still needs to get through a public hearing and approvals from the Metro board of directors and Federal Transportation Administration. Depending on what happens, Ulibarri says, the community will continue the fight. “If we all have to go lie in front of the bulldozer, we’ll do it,” he says.
Ulibarri’s already gearing up for his next project, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home near Catholic University. To date, none of his alternative designs have actually made it off the page, but that’s not the point. “I don’t care whether something’s built or not,” he says. “I enjoy going through the creative process with groups and being a conduit for their ideas. For me to feel fulfillment, my work certainly doesn’t have to be built.”CP