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Really, it's not all that large. (Stanton/Eastbanc)

All the judgments are in on preliminary designs for the former Hine Jr. High School, as interested parties ready themselves for its hearing before the Historic Preservation Review Board next week. They all have various issues with the architectural quality of the designs, which will be refined over the coming months. But the most fundamental question is one of size: How big is too big for such a prominent site across from a metro station and the historic Eastern Market?

At the moment, Stanton/Eastbanc’s plans call for an office building on 7th and Pennsylvania that would rise to seven floors, or 88 feet. According to the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, that’s “simply too tall and too large to blend gracefully with its Capitol Hill neighbors.” The Eastern Market Metro Community Association agreed, insisting that the developers stick to a height limit of 60 feet, as endorsed by ANC 6B two years ago. 

The staff of the Historic Preservation Office, however, wasn’t so worried. “Given the breadth of the wide avenue, the relative hierarchical importance of this building in the totality of the project, and the site’s frontage on a L’Enfant square and adjacency to a Metro station, additional height in this location is not inappropriate provided that the building is otherwise designed to ‘enhance the character of the district and respect its context,'” reviewers wrote, recommending only mild setbacks on the top of the building.

I’m inclined to trust the HPO on this one. This isn’t 1850. Metro stations are only as useful as the things that exist there to go to. And from everything I’ve heard, Barracks Row and Eastern Market retail could really use daytime traffic from the number of office workers this building would house.

But putting height aside, the mentality that everything should stay the same as it’s always been—and that if there must be new things, that they blend perfectly in with their surroundings—is even more egregiously on display in EMMCA’s demand that developers scrap plans for retail on 8th Street based on their psychoanalysis of what Pierre L’Enfant would have wanted (italics in the original).

L’Enfant probably envisioned, on his first visit to what was to become Washington, this 8th Street SE carrying commerce north from the river, then turning left at Pennsylvania Avenue SE and continuing to carry this neighborhood’s commercial district to the U.S. Capitol. Logically, that meant L’Enfant intended residential on D Street north of Pennsylvania Avenue. We can stand at the intersection where L’Enfant stood today, and see what he had in mind. If ANC 6B and HPRB does not act, however, that historic opportunity will be gone forever, as the relationship between commerce and residence, the commercial and public ties between the U.S. Capitol and this busy commercial street, the intersection where the residential neighborhood meets Capitol Hill’s main commercial district, will be clouded and blurred by this incursion of commercial along the 700 block of D Street.

That, dear readers, is one of the most absurd things I have ever heard. The L’Enfant plan is valuable, to be sure, but if it were so sacrosanct as EMMCA suggests, the entire city would be frozen in amber—certainly not the thriving metropolis it’s starting to become.

Find all the above referenced documents here.