City Paper is not for tourists
Until recently, activists have carefully watched the assemblage of private property in their neighborhoods, anticipating the next major bid for a midrise office or condo building. That’s still prudent, but lately much of the redevelopment action has involved city-owned land. Anyone scouting for the next major development would be well-advised to pay close attention to schools, libraries, firehouses, and police stations.
A new scheme by Eastbanc, a Georgetown-based developer, would involve three of those four institutions. The project would replace the police department’s Special Operations building at 23rd and L, the West End Library directly to the west (both are on Square 37), and the fire station nearby at 23rd and M (on Square 50). A new firehouse and library would be built as part of two structures that would also include residential and possibly retail space; the police facility will leave the area permanently.
The plans, which Eastbanc has been presenting at a series of small meetings with neighborhood residents, are still tentative. At a Monday evening briefing at the West End library, about 20 people learned of the proposal from Eastbanc vice presidents Joe Sternlieb (a former employee of the city and the Downtown Business Improvement District) and Mary E. Mottershead. The drawings they displayed showed only basic massing, not full design.
The fire house will be rebuilt, but must stay in roughly the same location. None of the other elements in Eastbanc’s proposal is fixed in place. Under the four scenarios, for example, the library might end up on Square 37 in the first floor of the new building, in a two-story configuration similar to its current home, or on the second floor with what Sternlieb called “a really nice presence on the ground floor.” It might also be on the second floor of the Square 50 parcel, sandwiched between the fire house and “workforce housing.” (“Workforce” residential is not high-end, but it sells or rents for more than its “affordable” counterpart.)
The Square 37 building, presented in both J and S shapes, would be primarily residential (16 percent of it “affordable”), but might contain significant retail, especially if the library moves to Square 50. When Sternlieb said a supermarket is a possibility, the meeting’s attendees reacted with skepticism. The new Trader Joe’s on nearby 25th Street required at least a $1.2-million city subsidy, one local resident noted. Another added that the new mixed-use project on the old GWU hospital site, barely two blocks to the south, also promised a supermarket, but that’s now considered unlikely.
At the moment the financing is as tentative as the design, but Sternlieb said that “we have an intuitive feel that there’s enough money to do both projects.” He noted that a new fire house would cost about $8 million and a library $10-12 million. (There was no discussion of the historic status of any of the buildings Eastbanc hopes to demolish.)
According to Sternlieb, the project would be a planned unit development, a mechanism that allows developers to sidestep the existing zoning in exchange for “amenities” and more public input into the design. He said that Eastbanc hopes to get approval for the project in 12 to 18 months.
Square 37 is now zoned for lower density than surrounding blocks, and the neighborhood recently defeated an attempt to upzone it. Most of Square 37’s current structures are smaller than those on neighboring blocks, notably the adjacent one that contains the hulking (and locally unpopular) Ritz-Carlton Hotel and condos—-a project that was co-developed by Eastbanc.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Eastbanc’s plan is that the company owns none of the land it hopes to redevelop, although it’s negotiating to buy a parking lot that would be the third piece of the Square 37 parcel. If Eastbanc decides to proceed, it would make what Sternlieb termed an “unsolicited proposal.”
Reading between the lines of his and Mottershead’s remarks, however, suggests that Eastbanc knows a lot more about city development officials’ intentions and preferences than the neighborhood residents do. This is the sort of private proposal that has strong, if tacit, public-sector support.