We now know who won the auction for the West Heating Plant. And due to some sleuthing by the Washington Business Journal, we are starting to get a sense for what they have planned.
The Levy Group, joined with the Four Seasons, won the auction. And according to several reports they are planning to build 80 condos in the building. But how?
WBJ dug up a letter from Matt LeGrant, the city’s zoning administrator, to the Levy Group’s lawyer. It detailed under zoning what could be done to the building. His somewhat surprising conclusion was that almost total demolition of the building may be necessary. He stated that they could then rebuild pretty much right back up to the current building’s envelope. (Interestingly, the height limit of the building would be determined by the width of the Whitehurst Freeway.)
LeGrant wrote: “Since redevelopment for any adaptive re-use, particularly residential or hotel use, would require fenestration and the addition of floors, partial demolition and reconstruction of the building are essential.”
Apparently the investment group’s architect has already created a plan that would keep only 31.6 percent of the building. It sounds like essentially they plan to completely gut the building (which would be a requirement for just about any plan) and then tear down most of the exterior walls except the front facade.
GM was somewhat surprised that LeGrant was so flexible so early in the planning. But what’s interesting is how the planning for the site will play out between the Board of Zoning Adjustment (which would decide whether to issue the partial demolition permit), the Office of Planning (which has stated that it would require a Planned Unit Development), and the Old Georgetown Board (which would have to approve all design elements of the new construction).
GM has heard that the staff of the Old Georgetown Board has been so far unpersuaded to allow new windows to be punched through the walls. While theoretically there are several long window frames running down the north and south facades of the building, due to internal structural supports, even if they were replaced with clear glass windows little light would get inside.
This sets up a possible conflict between the OGB and the BZA. On the face of it, if both bodies aren’t on board with the plans, they won’t get approved.
But the thing about the Old Georgetown Board is that despite the fact that it’s an organ of the federal government (and really just a sub-organ of the Commission of Fine Arts) if your request is denied by the OGB (and the CFA) you can actually appeal to the city and get the decision overturned. The process to do so involves the “Mayor’s Agent“.
The Third Church of Chirstian Scientists (that bunker like church at 16th and I) used this process to overrule the Historic Preservation Review Board’s rejection of its raze request. The Mayor’s Agent is simply an individual appointed by the mayor who can pretty much decide as he or she sees fit. The current Mayor’s Agent is J. Peter Byrne, a Georgetown law professor.
Will it get that far? Who knows. Good designs have a way of getting approved easier. But if the plans do not adequately respect the old architecture and push the boundaries in order to squeeze a few more dollars out of the property, the OGB may put its foot down. Then it would get really interesting.