Last Wednesday night’s Board of Architectural Review Old and Historic District meeting was a prime example of the old adage “Attempts at pleasing everyone usually end up pleasing no one.”
That’s exactly what happened to Robert S. Brandt, Inc., on their 900 N. Washington St. project.
After being deferred at the March 1 BAR meeting because Board members felt the project, as presented, was “too much of a collage of architectural styles,” the architect came back with a much more simplified version of the proposed 56-unit condominium project. Now it was determined to be too “box like.” Resulting in a second deferral.
The site in question is a triangular parcel bounded by North Columbus, Montgomery and Powhatan streets. It impacts North Washington Street at the Powhatan intersection thereby subjecting the project to the “Washington Street Standards.”
Following a presentation by the applicant of all the changes made since the March 1 meeting, Attorney Howard Middleton, representing the applicant said, “Our belief is that we have responded to all Board requests of mass and scale. And, we urge approval of the project.”
Unfortunately, that claim responding “to all Board requests” brought forth the following from Board member Lynn Neihardt. “Now I think we have gone too far in the opposite direction. It now looks too industrial,” she said.
That was backed by Board member Lori Quill who stated, “It has too much of a commercial image. It needs more of a residential image.”
As with any development planned along Washington Street it must conform to the Washington Street Standards in order to gain approval not only by the City but also the National Park Service. Washington Street is a portion of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
“The applicant has done a great deal in attempting to respond to the Board. But, we are still concerned about some of the buildings that face Washington Street,” said David Murphy speaking for the National Park Service.
That was buttressed by Ed Braswell, former member of the Washington Street Task Force and chairman of the Alexandria Planning Commission for many years. “This needs to be refined in various ways. This site is critically important to the City,” he said.
IMPACTING THE SITE at the Powhatan/Washington street intersection is the building that has come to be considered the “gateway” building for the north entrance to the City — the Physicians Assistants building. It’s architectural style seemed to loom over the debate.
That was evidenced by a letter to BAR Chairman Thomas Hulfish dated April 28 from J. Mel Poole, acting superintendent, National Park Service. “The development of the western side of Washington Street, north of this site, sets the scale and context for this five-way intersection, with the Physician’s Assistants tower building providing a visual landmark that reflects the intended scale of the full development of the intersection,” Poole stated.
“The scale of the building situated at the corner of Powhatan and Washington should not compete with or overwhelm the scale” of the Physician’s Assistants building, he advised. “The proposed four-story, block-like building significantly competes with, and reduces, the visually important tower building across Powhatan Street.”
Poole further stated, “We believe this site calls for a building that reflects the corridor and the evolving shapes and massing of buildings to the north, and the recognition of near-future development of the block immediately south of Montgomery Street on the west side of Washington Street.”
In the final analysis it was decided that the latest design of the Brandt project was “too box like” and there needed to be more coordination between the Board, staff, neighbors, Park Service and the applicant.
Referring to the recent Historic Preservation Forum and a quote from the presentation by Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor Joseph Riley,Jr., the consensus from both the Board and citizen speakers was, “You don’t have to build ugly.” No exact time was set for another hearing on the project.