The controversial Meridian International building project on 16th Street drew continued criticism this month from some Historic Preservation Review Board members, who asked developers to shave one story from the proposed 10-story building. The project team returned to the community last week with revisions — but not exactly the ones the review board had requested.
Meridian International, a global leadership nonprofit, reached a deal in 2014 to sell open land on its Adam Morgan property to developers led by Streetscape Partners; Perkins Eastman joined as lead architect last year. The remaining aspect at issue is the height of the new building, which would sit across from Meridian Hill Park at 2300 16th St. NW.
Project critics believe the proposed 10-story apartment building with penthouse would clash with the surrounding historic district, while developers argue that shrinking the project would result in an ugly design out of step with nearby surroundings.
At a May 4 hearing, developers said they’d found ways to reduce the visual impact of the building without actually reducing its height. But preservation board members ultimately sided with the project opponents in asking for the one-story reduction. Aside from height, board members did agree that the designs marked an improvement from previous proposals.
Responding to the preservation board’s requests, the development team came before the zoning committee of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C (Adams Morgan) last Wednesday with one story removed. However, the design reflected a change to a December 2016 proposal, not the latest one. The zoning committee voted 2-0 to request that the developer instead remove a story from May 2017 design.
Wilson Reynolds, chair of that Planning, Zoning and Transportation Committee, told The Current he wasn’t comfortable last week supporting the development team’s proposal, which reflects elements that ANC 1C and the preservation board rejected late last year.
Jon Cummings of Westbrook Partners, one of several developers on the project, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
At their May 4 hearing, some preservation board members said they need to see what a nine-story building would look like on the site before agreeing with the developer’s contention that reducing the size would harm the building’s aesthetics.
“We don’t know what a building that has all these attractive features would look like if it was one story less,” the board’s Joseph Taylor said at the hearing. “If we can’t comment on it, then it doesn’t exist.”
Some of Taylor’s colleagues disagreed.
“If you substantially reduce the height of the building, perhaps it may improve the view from the park, but it would look very odd in proportion from 16th Street,” said board member Brian Crane.
Though the board had previously asked project architects to re-evaluate the building height, the Perkins Eastman firm arrived on May 4 instead offering smaller fixes. The architects argue that these tweaks give the top floor the appearance of a step-back, mitigating the visual effect of the building’s height without actually reducing it.
Cummings argued that removing a floor would produce a “squat, horizontal orientation of the building.” But this conclusion didn’t hold water for some on the preservation board.
“Any architect who thinks it looks too horizontal could easily make it look more vertical with more design,” said board member Outerbridge Horsey.
Despite the preservation board’s divided assessment, members did support other design improvements, like a more pronounced front entrance at 16th Street, and an overall more consistent color and material scheme for the building.
Residents of nearby apartment and condominium buildings have consistently called for a project substantially smaller in size and footprint than what’s proposed. ANC 1C has previously adopted several resolutions opposing the various designs.
Even so, one ANC 1C member — Ryan Strom — declined to vote in opposition of the plans in April. Strom told The Current he thinks the 10-story project would make a worthwhile addition to the Meridian Hill area, which has several other tall residential buildings in addition to its park and nearby low-rise condos.
“I think a lot of the residents there have just gotten very used to the open grass land across the street,” Strom said. “I can understand having a large building coming might be a little jarring. For me, a building of this size, of this scope, fits.”
One resident testified in support of the proposal at this month’s preservation hearing, but residents speaking in opposition vastly outnumbered him.
As planned, the 110-unit apartment building would occupy existing open space, currently grass and a parking lot, and would sit behind the historic Meridian-owned White-Meyer House at 1624 Crescent Place NW. Meridian hopes to use development proceeds to raise money for maintenance and other capital projects.