During a tense community discussion last week of the latest plans for a new science building on the Washington International School’s Cleveland Park campus, one resident tried to offer an olive branch. Although he’s concerned about the proposal, he said that head of school Clayton Lewis “and the team at WIS work diligently with the neighborhood.”
Almost immediately, a chorus of dissent hit him: “Not true!” “Disagree!”
This exchange illustrates the increasingly fractured relationship between the school and the community. After several punishing rounds of reviews for plans to construct a new science building for the private school located on the historic Tregaron estate at 3100 Macomb St. NW, school administrators appear eager to move forward, even as many in the community push back.
But news for the school wasn’t all grim at the May 15 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C (Cleveland Park, Massachusetts Avenue Heights, Woodley Park). The commission’s resolution to oppose the designs for a third time failed on a narrow 5-4 vote.
The project now heads to the Historic Preservation Review Board this week without a letter of opposition from ANC 3C for the first time. Meanwhile, the Historic Preservation Office staff report for the latest designs recommends that the board once again find the proposed building incompatible with the site.
ANC 3C has welcomed six new members since the school presented plans last fall. Of those six, five provided the dissenting votes necessary to kill chair Nancy MacWood’s resolution in opposition. All three holdover members from the previous term, as well as one new member, voted to oppose the designs.
The school first came to the community in October 2015 with plans for a three-story science and technology classroom building and one-story underground parking garage between the Macomb Street NW entrance and the main academic building. Criticisms from residents and the preservation board forced the number of stories down to two, but some residents and preservation officials continue to take issue with the placement of the 28-foot-tall building, which would be positioned prominently within the school’s six acres of the 21-acre Tregaron site, carefully protected as a historic landmark.
At ANC 3C’s May meeting, Douglas Bothner of Ziger/Snead Architects pitched the new designs as responsive to previous concerns. A planned multipurpose room has been shaved off, shrinking the building from its original proposed 208-foot length to 127 feet. The structure is now distinct from the gymnasium, rather than wrapping around its rear. That new configuration — which Bothner said reduces the building’s footprint by 56 percent — also means that 12 fewer existing trees will fall victim to construction, and 18 additional trees will be added beyond the 102 that were already proposed.
But MacWood, three other commissioners and numerous residents in attendance aren’t convinced. They want to see the building pushed back farther down the steep slope, to mitigate disruption of Macomb Street views of the property. MacWood also suggested an existing courtyard as a possible site for development.
“It is moving in the right direction, absolutely. I think the massing and scale are now compatible,” MacWood said. “But the location is not.”
Lewis and Bothner insisted that they have concluded no other place on the campus is adequate for the building, which Lewis described as “extraordinarily important” to the school’s long-term mission.
“We’ve virtually cut the building in half from the original presentation. We’re at the absolute bare bones of what we need,” Lewis said. “We cannot fit anywhere else on the estate without utterly and completely violating the estate.”
Enough ANC 3C members were sympathetic to prevent a formal vote of opposition. Several said they received more positive comments from neighbors than negative.
“To me it seems like it’s speculative to say there’s some other magical site that’s going to work,” recently elected commissioner Jessica Wasserman said. “I just think it’s going to be controversial no matter where they put it.”
Emma Hersh, who also joined the commission this year, told The Current in a follow-up email that she thinks the designs now align the new building with its surroundings on the campus, and that the proposal would protect key viewsheds. “It’s a complicated case and a decision that I didn’t make lightly,” Hersh wrote.
Around a dozen parents wearing “I Am WIS/ANC 3C” buttons expressed frustration at ANC 3C’s reluctance to support what they see as a vital project for their children and future generations. The Cleveland Park Historical Society’s Architectural Review Committee also voted unanimously to support the new designs, having previously criticized the earlier iterations.
Though ANC 3C didn’t object to the aesthetics, several residents said they also think the “modernist” design clashes with the surroundings. Project supporters groaned at these remarks.
The Historic Preservation Review Board will review the Washington International School’s plans on May 25.