Georgetown Day School’s revised development plans drop mixed-use project

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Georgetown Day's planned lower/middle school would be located at 42nd and Davenport streets NW. (rendering courtesy of Georgetown Day School)

Georgetown Day School has revised its expansion plans, modifying the design of its planned lower/middle school and indefinitely suspending a proposed mixed-use development.

The school had originally developed an ambitious proposal to transform the area around its 4200 Davenport St. NW high school, with hopes at one point of breaking ground by mid-2017. In 2014 Georgetown Day purchased the Safeway supermarket across Davenport, along with the former Martens car dealerships along Wisconsin Avenue across 42nd Street. The Martens property was to become two large mixed-use buildings, providing revenue for the school’s operations. The Safeway site was to become a new home for the lower/middle school, currently located in the Palisades.

At the July 20 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E (Friendship Heights, Tenleytown), school officials presented a more modest approach. Now, the new lower/middle school building would be about 24 percent smaller than earlier plans and sit 120 feet farther from residences on 43rd Street. And the mixed-use project, the subject of extensive community controversy, is not moving forward in the foreseeable future.

But even the revised proposal faces community concerns about the local traffic impact, with ANC 3E members and other residents challenging the school for allowing so many of its students to arrive by car. According to estimates provided by the school’s traffic consultant Jami Milanovich, the majority of Georgetown Day students are driven to school — 483 of about 500 students.

The school is proposing to shrink that number, but the community called for more aggressive reductions. Suggestions at the meeting included requiring many students to take public transportation or a school-provided bus service. Others recommended that the school not be allowed to increase its enrollment to 1,200 — Georgetown Day hopes to add 125 students — until it can demonstrate a reduction in vehicle trips.

“It’s going to require a culture shift,” commission chair Jon Bender told the school’s representatives. “But I think it’s a culture shift that is consistent with the values of your school — social justice and environmental justice.”

Milanovich assured residents at last month’s ANC 3E meeting that the school’s preliminary traffic management plan was “just that — preliminary,” with Georgetown Day open to further negotiations. The school has proposed requiring most student drop-offs to take place inside a planned underground parking garage, and hiring traffic control officers to monitor vehicles as they enter and leave the property. But Milanovich said the school would like to establish a cap on the number of vehicle trips and decide for itself how to achieve the result.

“We’ve heard feedback we need to do more. We understand that,” she said. The school will work with the community to establish “the right number” of trips.

Because Georgetown Day is proposing less intensive development, it only needs approval from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which regulates private schools in residential areas. The previous plans — first released in the spring of 2015, with subsequent revisions amid neighborhood objections — would have gone through the Zoning Commission’s planned unit development process, in which a developer provides community amenities to offset extra zoning relief.

Those benefits aren’t part of the new process. ANC 3E members lamented the loss of two such proposed amenities: funding a new stoplight at the intersection of Wisconsin and Chesapeake Street NW and replacing the 42nd Street slip lane to Ellicott Street with public open space. Smart-growth advocates at the meeting also expressed dismay that the old car dealership buildings will remain, rather than providing additional housing and retail options to the neighborhood.

ANC 3E member Amy Hall expressed particular annoyance with the fact that most of the original project’s traffic would have been generated by the lower/middle school, not by the two planned mixed-use buildings. “Basically what the community is going to get is a lot more cars, and nothing to show for it,” she said.

Steve Seelig, a local resident and a member of the Ward 3 Vision steering committee, said the original project would have spruced up a “dead” area.

“I think it’s a terrible, missed opportunity,” he said. “It could have attracted livelihood. Now we’re just going to have another Sidwell.”

Amid project delays, the Safeway building has sat vacant after the grocer elected to terminate its lease with Georgetown Day last year. The school does have retail tenants in place at the former Martens dealerships — Classic Motors and City Bikes — and officials said they’re continuing to evaluate the future of that property.

The former Davenport Street Safeway is next to Georgetown Day’s high school. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

The school halted its mixed-used project “due to a number of planning issues outside of GDS control,” board member Erik Smulson wrote in an email. Georgetown Day “does not currently have a timeline or plan for the commercial property; the school consolidation is the singular focus at this time.”

At the ANC 3E meeting, architect Jeff Barber detailed the revised plans for the 138,000-square-foot school building. It will stand more than twice as tall as the original proposal — 50 feet instead of 24 — but occupy a much smaller footprint that’s farther from nearby homes. Rather than sitting on the building’s roof, the new athletic field will act as a ground-level buffer between the school and 43rd Street residences. Additionally, the underground parking garage will shrink by nine spaces, to 106.

According to the school’s legal representative Allison Prince, architects made “small reductions in the administration and faculty areas and learning spaces” while shrinking the building.

“But more than that, it was just a more efficient building layout,” Prince said in an interview. “The earlier plan had to accommodate a field on the roof, so that dedicated the boundaries of the building.”

ANC 3E will continue to discuss the Georgetown Day project in September and hopes to vote on the school’s zoning application in October. “We recognize, very much, this is an ongoing conversation with the [commission] and with our neighbors,” Smulson said. “We feel like we’re very close to reaching the end of a very long journey.”

Georgetown Day filed its application with the Board of Zoning Adjustment on Aug. 7, with a hearing scheduled for Oct. 25. Georgetown Day School hopes to break ground on the lower/middle school next summer and open during the summer of 2020, according to Smulson.