Meridian International project secures long-sought preservation approval

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The proposed residential building would be across from Meridian Hill Park at 2300 16th St. NW. (rendering courtesy of Perkins Eastman DC)

Neighbors of a proposed apartment development near Meridian Hill Park lost their bid to reduce the building’s height from nine to eight stories, as city preservation officials voted last Thursday to approve the taller of several design options.

Plans call for a 110-unit apartment building with a penthouse at 2300 16th St. NW, behind the White-Meyer House at 1624 Crescent Place NW. Meridian International Center, a nonprofit public-diplomacy organization that owns two early-20th-century mansions on the west end of the development site, plans to use the new building to raise money for maintenance and other capital projects.

Residents have repeatedly blasted proposals from the development team, which includes Westbrook Partners and the architecture firm Perkins Eastman, as too tall and out of step with the character of the surrounding Meridian Hill Historic District. Most recently, the Historic Preservation Review Board asked developers to return to the community with renderings of an eight-story design, in order to determine whether the neighborhood’s request for a shorter building was feasible.

At the neighborhood’s request, developers presented three alternatives to the Historic Preservation Review Board on June 29: Scheme C, a nine-story building; Scheme D, an eight-story building with a central entrance tower; and Scheme E, an eight-story building with corner balconies and top-floor setbacks. Developers signaled their preference for Scheme C, and despite vigorous protest from residents, the board voted 6-2 to endorse that preference.

“It seems to me that removing a single story is kind of neither here nor there,” board member Brian Crane said. “I don’t think it makes that much of an impact.”

Supporters of Scheme C concurred with developers that the squat appearance of the eight-story layout wouldn’t be satisfactory.

On the opposing side, board chair Marnique Heath and member Joseph Taylor favored the eight-story designs, which they argued would have a smaller impact on views of the mansions to the new building’s rear. Taylor and Heath said they liked Scheme D for the separation of massing provided by the entrance tower.

Just before the vote, several neighbors and community leaders implored the board to reach a different conclusion. Ted Guthrie, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C (Adams Morgan), offered passionate testimony against the building’s impact on the historic character of the surroundings — drawing applause from last Thursday’s hearing audience that, in turn, earned a rebuke from Heath. ANC 1C has opposed each iteration of the project’s preservation plan dating back to 2015.

“When you look at the scope of their changes in comparison to the concerns we’ve been expressing, it’s clear that they’ve been tweaking the details,” testified ANC 1C’s Amanda Fox Perry, whose single-member district includes the site. “Our calls for meaningful changes to the building size have not been answered.”

The project has drawn heated responses from residents of nearby buildings. Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League, testified that her organization’s support for the nine-story Scheme C prompted “some pretty nasty phone calls” to her office from project opponents.

Residents of the Beekman Place Condominiums at 1600 Beekman Place NW, right next door to the parking lot and grassy area that will eventually house the development, have been among the project’s most vocal critics. JonMarc Buffa, the condo board’s president and a former ANC 1C member, told The Current that he has heard talk of residents forming a legal defense fund in case they later decide to pursue litigation against the project.

In the meantime, residents who oppose the project are gearing up to challenge developers on more specific issues of zoning, public space and transportation that will come up now that developers have secured preservation approval. Buffa said he’s still open to negotiating compromises if the developer decides to cooperate more than it has so far.

“The community didn’t feel like they were treated fairly by the developer,” Buffa said. “This could have been a negotiated resolution. I really believe in my heart of hearts that could have happened if the developers had been more fair.”

Still, some who testified last Thursday were likely pleased with the result, including Miller and former ANC 1C member Alan Gambrell. Both said they support the developer’s efforts and appreciate the sacrifices it’s made in altering design elements over more than two years to make the building appear less imposing.

The development team didn’t provide details on the project’s timeline in time for publication.