Plans to redevelop the long-vacant West Heating Plant inched forward last Wednesday, as the fourth iteration of designs for the proposed 110-foot luxury condo building won support from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith).
Opened in 1948 and shuttered half a century later, the art deco industrial building at 29th and K streets NW has drawn divided opinions: Neighbors generally see it as an unsightly stain on the otherwise upscale Georgetown neighborhood, while some preservationists have argued that it has historic significance.
In May, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved a proposal that would essentially demolish the historic plant to construct a new 10-story, 60-unit Four Seasons Residences building and an adjacent public park. The project would retain the heating plant’s approximate dimensions, its 29th Street facade, the structure of its existing windows and a stone wall at the perimeter of the property.
Despite their support for these general plans in May, Fine Arts Commission members requested bolder architecture that replicated the old heating plant in a less literal way. The project team presented these revisions at ANC 2E’s Sept. 6 meeting, in advance of a Sept. 20 review by the Commission of Fine Arts. ANC 2E has also supported past iterations of the project.
The building’s new design is indeed “less suburban” — as requested by the Commission of Fine Arts — drawing more clearly from its industrial past. The proposed east facade has been altered to add an exterior steel frame and large metal balconies, contrasting with its sweeping glass walls, while the condo’s north side is decorated with vertical rows of rusted steel, offset with sweeping window panels. In all, updated designs use a more diverse array of materials in an effort to better straddle the intersection of history and modernity.
The planned 1-acre public park, which would sit on top of the building’s 80-space parking garage on the property’s former coal yard, also saw design revisions after May’s Fine Arts critiques.
The green space, whose construction and maintenance will be funded by the condo building, echoes the industrial plant through an “unexpected combination” of design features, landscaper Laurie Olin of OLIN Studio said at last week’s meeting. These include metal water troughs of different heights, the use of steel, a conveyer belt and several metal benches, contrasted with sprawling lawns and flowering plants.
“Turns out, they’re the same pieces that we had in the previous scheme — it’s just the formal expression now speaks more to the recent history of it as an industrial site,” Olin said. “It is actually much more integrated with the architecture of the building.”
The project has been moving slowly toward construction approval. The Levy Group acquired the vacant heating plant from the federal government in 2013, and enlisted famed architect David Adjaye to reimagine the industrial site as a high-end residential property. The project has faced numerous design iterations amid conflicting opinions about how to respect a hulking yet historic industrial building — and further hurdles remain.
The West Heating Plant project has two upcoming appointments: with the Fine Arts Commission on Sept. 20 and the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board on Nov. 2. The latter hearing will include consideration of a landmark application filed by the DC Preservation League.
Early next year, the project team moves on to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation, who can allow demolition of historic buildings to accommodate a project of “special merit”; and the Zoning Commission, which will review the project’s size, scale, public benefits and traffic impact as part of a planned unit development.
Levy said the project would break ground in 18 to 24 months, but declined to provide an opening date. “My crystal ball is not clear about that yet,” Levy said.
In an interview, Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans said he expects the development to revamp a dilapidated site.
“My concern is that it’s just taken way too long,” Evans said, which he attributed to a somewhat misguided squabble over the plant’s historic status. “Frankly that’s not in my view — it’s very unsightly; a somewhat out of place building for Georgetown.”
ANC 2E chair Joe Gibbons is also looking forward to the project’s completion, saying that the “bold interpretation” reflected in the proposed designs pays homage to Georgetown’s industrial past while looking toward the future.
“We want this project to get started, for people to be walking around, for people to be utilizing it,” he said.