Tenleytown building project faces another round of mixed reviews

The new building at 4620 Wisconsin Ave. NW would include more than 100 apartments above 11,000 square feet of retail space. (rendering courtesy of Urban Investment Partners)

Tenleytown could get a new sit-down restaurant as part of an upcoming development at 4620 Wisconsin Ave. NW, but after considerable back-and-forth with developers, some community members remain unsatisfied with the proposed building height and community benefits package.

Urban Investment Partners hopes to transform and expand the former American University office space into a eight-story mixed-use building with 11,000 feet of ground-level retail and 100-plus apartments. The developer is pursuing the project through the city’s planned unit development process, which allows for greater density in exchange for additional neighborhood amenities.

The project has come before Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E (American University Park, Friendship Heights, Tenleytown) on numerous occasions since February 2016 — each time to a mixed reception. Some community members praise the prospect of additional density, while others lament that a tall building would loom over the residential neighborhood just west of Wisconsin Avenue.

The most recent community presentation on June 8 generated a familiar range of responses. Urban Investment’s Brook Katzen touted a beefed-up amenities package for the development, including the promise to court a full-service, sit-down restaurant for at least 3,500 square feet of the retail space.

Urban Investment also removed a planned 20-foot-tall penthouse from the latest version of the designs, in addition to shaving a few feet from the building’s top floor and relocating a planned elevator in the center of the building to the southern edge. The proposed building now stands at 88 feet with no occupiable penthouse, whereas previous iterations stood 90 feet plus the penthouse.

Other benefits added since the previous presentation include pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold designation, as opposed to the minimum LEED Silver level; and designating 10 percent of the building’s 145 units to residents earning 60 percent of area median income, instead of the legal minimum of 8 percent under inclusionary zoning laws.

“Generally the project has evolved in a very good direction, and we hope that it’s now in a place where everyone can be happy with it,” Katzen told residents at the ANC 3E meeting.

But his wish didn’t quite come true. While numerous residents spoke up in favor of the project and urged commissioners to support it, just as many offered counterarguments.

Some said the benefits package still isn’t strong enough. ANC 3E’s Tom Quinn wants the development team to bury utility wires both in front of the building and along nearby Chesapeake Street, but Katzen reiterated that at this time plans call only for undergrounding wires directly adjacent to the building.

Some neighbors complain that the project would be out of scale for its surroundings. (rendering courtesy of Urban Investment Partners)

ANC 3E chair Jon Bender, meanwhile, asked developers to consider striving for LEED Platinum certification and working to improve pedestrian safety where River Road intersects with 42nd and Brandywine streets NW about a block from the project.

Other residents want the height to shrink even more.

“I have not heard one single justification for a project that is so out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood,” one resident said. “This is an enormous building. It will be setting a precedent for Wisconsin Avenue.”

Existing zoning would allow a maximum height of 50 feet, but the development team argues that the city’s planning principles support greater density on major corridors, particularly near Metro stations.

The project has now fallen behind schedule, with Urban Investment hoping to secure zoning approval by the end of the year. According to Katzen, construction will take 14 to 16 months once it gets underway — a shorter timeframe than normal for a project of this size because the team is modifying an existing structure rather than building a new one.

Katzen told The Current after the meeting that his team would work on addressing the latest round of community feedback in time for ANC 3E to formally consider the project’s zoning application for a July vote.

“PUDs are challenging. We knew that going into it,” Katzen said. “This is the way the process is supposed to work. Ultimately the community will get more than they would if this was a matter-of-right development.”

As for the restaurant idea, serious discussions with prospective tenants won’t begin until the project is further along, according to Katzen. At the meeting, he said his team has had “casual conversations with a few prospects that think it’s a great space.”

Tenleytown has recently experienced a boom of fast-casual restaurants, with some residents lamenting that sit-down establishments are few and far between in the neighborhood. If Urban Investment struggles for more than a year to secure a tenant willing to enter the market, Katzen said, the developer would seek other types of tenants to fill the space.

Other previously announced community benefits for the project include rehabilitating the dilapidated National Park Service building at Chesapeake Street and Belt Road NW, and restricting the building’s residents from obtaining residential parking permits.

As part of the project, the next-door wooden structure at 4624 Wisconsin will be torn down. Developers abandoned plans to incorporate 4626 Wisconsin into the design as well after they failed to purchase that site.

Meanwhile, construction is already underway on another Tenleytown project from Urban Investment: the mixed-use redevelopment of the former WAMU building at 4000 Brandywine St. NW. That 100-unit building will be completed by the end of the year, Katzen told The Current.