Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Active Street Life, But No Residential Proposed for Mt. Vernon Site

Paul Millstein of Douglas Development presents plans for
Squares 450 and 451 in the Mt. Vernon area.

Last night, the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association heard a long-awaited presentation from Paul Millstein of Douglas Development on the project that includes property they had amassed over the last fifteen to twenty years in the area just east of the Washington Convention Center. In September, the Washington Business Journal discussed the scope of the project and speculated on what might come to an area that is full of vacant property and parking lots. I highlighted some of the reported details on Life in Mt. Vernon Square.

Millstein provided an underwhelming few more details last night. The Triangle blog provides the specs and a map of the site. I won't repeat that information here.

The project is still very much in the conceptual stage. There were no detailed renderings available, just the massing sketch from 30,000 feet visible in the photo above. Douglas Development plans on presenting this concept to HPRB next month, but I would not be surprised if the presentation is postponed. Mr. Millstein committed to returning to MVSNA with more information in the future. This project is still far off -- at least 6 to 12 months as the concept develops, they'll need HPRB and Zoning approval, then add a year for permitting -- 2, most likely 3, years until groundbreaking. They do not yet have financing.

For the time being, Millstein was receptive to considering improving lighting on the 600 Block of L Street, which is near pitch black and experiencing increased pedestrian traffic between the metro and CityVista/Yale Lofts. They are also open to temporary uses of the property, such as the Fringe Festival hosted at AV Restorante earlier this year.

Here's a few things we learned about the project. Douglas Development is DONE amassing property. They've thrown in the towel on some of the hold outs, such as Marakesh, the corner lot at 6th and New York, and one of the historic properties on the 1000 Block of 7th Street NW. They do own property including The Eagle and the club formerly known as Avenue. There are still a few properties on which to close.

Mr. Millstein reported that Douglas Development has given up on the property they own on the northwest corner of 6th and L Streets NW. MVSNA had reviewed a proposal for housing at that location about a year or two ago - it includes a historic house where Thurgood Marshall reportedly lived at some point, a vacant lot, and a small condemned structure that is sometimes used as an illegal billboard. Apparently, the site is now considered unbuildable for financing reasons. Sad and disappointing. The house is falling apart. I guess it joins Carter G. Woodson's home on the list of dilapidated and forgotten black history.

So back to the project. It involves:

  • Fully restoring the historic properties along 7th Street;
  • Literally picking up and consolidating several historic properties to make room for new buildings;
  • Retail, restaurants, I believe, a hotel, and entertainment at the ground level with offices above. Regarding the entertainment anchor, Milstein said, "I think they have a phenomenal entertainment venue" lined up that would open at 7th and New York Avenue. What it is, however, he could not yet say. Past articles have noted the potential for a House of Blues in the project;
  • Below-grade parking (no amount discussed); and
  • Zero, none, zilch residential units.

That last bullet is likely to be the most controversial aspect of the project. Currently, zoning laws would require a residential component -- it's part of the push to create a living downtown. Mr. Millstein mentioned seeking something called a "CLD," which would apparently allow them to forego the residential requirement by paying money to support housing somewhere else. Does anyone know how this works?

Should a project of this size and at this location include a residential component?

My initial reaction is mixed.

On the one hand, DC has come great lengths since I first moved down here from the-city-never-sleeps NY and was surprised to find a downtown ghosttown. Incorporating residential into Penn Quarter certainly helped. DC's population has increased to about 580,000, but that is still far short from its historic pre-riot high of over 760,000. There is plenty more room to grow. It would seem the portion of the project on the 600 block of L would be ideal for residential. Currently, the plan for that block is to use it for loading docks and a parking garage entrance for the retail/office frontage on New York Avenue, continuing the dead zone. Think the 1400 Block of Church Street in Logan Circle, where they turned the Rainbow auto repair shop into a unique condo.

On the other hand, has the massive condo and apartment explosion maxed out, particularly in the area surrounding this site? Over the past few years, in addition to the Penn Quarter units, we've seen condos and rentals come online at 400, 450, and 555 Massachusetts Avenue, the Sonata, and the Whitman. Most recently, Yale Laundry, CityVista, and Madrigal Lofts have opened their doors. (Note: Yale has filled about 65 of 140 units so far). Yale II is under construction. How much more housing can the area sustain? What will the current financial market allow? As Mr. Millstein notes, there's plenty of unfilled demand for retail and restaurants in the area. It's amazing how consistently packed Bus Boys & Poets is within weeks of opening.

At some point, the community will be asked to weigh in on a request for zoning relief from the residential requirement. Let the debate begin.


fourthandeye said...

I support the idea of Douglas paying for the CLD to support housing elsewhere in the city. The Triangle has MASSIVE amounts of residential units that have delivered and is planned to deliver (maybe 3500+).

I'm sure you are right that this will be controversial and some may not like it including the DC Council or ANC level. However I fail to see the travesty in having two blocks that don't have housing especially considering they include extensive plans for retail and entertainment. If the housing is forced upon Douglas it may jeopardize how ambitious the shopping or entertainment venue can be.

Let's remember that these aren't just random squares in the city. They are next to the Convention Center. We need to liven up those corridors because the Convention Center itself did nothing to accomplish that with it's bunker like design. These blocks need dramatic retail to pull conventioneers out onto the street and eventually down into the K Street retail spine.

I was just in Seattle over the weekend and the activity around their convention center is eons ahead of ours. I also have a friend who told me she was attending a convention in DC in 2009. I got excited but that high was brought down a peg when it was determined her conference would be at the Gaylord National Harbor CC.

With the CLD the district can still get it's affordable housing but it won't further complicate, slow down or dumb down this project. By all means it's healthy to probe Douglas on the residential and question the logic. But I surely hope we don't get into ultimatum mode...

Sam Farmer said...

Thanks for the detailed report as I was not able to attend the meeting.

In regards to housing I believe this project should meet the zoning regulations for the area.

1) They bought the land knowing housing was required.

2) As noted it will be, best case scenario, 4 years before these buildings are up and running. By then there is a good chance that all of the current housing projects will be full and we should always push for the live able downtown that comes with housing.

Very disappointing they have given up on the 6th and L property. Douglas does not seem to be able to get things done which makes me wonder if this project will ever happen.

fourthandeye said...

First off, I should clarify on my original comment that "I support the idea (of a CLD)" with the phrase "I am very open to the idea". We still know so little that I need to tread a little more softly. A blog is of course sort of raw and unedited and the language can come across stronger than intended sometimes.

Sam, is a sea of 555 Mass, Yale, Madrigal, Meridian Place, and DuMonts with little to no retail your idea of a "live able downtown"? I fear we're going too far in the housing direction. Then a potentially great retail project comes along to balance things out and we're condemning it before Douglas has even presented more than a rough concept.

I think the historic preservation aspect and the shopping/entertainment potential could be a great benefit to the community and restore some balance. Plus, as I mentioned in my previous post, the convention center needs dramatic help to liven the streets.

si said...

very interesting points. I do agree that the lack of housing will be the most contentious issue. I must confess my desire to get these blocks f%^@$!#$@#ing built make the prospect of no one living there more palatable. but what eye says about balancing out the lack of mixed use on the other sites that have been built definitely has merit. I wonder did these buildings acquire exceptions to limit their retail components whilst the housing market was booming? I thought the master plan was mixed use in the downtown area yet building after building sprung up with little or nothing on the bottom. Thinking out loud here, a benefit of having more office mixed in is creating that 24hr activity environment with more workers in the area.

fourthandeye said...

I personally think that 6-8 years in this immediate area we're more at risk of saying "we didn't build enough retail" than saying "we didn't build enough housing".

I think many of us agree that Douglas targets more chains than for tenants than we'd ideally like. However their track record suggests they will create a vibrant high energy retail scene.

Now Steuart on the other hand, I didn't see one single project in the portfolio they display on their website that inspired any confidence in their ability to create a lively streetscape. I'm sure Steuart will put in ground floor retail, if they ever develop that parking lot, because it's in the K Street overlay but it may be very vanilla and just enough to satisfy a requirement. Atleast Douglas will dare to shoot for the moon.

jescowa said...

I'm much more concerned about the housing glut than a need for more residential (remember our home values are determined by supply and demand, and for the foreseeable future--until the next economic cycle--we're looking at excess supply). What we lack is easy access to close, interesting services (restaurants and retail) without going down to Penn Quarter. And I think the addition of more office space to the area will help to sustain those businesses by extending the hours they would be frequented.

si said...

Oh one thing that was not mentioned but I am reasonably sure is part of this development is a boutique hotel component. I think that would bode well for the mix.

si said...

Lets talk about the NW corner of 6th & L, AKA Jemal's Judge. Millstein said they were "upside down" on that property which was to be residential. Its going to be unpleasant if they build a giant next development across the street thats going to attract lots of people but when they look ut the window the view will be rotting vacant shell. We know this from experience, hello convention center. Is it possible that a use change for that parcel could make it viable? Is that a good idea or would it be giving up a chunk of the HD character? Im just thinking out loud but what if it were fairly low rise lie the origianl plan (which was nice), residential units mixed with some small offices and a nice little cafe on the ground level corner? Its practically in view of city vista.

fourthandeye said...

I would also suggest that Retail and Residential parking don't play together as nicely as Retail/Hotel and Office parking do. With residential people want their assigned spots and a separate secure garage area from any other mixed uses. Office and retail drivers accept first come first serve parking and are more compatible.

Now, it is possible to partition off garage space. But thats more easily done with a big square project like at City Vista. The Jemal plans, because they are building around all the holdouts and historic properties, would find it more challenging to partition their garage uses. That in turn could stall the project further or dumb down the retail to CVS type stuff rather than something potentially exciting like the entertainment venue.

Cary Silverman said...

The Washington Post has an article on the development here:

The article doesn't provide much more for details, except that the boutique hotel is up in the air. Strange that the article did not mention the two most interesting aspects of the plan: the anticipated entertainment anchor and the hurdle of not including any residential per zoning.