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Heritage project skirts denial at Board of Architectural Review meeting

The embattled Heritage project came within a hair’s breadth of being denied at the Board of Architectural Review‘s design review last week, and survived only on a last-minute deferral.

Many of the recurring public criticisms of the project, a series of three new apartment buildings along S. Patrick and Washington Streets in Old Town, resurfaced during the public comment period and from members of the BAR during discussions. BAR members have described the project as putting “lipstick on a pig” when the project first came forward for permitting last fall.

Recurring critics say that the seven-story buildings don’t fit the scale, mass, and general character of Old Town.

“What I’ve heard over and over again tonight are concerns about mass, scale, and lack of fit with the historic nature of Old Town,” said BAR member Lynn Neihardt. “I’ve asked numerous times that this monolithic building be divided into separate buildings. Was told that couldn’t happen because it was too expensive to build a separate lobby. A while back this board sent back a small residential project in Old Town four times for not embracing the opportunity to be creative. We’ve deferred this one several times as well, and I haven’t seen much creativity with each rendition.”

BAR member James Spencer said the building shares little with the design of other buildings in Old Town.

“I wanted to see an architecture that was about place, and I don’t think this reflects that,” Spencer said. “Designs shown so far snags this from here or that from there, but you’ve never told us what feels special from this place. This feels like something from another part of D.C., like I can see this almost anywhere else. Because of the size and mass, I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a point where we’re all going to be happy with this.”

Several members of the BAR said that the project has already gone through several rounds of feedback and seen little change, though chair Christine Roberts noted it was the first time the project was put forward for a certificate of appropriateness from the BAR.

Roberts said the BAR is usually lenient in allowing for a deferral for an applicant’s first review, and that the BAR would be exceeding their existing precedent if they struck it down without giving The Heritage developers a chance to review criticism from the board.

Early in the discussion, Neihardt said that some members of the BAR seemed to be holding back criticisms of the project for fear that the City Council — which unanimously approved permitting for the project in February — would just overturn their vote anyway. Neihardt’s concern bore some fruit by the end of the meeting, where the decision not to deny the the Heritage application was heavily influenced by concerns that the BAR would be abdicating their responsibility if they to use their leverage at this stage to make more changes to the project.

“The City Council can still approve it, but then we never see it again,” said BAR member Purvi Irwin. “If we deny it right now, we’ve thrown ourselves out of the discussion and I do not agree with that at all.”

The applicant’s request for deferral had been struck down earlier in the meeting, but by the end of the discussion the option of deferring game up again and was approved — giving the developer a chance to come back down the road with changes.

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