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Washington, D.C.

Step aside, Gallery Place! The East End landmark delivered by Akridge in 2004 may have been a mammoth one million square feet, but earlier this month, it closed on its acquisition from GSA of 15 acres of air rights over Union Station’s train tracks. That space will support three million square feet of offices, condos, apartments, stores, and even a hotel.

Matt Klein, President

"Burnham Place" will be Akridge’s biggest undertaking in its 30 year history, and a major move into mixed use. Historically, Akridge has been an office developer, with a sweet spot between 170,000 to 400,000 square feet and ground floor retail. The Homer Building, one of its signature projects, came in at 450,000 square feet and was all office.

In recent years Akridge has added some residential components: Such predominantly office-focused projects as Gallery Place and The Hartford in Clarendon have included condos (192 and 70, respectively). Plus, they are considering a mixed use project in their current planning phase for seven acres at Buzzards Point. However, the Union Station development could be as much as 50% residential. In part this reflects an intentional new direction, although in large part it's also just a natural accommodation of new urban trends combining living, working, and playing.

“There were constant hurdles,” Akridge president Matt Klein told us about Burnham Place planning. “We’d clear four, and then two new ones would present themselves. It took a heck of a lot of perseverance. Gallery Place wasn’t easy, but this was clearly the most difficult acquisition we’ve done.” Negotiations were required with Amtrak, the Federal Railway Administration, Union Station Redevelopment Corporation and Union Station Ventures (which owns the retail space within the station), among others. Among the difficulties were creating three dimensional tax lots for air rights, and assuring that Amtrak operations would not be compromised during construction.

Amazingly, the Burnham project is so big that first occupancy won’t be until at least 2013, meaning 11 years from when Akridge first bid. The company first placed its application for air rights in 2002, paid $10 million for them last week, and now faces three years of an “entitlement and design phase,” where stakeholders are consulted and regulatory permissions granted.

Then, in an extraordinary feat of engineering, Akridge will start on the next three-year phase: constructing a concrete platform 20 feet above the railroad tracks, drilling columns into the ground next to all the trains and passenger walkways below. South of H Street, caissons will be drilled into the earth supporting structural concrete columns above every 20 to 35 feet. But north of H Street, because of dense converging tracks, columns may be as far as 100 feet apart, resembling bridge spans. Only when that phase is complete will any facilities actually rise, the first of which will take at least three years. Other phases will take longer.

This isn’t the first time that feat has been accomplished–it’s been done in other cities including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. Indeed, architect Frank Gehry is currently building such a platform at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. “This will work,” says Klein. “Obviously we’ll be dealing with things unique to Washington, such as height limitations not present in other cities.” Because the office buildings can't be higher than 130 feet from the ground, costs can't be distributed over as many square feet as, say, an 80-story building in Chicago. Another unique challenge: The Commission on Fine Arts takes an active role scrutinizing visuals.

The job is estimated to have a value over $1 billion. Akridge has already lined up major out-of-town equity investors, whom it declines to disclose. And it’s not going to be modest in its ambitions. Burnham Place is named after the designer of Union Station (celebrating its birthday later this month), and Akridge ads proudly quote Daniel Burnham’s guiding philosophy: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

So, first chore for Akridge: It’s time to find an architect to design it, Klein told us. “We hope to have an architect on board within the next three to four months.” They will be looking for a world-renowned architect, because of the historical significance of Union Station, its central location, and the engineering challenges. Already Akridge has some design ideas, such as an atrium, as at South Street Station in Boston, where you'll be able to sit in a café atmosphere waiting for your train. They are also hoping to have retail lining H Street on both sides of the bridge.

“We’ll open this up to a discussion with a list of noteworthy architects,” Klein says. “What we’ll do is have a design competition—well not really a competition, but a series of interviews with very capable architects appropriate for this kind of project. We’ll narrow it down to a short list and pick the team best able to design this landmark project.”

With Chip Akridge’s background in nature conservation, might they be looking for some green elements in the design? “We’re looking at green building elements in everything that we do if it makes sense for the project,” says Klein.

Now that Akridge purchased the space for $10 million from the federal government, it’s moving full-steam ahead to collect input from various stakeholders including: the Office of Planning, the Zoning Commission, the Commission on Fine Arts, the Historic Preservation Review Board, the National Capital Planning Commission, the Architect of the Capitol, and the Area Neighborhood Advisory Commission.

Once completed, Klein envisions that Burnham Place will help connect one part of Washington to the other. “This project fills a hole that divides Northeast and Northwest Washington, he says. “It’s an economic hole, a liability that will turn into an asset.