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CFA Overrides Old Georgetown Board, Approves Latest Design For West Heating Plant

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It appears the third time was the charm for Richard Levy's West Heating Plant proposal. 

Georgetown West heating plant rendering
A rendering of the West Heating Plant project from 29th Street, showing the one wall that will remain from the original building

After unveiling its third iteration of the design from architect David Adjaye, The Levy Group's concept to turn Georgetown's historic West Heating Plant into a condo building was approved by the Commission of Fine Arts on Thursday. 

The CFA approval overrides a recommendation from the Old Georgetown Board, one of the federal agency's advisory groups, which voted on April 6 and again on May 4 to reject the current design. The developer still has more hurdles to clear before breaking ground, but Levy sees the CFA approval as an important step forward. 

Levy, along with New York-based Georgetown Co. and Four Seasons Residences, has been working on the project since winning the development rights in March 2013 with a $19.5M bid. Levy said he expected the CFA approval would take at least two attempts, and was surprised to see the unanimous decision. 

"That was pretty stunning," Levy said. "That they approved the concept after the Old Georgetown Board turned it down twice I think is pretty significant." 

Georgetown's World War II-era heating plant was decommissioned in 2000. The site is bounded by 29th and K streets NW, the C&O Canal and Rock Creek. Levy's development team plans to turn it into a 60- to- 70-unit condo building managed by Four Seasons with a one-acre public park. 

David Adjaye Richard Levy
Architect David Adjaye with developer Richard Levy

The latest design from Adjaye, who designed the wildly popular new National Museum of African American History and Culture, unveiled in March, retains about 30% of the existing plant. It would preserve the western façade fronting 29th Street and the stone-clad base, while demolishing the remainder of the building. The new part of the structure would replicate the height, massing and window openings of the heating plant. 

Opponents, including the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the Art Deco Society of Washington and the DC Preservation League, do not want the the developer to demolish the building.

"The concept proposal for the West Heating Plant does not preserve the historic quality of integrity of the building, nor does it preserve its character-defining features," DC Preservation League executive director Rebecca Miller said.

West Heating Plant Park South View
A rendering of the West Heating Plant project from the south, showing the one-acre park

The Old Georgetown Board recommendations were in line with Miller's desire to rehabilitate the existing structure, but the CFA recognized how difficult that would be given the poor condition of the building.

"The commission said, 'We understand the condition of the building is bad' and they felt that, in cases like this, that maybe it’s better to not worry about the literal historic image of the building and maybe it’s OK to simply preserve those few pieces and rebuild it in another way," CFA secretary Thomas Luebke said. "They were being less strict from a preservation point of view about what would be the right way to proceed."  

Levy said the CFA decision affirms his idea that you do not need to freeze a building in time in order to celebrate its history. 

"I firmly believe that you need to respect history, but you don’t want to be trapped by it," Levy said.  

West Heating Plant Site Plan
The site plan for the West Heating Plant project

The CFA approval represents a big step forward, but the project still has a ways to go before coming to fruition. It must be approved by the Historic Preservation Review Board and the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation before going through the Zoning Commission's planned-use development process. 

Levy said he hopes to have the proposal in front of the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation by year-end and get past that step by Q1 2018. Once it clears that hurdle, Levy said he may be able to begin the demolition and remediation of the site, roughly a one-year task, during the PUD process. Then he could have the site shovel-ready for vertical construction by the time the zoning is approved. 

Levy's proposal also creates a one-acre elevated public park on the southern portion of the site and a pedestrian bridge across the C&O Canal. The park is being designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin, who designed New York City's Bryant Park

Georgetown's advisory neighborhood commission approved the latest design. ANC 2E chair Joe Gibbon said he supports the concept for the building and thinks the park and bridge will create a better connection between the Georgetown waterfront and the C&O Canal. 

"It’s going to have a vibrancy to it with the park so that we can walk around the canal," Gibbon said. "It will allow us to reflect and enjoy the nature and it’s going to allow for a lot more human interaction with one of the finest areas of Georgetown." 

Four years into the planning process, Levy said he had hoped to be further along by now, but he knew from the start it would not be an easy task. 

"We knew it would be difficult before we closed on the acquisition," Levy said. "We made our assessment that this is going to be difficult, but we believe it will prevail and will be a great contribution to the community. We expect it will be a viable, major contribution to Georgetown."