About that project...

So what do you think of the development planned for the 500 block of East Pine Street?

It's hardly a rhetorical question. As just about everyone knows, a huge, mixed-use project is slated for the block where the Cha Cha Lounge, Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen, Manray, Kincora's, the Bus Stop, as well as a clothing store and a small grocery store, call home. In a neighborhood known for its night life as well as for small, independent businesses, the block serves as a kind of ground zero. At the very least provides a convergence of activity and energy that serves to help define the neighborhood.

But not for long.


To recap, the project intended for the site is a six-story monolith. Its design calls for 106 condominiums, two levels of underground parking and ground-level retail. To use a value-neutral phrase, this is one substantial project. The condos will be resold at market rate - figure $300,000 and up - which will increase the neighborhood's density but provide no affordable housing.

The developers have identified seven retail spaces for the ground level, spaces that will no doubt be a ton more expensive to rent than what the block's current businesses can afford. For the bars it's a moot point: the developer has stated that there will be no bars in the new building. Also, those seven commercial slots can easily be combined into fewer, and larger, retail spaces.

Just about no one supports the project. But Jennifer Power, who's spearheading the neighborhood's reaction as a member of the Pine, Olive Way, Harvard Avenue Triangle neighborhood association (POWHaT), said that the neighborhood is not reflexively opposed to development. The Pike-Pine Neighborhood Plan, in fact, encourages urban density.

"We're not saying no to every development that comes along. But this thing is huge. It's something we need to worry about, and there has to be a way the neighborhood can make ourselves heard," she said.

She pointed out that virtually everyone thinks the design is mediocre at best. At the most recent POWHaT meeting, one person said the design has actually gotten worse over the last six months; many heads nodded in agreement. Also of concern to the neighborhood is the fact that the architecture firm of Weber+Thompson is designing the project. The company is responsible for the 700 Broadway development at the north end of Broadway, a project widely regarded as a major aesthetic disappointment.

Two well-attended meetings in February and March signified the extent to which this project has energized POWHaT. Two weeks ago the group discussed the steps it would take to bring about positive change to the project. One such step is a letter-writing campaign. A five-page yet concise letter was been crafted and sent out to the roughly 50 (and growing) members of the POWHat listserve. Members can sign the letter or make changes, then send it to city officials, notably including the Design Review Board within the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD). This step has an element of urgency: the public comment period for the project ends on Wednesday, April 25.

Items addressed in the letter include, among others, the scale of the building overwhelming the neighborhood's pedestrian environment, the displacement of nightlife and the code departures the developer is requesting. The letter also points out that this project does not adequately reference "guiding neighborhood documents" like the Capitol Hill Neighborhood Plan and Pike-Pine's design guidelines.

"Why does the city even have these documents if it doesn't use them?" posits Power.

A fair question indeed. And if the city doesn't, it may take neighborhood efforts combined with a developer's change of heart to make a meaningful difference. Perhaps surprisingly, it can happen, and an example exists just up the street. The recently opened Broadway Crossing is a completely different building than the one initially unveiled to the neighborhood years ago. Neighborhood reaction was determinant in turning that project in a direction the neighborhood could support.


The goal is to have a unified reaction and move forward with a respectful relationship with the developers. The hope is to have an effect, so that the project becomes a positive element of the neighborhood rather than some bland, soul draining project that could have been built and located anywhere. The blandification of Capitol Hill isn't just a vague concept. With so many projects underway or soon to be so, it's far more than just a going concern.

No one disputes that major costs are involved, or that the developers are entitled to a return on their considerable investment. The point is that it is possible for long-term thinking - careful design, independent and local retail - to be profitable for the individuals and companies fortunate enough to take part in large-scale real estate development.

The developers are in a position to take neighborhood concerns to heart. They could design a spectacular building, one the neighborhood could get behind. The ground hasn't been broken yet.

We can still hope, right?

Around Here is a column by the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. Doug Schwartz can be reached at editor @capitolhilltimes.com or 461-1308.[[In-content Ad]]