BAR rejects Heritage redevelopment plans

BAR rejects Heritage redevelopment plans
Renderings of the southwest corner of the Heritage development from the July 15 BAR meeting (left) and the Sept. 2 meeting (right). (Renderings/Hord Coplan Macht)

By Missy Schrott |

If you’ve run out of shows on Netflix and you’re looking for some drama-filled entertainment, head to the city’s webcast archive and watch the Board of Architectural Review’s latest meeting.

A Sept. 2 concept review of plans to redevelop the Heritage at Old Town apartment complex quickly got heated after BAR members rejected renderings of the development and criticized the architect.

The Heritage is a 244-unit apartment complex that spans three blocks in the southwest quadrant of Old Town. The proposed redevelopment would involve tearing down the existing buildings and constructing a 777- unit complex on the property.

Because two of the three blocks fall within the Old and Historic Alexandria District, the developer, Asland Capital Partners, is required to get permission from the BAR to demolish the existing buildings. The developer will also eventually request that the BAR grant the new development a certificate of appropriateness.

In considering a request for demolition, BAR members have to determine whether a building has enough architectural or historic value to be worth saving. The BAR first considered the Heritage demolition request on July 15, but deferred the decision to September so that residents of the complex could provide input.

The BAR also held a preliminary concept review of the new development on July 15, during which members directed the developer and architect to bring the project’s height, scale, mass and architectural character more into alignment with the surrounding neighborhood.

When the groups reunited on Sept. 2 to reconsider demolition and design plans, the meeting started off looking good for the developer: The BAR approved demolition of the existing Heritage complex, having determined it did not have enough historic or architectural value to be preserved.

However, things quickly went downhill for Asland during the concept review, after the architect, Hord Coplan Macht, presented updated renderings of the new development.

The architects said that they took the feedback from the BAR’s July 15 concept review and reworked the plans to bring the building more in line with the rest of the neighborhood. Some changes included adding more balconies, opening up the pedestrian walkway and adding more windows in order to “lighten up” the design.

The proposed development would still be 777 units, seven stories tall in places and span a full city block.

BAR members were not happy with what they saw.

“We had some very serious concerns at our last meeting, and what came back as changes weren’t actually changes,” BAR Chair Christine Roberts said.

During the public comment period, Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association, said the changes in the July 15 and Sept. 2 renderings had been so minimal, she could barely spot the difference.

“When I look from one of these pictures to another … what I find myself constantly reminded of is that I’m looking at a ‘Can you tell the difference?’ little game in the Washington Post Sunday magazine,” Callahan said.

Renderings of the northwest corner of the Heritage development from the July 15 BAR meeting (left) and the Sept. 2 meeting (right). (Renderings/Hord Coplan Macht)

The majority of the BAR members echoed that the renderings still do not meet the BAR’s expectations of height, mass, scale and architectural character. Several of them were vehemently opposed.

“We need to start all over again. I can’t support anything like this,” BAR member Lynn Neihardt said.

In discussing architectural character, many said the buildings look like something better suited for Arlington neighborhoods, such as Crystal City or Ballston.

“I gotta tell you, you gotta go back to the drawing board,” BAR member John Sprinkle said. “As many people have said, it doesn’t fly in this city. It doesn’t appear to be this city.”

BAR member Purvi Irwin said she’d like to see more of the area’s history integrated into the design. The original Heritage buildings were constructed in 1976 and 1977 as part of an urban renewal project, when the traditionally Black neighborhood was known as The Bottoms.

Irwin and BAR member John Spencer agreed that the buildings don’t necessarily have to mimic historic buildings, so long as they fit in with the surrounding streets.

“I don’t have a super big issue with these being modern buildings. I have an issue with them being nonspecific about where they are, more than anything else,” Spencer said.

Roberts suggested that the developer consider changing architects.

“I think you might need a new architect,” Roberts said. “… It was as if someone was playing with a program and they typed in, ‘Let’s make this more fussy and inelegant than it already was,’ and what we got was more fussy and inelegant.”

Roberts went on to suggest that the added details were like “putting lipstick on a pig.”

“The pig is too big, and there’s no way to hide that. It’s just too big and what you came back with just made it look bigger and worse and more imposing,” Roberts said.

Roberts’ comments sparked an argument with the developer’s land-use attorney, Cathy Puskar.

“This is a voluntary concept review, and it doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere with this board, and these comments have been over the top,” Puskar said. “You’re basically saying, you don’t support the height at all, you don’t support the architectural character at all, you don’t support the size, so any of these additional items that we bring back to you would make no difference based on the comments that have been made tonight and the manner in which you made them.”

Roberts agreed that the two parties were at a crossroads.

“Ms. Puskar, then my suggestion to you is to come back to us with a certificate of appropriateness so that we can deny it and you can go to City Council and [request] their approval on it,” Roberts said.

The discussion ended without a resolution. Earlier in the meeting, Roberts suggested that there would be a third concept review of the plans. However, since the reviews are voluntary, it is unclear whether that will happen. The project is slated go to the Planning Commission and City Council in February 2021.

(Read more: The Heritage at Old Town to be redeveloped