Dear Mr. Hoskins:
In its meeting of 21 June, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed concept proposals for building design and public space components of the proposed Southwest Waterfront development, also known as The Wharf. The individual building concept designs were reviewed as Shipstead-Luce Act submissions for Parcel 2 (SL 12-103, 900 Water Street, SW); Parcel 3a (SL 12-104, 800 Water Street, SW); Parcel 3b (SL 12-105, 850 Water Street, SW); Parcel 4 (12- 102, 750 Water Street, SW); Parcel 5 (SL 12-110, 700 Water Street, SW); and the Capital Yacht Club (SL 12-101, 780 Water Street, SW). (An additional submission for the church at 600 M Street, SW, is addressed in a separate letter.) The public space elements associated with these parcels were submitted directly from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development as concept designs for the piers, wharf frontage, parks, and streetscapes. The Commission of Fine Arts reviewed and took action on the various components of the overall proposal as follows, recommending approval of the design according to their comments as follows.
In general, the Commission members reiterated their support for the project as a whole and their interest in achieving a high standard of design for this important development as a prominent part of the national capital city. They expressed appreciation for the modification of the presentations to include the architectural treatment of buildings adjacent to the particular parcel under discussion. They acknowledged in particular the development of the design of the retail base on many of the parcels, which they said would be effective in animating the experience of the visitor in public space—a primary design goal for the project. The Commission notes that the design review under the Shipstead-Luce Act of 1930 specifically concerns private development adjacent or facing public buildings and lands—such as the Washington Channel and East Potomac Park, as well as Benjamin Banneker Park—and expressed its objection to large-scale commercial elements such as signs as part of this development.
Parcel 2. The Commission did not approve the design, requesting further revision of the building according to the record of its previous comments. The Commission members expressed concern that many features of this mixed-use building remain unresolved and unresponsive to their prior advice. Specifically, they criticized the design as continuing to present an inconsistent and overly active character, inappropriately scenographic in its inception, and contributing to a jumbled and chaotic visual effect. While they cited improvement in the treatment of retail areas at the base of the building, they recommended a more deliberate and disciplined architectural language for the large masses that make up the parcel and objected to the extension of the complexity of the retail base into the upper parts of the building. The building's components may benefit from less arbitrary and superficial articulation and more consideration of their design understood as three-dimensional structures rather than a series of colored, modeled, and decorated surfaces which compete with each other for visual attention. They noted that the diagonal organization of the building due to the extension of the 10th Street axis through the site may provide the opportunity to conceive of the project as a simpler composition of fewer pieces.
Regarding the entrance to the theater, the Commission members were emphatic that the proposed structure of 90-foot pylons surmounted by enormous signage would be wholly inappropriate in scale for this setting; they questioned the purpose of such gestures which, intended to be seen from a distance, would be almost meaningless for the visitor trying to locate the theater entrance. They suggested that calming down the design of the surrounding buildings would do much to allow the portal to the theater—at perhaps half the scale presented—to become legible for pedestrians and serve as a symbol within the development. They noted the practical difficulties of the protruding shard-like balconies, intended to animate further the entrance facade, which may be associated with extremes of temperature and wind pressure as open platforms suspended over public space.
Parcel 3a. The Commission approved the proposed concept for the new office building, expressing appreciation for the simplification of the design into a calmer composition of elements and the refinement of the retail base. The Commission members characterized the design as successful in balancing the articulation of the building between simple forms and subtly interrelated exterior details, patterns, and materials. They suggested improving the integration of the glass volume at the northern corner of the parcel by lowering the height of the story-high parapet wall similar to the height of the cornice line of the predominant masonry volumes. They also recommended that the air louvers associated with the WMATA vent along the Maine Avenue sidewalk be located above head height.
Parcel 3b. The Commission did not approve the design for the proposed hotel, requesting revision of the concept with options to clarify the relationship of the hotel entrance, the adjacent public space, and the clock tower if retained. The Commission members noted the refinement of the design of the canopies at the base level, but commented that the rest of building remains too complicated; they advised treating the skin of the upper portion of the building with greater simplicity. They referred to their comments for the mixed-use complex on Parcel 2 as generally applicable guidance.
Regarding the upper levels of the building, the Commission members again criticized the proposed clock tower as detracting from the overall composition of the building and not indicating the expected location of the hotel entrance. They expressed other objections to the design and detailing of the clock tower, commenting that it appears to be tacked on to the building and its canopy appears incomplete. They again recommended eliminating the tower, or at least presenting options for its redesign, preferably associated with the hotel entrance. They objected strongly to the continued inclusion of the story-high commercial sign on the roof, which they found inappropriate and unsupportable for the Southwest Waterfront.
Parcel 4. The Commission approved the concept for the proposed rental and condominium building with recommendations for the resolution of the treatment of some elements of the building skin. The Commission members noted the improvement of the design since its last review in January 2012 and expressed support for the development of the building's base. They suggested that the intended logic of the design of the building above the base could be improved with the more deliberate expression of the rental units as enclosed with brick and the condominiums with glass; they recommended that the various masonry and glazed portions of the facades be articulated rationally and consistently with the overall goal of presenting straightforward architectural forms.
Parcel 5. The Commission approved the concept for the complex of two connected hotels and retail base with the following comments. The Commission members supported the design approach of treating the two hotels—different in market focus but with shared amenities—as distinct but related architectural expressions. They observed that the image of sailboats as the inspiration for the architecture of this building is perhaps more successful than a nostalgia for massive industrial buildings, towers, and signs elsewhere in the project—with an effect that is appreciably fresher and evocative of the waterfront setting. Expressing appreciation for the modern design and the minimal palette of materials, they recommended the refinement of the design to create subtle differences between the two hotels and their outer and courtyard facades.
Capital Yacht Club. The Commission approved the concept for the two-level building as proposed. The Commission members expressed appreciation for the openness and transparency of this design, which will allow for views through and past the building, as well as for the absence of large signage.
The Commission reviewed the concept design for the public space elements and approved the design of the 7th Street Park. For the design of the open spaces and site furnishings associated with Parcels 2, 3a, 3b, 4, and 5, a quorum of the Commission was not present and the Commission members in attendance provided comments without an action.
7th Street Park. The Commission members reiterated their support for the calm and welcoming treatment of this park with its sequence of lawn, rain garden, and fountain spaces; they expressed appreciation for the simplification of design elements in response to their previous comments.
Wharf, Piers, and Streetscapes. The Commission members present gave their support for certain elements of the public space, particularly the light standards and wood fendering at the wharf's edge, which they felt improved the pedestrian experience with a playful character. However, they criticized the generally heavy and utilitarian quality of the other elements proposed for the public spaces: for example, they found the District Pier to have an unfinished appearance and cited the clumsy and overwrought quality of the 50-foot-high pylons, whose bases are clad with small-scale rustic stone uncharacteristic of the nautical context. While continuing their support for the general planning of the public spaces, they recommended strongly that the built elements—such as the District Pier, the Dockmaster Building, the Transit Pavilion, and the retail kiosks—be designed with a lighter spirit and related to each other as structures drawing upon the same vocabulary of related architectural elements. They suggested that a nautical inspiration—exemplified by the Dockmaster Building with its upswept roof supported by cables, and the light standards with canvas covers—could inform the design of the other structures. In conclusion, they recommended straightforward simplicity in the design and emphasized that the inevitable addition of ancillary elements—such as fire hydrants, vendor installations, trash receptacles, and the like—will add to the sense of visual clutter.
In conclusion, the Commission reiterated its strong interest attaining the highest quality possible for the development with specific guidance for improving the various components presented in Phase One of The Wharf. The Commission looks forward to the concept review the concept review of the design elements not expressly approved (Parcel 2, 3b, and public spaces excepting the 7th Street Park). The comments made without a quorum of the Commission will be presented at the next meeting of 19 July for confirmation. As always, the staff is available to assist you in the development of all elements of the project to be submitted at the appropriate phase of review.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Victor L. Hoskins
Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Suite 317
Washington, DC 20004
cc: Shawn Seaman, Hoffman-Madison Waterfront
Stanton Eckstut, Perkins Eastman / EEK
Harriet Tregoning, D.C. Office of Planning