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Throwing the Skyline a Curve

A New Residential Building on Mass. Ave. Uses Waves to Stir Up a Sea of Concrete

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2004; Page C05

This column is about an exception to an unhappy rule -- a splendid new residential tower at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue with H and Fourth streets NW, one of those made-in-Washington triangular sites.

What makes the building splendid is, quite simply, the quality of its architecture. This is a brick edifice that celebrates brick, a triangular structure that dramatizes its shape with subtly undulating walls, a certifiable Washington building that nonetheless breaks the old mold.

The 262-unit condominium tower at 400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, designed by the local firm of Philip Esocoff & Associates, uses curved slabs, changes in texture and varying window sizes to create elegant, rhythmic facades. (Photos James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

What makes the building an exception is the mediocre architectural quality of a trio of nearby residential buildings, also new. Unfortunately, mediocrity is the great character flaw of most of the new residential buildings downtown.

Make no mistake, the fact that these buildings even exist is an economic plus. It used to be, when you saw construction cranes crowding the downtown skyline, you could be sure another office building boomlet was underway. No longer.

Once again, there are cranes all over the place. But today chances are strong that those cranes will be hoisting window units to the upper floors of an apartment building or loft condominium.

This change seems almost a miracle to seasoned observers of downtown's fortunes. Plans to create a truly "living downtown," to quote former mayor Marion Barry's decades-old slogan, have failed time and again.

The missing element has always been the same: People who call downtown home. There was a flurry of residential construction near Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street NW during the late 1980s and early 1990s, most of it subsidized by the federal Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. But the resulting Penn Quarter neighborhood remained an isolated enclave.

Until now. Penn Quarter is being joined by high-density residences to the north, mainly in Chinatown and on both sides of Massachusetts Avenue. Besides adding to the city's tax base, the new residents are sure to have a strong impact on the liveliness of downtown streets. This is important. A healthy center is vital to the entire city.

Still, high costs are a cause for concern. Monthly rents of $2,500 are not rare, and condo prices can soar to $1 million or more. This price inflation threatens the stability of low-income neighborhoods in Chinatown and north of Massachusetts Avenue. Such prices also make one wonder about the long-term sustainability of the downtown housing market: The supply of single entrepreneurs, childless two-lawyer families and empty-nester suburbanites cannot, after all, be endless.

So far, however, so good. Except in architecture! In a city known for the quality of its apartment buildings, this is an astonishing oversight.

Most developers of large downtown residential towers promise to provide their customers with exercise rooms, party facilities, rooftop pools and other amenities. But they seem clueless to the fact that, more than anything else, high-quality architecture is the guarantor of long-term viability -- for an individual project, and for a neighborhood.

Of the four new buildings on a four-block stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, for instance, only one meets this crucial quality test. It is the 262-unit condominium tower at 400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, developed by Faison Enterprises and designed by the Washington firm of Philip Esocoff & Associates.

About the three others, the best I can say is that they get passing grades. Meridian at Gallery Place, the largest of the group with 462 units, gets maybe a D. It's a masonry hulk (with nice balconies) that looks as though it got lost on the way to a run-of-the-mill suburban location.

Sovereign Square, a 246-unit apartment building paired with a Hampton Inn Hotel, stretches an entire block on the north side of Massachusetts Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets NW. It deserves perhaps a solid C. Its most interesting characteristic is the change in style between the drearily conventional hotel and the slightly peppier, more contemporary, more metallic wing housing the apartments.

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