How Frank Lloyd Wright's Crystal City Would Fare If Built Today

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How would a project like Frank Lloyd Wright's Crystal City fare in the District today? That depends on whom you ask.

Harriet Tregoning, director of the District's Office of Planning, said her office would agree that the city's height limitations must be honored. But it would welcome the commercial-retail mix that was nixed by the zoning board in 1940. She raised some objections unheard of in Wright's day. The large outdoor area would be a plus, but not the way the architect placed it on a "huge monolithic plinth," Tregoning said. This would raise the park and terrace so high above the surrounding streets it would have functioned as a private preserve that could be seen only from afar.

To create the huge parking structure underneath, Wright eliminated a section of T Street altogether, forcing pedestrians to take a circuitous route to get from one side of the building site to the other. In a neighborhood where the majority of households do not own cars and the sidewalks are heavily used, this would have been an intolerable inconvenience.

The size of the retail space appears to be as big as both Tysons Corner malls combined, and this would have created a traffic situation that exceeded the nearby communities' worst-case scenarios, she noted.

What Wright and his developer client might have presented to the city today, however, would be markedly different in ways that could mollify the neighbors, said Richard Carr, president of the Oliver T. Carr Co. and a developer of mixed-use projects in the District for more than 35 years.

No one would propose retail on this scale because the District does not have the population to support it, Carr said. The huge parking structure with its dreary three-to-four-story-high street face on two sides would be ruled out because experience has shown that such amenities are "not cost-effective" and very costly to construct, Carr said.

But the core of Wright's design and where his genius soars -- his "crystal" towers -- is still compelling and could be built today, albeit with some modification, in Carr's view.

A hotel at this location would have to be much smaller to be commercially viable, only 300 to 500 rooms instead of 2,500. Wright's intricate design and luxury materials would be costly to build, Carr acknowledged, but five-star hotel chains, including those operating in the District, recognize that a high-paying clientele demands top-quality design. They would not be fazed by the cost to build Wright's intricate plans if they thought it would help to attract business, he said.

Wright's luxury duplex apartments were small, but Carr said that condo developers in the District had successfully marketed units of this size in recent years. He did not think it would discourage potential renters or buyers.

-- Katherine Salant

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