Good news sometimes comes in large packages. The Georgetown incinerator development, one of the biggest, most complex and most visible mixed-use Washington projects in many years, turned out well.
A long sigh of relief is justified, because the potential for urban mischief was significant. The combination of size and prominence on the Georgetown waterfront was a challenge. The number of agencies with a say in the design was high, even for Washington. The mix of uses -- a multiplex movie house, residences and a hotel for the rich -- seemed contradictory.
But thanks to architecture that is both subtly inventive and sensitive to an unusual context, the building slips into place like a well-conceived, handsomely wrought three-dimensional puzzle. It looks good now, and it will wear well.
The linchpin of the development is the old Georgetown incinerator at 31st and South streets NW, a waterfront landmark from the day it was built in the early 1930s because of its towering brick smokestack. The city ceased using the building for its intended purpose in 1971, and in the decades since various efforts to redevelop the site failed for one reason or another -- few Washington locations ever attracted so much interest with such meager results. Standing alone on its overgrown grounds, the building took on the sad look of an urban ruin.
In the long run, the succession of failures may have been beneficial, for most of those old proposals foresaw high-density office use -- not the best alternative for this prime riverfront land -- and several were downright irresponsible. For instance, one developer proposed demolishing the incinerator structure in toto. Another foresaw saving only the smokestack.
Today, smokestack and building, fittingly restored, are surrounded by new structures of sympathetic scale and materials. Urbanity is the architecture's strong suit. The project takes up the entire city block bounded by Wisconsin Avenue and 31st, K and South streets NW, and yet, thanks to the diligence and skill of the architectural team (Gary E. Handel + Associates of New York and Shalom Baranes Associates of Washington), the new pieces do not feel outsize or out of place.
Probably the best way to appreciate the architecture and the complexity of the project, before even stepping inside, is to take a leisurely stroll around the entire block. This in itself is a compliment to the architecture, for it is not a recommendation one would make for very many buildings of this size.
The logical starting place is in front of 300 South St. NW, the front door of the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which also happens to be the garbage delivery entrance to the old incinerator. It doesn't look trashy anymore, thank you, having gone through all sorts of Ritz-Carlton-type changes -- with sharp steel canopy, sleek glass doors and repointed brick walls, it now speaks of money, and of the attentive service that money can buy. (If your curiosity about the inside can't wait, head on in -- the lobby is as sweet an example of industrial chic as can be found in Washington.)
Stopping at this place provides an opportunity to admire the original architecture. Designed by Metcalf & Eddy, a Boston engineering firm, the incinerator is an excellent industrial building, a collection of strong rectangular pieces with fine brick detailing. Architect Shalom Baranes, whose offices are just a block away on K Street, says that the organization of blocky forms and the vocabulary of bricks and metal provided strong hints for the design of the new additions.
Just to the side of the incinerator-turned-hotel are three modest 19th-century buildings, restored as part of the deal between the city and the development team of Millennium Partners of New York and Anthony Lanier's Georgetown firm, EastBanc Inc. Although it is good to have these historical buildings back in excellent shape (one was owned by Robert Peter, Georgetown's first mayor), this is perhaps the least convincing aspect of the new complex. Never meant to be "foreground" structures, the buildings get staring roles here, and they look stagy and strangely out of place.
Also on South Street are two hotel wings, one to the east and one to the west of the incinerator. These are quietly assured in design, occupying their corner locations like a pair of dignified, rectangular bookends.
The sheathing and shaping of rectangular building forms are perhaps the two keys to the success of the design. Both tasks were accomplished with an intense sort of thoughtfulness. One feels the Baranes touch here, the fruits of having worked for more than two decades with the dicey issues of Washington context.
Suitable to the south Georgetown locale, brick and matte-finished metal are the predominant materials, elegantly played off one another. And each of the facades, particularly those facing 31st Street and Wisconsin Avenue, are subtly adjusted with bays and setbacks so that what might have been a boring box becomes a treat for the eye and a gift to the street.
Any new building facing K Street somehow has to deal with the canyon effect created by the elevated Whitehurst Freeway. Here, this was neatly done by giving the building a rampartlike base sheathed with rough-hewn stone block -- the angle of the rampart allows a bit more light to filter down to sidewalk level, and the thick stone wall makes a pleasant companion as one walks along the block.
This is perhaps the building's most familiar face, for it is the entryway to the movie house that opened last fall. From this vantage point, everything but the rampart is invisible. Moviegoers and all others might therefore give themselves an architectural treat by walking out into the riverside park across K Street and looking back -- the bay windows of the private residences rise rather elegantly above the freeway, with the smokestack as an identity-giving exclamation point.
There are, of course, many other facets to this big, complex project. Technically, it's a very tight fit, and a lot of architectural and engineering ingenuity was required to place the pieces in meaningful order.
Financially, it's a flight into the blue, because the developers are gambling there is a market for large expensive in-town condominiums -- only 28 units in all, ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 square feet in size and carrying an average price tag of $4.5 million. Retail is a challenge, too, on shadowy K Street. Lanier says he's looking for a locally owned "hang-out type cafe" for the space at 31st and K. We should all wish him well.
In terms of synergistic planning and public access, the project has its good and bad points. Condominium residences and a hotel are vastly preferable to offices in this location. With more than 400 underground parking spaces, the building might enable the city to finally get rid of the ugly riverside parking lot. On the other hand, it would be hard to think of a better way to lure more cars to Georgetown's crowded streets than putting a dozen movie theaters in a place that's a mile or so from a Metro station. And it would be difficult to imagine so-called public land that's more private in spirit than the handsomely landscaped areas that curl between these buildings.
But on balance, the architecture and urban design have to be considered very good indeed, and that's a quality that keeps on giving.