Just south of the boutiques lining M Street in Georgetown sits one of the last untouched vestiges of the neighborhood’s industrial past, the West Heating Plant.

When the plant opened in 1948, clad in yellow-brown brick, it burned enough coal to pump a million pounds of steam an hour to federal buildings downtown. But left vacant for the past 15 years, the plant has become a laggard for a neighborhood that is trying to redefine itself in a fast-changing city.

An investment group led by Georgetown resident Richard H. Levy and former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams set out to change that, buying the plant at auction for $19.5 million and hiring a renowned British architect to reimagine it as the Four Seasons condominiums.

But after two years of haggling over how much of the plant to save when it is repurposed, the investors recently took the unusual step of proposing to raze the entire building, adding fuel to a fiery debate about whether Georgetown – and the District – should be more concerned about paying homage to the structures that define its past or replacing them to meet modern desires of the neighborhood.

“Our intent when we were going into this was to make sure that we saved as much of the building as we could,” said Levy, who co-founded the Big Apple Circus in New York and returned to Washington in the 1980s. But Levy said that as he worked through the early stages of the myriad approvals required, he began to think he was needlessly handicapping his design by trying to save, at most, one of the building’s walls.

“The neighbors said, ‘Why are you saving any of this building?'” Levy said. “Even if you were to reuse that building and not touch it, you’re going to have to replace the bricks and the windows. You’re going to have to protect the steel, keep it from collapsing. It would be nothing like the existing building. You’ve already removed more than 50 percent of the historic fabric right there.”

Levy had already hired internationally renowned British architect David Adjaye, designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. So he asked Adjaye to head back to the drawing board with a “free hand,” as if no historic guidelines would apply.

Adjaye returned with drawings for a luxury building of blue-tinted marble that, while the same height as the West Heating Plant, would include none of the original structure. Preservationists argue that reusing old buildings constitutes some of the best development in the District and elsewhere. The Ritz-Carlton down the street was built into an abandoned trash incinerator, while former flour and paper mills have become luxury condominiums.

Built a decade after the Central Heating Plant, which still operates in Southwest D.C., the plant in Georgetown is considered a “industrial building that is monumental in scale but minimalist and utilitarian in design and effectively demonstrates a shift from the Art Deco style of the Central Heating Plant to the Moderne,” according to a landmark nomination for the building from the D.C. Preservation League.

Other neighborhoods are closing the gap with Georgetown when it comes to restaurants and businesses by rehabbing their own industrial-era structures. An old warehouse in Northeast became Union Market, a former Twinkie factory near U Street became co-working offices and the Uline Arena is being turned into a flagship store for REI, with offices above it.

Even when Levy was trying to save some of the building, the D.C. Preservation League, the District’s top advocate on behalf of historic buildings, fought vigorously to protect more of it, arguing that the plant was a unique industrial structure from World War II-era Georgetown that should be incorporated into a new development.Instead, after welcoming guests with shrimp cocktail, wine and hors d’oeuvres, the developers on Dec. 9 publicly unveiled the plan to start over to the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

Adjaye said the design would create a natural transition between the commercial structures downtown and the residential architecture styles of Georgetown.”What it does on the street is create a very dramatically different relationship, where suddenly you have an incredible lightness and engagement,” he said.

As restaurants, apartment builders and other businesses have flocked to Shaw, NoMa and H Street NE in recent years, the Georgetown Business Improvement District has pushed to refresh the historic neighborhood by creating temporary parks, holding festivals and advocating for new transportation connections, such as streetcar service or even a gondola across the Potomac River to
Arlington.

Levy, 73, grew up in the neighborhood and returned to it in the 1980s to manage his family’s two dozen properties there.

For a decade he plotted how he would redevelop the vacant art deco building if it ever became available. Now that he owns it, he envisions 70 Four Seasons condominiums contributing to a new swagger in the neighborhood. The project would also include a public park adjacent to the C&O Canal.

Unless Levy and Adjaye return to their previous proposal, the building would be demolished, save for parts of a perimeter wall. “We would keep the remnants of the existing walls as part of the memory of the existing site,” Adjaye said.

Levy has won the support of many neighbors, but historic preservation debates often rely more on technical merits than popularity, and his plan is likely to be reviewed by a long series of boards and panels before possibly ending up in the hands of officials under D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

A top local architect who worked with Levy on the project previously, Shalom Baranes, says he doesn’t expect to see a final agreement on what can be done with the plant for five more years.

“Pursuing a full demolition may not necessarily be the wisest course,” Baranes said. “That’s not to say it’s not maybe ultimately achievable. But it is going to be a very, very long-term effort.”

Seasoned developers bidding for the property were confused about why Levy, who has little experience with real estate development, agreed to pay so much. The plant is in a historic district and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. If the building was granted additional historic protections, there would be no guarantee the owner could punch new holes in its sides for windows, much less tear any of it down.

Levy estimates that his team, backed by the Georgetown Co. of New York, has already spent an additional $5 million to $10 million on the project without even touching the building yet.

Even the most ardent historic preservationists agree that the building ought to be put to modern use. Filled from floor to ceiling with hulking pipes and sitting on land badly contaminated with toxic chemicals, the plant is perhaps better suited as the backdrop to a horror flick than as a neighbor to boutique shops and million-dollar condos.

The Preservation League named the heating plant one of the city’s six “most endangered” properties last year and nominated the property as a historic landmark after Levy bought it; landmark status carries stringent protections, but the status wasn’t granted by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board.

“Industrial buildings are few and far between in the District of Columbia, so saving one of the most important ones is extremely critical,” said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the Preservation League.

When Miller voiced concerns to J. Paul Loether, chief of the National Register of Historic Places, Loether responded with support in a June letter, saying that “the historical and architectural importance of the West Heating Plant endow the building with a level of significance extending beyond that of a contributing building in a historic district.”

The best prospect for saving it lies with a covenant requiring that the plant be reused according to federal preservation standards. Levy is banking heavily on language in the document giving local officials the power to override that requirement for “good cause.”

“The fundamental question is, can you tear a building down essentially, keep some fragments of it and then be entitled to keep that mass and scale and everything else that goes with it and then call it preservation?” said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

How “good cause” will be defined is a matter of debate, but the building’s ultimate fate may lie with the man appointed by the District as final arbiter, J. Peter Byrne, a law professor at — no surprise — Georgetown University.

Byrne declined to comment, but Levy said he and Williams received assurances from Bowser in a meeting this spring that, like Georgetown neighbors, she wanted to see redevelopment of the building proceed.

A mayoral spokesman issued a statement saying that “the Mayor has not made any decision about the project, but supports the idea of turning an under-utilized and neglected building into a positive asset for the community and the District.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz