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COMMENTARY: Planners for the Proposed 100-unit Apartment Building, 805W, on West Cary Should Go Back to the Drawing Board

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You've got to be kidding.

That was my gut reaction to the architect's rendering of a gawky and ominous-looking 100-unit apartment building that a developer wants to build in the 800 block of West Cary Street in Oregon Hill. It has all the charm of Hannibal Lecter's lair.

Adding insult to injury, the plan calls for razing at least four — maybe more — substantially built, century-old brick structures that could be restored, re-purposed and remain as anchors of the neighborhood's architectural patrimony.

During the past few days, rather than coming to terms with the unfortunate ugliness and spirit of the plan, as can often happen along the pathway to acceptance, my disbelief deepened to disgust. Now anger has settled in.

Here's the question: How can a city that's nationally recognized for its charm, dignity and architectural specialness unleash bulldozers on stable historic fabric, especially when those buildings comprise the bedrock of one of that city's distinctive and beloved districts? Oregon Hill is a neighborhood as old as the city itself.

Sadly, the developer, 805W Group LLC, reportedly seeks to squeeze every inch of rentable space out of the site. It has acquired 1 acre, composed of 13 parcels, or almost half a city block defined by West Cary and Laurel streets and Green Alley. Included are four contiguous sturdy historic brick buildings, one built in the 1840s, southwest of the intersection of Cary and Laurel. Others are located in midblock. Most of the site already has been cleared of structures.

The proposed $18.5 million complex, to be named 805W, would be a four-story apartment behemoth with covered parking and 10,000 feet of commercial space along the sidewalk. Exterior cladding would include pre-fabricated black panels punctuated with an awkward mansard roof and weird projecting balconies. The discombobulated elements comprise the architectural equivalent of a hoochie-coochie dancer doing the shimmy.

A top floor community space is being promoted as offering views of the surrounding cityscape. Why aren't the developer and architect more interested in enhancing the architectural preservation and character of the neighborhood their complex would certainly trash? The designer, Architecture Design Office, could make this project at least passable by respecting the built environment that surrounds it. Nearby are dozens of buildings, old and new, that share a distinct architectural tradition of low-keyed dignity and modesty. This proposal flies into the face of all of them.

The quartet of contiguous old buildings slated for extinction should be restored or sold to a developer who would retain them. One of these buildings is the former Paragon Pharmacy on the corner. All of the buildings are sound enough structurally that saving only their facades wouldn't be the best option. Preservation tax credits, which the developers have not sought, could assist in funding the buildings' restoration, as it has with hundreds of similar projects locally. Tearing down a 175-year-old building at this point in our environmental and preservation consciousness is unconscionable. And while making the buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act would be a challenge, it's not rocket science.

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As for the hulking, aircraft carrierlike form of the proposed infill construction, where did it come from? With so many distinctive buildings nearby, how could the architects not have been moved to meld their proposed complex into the context of the neighborhood? Not to mimic the old stock but to incorporate clues in regards to scale, massing and materials.

Within yards of the 805W apartment project, recently built Virginia Commonwealth University facilities reflect a respect for the spirit and architectural traditions of Oregon Hill. It has restored the St. Andrews Association residences along Cumberland Street. It has moved century-old buildings rather than destroy them. Even the taut, classical Gladding Residence Hall III, built a decade ago at Laurel and Cary streets, is large in scale but nods to its surroundings. And the VCU student gymnasium, designed with aching sympathy to the neighborhood, masterfully respects the bones of Oregon Hill. A decade ago, in March 2008, I wrote on these pages:

"One of the visual treats of the new gym is the Cherry Street facade. Here the architects, Smith & McClane, executed with a highly deft touch a facade that bridges a megalithic institutional building with modest, century-old townhouses. In addition to a masterful blend of stone, brick, and steel … the porches create a rhythmic conversation with neighboring buildings while being contemporary in design so as to neither mimic nor mirror."

Does VCU get everything perfect? No, but these projects, just yards from this proposed private development, possess tremendous thought and sensitivity.

In short, architectural examples abound as to how 805W might be shoehorned into the existing fabric. Its planners should go back to the drawing board. If the developers demand optimization of the site, in return for saving the historic fabric, they might seek special consideration for taking the building higher.

Solid and beautiful — if modest — buildings that have stood for 175 years are an architectural, cultural and economic asset that shouldn't be disposed of except for something amazingly exceptional.

The proposed 805W projects falls far short. S

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