Sale of Metro build­ing could trans­form neigh­bor­hood around it

Re­zon­ing would in­crease prop­erty’s value and add to its po­ten­tial uses

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - THE DIS­TRICT BY MAR­TINE POW­ERS mar­tine.pow­ers@wash­post.com

The planned sale of Metro’s hulk­ing down­town head­quar­ters could be a game-changer for Penn Quar­ter. As the agency’s re­zon­ing re­quest for the prop­erty heads to a pub­lic hear­ing in two weeks, res­i­dents and of­fi­cials have started imag­in­ing what the space may be­come and how it could change the area.

For many, the pref­er­ence is clear: De­mol­ish the bor­ing beige con­crete build­ing that has housed Metro for 50 years and build some­thing new and ex­cit­ing. Even Metro, in its ap­pli­ca­tion to the D.C. Zon­ing Com­mis­sion, ar­gued that mak­ing dra­matic changes in the space be­tween the Gallery Place and Ju­di­ciary Square sta­tions would of­fer an op­por­tu­nity to cor­rect “poorly con­ceived mid­cen­tury plan­ning and de­sign prin­ci­ples.”

“The po­ten­tial for the build­ing is ob­vi­ously tremen­dous,” said Randy Boe, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral coun­sel of Mon­u­men­tal Sports and En­ter­tain­ment, which owns the neigh­bor­ing arena.

The Jack­son Graham Build­ing, at Sixth and F streets NW, opened in 1974 — two years be­fore the Metro sub­way sys­tem opened. The prop­erty it­self was al­ready owned by Metro be­cause it had been used as a stag­ing ground for con­struc­tion on the down­town Red Line sta­tions, ac­cord­ing to Zachary M. Schrag, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity.

When con­struc­tion was fin­ished and the lot was cov­ered, Metro de­cided to build its mother ship on the same piece of land. The choice came at the be­hest of city plan­ners and lead­ers who saw the de­ci­sion to build an en­dur­ing and re­spected of­fice build­ing in the cen­ter of the city as a heart­en­ing first step to­ward re­viv­ing the Dis­trict’s de­pleted down­town in the af­ter­math of the 1968 ri­ots.

“When you’re re­de­vel­op­ing an area, you’ve got to have pi­o­neers, and I think WMATA (Wash­ing­ton Metropoli­tan Area Tran­sit Au­thor­ity) was one of its own pi­o­neers at the time,” Schrag said. “The Metro sys­tem was de­signed in part to make that down­town real es­tate more at­trac­tive, so the WMATA build­ing it­self was part of the vi­sion it was try­ing to pro­mote in that part of the city.”

Now, nearly half a cen­tury later, the build­ing is woe­fully out­dated; it doesn’t meet fire code or re­quire­ments of the Amer­i­cans With Dis­abil­i­ties Act.

More than a decade ago, then-D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Wil­liams pushed Metro to sell the build­ing and move to a new com­plex on a five-acre lot near the Ana­cos­tia Metro sta­tion. His pro­posal was ul­ti­mately aban­doned.

In­stead, Metro an­nounced in July that it would move out of the Jack­son Graham build­ing, find a smaller of­fice space in the heart of the Dis­trict with easy ac­cess to mul­ti­ple sub­way lines — ide­ally, within a few blocks of Gallery Place, Metro Cen­ter or L’En­fant Plaza — and send some em­ploy­ees to soon-to-be-ac­quired of­fices in Mary­land and Vir­ginia.

With more peo­ple want­ing to work and live down­town, Metro’s prop­erty is con­sid­ered a prime spot.

“It’s a very beau­ti­ful area,” said Jack Evans, the Metro board chair­man who also rep­re­sents the neigh­bor­hood as a D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber. “I imag­ine there would be a lot of ap­peal.”

There will be sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges for any de­vel­oper who scoops up the prop­erty and 43,000-square-foot lot. The Red Line tun­nel runs di­ag­o­nally un­der­neath the build­ing. The sale terms would re­quire the new owner to pre­serve or move the three huge chillers on the roof of the build­ing that are used to pump in cool air to neigh­bor­ing sta­tions. The new owner also would need to pre­serve ex­ist­ing perime­ter air shafts, roof an­ten­nae and staff en­trances into the tun­nel.

“It’s more com­pli­cated than just go­ing over and tear­ing the build­ing down,” Evans said.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the tun­nel leaves lit­tle space for un­der­ground park­ing, which would limit the prop­erty’s value for some wouldbe de­vel­op­ers.

Even so, po­ten­tial uses for the prop­erty are plen­ti­ful. Evans has one idea: a huge event space. Maybe even an ex­ten­sion of Cap­i­tal One Arena that could strad­dle Sixth Street with traf­fic pass­ing un­der­neath, sim­i­lar to the Wal­ter E. Wash­ing­ton Con­ven­tion Cen­ter.

“We don’t want to be in the po­si­tion of say­ing 20 years from now, ‘God, I wish we could have used this for the arena,’ ” Evans said.

Boe, of Mon­u­men­tal Sports and En­ter­tain­ment, ap­peared in­ter­ested in some kind of re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two build­ings.

“We would cer­tainly want to con­sider a po­ten­tial an­nex for the arena in the WMATA build­ing,” Boe said. “It’s not hard to imag­ine a great space for sports, en­ter­tain­ment spa­ces to watch games, cre­ative con­ces­sions or res­tau­rants. We think this space could be used to re­ally ex­pand en­ter­tain­ment op­tions right in the heart of D.C.”

Other op­tions will be pos­si­ble if Metro suc­ceeds in get­ting the prop­erty re­zoned. Ac­cord­ing to an ap­pli­ca­tion filed ear­lier this year, Metro is seek­ing to re­zone it to a cat­e­gory that would al­low greater flex­i­bil­ity for a mixed-use res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial space and would ex­pand the max­i­mum height of the build­ing to 120 feet from 90. The ap­pli­ca­tion also re­quests that the prop­erty be sub­ject to in­clu­sion­ary zon­ing, which means that a share of any res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion on the prop­erty would be set aside as af­ford­able hous­ing.

The re­zon­ing de­ci­sion will likely fac­tor into how much money Metro could make from the sale.

In a 2016 as­sess­ment, it was de­ter­mined that the sale value of the build­ing would be $56.2 mil­lion to $80 mil­lion if it needed to re­main as-is, but it could be worth up to $132 mil­lion if the prop­erty is re­zoned and the build­ing de­mol­ished.

In doc­u­ments filed with the Zon­ing Com­mis­sion, Metro ar­gues that an ag­gres­sive re­build­ing project would be the most ben­e­fi­cial op­tion for the com­mu­nity, too.

“As a re­sult of the ap­pli­ca­tion of poorly con­ceived mid­cen­tury plan­ning and de­sign prin­ci­ples, the ex­ist­ing [build­ing] de­tracts from the qual­ity of the pub­lic space along ad­ja­cent streets,” Metro wrote.

The op­por­tu­nity for a do-over, they ar­gued, would be valu­able to the build­ing’s neigh­bors.

There are the de­fend­ers of the ex­ist­ing build­ing. Among them, Schrag, the his­to­rian, who said its hum­drum geo­met­ric fa­cade serves as an im­por­tant, and ef­fec­tive, back­drop to “the jewel of Ju­di­ciary Square” across the street: D.C.’s 131-year-old Pen­sion Build­ing, an or­nate red brick Ital­ian Re­nais­sance Re­vival struc­ture that is now the Na­tional Build­ing Mu­seum.

Metro’s head­quar­ters works per­fectly, he said, be­cause it’s so vis­ually unas­sum­ing in com­par­i­son with its more or­nate neigh­bor.

Still, he says, he’s skep­ti­cal that there’s enough loy­alty to Metro’s head­quar­ters to save it from be­ing trans­formed into yet an­other of the 21st cen­tury stee­land-glass ed­i­fices that have be­come ubiq­ui­tous down­town.

“His­toric preser­va­tion­ists can make a case for any­thing, but one does need to pick one’s bat­tles,” Schrag said. “Some­thing that is suc­cess­ful at a rather mod­est mis­sion may not end up be­ing the most im­por­tant thing to pre­serve.”

“I’ve been telling you guys this since I be­came chair­man two years ago. In five to 10 years, the amount of money that we have to pay out of the op­er­at­ing bud­get to fund the pen­sion will be so high that we won’t be able to run the sys­tem.” Jack Evans, Metro board chair­man

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