Post #283: BAR work session 5/24/2019, Vienna Market/Marco Polo

Posted on May 24, 2019

The Board of Architectural Review (BAR) held a work session this morning with the architect and developers for the Marco Polo/Vienna Market site.  The upshot is that the BAR looked at some changes in the proposed plans and said, in effect, that’s a good start.  They asked the architect to bring back a new plan that fully equaled the originally-submitted plans in terms of articulation, texture, and richness of design.


The site of the former Marco Polo restaurant (and adjacent properties) was rezoned under MAC zoning last year.  It is slated to become 44 luxury townhouses plus retail, at Maple and Pleasant streets.

That was under discussion by the BAR this morning.  You can pick up the meeting materials on this webpage, and you can find my audio tape of the meeting, with excel index file, on this Google Drive directory (download both files named “2019-05-24 …”).  I am unsure of whether the Town will post an audio recording of a BAR work session.

The issue here is that the building approved by the BAR is not the building that the developer thought was approved.  I outline the issue in detail in Post #245 (and several subsequent posts:  #246, #248, #250, #253).

The building approved by the BAR was an ornate “Georgetown-style” red-brick/stone/wrought iron building. But between BAR approval and Town Council approval, Town staff included additional drawings of plain-vanilla brown brick townhouses, such as you would see anywhere in Northern Virginia.

Town staff prepared a packet of materials for the final Town Council meeting that included complete (2D and 3D) rendering of the “Georgetown” style buildings and some sloppy 2D renderings of the “generic NoVA townhouse” buildings.  You can see the “sloppy” part on the second drawing below — the developer only redrew the front facade and didn’t bother to redraw the rest of the building.

The new, crudely-drawn building was vastly different from what the BAR approved.  So, e.g., this would be the view of the ends of the townhouses as they faced Church Street, first as approved by the BAR, then in the revised plans.  (Here, I have crudely removed the buildings in the background).  The second drawing is what I termed the “Chicago back-alley” building, complete with bricked-in windows.

The project then changed hands, and the new owners fully believed that they had been approved to build the generic brown-brick NoVA townhouses, i.e., the lower picture above.  But the BAR still believed they were building the original building — the upper picture above.  The developer showed up at the last BAR meeting, bricks and trim samples in hand, expecting to get final approval for the materials.  And instead, the Chairman Layer said, in so many words, this is not the building we approved, as explained in Post #245.

Today’s meeting

The meeting began with the developer’s architect’s presentation of ideas for improving the brown-brick generic-NoVA townhouses.  He began by adding some bay windows and some rustication to the lower portion of the brickwork, adding some details to the storefront windows, scalloping the top of the wall separating the storefronts from the remainder of the building.  They might also consider using different colors of brick, or even painting the brickwork, to lighten the building up a bit.

(N.B.:  Rustication of brickwork is any method that creates something other than a smooth, flat wall surface.  In this case, per Chairman Layer, they were proposing banded rustication, setting rows of bricks further back into the wall or proud of the wall, which will create lines of shadow on the brickwork.)

Basically, the architect tweaked the brown-brick NoVA townhouse design a bit. 

That did not go over well with the BAR.  Several members used several different methods to point out how different the brown-brick NoVA townhouses were from the original design, and how far the architect had to go to reconcile the two.

Board member Hyde summed it up best, I think:  “Shockingly different”, “You’ve got to be kidding”, “Speaks for itself”.   She showed the brown-brick building and the original building to half-a-dozen disinterested adults.  The unanimous reaction was “You’ve got to be kidding”.  She described the new building as shockingly different from the original.  She had them put up a slide showing the original and revised Pleasant Street facades put up, and her comment was, the contrast speaks for itself.

Board member Cheselka:  “Maple Avenue deserves more than this building”, “The current view could be any set of townhouses anywhere.” He referred in particularly to the elimination of the old-fashioned rounded brick bays on some units, which he characterized as adding a look of prestige to Maple Avenue.  Later, Chairman Layer noted that if you are producing a brick veneer wall, there is no barrier to producing those rounded brick bays with locally available labor.

Board member Baldwin echoed and extended the comments of his fellow board members, characterizing the building as plain and lacking in prestige.  He asked if the Metro Row townhouses are an example of this style of architecture?  (The answer was yes — apparently by the same architect and/or developer.)  He asked if this new design was more-or-less an off-the-shelf standard design for them.  (No, it was not.)

Chairman Layer described the revised building as starting “the right trajectory”, meaning, the builder realized that he had to start moving his design toward what was originally proposed.  And then, at various places in the meeting, Chairman Layer took great pains to describe what he expected the developer to do.  Several times, he emphasized that, in the end, the building must be equivalent to the one that the BAR approved.  And by that, he meant equivalent in terms of all the rich architectural detail of the original.   In effect, all the unique architectural elements that made the original plans so appealing needed to have analogs in this new building.  At various points, he put up side-by-side pictures of the original and brown-brick buildings, started at one side, and went point-by-point down the building facades.  See these mansard roofs?  See how the bays go to the top of the building.  See all the variation in the bays?  See these rounded brick fronts? See the variation in building height?  See the articulation of the face of the building?  And so on.

The architect, for his part, tried to get the message across that this new, more modern style of architecture would never have the level of detail of the original submission.  He said that he would produce a better version of what he was working with, but that he probably cannot make it equivalent in detail to the original submission.  That just does not work with the more modern style.  Likely, per the architect, the BAR will never say “now it looks like it did before”.

For their part, neither Layer nor Hyde accepted that at face value.  They pointed out the simple lack of variety of the details on the new building.  Hyde again walked down a partial list of items that they could change, including but not limited to roof shape; the number, size, and variety of bays; banding within the brickwork; variety of articulation and forms; and so on.

Two other items of note.

The builder (Nate Robbins of Northfield) briefly spoke and said something like “we were as shocked as you were, but from the other direction”.  Turns out, they were told that the plain brown-brick NoVA townhouse was the approved drawing, and they were as shocked to see original-submission drawing as the BAR was shocked to see the new design.

At that point, the Director of Planning and Zoning stood up and pointed out that both buildings were in the package of materials approved by the Town Council.  (She should know.)  But I’m still scratching my head over what she intended with that comment.  Given that, roughly speaking, this mess occurred more-or-less because of that, I’m not sure what the point was, in bringing that up.  The Town has the right, the builder has the right, both have the right, the builder should have known better, or what?  Not even remotely clear from the context.

So that’s it.  I have to eat my words, from a prior posting on this topic, because I was sure that the BAR would get some minor changes, and that would be that.  The “tweaked” building presented at this meeting was more-or-less what I expected, and I expected the BAR to be under tremendous pressure to settle for that.

I was wrong.  The original plans the BAR approved were for a prestigious showpiece of a building, to be located in the heart of Vienna.   And they appear to be holding out for that.  I wish them well.