by Brady Holt
Current Newspapers staff writer
Reprinted, with permission, from the April 30th edition of the Northwest Current. Download the paper here.
A proposal to designate the Intelsat headquarters in Van Ness as a historic landmark faced a skeptical reception from the local advisory neighborhood commission [at its April 22nd meeting].
The communications satellite firm constructed the 11-acre complex on Connecticut Avenue between Van Ness and Tilden streets in 1984. The building incorporates 13 rocket-inspired, aluminum-fronted “pod” towers that include offices surrounding large open interior spaces. The project was one of the first in the District to prioritize environmentally friendly design.
“While the uncompromisingly Modernist elements, including aspects of Brutalism, have at times been off-putting to conservatively-minded critics, the building’s forceful, dramatic, and sophisticated style is one of the qualities that raise it to historic landmark status,” the DC Preservation League wrote in its nomination, also noting that the building has changed little since it was constructed.
The Historic Preservation Review Board is due to discuss the application on May 22.
The league was spurred to action after the New York-based 601W Cos. bought the property in 2012 for $85 million, as Intelsat prepares to move to Tysons Corner, Va. The firm has said it intends to spend about $50 million on renovations to the site this year, according to a 2013 article in the Washington Business Journal.
But the neighborhood commission [on April 22nd] opposed the preservation nomination, on a 4-3 vote. The majority said a building just 30 years old would need to be far more special to be worthy of historic protections. (The typical standard in the District is 50 years.) Opponents also feared that landmarking the property would prevent new construction that could reduce the complex’s relative isolation from Connecticut Avenue.
“By supporting this application, it’s basically saying that space is done, we’re doing no more building on that space, we’re not going to create any opportunities for better living spaces,” said Steve Seelig of the Ward 3 Vision smart-growth group. “This building will never be able to address the street. It will never be able to come closer to the street than it currently is.”
Commissioner Bob Summersgill added that the environmentally sustainable features of 1984 are far behind today’s technology. And design elements that reflect away the sun at different times of the day, noted on the preservation league’s landmark application, stand in the way of many eco-friendly practices. But proponents of the nomination said opinions on a building’s looks do not determine whether it merits landmark protections.
“Some people like the building, some people hate the building. That should not be the issue,” said commissioner Sally Gresham. “It should be whether it’s a building worthy of saving and if it can be used credibly in the future.”
That latter point, too, was debated at the meeting. Commission chair Adam Tope said he met with various firms that would been interested in the Intelsat site and was told that the building’s large amount of multistory open space is terribly inefficient. Landmark status would also make it more difficult to build additions.
Tope added that 601W officials rebuffed repeated requests to speak with him about the building. The Current’s calls to the company also were not returned.
ANC 3F’s letter to the HPRC can be downloaded here.