Geoff Griffis, founder and managing member of CityPartners Development Group, sits with partner Greg Faron in the lobby of Hyatt Place. The hotel opened in November 2015 as part of Phase I of their two-part development deal on E Street SW. They are discussing plans for the affordable housing component in Phase II of the development, down the street at 555 E St. SW.
Phase II, a mixed-use hotel and residential building sitting on street-level retail, includes dedicated senior affordable units. It is groundbreaking in its goal to create a living experience that mixes not only a range of incomes but also varying ages.
Griffis and Faron are talking about Jane Jacobs and one of the ideas in her “Death and Life of American Cities” (1961): the importance of activating sidewalks and, by extension, neighborhoods. “She said that the importance of neighborhoods is that you know your neighbor, and you can walk down the street and its crowded sidewalks, and there’s a differing variety of options and services. And it was like, ‘Of course that makes for great cities.’ I think she had the principles right,” Griffis says.
There are echoes of those principles in his plans for Southwest.
Griffis, who has a master’s in architecture and in urban planning, came to development through planning and design. He is aware that the recent increase in development in Southwest is helping to alter the neighborhood’s identity. As a developer, he sees his role in that process as a social and civic responsibility. He adds, “Keeping seniors living in the city is an important aspect that makes a vibrant urban area.”
CityPartners created the E Street Development Group in 2008 to advance what became the winning proposal for the development of Parcel 69, District land on E Street SW in need of redevelopment anchored by the Engine 13 firehouse. The parcel included an empty parking lot and the site of an aging fire station. The contract required the construction of a new fire station for Engine Company 13.
The project proceeded in two phases. The first, completed a year and a half ago, was the construction of the building at 400 E St. SW on what was a 19,000-square-foot parking lot. The building houses the Hyatt Place hotel, offices of the youth-focused nonprofit group Kid Power, and the new, state-of-the-art firehouse.
The second phase of the project, at 555 E St. SW, will occupy the 34,000-square-foot site of the old Engine 13 firehouse and will contain a European-style boutique hotel and ground-floor retail space. Approximately two-thirds of the building will consist of a 196-unit residence. Of those, 58 will be senior-affordable units.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Gail Fast (6D01) says that there is a need for senior housing in Southwest. The building could entice seniors to move to Southwest, which she says would be wonderful. “I think it’s just a win-win for us, and the fact that they are making it affordable is fantastic,” she adds.
Residential was not always included in the plans. When E Street Development won the contract in 2009, Griffis says, the proposal included mixed-use office in addition to a hotel. It was a different economy, and an office building seemed like a good fit. But during refinement of the plans, the residential aspect was added and new possibilities emerged.
“As we worked on considering what the building would be like, the thing we got excited about was the intergenerational mixed-income project,” says Faron.
The contract with the District did not require E Street Development to include an affordable housing component, let alone a senior affordable housing component. But the team saw benefits. “You don’t really see that very often – the idea of the complementary age ranges, and having people interact, and having old people and young people live together. We want that interaction across the building, and to find ways through programming to create community,” Faron explains.
Creating a Market
The residential units will be a bit bigger than one might expect – around 750 square feet for a one bedroom. Dedicated senior residential floors will have libraries and community and common rooms as well as laundry rooms. The common spaces will be more sophisticated in terms of their flexibility. “We’re literally creating a market,” Griffis says.
In planning the senior component, E Street Development reached out to Waterfront Village, one of 13 Senior Villages in the District.
Bob Craycraft, executive director of Waterfront Village, says he and E Street Development discussed the location of the units and their distribution throughout the building, as well as the need for dedicated senior community spaces. “There’s a balance that you need to achieve in senior housing,” he says. “You need a safe and welcoming environment, but one that doesn’t segregate people from society.”
The plans for 555 E St. seek to achieve that balance, where seniors have reserved spaces but also share the lobby and amenities such as the roof deck, pool, and barbeques.
Craycraft and Waterfront Village are part of a national network of 250 senior villages providing services to seniors wishing to age in their homes. He says he is not aware of multi-age projects like this one in the District or the nation.
Defining the Neighborhood
While the plan for a mixed-use, mixed-generation residence is unique, it is also part of a larger urban intervention in Southwest. It will introduce residents and residential units into a neighborhood that has historically been composed largely of factories and office buildings. The integration of senior units into the building is not an isolated experiment but a way of defining the character of a new residential neighborhood.
The residential building will connect residential Southwest with the National Mall. Craycraft, who is also a member of the Waterfront Gateway Neighborhood Association (WGNA), which represents over 1,900 residents in the area immediately south of I-395, says that the interstate separates Southwest from the amenities and cultural attractions of the Mall. As one of the only residential buildings north of the freeway and south of the Mall, 555 E St. will help bridge that divide.
Griffis says that the mixed-use and mixed-age development will activate the sidewalks, adding energy to the neighborhood in the evening. It will help redefine that part of Southwest as an 18- or 24-four-hour community, evolving beyond its current use as a 9-to-5 professional destination.
A significant part of that transition would be convincing more of the 60,000 commuter employees to make the area their home and playground as well. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could capture some of those folks right here and have them stay?” Griffis asks, noting that some fairly senior employees in the House and Senate have already registered interest.
He refers to the proximity of the Metro lines and cultural sites, such as Arena Stage and the Smithsonian museums.
“And when you think of all that culture, you realize this is just going to be an exciting population that is going to want to be in this area and be part of what’s happening.”