Housing Complex

Relitigating the Apple Store: Was It All Really Necessary?

The original design, which doesn't look offensive to me.

Topher Mathews at Georgetown Metropolitan does us all a service by laying out the timeline of the Old Georgetown Board's review of the Wisconsin Avenue Apple Store, attacking the perception that design review was what held the project up for a year and a half. Certainly, Apple took long enough to come back with revised designs, and didn't read the cues from the notoriously picky tribunal. But here's my question: Why shouldn't the store just have been okayed in the first place?

The original design, shown above, is actually quite similar to how it looks now. When it was submitted, the OGB decided it wanted some totally unnecessary window and door frames, so as to better match the buildings to either side. Apple came back with its classic glass box, which they should have known the OGB would never accept. The next design had a garish Apple logo (I mean, honestly). Finally, they came up with a Federal-style building that blends seamlessly into the street frontage.

I just fail to see any objective case for why a full glass front was so offensive. It would contrast with the surroundings, sure, but in a way that accents them, not insults them. It's not "out of scale" with the neighborhood. That would also have been true of a glass box design. The very premise that everything must be made to look the same in a commercial area is baseless; many neighborhoods include styles from all different eras that may have been disallowed had a similar board been empowered to stop them at the time when they were built.

Topher holds up an ugly building in Glover Park as an example of what happens with no design review. But that's a straw man argument: Georgetown is still an historic district, and so would be subject to historic preservation regulations. Things like garish logos probably wouldn't have made it through that level of review, but if citizens are truly worried, they could be taken care of with an overlay that contains design guidelines.

I've ranted against the OGB before, and I'll stick by that position, because I think there are better ways to deal with architectural quality than subjecting builders to the aesthetic whims of federally-appointed commissioners who have some pretty conservative ideas of how a neighborhood ought to look.

  • Davison Peters

    thank god for ogb. they fill an important role in light of incompetent agencies like dcra and hpo. and lydia.

  • Tophetr Mathews

    I used the Glover Park building as an example to rebut anyone that thought any and all design review was unnecessary, not that this was a building that OGB would reject that HPRB wouldn't.

    Once you accept that design review is necessary, you have to accept that sometimes you're going to disagree with the design reviewers. All you can argue against is that the review process itself is flawed. But how is the structure of OGB different than HPRB? If there is a substantive difference, what creates that discrepancy other than the vagaries of the particular personalities on the boards at any one time? Is it that HPRB also has development lawyers appointed by the mayor? Is that really what you want to hang your hat on?

    The Apple case simply demonstrates that disagreeing with the opinions of the design reviewers is not going to be a winning strategy. And regardless of the reasons for why the design reviewers feel a certain way, I personally would rather that they stay firm in the face of a corporation like Apple than wilt simply because it's taking too long and people really want their iPhones. I would hope that HPRB would do the same.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/karcher/ Ken Archer

    Lydia,

    I completely agree with your criticism that OGB decisions can appear arbitrary sometimes, making it difficult for businesses and homeowners to plan. CAG's Historic Preservation and Zoning Committee, which Topher and I serve on, has been advocating for all agencies (CAG, ANC, OGB) to be more explicit about the principles that should ground their historic preservation decisions in order to create the more predictable regulatory framework you are calling for.

    Your proposed solutions, however, are to replace OGB with other design reviewers at HPRB (how is that a solution?) or to rely on a Georgetown overlay. I suspect, however, that if Georgetown were to just replace the OGB with an overlay of design guidelines that were specific enough to forbid every design element that detracts from Georgetown's historic character, you would be one of the first to criticize how restrictive and inflexible it is. And you would be right.

    It's hard to have the flexibility of the existing process and the predictability of a set of rules at the same time. If you have ideas for how to achieve both, lots of Georgetowners would be open to them.

  • Thayer-D

    "The very premise that everything must be made to look the same in a commercial area is baseless"

    That's absolutley true, except this is a historic district, and if one agrees with the concept, which I think you do, then what's the problem?

    " many neighborhoods include styles from all different eras that may have been disallowed had a similar board been empowered to stop them at the time when they were built."

    Equating a Italianate Styled building going into a Federal Styled street is not the same as inserting a Brutalist or Bauhaus design into the same street. Traditional styles share a syntax that modernism rejects. I suppose if one style where as valid as anyother (not necessarily appropriate) then we wouldn't hear the constant cry of disneyfication and pseudo -history from modernism's boosters, but that's just not the case.

    You object to the "aesthetic whims of federally-appointed commissioners who have some pretty conservative ideas of how a neighborhood ought to look", fair enough, but did you ever wonder why these institutions came about? If people never questioned modernism's plans for Washington DC, we would have lost much more than we already have. DuPont Circle would have been scrapped off the face of the earth to be replaced with highways and Corbusian towers.

    There's ample space for all styles through out the city, but until some of our more egotistical modernist archtiects learn to "play well with others" I as a lover of older neighborhoods will be thankfull for institutions like the OGB.

  • Dave

    The Georgetown residents applauding OGB and their decision making process must also be applauding Georgetown's continued slide towards irrelevance in this city. While interesting stores, restaurants and bars are opening up across the city, Georgetown is preparing to welcome...a Nike Store. It's not 1989 anymore, and Georgetown isn't the only neighborhood player. Which, considering the tone and behavior of certain Georgetown residents and "advocates," is a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

  • Corbin Dallas Multipass

    Poor internet etiquette. Link to the article you're talking about.

    http://georgetownmetropolitan.com/2011/12/07/the-myth-of-the-apple-store/

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Corbin Dallas Multipass

    Totally forgot! Rectified!

  • Jack

    Thayer-D +1
    Took the words out of my mouth.

    I'd just add that the statement "The very premise that everything must be made to look the same in a commercial area is baseless" is somewhat nonsensical. A premise needn't necessarily be based on anything. That's why it's a premise.

    Especially when considering a normative aesthetic claim ("everything must be made to look like x"), to demand that it have anything other than a consensual basis is to misconstrue what kind of claim it is.

  • lily

    That wasn't the original design. The original was a glass cube.

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