Montouri Returns to the Drawing Board

In December, we offered a detailed look at Archstone’s plans for the Montouri Family Trust-owned property at Nebel Street and Old Georgetown Road.  Around the same time, Archstone, a prominent apartment developer, was being sold off for parts by its major investor, Lehman Brothers.      Contrary to initial reports, the Montouri contract has been dropped putting the property back at square one.  This is a blow to a community excited to welcome development in a spot that presently collects trash and shopping carts.  The planned residential building, which was projected to deliver in 2015, featured a courtyard and several private gathering spaces as well as an elevated boardwalk through the adjacent tree stand.

Rumor has it that some of the key project leaders from Archstone are hoping to reinvigorate the plan but that remains to be seen.

“Real doors” give human scale, house-like benefits to apartment living

Are these rowhouses? Nope, they’re “real doors.” All photos by the author unless noted.

Houses have their perks: a yard, a private entrance, and a sense of individuality. Apartments have theirs as well: they’re affordable, low-maintenance, and have lots of shared amenities. What if you could get best of both worlds? Several new apartment communities being built in White Flint do just that with something called “real doors.”

What are “real doors”? Basically, it’s when a multi-family building contains ground-floor apartments or rowhouses with private entrances opening directly to the street. Instead of walking by blank walls or loading docks, you’d pass doors, stoops, porches and more importantly, people.

This is by no means a new idea, but “real doors” have become especially relevant as a way to give large buildings human scale. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl notes that our field of view doesn’t go far above eye level, so most pedestrians only pay attention to details at the street level. You might think you’re walking by a block of rowhouses, but they could just be the base of a high-rise.

“Real doors” also make streets safer by providing more “eyes on the street.” They give residents the privacy and individuality of a house with the communal amenities and low maintenance of an apartment. And they allow architects and developers to provide so-called “missing middle” house types that could accommodate families, like rowhouses, in areas where land values are so high that they’re not economically feasible.

I got to see the benefits of “real doors” firsthand in Philadelphia, where for two years I lived on the ground floor of a 100-year-old house that had been turned into apartments decades ago. My roommate and I had affordable rent, just enough space and a doting landlord. We could also walk out from our living room to the front porch, out to the street, and around to the back yard, which made it feel like a house.

“Real doors” have become part of the design culture in places like Vancouver, where former planning director Brent Toderian jokes that they’re great for trick-or-treating. They will become a common design feature in White Flint, as it supports the urban design goals of its Sector Plan. Two projects being built there, Pike + Rose and Archstone Old Georgetown Road, will include them.

However, not all “real doors” are created equal. Done poorly, they can look like an afterthought, feel anonymous and compromise privacy. Let’s look at some examples from around the area and the country:

GOOD

Ground-floor apartment at Halstead Square in Merrifield.

These are “real doors” at Halstead Square, an apartment and retail complex being built in Merrifield. (Check out some more pictures.) These doors belong to single-story, one-bedroom apartments, and each one has a little stoop and an address number. The floor-to-ceiling windows are nice, but they’re so close to the ground that people walking by can easily look in.

Tall stoops at Citron in Silver Spring.

At Citron, an apartment building under construction in downtown Silver Spring, “real doors” help it relate to the single-family homes across the street. The ground-floor units are high enough to be private, which would’ve been a nice opportunity to expand those stoops into porches.

BETTER

Ground-floor duplexes at the Market Common in Clarendon.

These ground-floor rowhouses at the Market Common in Clarendon each have different-colored doors, giving them their own identity. The building as a whole has similar materials and detailing as the actual rowhouses at the end of the block, helping it blend in.

“Real doors” with private yards at the Silverton. Image from Google Street View.

These “real doors” at the Silverton in South Silver Spring are set back from the street, which provides room for a semi-private, gated patio with enough room for a table and chairs. Though they have big, low windows like Halstead Square, the trees help give shade and privacy. I might have made the doors themselves more distinctive, perhaps with a different paint color or frosted glass panels.

BEST

These rowhouses at Eliot Tower in Portland have raised decks.

The best “real doors” I’ve found are on the West Coast. This is the Eliot Tower in downtown Portland, a tower with two-story rowhouses at its base. Each house has a front deck raised several steps above the street, and you can see how each deck has a tree or some leafy plants for privacy and visual impact.

Rowhouses with yards at the Meriwether in Portland.

At the Meriwether, a tower in Portland’s Southwest Waterfront, there are ground-floor rowhouses set behind little yards. Not only do they provide a buffer from the street, but they appear to be part of a bioswale that collects and filters runoff water before it heads to the Willamette River, a few hundred yards away. You can see each house has decks on multiple floors, giving it plenty of outdoor space. And residents have them their own, judging from these hot pink Adirondack chairs.

WORST

Less-than-great “real doors” at Lofts 24 in Silver Spring. Image from Google Street View.

Believe it or not, this is the entrance to two ground-floor condominiums at Lofts 24, also in downtown Silver Spring. Other than the welcome mat outside the door on the right, there’s no indication that people actually live here.

Rather than a house, this feels like the entrance to a storage unit. There are no street numbers, no individual open space, and no buffer from the street. The only landscaping are bushes that cover the windows.

While these examples aren’t perfect, they show the opportunities and challenges of providing “real doors.” The scale of development in many urban neighborhoods has gotten bigger, but humans generally remain the same size, so we still have to design to that scale.

Not only can “real doors” make otherwise big buildings feel more comfortable, but they can make safer and more visually attractive streets and offer people a desirable mix of house and apartment living. That is, if we do them right.

Check out this slideshow with examples of “real doors” from around the region and country.

Warehouse-inspired apartments could come to Montouri property

Tenants of a proposed apartment building at Old Georgetown Road and Nebel Street could enjoy historic warehouse design, new pocket parks and even a bikeshare station, said apartment developer Archstone at a public meeting last week at the Magen David Sephardic Congregation.

Representatives from Archstone presented their early concepts for a new building on the Montouri property, located across from Harris Teeter. Dubbed Archstone Old Georgetown Road, the apartment complex offers an opportunity to create something really “unique” to White Flint, says development associate Rebecca Snyder.

Archstone is working with architects Lessard Design of Tysons Corner on the building, which would have five or six stories and contain about 252 units wrapped around a central courtyard. Though the design hasn’t been completed, Archstone hopes to “draw inspiration from our surrounding context,” Snyder said, notably the stand of trees on the site and the train tracks behind it. They’d like to “[leverage] old warehouse design,” with lots of brick, glass and steel accents to create something that “feels like it’s meant to be there,” she said.

Sketch plan of Archstone Old Georgetown Road, including proposed pocket parks and streetscape improvements. Image courtesy of Archstone.

The building would have two entrances, one at the corner of Old Georgetown and Nebel, and a second at Old Georgetown and Wentworth Place with a driveway leading to an underground parking garage. Several ground-floor apartments along Nebel Street will have private entrances with porches and stoops, giving the building a “human scale,” Snyder said. “When you’re walking down the street, it’s more interesting.”

Snyder stressed the importance of “connections” between the building and the larger White Flint community, noting that it’s across the street from the future North Bethesda Center development and a few blocks from the White Flint Metro station. “Our goal is to bring folks to White Flint who aren’t interested in driving,” she said.

The complex will include two pocket parks that could tie into the Recreation Loop, a circuit of paths, trails and parks envisioned in the White Flint Sector Plan. Both pocket parks, which are being designed by landscape architects ParkerRodriguez of Alexandria, would have elevated wooden “decks” with seating for small gatherings or picnics. Archstone also hopes to place a Capital Bikeshare station in one of the parks, making it a “rest stop” for bicyclists using future bike lanes on Old Georgetown Road and Nebel Street.

Many of the site’s trees will be preserved, giving the parks an authentic, mature feel. “It’s not a manicured space,” said Snyder. “It feels more natural.”

Archstone Old Georgetown Road will have a warehouse aesthetic similar to the Foundry Lofts, a new apartment building in the District’s Navy Yard neighborhood. Photo by Jim Malone on Flickr.

In addition to the courtyard, the building will also have several other private gathering spaces, including a “click café,” a lounge with WiFi access and computers that’s common in many Archstone developments. The café will face Nebel Street and be designed so it “almost feels like an indie coffee shop,” said Snyder.

This isn’t the first proposal for the Montouri property. During the Sector Plan process three years ago, the owners, the Montouri Family Trust, proposed building a 300-unit, 20-story tower there. The property was also briefly considered as the future site of the White Flint MARC station, which will instead by located at the end of Nicholson Court.

According to Jody Kline, an attorney representing Archstone, the project will go before the Planning Board for a sketch plan and site plan review throughout next year. If it’s approved, the building should be completed by 2015.

In the meantime, the developer looks forward to giving the community something they can be proud of. “We’re so excited about the development in White Flint,” said Snyder. “We want to make sure we’re putting the right piece into the puzzle.”

Archstone was recently purchased by Equity Residential and AvalonBay, though as of this writing this project is still going forward, according to representatives of the company.