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International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Macomb Street Neighbors and WIS Clash Over New Science Building

WIS’ 2017 science building proposal, depicting the plaza which would’ve replaced the sloped parking area. This plan was rejected by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), primarily due to the building’s visibility from Macomb Street. (Michael Vergason/Landscape Architects, Ltd.)

After trying to secure regulatory approval for a new science building for nearly six years, WIS is now one step closer. The Board of Zoning Adjustment offered unanimous oral approval of the plan on July 21, 2021, according to Head of School Suzanna Jemsby.

Although the building process is expected to proceed smoothly, some Macomb Street neighbors still have concerns about the new facilities.

The return to fully in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year caused traffic on Macomb Street to reach pre-pandemic levels. Director of Marketing and Communications Kimberly Bennett believes that many neighbors have grown accustomed to the traffic. 

“Most people who live on the street accept the fact that there’s going to be bad traffic between eight o’clock and 8:30, and between 2:45 and 3:15,” Bennett said. “That’s the price you pay for living on a street with a school.”

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However, some neighbors fear the new science building’s creation will cause traffic to spike. “Trucks will sit out here at 5:30 a.m. running their motors until 8 when they’re allowed to start working,” Macomb Street resident Nick Ide said. “So there’s the [issue of] management of trucks and construction flow through the neighborhood.”

Another common concern is that the school will increase the student enrollment cap and host more events after the building’s construction, which would inevitably cause traffic to surge.

Bennett explained that although the school has made clear that it doesn’t plan to increase the enrollment cap, some neighbors are skeptical.

“There’s already lots of coming and going [in terms of traffic],” Ide said. “And there’s a new set of promises made about, ‘No, we’re not increasing the number of students,’ but those promises historically get lost in the shuffle.”

Bennett also pointed out that certain aspects of the building plan are being misinterpreted by neighbors. “We’re planning to put in a new cafeteria dining area,” she said. “The current one is way too small. And [the neighbors think] it’s a commercial kitchen that we’re going to use to host events.”

Another point of contention throughout the years was some neighbors’ concerns about proper historic preservation. In order to construct a new building, WIS needed approval from the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) because the school is located on the historic Tregaron Estate.

WIS initially presented its plan to the HPRB in October 2015, which was rejected, as well as several subsequent plans in 2016 and 2017. “It is still difficult to reconcile how a building of this size, location, and overall impact are compatible with the character of the landmark,” the May 25, 2017 HPRB hearing staff report said. “It will be a full three stories tall at its highest point, unfortunately at the northwest corner where it is closest and most visible from Macomb Street.”

Ide strongly opposed the previous building plan. “It was modern and looming over the street,” he said. “It seemed to me to be almost a violation of the historic nature of that property and the neighborhood.”

Over the next few years, the school redesigned the building and it ultimately received approval from the HPRB on Dec. 3, 2020.

According to Bennett, the revised plan included a permanent guard structure at the entrance to the school. Yet the HPRB decided that a permanent structure was incompatible with the historic nature of the property.

WIS chose to implement a temporary guardhouse instead, since this technically didn’t defy the HPRB’s ruling against a permanent structure. 

“The neighbors who follow the process closely think that we have defied HPRB’s ruling… they’re unhappy because they believe it’s a slap in the face to the neighborhood,” Bennett said. “Some of them thought that a guard house would look intimidating or unwelcoming.” 

The conflict over the temporary guardhouse is indicative of the larger debate between neighbors and the school over the issue of historic preservation.

“I can’t replace my front door,” Ide said. “I can’t build a little rain shelter in front of the house without going to the Historic Review Board. Minor changes to our houses suddenly become a big deal. And yet, [WIS is] going to build some shiny edifice that stares up here in this neighborhood.”

But not all of the Macomb Street neighbors feel this way. “[Some] take historic preservation very strongly and take the view that what’s there should remain there, and what’s not there should not be added there,” Macomb Street resident Bob Ward said. “Others, including myself, would say that you have to respect the historic landmarks that we create, but they have to be kept up to date to fit in with the time.”

Ultimately, despite the clashes between some neighbors and the school, many neighbors are in favor of the new building.

“Construction projects come and go, and then you’ve got a great product. Right now, I’m looking out my window at the beautiful Cleveland Park library. It was a mess during the construction project, but it’s over, and now we’ve got this wonderful library,” Ward said. “I take the long view that construction projects are fleeting, and a lasting product is what you’re looking for.”

By Maia Nehme

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