Sarah Krouse | Washington Business Journal

A financing market that favors multifamily housing, D.C. regulations that promote midsize buildings and neighborhoods filled with historic preservationists — all have combined to boost the business of architect Eric Colbert, who runs a midsize firm that specializes in residential projects and has a long history of preservation work.

As the District’s apartment vacancy rate hovers around 3 percent and developers polish their plans for city blocks in need of redevelopment, one architect’s name keeps popping up: Eric Colbert.
It’s a bit of deja vu. During the last boom, Colbert designed scores of glitzy Northwest D.C. condominiums and apartments: The Hudson, Rainbow Lofts, The Floridian, Adams Morgan Lofts.
Colbert said his secret is working with, rather than against, historic groups — and staying out of trouble.

“I’m kind of a boring guy,” he said jokingly. “I work a lot and try to make sure our drawings are accurate. I tell people sometimes, ‘We’re not very good architects, but we’re better than the other ones.’”

That modesty belies the prominence in local multifamily development that his firm, Eric Colbert & Associates PC, has achieved in its 30 years. Today, Colbert is back in full swing — and the public eye — with a fast-growing collection of projects that stretches from the Shaw and NoMa neighborhoods to the 14th Street corridor, which has become something of a main street for his portfolio.

Colbert’s return and the breadth of his work highlight a sweet spot in the market for midsized architecture firms.

With D.C.’s height limit and historic preservation rules, the city offers a unique opportunity for the size of projects that Colbert does, particularly at a time when financing favors multifamily projects, real estate experts say.

“It all comes together to create a market for buildings that are an uncommon size in other cities,” said Martin Moeller Jr., curator of the National Building Museum.

Colbert, a Cornell University architecture grad, started his company in 1981 as a small group doing property rehabilitation projects. It has since grown into a full-project architectural powerhouse working with well-established developers, such as The JBG Cos. and Keener-Squire Properties.

Colbert now bills his 16-person shop as one among a relatively small pool of local firms experienced in designing residential projects, saying his main competitors are firms such as Esocoff and Associates Architects, Bonstra Haresign Architects, and Torti Gallas and Partners Inc.

Those firms, which are smaller and therefore incur lower overhead costs, have a leg up when developers are looking for a known quantity at a manageable price, said Yolanda Cole, principal and owner of D.C.-based Hickok Cole Architects Inc. Her firm, though larger than Colbert’s, also works on residential projects and has a pipeline as small as nine units and as large as 400 apartments.

But Colbert is not ready to say his firm’s advantage comes down to just the price tag. “I believe that we are dominant because we give the best value, not because we are the cheapest,” he said.

In D.C., Colbert grapples with three primary issues on new projects: density, height and parking, which are often controversial and can have a huge bearing on the kinds of returns a developer makes.

As a result, Colbert spends much of his time trying to stagger heights, incorporate facades into the texture of a given street, mediate conflicting interests and please a fickle urban audience. It’s a delicate balance, trying to accommodate a client’s wants, the architect’s vision and the building’s suitability in the neighborhood it occupies, he said.

“It seems to be difficult for some residents to understand why it is impossible to design a significantly smaller building,” said Colbert, who lives in a Chevy Chase home rather than one of his designed buildings because it offers storage for his beloved kayaking equipment. “In a lot of other cities you could have a 30-story building next to a three-story building, and it doesn’t bother anyone. Here it’s like people are hypersensitive to building height.”

That’s not the only hypersensitivity Colbert encounters. With the high profile of his portfolio comes the heat of the public spotlight, as bloggers, community groups, planners and historians alike don’t hesitate to give their 2 cents on his designs.

“Can someone please tell me why Eric Colbert is the architect of every new multistory residential building in this city? I mean en serio,” whined one commenter on the Washington City Paper’s Housing Complex blog.

Another City Paper commenter gave a particularly blunt answer, “UUUh. Eric Colbert clearly meets developers’ price point, but he leaves DC poorer in the realm of architectural significance.”

Colbert is not the first architect to run the gauntlet with new designs, especially in D.C. proper. But as a designer with so many projects in close proximity to one another, he constantly has to deal with harsh feedback. So how does he resist the urge to crawl into a dark hole and choose instead to channel negative comments in a positive way to make changes in a project?

“A wide range of community members make comments. … Most people are open-minded, while a small minority will never be satisfied,” Colbert said, adding that his company has a policy of not participating in blogs. “We do monitor them, however, so that when we give presentations to the public, we can address the community concerns and rebut inaccurate comments.”

Given a blank slate for his work, Colbert has churned out projects as eclectic as the bright green, red and yellow Church Place Condominiums on 16th Street NW and as sleek as the Allegro apartments in Columbia Heights.

Much of the time, however, his plans are shaped by the size of land, the look a client wants and the limits of the historic code. A 144-unit apartment project at 14th and Wallach Place evolved radically in form and color from Colbert’s original vision after working with developer Level 2 Development LLC and a community that had dubbed the building “Wallachzilla” for its “hulking size.”

Colbert said his group has probably had more historic projects approved than any other D.C. firm has in the last 20 years, which helps him know what will succeed in future projects but also opens him to the charges of critics who says he tends to choose safe, proven designs over innovative ones.

When it comes to architects in the 14th Street corridor, “it is true that it’s often the same cast of characters,” said Cole, of Hickock Cole, who happens to live in that area. “I think the city is better off with variety because different people look at the same set of factors in a different way, and it gives variety to the marketplace.”

Colbert said the more modern designs tend to be similar, but the way a building fits into its submarket is equally important.

“We take a lot of cues from that,” he said. “There’s a danger that if you get locked into one particular style, it could be popular at a time. But then if you don’t evolve, it could become a hindrance later on.”