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NCPC will likely recommend tweaking DC height limit

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Downtown DC.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) study considering whether or not to raise DC’s height limit is unlikely to recommend major skyline-altering changes. But it will suggest tweaking the rules to add more flexibility, and leaves open the possibility of taller buildings outside downtown.

In his report to NCPC, executive director Marcel Acosta will recommend against raising the height limit significantly downtown, but will suggest changing the rules regarding rooftop penthouses.

The rules currently allow unoccupied mechanical-only penthouses to breach the height limit by a few feet in certain situations. Acosta will propose allowing active human use of those spaces.

Acosta will also recommend that NCPC further consider raising the height limit for areas outside downtown, where the impact on the monumental core would be negligible. That might allow places like Anacostia or Tenleytown to develop along more similar lines to Arlington and Bethesda.

The NCPC will vote on an official recommendation in November, after hearing Acosta’s report and gathering public feedback. Following that, Congress will have the power to either pass a bill making changes, or retain the status quo.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

September 11th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: master planning, urbandesign

Montgomery rethinks Bethesda Purple Line station

The Bethesda Purple Line station is currently planned to squeeze into an existing tunnel below Bethesda’s Apex Building. But planners are now considering an alternate plan to tear down the Apex Building and redevelop the entire site.

Existing plan (top) and alternate proposal (bottom). Images by Maryland MTA.

Between Silver Spring and Bethesda the Purple Line will run on land from a former railroad line. Years ago the railroad sold the development rights above the tracks in downtown Bethesda. Now there are two buildings atop the rail corridor, the Apex Building and the Air Rights Building.

The Purple Line will pass easily under the Air Rights Building, but the Apex Building needs to accommodate a station. And while the tunnel there was designed to carry tracks, it wasn’t originally built to hold a station. The structural columns supporting the building come down into the rail tunnel, severely constraining the space.

Planners can squeeze a station in the existing space, but the result is a narrow platform crowded with building columns.

Apex Building column layout. Image by Maryland MTA.

Meanwhile, there are other problems with the existing arrangement. There’s not enough room in the tunnel for both a light rail station and a bike trail, so the trail is planned to be moved to the surface.

Also, building a subway station under the Apex Building would complicate any potential future redevelopment prospects. Since the Apex Building is only 5 stories tall, it’s already shorter than most other buildings nearby, and it will become a prime redevelopment candidate after Bethesda becomes a key Purple Line / Red Line transfer point.

Redeveloping now could solve the problem

The new proposal suggests tearing down the Apex Building, building the Purple Line station in a new custom-built trench, adding a 2nd tunnel for the trail, and then allowing the owners of the Apex Building to replace it with a bigger building.

Montgomery County is currently in talks with the owner of the building, and is working through a minor master plan amendment to determine the density and height.

If the new plan is approved, all the pieces will work together better. The Purple Line station will be simpler and more spacious, bike riders will have an uninterrupted dedicated trail, and one of the most transit-accessible properties in Montgomery County can be redeveloped at a more appropriate density.

It would be win/win/win.

As long as this doesn’t delay the rest of the Purple Line, I say let’s do it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

September 10th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, lightrail, master planning, transportation, urbandesign

Four suggestions for a new Franklin Square

DC and the National Park Service are partnering to redesign Franklin Square, the largest of the parks lining K Street in downtown DC. As they draw up plans, here are 4 ideas that will help transform Franklin from one of DC’s most underused parks into one of America’s best public spaces.

Franklin Square today.

Work with the city’s edges

Most of downtown DC’s existing squares pay little attention to what’s around them. They’re laid out symmetrically, with paths emanating outward from a central statue through grass and trees to the street. Each side is close to identical, regardless of what’s across the street. That works well for small spaces like Dupont Circle or McPherson Square, but not for larger ones like Franklin Square.

Larger squares need multiple sub-areas, each with distinct attributes that reflect what’s around them. Franklin Square is big enough that it shouldn’t be symmetrical. The more active 14th Street side should be more welcoming to large numbers of people, and should have more hardscaping and mixed-use. Conversely, the less active 13th Street side should be quieter and more park like.

Embrace transit

One big reason the 14th Street side is more active is the entrance to McPherson Square Metro station at 14th and I Streets. That’s a big opportunity. Rather than treating that as just another corner, no different from the other 3, the new design for Franklin Square should focus acutely on the Metro station. That corner should be the most intense part of the park, and should function as its unofficial center.

New York’s Union Square is a great example of what that might look like, with its hardscaped plaza surrounding a subway entrance, and quieter park area behind.

But the Metro station isn’t the only big transit component to Franklin Square. It’s also a major transfer point for several of DC’s busiest bus routes. The southern edge of Franklin Square, along I Street, is essentially one long transit station, serving hundreds if not thousands of passengers per day.

But Franklin Square’s current layout treats I Street the same as all the others. Landscaping curves away from the sidewalk, and benches face inwards towards the center of the park. As a result, every day tons of bus passengers stand in the grass facing I Street, while most of the benches sit empty, facing the wrong way. Except the grass is actually dirt, because too many people stand in it for grass to grow.

By ignoring bus passengers, Franklin Square’s current layout makes it a worse park, and a worse transit stop. Embracing I Street with better transit amenities would make the whole park better for everyone.

And don’t forget that the northern edge, along K Street, will eventually have streetcar service.

More stuff is better, but make it visible

Franklin Square’s existing layout should teach us one thing, at least: That it’s not always enough to simply plop some green space in the center of the city and hope for the best. If designers phone it in and just build a big grass lawn, the result won’t be any better than what’s there now.

The best parks are surrounded by extremely busy sidewalks, from which pedestrians naturally spill over and hang out. Except for the corner with the Metro station, Franklin Square is surrounded by moderately busy sidewalks, but not extremely busy ones. That means the park needs amenities to draw people.

Interactive features like movable seating, splash fountains, and vendor kiosks are all great ways to add vitality to parks, and should be considered in Franklin Square.

The existing fountain at Franklin Square fails to draw many users because it’s nothing but a squat ledge set in a sunken plaza. It’s impossible to see until you’re right on top of it. If designers want people along the park’s edges to enter and move towards the middle, there need to be highly-visible, interesting-looking things in the middle. That means they need to be taller than 2 feet.

Finally, the park does need a large central landmark. It may make sense to put such a thing at the southwest corner near McPherson Metro rather than the center, but regardless of its location within Franklin Square, there should be some single defining icon, to act as gathering place and landmark. A more grand fountain, or an archway, or a clock tower, or something.

Consider what’s missing from downtown

Since Franklin Square is so much larger than McPherson or Farragut, it can fit things the others can’t. It’s worth asking what amenities are missing from downtown DC that
Franklin Square might accommodate. Downtown doesn’t have any ponds, like Boston’s Public Garden. Nor does downtown DC have a concert shell. Surely there are others.

Franklin Square won’t be able to fit every possible idea, and some that it can fit may not be the best uses for Franklin’s particular needs anyway. But redesigning such an important square isn’t an opportunity that comes along every day, so while we have this chance it’s worth exploring all the options.

The National Park Service will hold a public meeting to discuss the redesign on the evening of October 2, at the Sheraton at 1201 K Street, NW. Come with ideas!

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

September 5th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: parks, urbandesign

Eisenhower Memorial will be a nice park. Is that enough?

If you like the FDR and MLK Memorials then you’ll probably like the Eisenhower Memorial. The latest designs follow the now-familiar model for new federal memorials, with an informal stone centerpiece amid a pleasant park.

Eisenhower Memorial site plan. All images from NCPC.

Earlier this month, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released the latest Eisenhower plans, in preparation for a September 12 review meeting.

The proposed design will re-conceive the mess of turn lanes and parking lots where Maryland Avenue SW meets Independence Avenue as a lovely city square. From that perspective, the design is a great victory for DC.

Since the buildings around the memorial are generally uninteresting and devoid of activity, architect Frank Gehry has included several elements that will make the square function as a better and more interesting urban room.

Tapestries form the border of an urban room (left), while an amenity-filled promenade helps draw people to the site (right).

Tall tapestries, covered with graphics, will surround and help frame the square, and will hide the eyesore buildings behind. Along the back edge, an activity-filled promenade will add an element of mixed-use, helping to draw more people. The promenade will include a sidewalk cafe, an art exhibition area, and a visitor center.

The memorial itself, at the center of the new square, will consist of stone blocks and metal statues arranged in a casual, informal plan. Like the FDR Memorial, it will be more introspective than monumental.

Central memorial.

The informal stone concept used at FDR and MLK has become popular because it works. Just about everyone likes it, and it doesn’t offend anybody. The same will likely be true for Eisenhower.

But I do wonder how many more similar memorials we can build before the idea becomes a cliche. Ironically, a classical alternative would be more daring.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

August 29th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, parks, urbandesign

National Harbor’s colossal never-built skyscraper

National Harbor was originally going to be called Port America, and it almost included a skyscraper that might have been taller than the Washington Monument.

By 2008 when the first part of National Harbor opened, the concept of suburban town centers was tried and true. But developers have been trying to build a town center there since the mid 1980s. When they started, it was the most progressive of ideas.

The original plan for Port America dates from 1987. It would have included a neo-classical mixed-use town center in the same place as National Harbor’s waterfront, plus a large office park on the adjacent property that is now under-construction to become an outlet mall.

The office park would have included a 52-story trophy office tower. It would very likely have risen above the 555-foot Washington Monument, and definitely would have dwarfed the DC region’s current tallest office building, Rosslyn’s 384-foot 1812 North Moore.

Port America. All images from Burgee-Jonhson.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

August 9th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, history, urbandesign

Fairfax still wants a real center at Vienna MetroWest

Developers floated a plan last month to drastically downscale the town center at Vienna MetroWest, but Lynda Smyth, the county supervisor for the area, said she never approved such a change, nor would the Board of Supervisors likely ever do so. Developers say they’re still committed to the full town center, but can’t do it right away.

The downscaled proposal, with single-story buildings fronting onto parking lots. Image from Paraclete Realty.

Developers spoke with county supervisors and residents about the plans at a public meeting on June 18. According to resident Eric Bleeker, the room was packed, and many attendees came because they’d heard about the plan on Greater Greater Washington. Supervisor Smyth said she hadn’t seen the new proposal until it was posted to Greater Greater Washington, and would almost surely not approve it.

According to Tim Alexander of development firm Clark Realty, the downscaled proposal is supposed to be temporary. Clark still wants to build the full town center, but can’t find tenants for the originally proposed office buildings in the current economy. In the mean time, his company doesn’t want to leave that land empty for what could be years.

“The negativity to the plan was immense,” said Bleeker, who lives at MetroWest. “After a good verbal lashing from Supervisor Smyth, the Clark representative spoke of wanting to work with the county on alternative ideas, and threw out pop-up retail.”

What now?

Unfortunately, Clark is between a rock and a hard place. Plan A, the full town center, is impossible in the short term due to the economy. Plan B, the downscaled version, is rightly unpopular. What could work for Plan C?

It would be short-sighted to simply build residential towers in the town center instead of offices. MetroWest would lose its planned mixed-use character. It would be harder to keep retail spaces full over the long term with neither daytime workers in walking distance nor a lot of car traffic passing by.

So temporary single-story buildings may be the only viable near-term option, even if “temporary” means years. But if that’s the case, Clark should strive to build a bona fide main street, rather than a couple of retail pad sites, with half of them fronting onto parking lots.

Even if parking lots are necessary, the main strip of activity should be the pedestrian-oriented walkway down the middle of the site, leading to the Metro station. All stores should front directly onto the main street, and there shouldn’t be any gaps in the street wall where a parking lot comes right up to the front.

If the full town center is years away then a temporary single-story retail town center may be an unfortunate reality, but even if so, Clark can do better.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

July 3rd, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, urbandesign

Read Walkable City, by Jeff Speck

click to enlarge

Walkable City describes the benefits of urbanism, and proscribes how to make good urbanism happen. It’s a worthy read, for both newbies and hardened Jane Jacobs veterans.

I don’t read many mass market city planning books anymore, because so many of them say the same things. But when I heard one of the authors of Suburban Nation had his own book, I had to give it a shot. Suburban Nation is still the most eminently readable and easy to understand discussion of 20th Century suburbs, and why urban neighborhoods are better.

In some ways, Walkable City is like all those other books. It says mixed use and transit are good, wide highways and blank walls are bad. Most of us in the city planning world already know these things.

But Walkable City is worth reading, because Speck gathers a mountain of data supporting most of the arguments in contemporary urbanism, and then presents it in a convincing, methodological, and easy to read way. If you already know the basics, Walkable City is the most complete reference available.

And it does have new arguments. For example, Speck’s discussion of walkable architecture is intriguing, and explains in detail why it isn’t the ornament of historic buildings that makes them superior to most contemporary ones, but that they have layers of interesting things to look at, from different scales, and that walkers can interact with them in ways other than staring at a wall (even a decorated one).

Maybe I just like the book because I’m in it. Much to my surprise. I was reading it one day on the Metro and then, unexpectedly, on page 58, saw my own name, quoted regarded LEED architecture.

But perhaps the best thing I can say about Walkable City is this: After reading the first couple of chapters in a cafe, I went home, got a pen, and started over. Now my copy is covered with notes and squiggles from front to back.

May 6th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: people, urbandesign

FBI headquarters could stay downtown, but at a cost

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Rendering of potential H Street FBI building. Image from Arthur Cotton Moore via Washingtonian.

As the FBI searches for a new headquarters location, most of the options have focused on the suburbs or Poplar Point, but Washingtonian reports on another proposal: Keep it downtown, at H Street and North Capitol Street, NW. But that location has serious downsides.

The proposal would repurpose the existing Government Printing Office buildings on North Capitol Street, and add a new extension to the west. The new building would be over 2 million square feet, and would cover multiple blocks from New Jersey Avenue to North Capitol.

Ideally an employer as large as the FBI should have its offices downtown, but the FBI isn’t just any employer. Its building is likely to be a security fortress, which means it won’t be very good for pedestrians, or have ground floor retail. H Street is an important pedestrian and retail spine. Giving up a long stretch of it to the FBI would be just as bad there as it is on E Street, where the FBI is a sidewalk dead zone.

Actually, a dead zone on H Street might be even worse. Walmart is building an urban format store directly across the street from the FBI proposal. And love Walmart or hate it, it’s going to be one of downtown’s biggest retail draws. That means this exact block of H Street is about to become one of the busiest retail main streets in the city. It should have retail on both sides.

One advantage of this FBI proposal is that the land is already owned by the government. That does mean it’s less likely to get retail on it, but putting the FBI building on it would cement that, literally.

There are other questions. DDOT’s proposed crosstown streetcar would run along H Street. The FBI has never weighed in on streetcars, but would they throw up security-related roadblocks? It’s unknown.

According to Washingtonian, the FBI would close G Street entirely to traffic. That further cripples the L’Enfant grid at a time when other projects are trying to restore the grid nearby. And would this forbid pedestrians and cyclists as well?

Finally, the existing GPO buildings are among Washington’s most prominent historic red brick buildings, and were designed by a prominent architect at the time. The FBI concept renderings show a courtyard in the middle of the GPO building, but aerials show no such courtyard currently exists. That suggests the buildings will have to be completely gutted to fit the FBI. Is that a worthy tradeoff?

Any proposal that keeps the FBI downtown merits serious consideration, but given the FBI’s security requirements, and given the potential for this location to be redeveloped with something even better, it may be preferable to let the FBI go. Putting the FBI on this block might be better than having it remain a parking lot, but almost any other building would be more ideal.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 4th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, government, urbandesign

Pop-ups may look weird, but they’re OK

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11th and V poptop.

This 5 story pop-up rowhouse at 11th and V, NW has gotten a lot of negative press. DCist and Popville had nothing kind to say about it. And while it’s undeniably a silly-looking thing, it’s not actually bad. In fact, from an urbanist perspective, it’s good for the city.

First, a bigger building will allow more people to live in a core city neighborhood. That will help the neighborhood support more stores and services, and reduce car traffic everywhere. Density in the core of the city is a good thing, and a 5 story building is a very reasonable amount of density.

Second, this preserves the narrow lot pattern of its block, versus having one developer buy up multiple row houses and then put in a much wider building.

All other things being equal, a street with several narrow buildings is preferable to a street with a single long building of the same square footage. A streetscape with constantly changing narrow buildings is more interesting to look at than one with a single long building. Narrower buildings are also more likely to be owned by small local property owners, instead of big development chains.

Yes, this property looks silly now. But think about the future. Assuming we can’t (and don’t want to) freeze the city in time, densifying infill on small properties is exactly the kind of development we want. If it’s all eventually going to be 5 stories anyway, it’s better that this block redevelop property-by-property than all once.

Pop-ups are the first step towards this in Amsterdam, which really isn’t such a bad thing.

Amsterdam. Photo by Jim Nix / Nomadic Pursuits on Flickr.

Will this particular building look as good as that picture? It’s hard to tell at this point. It might, but it could just as easily become the ugliest building in DC. Buildings that size aren’t inherently pretty or ugly. There are lots of good ones, and lots of bad ones. What it looks like is not ultimately the same issue as its mass and scale.

The point is, narrow 5 story buildings are a great physical form for city streets. That’s the form of some of the best parts of Paris, London, and New York. Although this will look weird with 2 story neighbors, it pushes the evolution of the block in a good direction.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 2nd, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, development, urbandesign

Parking minimums force bulky buildings

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Development like this is impossible with parking minimums.

Parking minimums don’t just affect parking. They have a huge impact on the overall scale of buildings. Developers that have to include off-street parking have to build bigger and bulkier buildings in order to make their projects work.

It’s true that parking minimums encourage more driving, but the impacts on urban design and architecture may be even more important. The problem is that parking lots take up a lot of space, which makes development of small properties harder.

As a result, developers faced with parking minimums always try to build on the largest piece of land possible.

So if you like old style main streets, parking minimums are the enemy.

In places without parking minimums it’s more practical to build charming narrow buildings, like those that populate historic main streets all over the country. But where parking minimums exist, developers need larger properties big enough to fit parking lots.

Take a look at the buildings in these two pictures. They’re ostensibly similar. Both are 3 stories with a 4th floor attic. Both are primarily brick. Both have shops on the ground level, with other uses above. The key difference is that the left picture is a single building built by a single developer, while the right picture shows a block of narrow buildings on individual properties.

University Drive, Fairfax.
Image from Google.

King Street, Alexandria.
Image from BeyondDC.

Which one do you like better? Most people prefer the buildings in the right picture, because they’re built at a more human scale. Even though the building on the left is about the same height, it seems like a hulking monster because it’s so long.

One of the big reasons it’s so long: Parking.

Parking lots take up so much space and push developers towards larger buildings because parking lots aren’t just parking spaces. They’re really entire streets. Since you can’t get to a parking space unless it’s got a driving lane next to it, every row of parking spaces has to have an entire street built in front of it.

Unfortunately, it’s geometrically impossible to fit a two-way driving lane and a bunch of parking spaces behind a main street style 25-foot-wide building. Thus, developers need bigger properties, and old style main streets are essentially illegal to build.

Parking garages and underground parking are even worse. They don’t just need driving lanes, they need ramps too, not to mention elevators, stairs, and air ducts. So anyone who wants to build something that requires structured parking needs even more land.

This is one of the biggest reasons why contemporary development happens at the scale that it does. There are other reasons too, but this is a key one. In order to meet parking requirements imposed by city governments, developers have to scale-up their buildings to fit parking lots. In turn, those 19th Century main streets that everyone loves so much are effectively impractical and illegal to build.

January 11th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign



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