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Silver Line opening day, in 41 photos

Metro’s new Silver Line is officially open and carrying passengers. Enjoy this photo tour of the new line and opening day festivities.

> Continue reading at Greater Greater Washington

July 28th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, development, events, galleries, metrorail, transportation



Forget the Washington Monument; DC’s tallest tower is actually in Ward 4

Most people consider the 555 foot tall Washington Monument to be DC’s tallest tower. It’s certainly the city’s most iconic. But it’s not the tallest. That distinction belongs to the 761 foot tall Hughes Tower.


Hughes Tower. Photo by thebrightwoodian on Flickr.

Hughes Tower is in Brightwood, near the corner of Georgia Avenue and Peabody Street NW. It’s primarily a radio transmission tower, broadcasting signals for the Metropolitan Police Department.

The tower is owned by the District of Columbia, and was built in 1989.

Although the tower vastly overshoots DC’s usual height limit, transmission towers are one of several exempted categories of structures. Thus, a 761-foot tower doesn’t necessarily violate federal law, though DC’s zoning code imposes other limits that prevent anyone from just building such a tower. The National Capital Planning Commission also wasn’t happy about this one.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

July 24th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture



Northern Virginia skyscraper rivalry has a new leader: Fairfax approves 470′ Capital One tower


Proposed Capital One skyscraper. Image from Fairfax.

Last Friday, Fairfax officially approved a new headquarters tower for Capital One in Tysons Corner. At 470 feet tall the new building will be the tallest in the DC region after the Washington Monument.

If that news sounds familiar, it’s because in May of 2013 developers proposed a 435 foot tall building, then the tallest in the region yet. And when Alexandria approved a 396 foot tall tower, that also would’ve been the tallest. Meanwhile, Arlington’s 384 foot tall 1812 North Moore tower recently finished construction, officially taking over the title of region’s tallest skyscraper (for now).

There may not be an explicit competition, but the fact is undeniable: Northern Virginia’s in a full-on skyscraper rivalry. And Tysons is pulling insurmountably ahead.

At 470 feet tall, this new Tysons building will be the first in the DC region to officially eclipse Richmond’s tallest, the 449 foot tall Monroe Building. Baltimore and Virginia Beach each have towers above 500 feet, often considered to be the breaking point for a true skyscraper.


 
  Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

May 20th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, development



Lipstick can help the Tysons pig, a little

Fairfax County is considering dressing up the Silver Line’s mammoth concrete pylons with murals. The idea could help animate the otherwise bleak, gray structures.


Mock up of a possible Silver Line mural. Image from the Tysons Partnership.

Ideally the Silver Line would’ve been underground through Tysons Corner. But federal rules that have since changed prevented that, forcing the Metro line above ground, onto a huge elevated structure.

That wasn’t the end of the world, but it did condemn Tysons to some unnecessary ugly.

So why not dress it up? Murals can unquestionably make big gray structures more colorful and interesting. They’re easy to implement, don’t cost very much, and help a little. There’s not much down side.

Murals are, however, still just lipstick on a pig. They don’t solve the underlying deadening effect of bare walls. For example the Discovery building mural on Colesville Road in Silver Spring is surely better than bare concrete, but shops & cafes would’ve been better still.

And Tysons’ murals won’t be as effective as the one in Silver Spring. Colesville Road is basically urban, basically walkable. The block with the mural is the weakest link on an otherwise lively urban street.

But in Tysons, the Silver Line runs down the middle of Leesburg Pike, one of the most pedestrian-hostile highways in the region. If murals are added to the Silver Line, they may become the best and most interesting part of the streetscape, as opposed to the worst.

So by all means, Fairfax County should absolutely do this. Murals are a great tool to cover any large blank structure. But what Tysons really needs is walkable streets with lively sidewalks.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 11th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, metrorail, transportation, urbandesign



Notes from Europe: Moscow, skyscraper city

I’m on vacation in Europe until the 24th. Each weekday until my return there will be a brief post about some feature of the city I’m visiting that day.

Following the weekend in Amsterdam, it’s time to come home. I’m flying Aeroflot with a transfer in Moscow. If you’re a regular BeyondDC reader you already know about Moscow’s palatial subway and weird perpendicular archway bridge. Did you know Moscow is also home to Europe’s tallest skyscraper?

1,112 foot tall Mercury City Tower would only rank as the 10th tallest skyscraper in the United States, but it’s over 100 feet taller than Europe’s nearest challenger, London’s Shard.


Mercury City Tower under construction in 2012. It’s now complete.
Photo by Mariano Mantel via flickr.

March 24th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture



Notes from Europe: 19th Century urban renewal

I’m on vacation in Europe until the 24th. Each weekday until my return there will be a brief post about some feature of the city I’m visiting that day.

Without a doubt, Paris is home to the world’s most successful urban renewal scheme. The Haussmann Plan was carried out primarily between 1853 and 1870, and significantly contributed to the creation of Paris’ most famous boulevards and its iconic architectural style.

Under the guidance of city planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, large sections of Paris were demolished and rebuilt along wider, grander, straighter boulevards. And new building regulations were adopted that delineated the height and form of buildings.


Boulevard Haussmann, with its strictly regulated buildings.
Photo by Thierry Bézecourt via Wikepedia.

March 19th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, history, History of cities, urbandesign



Construction progress at Gaithersburg’s two new town centers

Gaithersburg’s collection of walkable new urbanist neighborhoods is growing, with impressive construction progress at both the Crown development and Watkins Mill Town Center.


Ellington Boulevard in Downtown Crown, seen from the north.

Both neighborhoods are planned around future stations of the Corridor Cities Transitway, which will someday connect a whole string of walkable neighborhoods in upper Montgomery County to Shady Grove Metro station. But with rapid transit service still years away, construction is working from the outside in, focusing first on sections farther from planned transit stations.

Crown

At the Crown development, construction progress is focused on Phase 1, the western half. A mixed-use town center surrounds the corner of Ellington Boulevard and Crown Park Avenue, with blocks of rowhouse neighborhoods to the side.


Ellington Boulevard, seen from the south.


Crown Park Avenue, perpendicular to Ellington Boulevard.

It’s clear that serious work and expense went into the architectural details.


Downtown Crown.


Downtown Crown.

To the east, the rowhouse neighborhoods are taking shape as well.


Rowhouses on Hendrix Avenue.

Decoverly Drive marks the boundary of Phase 1, as well as the future route of the transitway. Crown’s original plans show an even larger town center surrounding the BRT station along Decoverly. But following actual construction, it appears density has been reduced around the station, and rowhouses line the Phase 1 edge instead.

One wonders if Phase 2 will make Crown a truly transit-oriented place, or if transit will merely run through it.


Decoverly Drive.

Watkins Mill Town Center

A few miles to the northwest, adjacent to the Metropolitan Grove MARC station, Watkins Mill Town Center is taking shape.


Watkins Mill Town Center.

At Watkins Mill, the rowhouses and lower density portions are nearing completion, but the downtown section has yet to begin construction. As a result, a huge field separates the MARC station (and future BRT stop) from the constructed portions of the development.


Urban Avenue, not quite urban yet.

Someday, the Corridor Cities Transitway could make Gaithersburg a second Arlington, a string of walkable communities knit together by transit. Whether that actually happens or not will depend the State of Maryland getting the transitway built, and the City of Gaithersburg insisting on truly transit-oriented places.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 

February 24th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, BRT, development, master planning, transportation



Shipping container restaurant opens on U Street

Shipping containers continue to proliferate as an affordable building material. The latest addition is a new restaurant near the corner of U Street and Vermont Avenue, NW, called El Rey taqueria.


El Rey taqueria on U Street.

In this case, El Rey owner Ian Hilton says it wasn’t actually cheaper to build using shipping containers. But that could be due to El Rey’s particular layout or needs. It’s hard to know for sure.

Elsewhere in the region, shipping containers are used or will be used at Half Street Fairgrounds near the baseball stadium, and possibly in Tysons Corner.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 15th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, development



See the tip of the Washington Monument up close

The recent work up and down the Washington Monument afforded some unique looks at the structure, including this one of the very tip. It’s made of aluminum, which at the time of the monument’s construction was one of the rarest materials available.


The top of the Washington Monument. Image originally from NOAA, via Gizmodo.

November 20th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture



9 suggestions to change the height limit

Congress is considering whether or not to change DC’s height limit. Here are 9 suggestions that will help the city get the most benefit out of changing (but not eliminating) its height regulations.


Paris’ La Defense skyline. Photo by KJ Vogelius on flickr.

Much of the debate about the height limit has settled into two opposing camps, those who want taller buildings, and those opposed to any change. But it doesn’t need to be so black and white.

Regulations can change in practical and beneficial ways, without destroying Washington’s unique layout. If Congress repeals or changes the DC Height Act, the District will be free to regulate height in much more flexible ways.

That in mind, here are some suggestions that Congress and the DC Council should consider as they move forward.

1. Don’t eliminate, calibrate

Even though eliminating all height limits completely isn’t anyone’s proposal and has never been seriously on the table, it’s worth saying up front just to be clear. There are good reasons to regulate height, but our existing laws are not necessarily the ideal set. We can make them more ideal with some fine tuning.

2. Target development where we want it

Many assume raising the height limit would result in taller buildings everywhere, or all over downtown, but that need not be the case. It would be smarter to pick specific areas where we want to encourage more development, and only increase the limit there.

The city can raise the limit only on blocks with a Metro station entrance, for example, or only within 1/8 mile of Metro stations with low existing ridership, or only near Farragut Square, or only in Anacostia. Whatever.

No doubt where to allow them would be a contentious question, but the city already has many regulations encouraging or discouraging development in certain areas. There’s no reason the height limit can’t be used in the same way. We can be selective.

3. Grant a residential bonus for downtown

Downtown DC has no trouble attracting development, but office is usually more profitable than residential, so downtown is often packed during work hours but pretty empty in the evenings. More residential would help downtown stay active on evenings and weekends, not to mention reduce the capacity stress on our transportation network by allowing more people to live close to their work.

But under current rules, developers often can’t justify using floor space under the height limit for residential when office is more lucrative. If they got a bonus for residential, allowing them to build taller only if some or all of the added height were used for apartments, that would benefit everyone.

4. More offices can go downtown, but also other places

We want a lot of office buildings downtown because that’s where our regional transportation system converges. But we also want office buildings outside downtown so residential areas don’t empty out during work hours, and to encourage a healthy economy throughout the city.

Uptown nodes like Bethesda and Clarendon are good for the region and would be good for the city, and would happen in DC if we allowed them to. So while it may be desirable to allow taller buildings in some parts of downtown sometimes, it’s also desirable to encourage office development elsewhere as an anchor for uptown commercial districts.

5. Be inclusive of affordable housing

Height limit opponents say taller buildings will make DC more affordable, because it will increase the supply of housing, thus helping to address rising demand. Supporters of keeping it say tall buildings will make DC more expensive, because new development is almost always expensive. They’re both right, but those points aren’t mutually exclusive.

New buildings are indeed almost always expensive, because it costs a lot to build a skyscraper, and developers need to turn a profit within a few years.

But new buildings eventually become old ones, and this isn’t a short-term decision. Buildings that are expensive at first often become the next generation’s affordable housing. Part of the reason DC has an affordable housing problem now is that we didn’t build enough new buildings a generation ago. If we don’t build enough new units now, the next generation will be out of luck too.

In the mean time, we can solve the short-term affordability problem with inclusive zoning; in exchange for allowing taller buildings, the city should require some of their units to be affordable. Win-win.

6. Require good architecture

Some who want to change the height limit say regulations hurt DC’s architecture, resulting in boring-looking buildings. Meanwhile, many others hate tall buildings because so many skyscrapers are ugly. Both arguments are equally bad, because the world is full of both great and ugly buildings of every height.

But there’s no denying that tall buildings stand out, and thus become landmarks whether beautiful or ugly. To ensure we get the former rather than the latter, DC (or even NCPC) could require aesthetic review & approval for the design of any building above a certain height.

That sounds cumbersome, but it’s standard practice in many cities, and DC already does it in some neighborhoods.

A city the size of DC wouldn’t want to insist on aesthetic review for every building, but there’s no good reason DC can’t do it for tall ones.

Of course the devil is in the details. To use this sort of oversight, DC would have to establish design guidelines that tell architects what the city will approve or deny. That could be contentious, and might not be the same everywhere in the city.

7. Preserve historic facades and encourage entrances

Frequent, unique-looking entrances are incredibly important for quality walkable urbanism. One problem with tall buildings is many are so wide that they’re boring to walk next to at the ground level. The minimalist facades of modern architecture compound the problem.

This is why the urbanism in Georgetown is better than Rosslyn. It’s not that Rosslyn has buildings that are too tall, it’s that Rosslyn’s buildings are too wide, and too bare at the ground level.

While it’s not practical for tall buildings to change completely every 25′ the way rowhouses in Georgetown do, their ground floors can be designed to look and function as smaller buildings, and historic buildings can be integrated into larger developments above.

This may not strictly be a height limit issue, but it’s a good way to ensure that taller buildings improve the streetscape. It can be accomplished using the design guidelines and architectural review process outlined above.

8. Outlaw surface parking lots

Surface parking lots are the bane of walkable urbanism, but they’re common in almost every skyscraper-heavy downtown in America, because one large building can sap up years worth of demand, leaving developers of other properties waiting in limbo for reason to build.

Many developers in downtowns around the US opt to leave land nearly empty rather than fill it with short buildings, on the chance that they may strike it big with the next big once-a-generation mega skyscraper. Surface parking lots provide a convenient way to use that land in the mean time.

This is a big problem, and DC is not immune. In 2008 the developer of what’s now the shiny office building on the northwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street wanted to use that land as a parking lot.

Outlawing surface parking lots in areas where tall buildings are permitted would go a long way towards ensuring downtown DC never looks anything like this.

9. Protect the iconic monuments

Development economics are important, but they’re not the only thing. The most valuable land in DC is probably the White House Ellipse, but we’re not going to put skyscrapers there. DC’s skyline view of the Capitol and Washington Monument is one of the world’s most iconic, and should of course be preserved.

But taller buildings in Farragut Square or Brookland or Anacostia wouldn’t impede that view any more than they do in Rosslyn, and La Defense did not destroy Paris.

We can, and should, allow taller buildings where they’re most appropriate, while protecting the views that define our city.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 30th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, government, land use, preservation, proposal, urbandesign



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