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.
Mayor Gray’s proposed DC budget includes $100 million to renovate the MLK library. It’s in awful shape and needs to be either renovated or replaced, so it’s nice to see that become a priority.
But I’m very amused by the rendering of the proposed renovation. Isn’t it nice? The building is literally glowing. It’s a beacon of lightness amidst dark and dreary surroundings. Such simplicity! Such grace! Not at all like the ugly reality.
Granted, the point of the renovation is to make that ugly reality better. And the renovation will almost certainly result in a much better library, at least once you’re inside. But most of the visible changes are to the new floors added at the top of the building; the bottom 4 floors won’t look much different from today.
It’s worth remembering that renderings are intended to present buildings as nicely as possible. It’s also worth remembering that the scale of details necessary to make a 200 foot long building interesting while you’re walking beside it are dramatically different from the scale of details necessary to make a 6 inch rendering look clean.
Rendering of proposed MLK renovation. Perfectly fine thing to do, but it’s not going to be this pretty.
Poll declares library’s reading room DC’s most beautiful
Library of Congress main reading room.
About 200 people have voted so far in the poll asking what is DC’s most beautiful room, and the traditional answer is the clear winner. The Library of Congress’ main reading room garnered a clear plurality, with 30% of all votes.
Three other rooms had large a percentage of the vote. The National Building Museum’s great hall was 2nd with 19%, the Library of Congress’ great hall was 3rd with 17%, and Union Station was 4th with 14%.
Growing Baltimore might get more TOD and a fancy train shed
Baltimore’s decades-long population decline has officially reversed. The city grew by about 1,100 people last year. Congrats to Baltimore!
In more specific but also exciting news, Amtrak has adopted a new master plan for Baltimore’s Penn Station. It includes significant new development around the station, and a new canopy over the tracks that would dramatically improve the rider experience.
The plans are conceptual, and will have to go into greater detail before development can begin.
Concept plan for Penn Station. Image by Beatty Development.
The Library of Congress is often said to have the 2 most most beautiful rooms in Washington. Unfortunately they’re notoriously hard to photograph, because the Library doesn’t allow photography during reading hours.
But a couple of weekends ago they hosted an open house, during which cameras were allowed. I took the opportunity and ended up with these pictures.
By the way, after the library my vote for next most beautiful room in DC goes to Saint Matthew’s Cathedral. I’m a sucker for red marble.
While reading a report about the Corridor Cities Transitway, I stumbled on these renderings of two of its more important stations. The first shows King Farm, near Shady Grove Metro, and the second shows Metropolitan Grove, a TOD in Gaithersburg where the CCT will meet an existing MARC station.
Note the relatively simple brick stop shelters, especially.
King Farm station.
Metropolitan Grove station, showing MARC on the left.
In late April Denver will open its newest light rail line. Most of the line runs on the surface through an old railroad right-of-way, but a few key segments are elevated above important street crossings. One such crossing, at Wadsworth Boulevard, includes this station directly atop the overpass.
The overpass bed looks like pretty typical highway infrastructure, but the station itself is light, airy, even beautiful. It’s not overwhelming, but is an undeniable and attractive landmark.
Light rail stations are much less substantial than heavy rail stations, so it’s not exactly fair to compare this to the relatively hulking Tysons Corner Silver Line stations. Light rail doesn’t need a mezzanine, and the deck doesn’t have to hold up as much weight. Regardless, a good example is a good example.
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.
La Pedrera, Barcelona, product of height & form regulations even more strict than DC’s. Photo by Effervescing Elephant on flickr.
There are plenty of good arguments for why DC’s height limit should be tweaked, but one that rings completely hollow is the claim it’s responsible for a bland, boxy streetscape, and DC would be more beautiful if only architects weren’t so constrained.
Any architect who says they can’t design a good or creative building under DC’s height limit is, to be blunt, a bad architect.
Whenever I hear North American architects complaining that regulations or requirements “constrain architectural creativity,” I think of Barcelona’s Passeig de Gracia boulevard and Paris’ Avenue des Champs-Elysees, which strictly regulate their buildings’ height, but still allow for great architectural beauty and nuance.
The easiest example is Gaudi’s La Pedrera, which acts as a “typical” corner building within Barcelona’s brilliant block plan that regulates height and form – and yet there’s nothing typical about Gaudi’s design.
It’s true that every city has rules that are both smart and dumb. Great architects know that genius often arises out of constraint.
It is true that DC’s regulations result in buildings with a boxy shape, but weird shapes are not the only way to make a building interesting, and anyone who thinks otherwise is intellectually bankrupt. No one would argue that K Street looks like Champs-Elysees, but that’s not because of the height limit. That’s because K Street’s buildings don’t have enough decoration.
Beautiful buildings can absolutely be produced within the context of DC’s height and form regulations, but to do so requires architects to step outside their 20th Century dogma that declares ornament to be the enemy. To do so requires architects to design something other than blank glass facades.
La Pedrera is an extreme example, handy for illustrating the point, but one does not need to go to Barcelona to see this fact in practice. Here are three relatively recent DC buildings that somehow have managed to be interesting, despite having to be designed within the context of the height limit.
You may or may not like these buildings, but they’re objectively not bland.
But that’s not the only reason the “don’t constrain us” argument is so uncompelling. Another reason is that there is already a mechanism in place to allow height limit exceptions for primarily aesthetic architectural features. The prime example is the One Franklin Square office building, which received permission to break the height limit for a pair of decorative twin spires.
One Franklin Square.
So either way you look at it, the claim that DC’s height limit is responsible for bland architecture is simply not true. The world is full of examples of beautiful buildings produced in environments that constrained their size and shape, and even if it weren’t, DC’s regulations don’t actually constrain architects very severely.
Let’s continue to talk about the economic, social, and urban design issues facing the height limit question, but let’s put this one to bed. The height limit is not responsible for bland architecture in DC. At most, it’s a convenient excuse.