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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
Tags: architecture, government, land use, preservation, proposal, 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
Tags: architecture, parks, urbandesign



Moscow’s palatial subway, with a DC connection

Moscow’s subway is among the most heavily used in the world, and surely one of the most beautiful. Many of the stations are decked out in palatial splendor, befitting the communist ideal of grand public spaces. But then there’s 1 station that’s looks almost like it could be from DC. Take a look:

All images from flickr. Top photo by Mikhail Vokabre Shcherbakov.
Bottom photos (from left to right) by Adam Nowek, George Armstrong, and macchi.

August 20th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, metrorail, transportation



Moscow’s crazy perpendicular archway bridge

I’ve never seen anything like Moscow’s Zhivopisny Bridge before. It’s technically a cable-stayed bridge, like many around the world, but the giant perpendicular archway pier is totally unique.


Photo from Wikipedia user Daryona.

June 12th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, roads/cars, transportation



Is the National Mall an urban room or a sculpture garden?

click to enlarge
Photo by Shih-Pei Chang on flickr.

DC’s art community was chagrined to see the Hirshhorn cancel plans to build an inflatable “bubble”. This is a good time to ask, “what now?” The bubble would have been a striking sculptural statement, but is that what the National Mall should be?

Should the Mall be a singular urban space, defined by consistent neoclassical style, or an architectural sculpture garden for individual masterpiece buildings? Either vision could be great, but with no agreement on what the Mall should be, neither is happening.

The question is not really about artist preference for classical or modern styles. That’s a distraction. Rather, the question is whether the focus of the National Mall should be its open public spaces, or its buildings.

If the focus is the public space, then that space is better defined by framing buildings that have a consistent character.

Many of the best urban public spaces in the world are “outdoor rooms,” where a plaza or park is framed by surrounding buildings that act as “walls.” The activity mostly takes place in the central space, but the buildings define the central space’s character. The more consistent the surrounding buildings, the stronger that character.

On the other hand, if the focus is the individual buildings, then it’s more interesting to have a wider variety of styles. No one wants to see an art gallery where every painting is the same, after all.

Historic plans envisioned the Mall as a singular space among neoclassical buildings, with the Capitol as major landmark. But that idea has given way in recent history to much more individualized buildings. Besides the Hirshhorn, there’s the the National Museum of the American Indian and the under-construction National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

It would be nice to have a great public space and a variety of architecture, but unfortunately the two visions are mutually exclusive. Urban walls need consistency, and sculpture gardens need variety. The more we push in one direction, the worse the Mall will function as the other. So which is it?

Urbanistically, neither option is necessarily better than the other. The Mall is such a large space, with such large buildings, that the normal rules of Jane Jacobs urbanism don’t generally apply. There will be few corner stores or sidewalk cafes no matter what, and no mixed use.

I like the American Indian museum, and I think I would have liked the Hirshhorn bubble. But I’m not sure I’d sacrifice the Mall’s overall character for too many more standalone masterpieces. Either way, it would be nice to make a decision and then stick with it.

What do you think?

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 6th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, parks



Washington’s one proud claim to “world’s tallest building”

When the Washington Monument topped out at 555 feet tall in 1884, it became the world’s tallest structure. Our champion status lasted only 5 years, until the Eiffel Tower put it to shame in 1889.

This vintage 1884 diagram shows the tallest buildings at that time, with Washington occupying the top.


From Cram’s Unrivaled Family Atlas of the World, Chicago IL. Lithograph color print.

May 20th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, history



Purple Line stations will range from simple to iconic

As Maryland moves forward with planning for the Purple Line, station designs are being released. They range from simple sidewalk shelters at the smaller stations to landmark aerial cylinders at Silver Spring and Riverside Park. Here are 6 renderings, illustrating the range of designs. More graphics are available at PurpleLineMD.com.


Bethesda, in a subway.

Silver Spring, elevated.

Langley Park, at-grade.

Riverdale Park, elevated.

Typical at-grade side station.

Typical at-grade center station.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.


April 5th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, lightrail, transportation



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

click to enlarge
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
Tags: architecture, development, urbandesign



Slick rendering, ugly building

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.

March 29th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: architecture



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%.

All other answers together added up to about 21%. In addition to the 4 other options available in the poll, multiple readers suggested the Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room. Others suggested the National Gallery West Wing rotunda, National Airport’s terminal, and the Botanic Gardens conservatory.

March 28th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: architecture



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