By Brian O'Looney, AIA
A century has passed since the enactment of the 1910 Height Act, and Washington has benefited greatly from adhering to the code that has shaped the Nation’s Capital. Moving forward, however, it is simply not enough to be content with the status quo, as considerable challenges remain for the Greater Washington region. While DC has been blessed with a very good urban framework, over the past 40 years there have been notable successes in buildings created by talented architects, but mediocre contributions to the public realm have been the norm. One challenge is getting developers to invest more in their facades, a particular difficulty when the ongoing Global Economic Crisis has put extreme financial pressure on the real estate industry. Another challenge is getting architects – who admittedly are all too often headstrong in their visions – to relate their buildings better to the urban context. Finally, questions remain as to how jurisdictions can code this vertical plane to achieve better results. The great challenge for Greater Washington’s future is how to encourage the construction of sympathetic buildings that make better places, to fill out the vision of L’Enfant’s initial 1791 plan, all within the 1910 Height Act that further defined it.
On May 18th, the National Capital Planning Commission hosted Larry Beasley, the former city planner from Vancouver, British Columbia, to talk about Washington’s 1910 Height Act, which limits building heights in the District. His masterful presentation, leading us through a 45 minute celebration of good planning with high-rise towers in Vancouver, concluded with a ringing endorsement of the Height Act and a celebration of Washington’s achievements:
Beasley added that great value is added by the resulting uniqueness and symbolic power of DC’s skyline.
I hope you see what an extraordinary accomplishment these height limits represent; what an extraordinary and unique city they have created for you over a hundred years of careful custodianship. And perhaps the most compelling reason for this, and one that I have not really emphasized tonight, is that the city is just so comfortable, so liveable, so humane at it’s current scale.
When discussing Washington’s planning successes, we should remember that
there are elements in the District’s zoning and planning regulations besides the Height Act; L’Enfant’s initial 1791 plan and the McMillan Commission’s edits have led to the distinctive quality of our public realm. As Sacha Rosen pointed out earlier in this series, the Zoning Code enables the development of façade depth with the ability to have “projections into public space;” beltcourses, bays, pilasters and other façade elements. The code also permits spires, belfries and unoccupied architectural embellishments to extend beyond height limitations, which allows for emphasis in buildings terminating street views, better architectural emphasis of building corners, and the celebration of ecclesiastical structures. Rather unusually, Washington counts areas of above ground parking structures toward the overall site density allowance. This is the main reason why comparatively few above-ground parking structures exist here; few developers want to waste precious development density and bury the parking, at triple the cost. Washington’s street frontages greatly benefit, as its walls are almost always are activated by windows and the vitality they represent.
But with regard to the unevenness of the last 40 years of building in Greater Washington, some of the problem clearly rests with the whims of architectural culture, which can place priority on design trends over urban context and local community identity. As an illustration, it is not a surprise that in the 1970’s minimalist modernism was superseded so quickly by Postmodernism right after Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record and architecture magazines began publication in color. In Washington, however, Postmodernism was a blessing, because DC’s particular flavor, the “Washington Reds” such as Amy Weinstein and David Schwarz, were some of the first to reassert the importance of contextualism within the national architectural culture. But even today, the negative gravity of the unchecked architectural culture on our civic realm has not subsided; pious claims of sustainability allow for some less than stellar contributions to the urban realm to be blessed by critics, the media, and architects alike.
Again, the broader questions are difficult to answer: How do we get developers to invest more in their facades? How do we compel architects to make their buildings relate better to the urban context? How can jurisdictions code the vertical plane to achieve better results?
One success in Developer Incentives
New York City’s J-51 program, which has been in place for years, is a proven example of getting developers to behave through their bottom line. It encourages the renovation of residential apartment buildings with partial property tax exemptions and abatement benefits. The money that would have been spent on taxes is instead spent on renovation, as well as upkeep and improvements to the lot frontage. These lot frontage improvements are particularly noticeable in Morningside Heights, a neighborhood rejuvenated by this policy. In the end, because of the improvements, property values have gone up, and tax revenues have actually improved.
Architectural Peer Pressure
When it comes to getting architects to work in harmony with their urban context, Mr. Beasley advocates the peer review process utilized in Vancouver and elsewhere: “Good architecture comes from good architects that are supported by a regulatory system that facilitates good design and forces it to be a development priority. One of the easiest things you can do is implement design review and to put peer review in place.”
These processes are not without their challenges. They require architects to volunteer their time, or find scarce governmental funding for paid peer reviewers. In many Home Owner’s Associations (HOAs) the reviewers enforcing community standards are not professionals, and the standards are often not well written (set up, on the cheap, by a homebuilder), with results that are mixed, at best.
Still, these boards generally serve their communities well. Contrary to some claims, peer review boards rarely stifle creativity; they more often channel it within bounds that serve both the community identity and promote comfortable continuity. Architects and designers on these boards understand the greater architectural culture, but their allegiances lie with the sense of place they are charged to uphold. Although local examples like Kentlands and Georgetown trend neo-traditional, one could see the peer process lead to very different types of design as they have in Vancouver, or perhaps in Tel Aviv, Israel, or Brisbane, Perth and Mawson Lakes in Australia, where the community’s architectural identities have trended modern, yet urbanistically sensitive. Great transcendent architectural icons from their time can result, such as Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery, approved through the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. When well run, like Kentland’s Process or the Old Georgetown Board, developers and homeowners alike find they are empowered to renovate or build as they like, but the review process accomplishes better results than they would have on their own. That said, these processes often take longer, and landowners typically spend more money. But these are development costs that are generally understood in the marketplace and get factored into land value when the land is purchased by the developer.
Coding the Vertical
This point leads to one of Mr. Beasley’s more compelling insights regarding economic implications of greater density, and what jurisdictions must do to achieve better results in their coding efforts. He strongly cautioned that if height restrictions are lifted in non-sacred portions of Washington, it should be tied to improved public amenities. The concern is that the financial benefit from the increase in bulk typically benefits land sellers by increasing land value, and rarely benefits the developers who, in turn, could use a large portion of that financial benefit to better the public realm being created. Again, Larry Beasley:
To make a bonus or incentive work, you also have to make sure the land value increase stays in the hands of the developer rather than slipping into that of the previous land owner. This is done according to how you structure the law that vests the additional development opportunity. And then, having done that, you can then look for a portion of that unexpected land value to be invested in the public good that the bonus or incentive is trying to achieve.
Montgomery County’s recently adopted White Flint CR incentive density zoning is a big step in that direction. The “By-right” development allowance in these zones is half the land area. Optional density increases, up to four times the land area, are tied to a menu of public benefits in the following broad categories: Transit Proximity, Connectivity & Mobility, Diversity, Design, and Environment. The development must make significant advances in three of these categories to maximize the potential density. Specific measures include adding additional workforce or moderately priced dwelling units, burying the parking, and providing greater open space. Additionally, in order to achieve the full density allowance, commercial uses must be mixed with residential uses.
Unfortunately what was finally adopted by the County Council was weaker than what the planning office proposed, inexplicably not including bonuses for meeting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design® [LEED] sustainability goals, and not requiring build-to-line frontage requirements outside of retail areas. A further imperfection is that the “mixed-uses” appear that they can exist side by side in stand-alone buildings, as long as these buildings are submitted in a single sketch plan (some may argue that this will accelerate development in the short term). And the CR zone does not include architectural peer review as advocated by Mr. Beasley, substituting an awkwardly worded “Exceptional Design” criterion which will give fits to architects and developers, and ultimately challenge land-use attorneys who will have to explain “original” “innovative” and “new” in proposed designs - a lot of weirdness may result. Perversely, the new zoning also promotes the creation of blank walls on the public realm that can then be covered with a Greenscreen™ or similar products, as this is one of the least costly ways to achieve bonus density under the system. But even with these flaws - which the county’s planners are aware of and will likely correct - the legislation is on the forefront of density design in the United States. Hopefully other jurisdictions will follow Montgomery County’s lead and craft better language that builds upon this leap forward.
As suggested by Mr. Beasley, additional improvements to this kind of upzoning can include making peer review boards more palatable to public jurisdictions by placing their enforcement costs upon the applicants, perhaps in a process similar to LEED. (One main reason LEED has achieved almost instantaneous acceptance is that it places the cost of documentation and enforcement upon the developer, often exceeding $100,000 per building, making it palatable for jurisdictions to simply adopt LEED standards.) Architectural peer review processes would be significantly less expensive, even small compared to typical public development review costs in Greater Washington. Kentlands reviews around 180 applications a year in a monthly review process, and their annual professional review costs (through Duany Plater-Zyberk and volunteer residents) average $15,000, which also includes DPZ’s monthly open houses with free architectural consulting to residents. Granted, there would be preparation costs for peer review, which take longer, and therefore carrying costs would be a concern. But theoretically these costs would be figured into the purchase price. Should the improvements succeed in making the area more desirable, the increased land value may negate or exceed these costs, turning into a win-win for both the developer and the land owner. Most of us cringe at the thought of additional regulation. But Peer review boards add long-term value with nominal short-term costs. Developers are willing to invest more if they know that their neighbors will be held the same standard.
In conclusion, Mr. Beasley’s endorsement of the Height Act is not surprising, after all, as the new code for Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain that he helped create limits height to 6 stories, with the hopes of celebrating regional heritage by allowing Al Ain’s historic palaces, mosques and fort turrets to stand proud in their civic context. This plan will clearly contrast Al Ain to the ego-driven building frenzies in nearby Doha and Dubai, and in the long run, I suspect the regional difference will be somewhat akin to that between Savannah and Atlanta. We hope that in the next forty years that Greater Washington’s Land Owners, developers, architects and public officials can come together to put as much attention in the buildings filling our public realms as has been put into the planning of the ground plane.
Brian O’Looney, AIA LEED-AP, is an Architect and Urban Planner and Partner with Torti Gallas and Partners. He is a former chair of the Kentlands architectural review board. His recent contributions to Washington at Torti Gallas and Partners include the design of the new Social Safeway in Georgetown and as one of the design leaders for their work in Columbia Heights.