Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Limits of DC - Part III

Part III of our series on height limits in Washington DC
By Sashi Murthy, Architecture Student, Catholic University

Having lived in Washington and studied architecture for 5 years, I have been accustomed to the height limitations of the city’s built environment. I’m more abruptly aware of this when friends come to visit DC and remark on how much sky they can physically see - as if sky was a secondary element. But what if the scenario of increasing / creating density turned into a provocation of height restrictions vanishing? What is the new zoning regulation of how we can build up while still preserving a nostalgic presence on the street-scape? Take a moment to think about how DC might make this first step in changing its skyline.

Many would say that the District’s skyline is refreshing in a day and age where “bigger is better.” The argument here is not to disregard the idealistic image of DC, but rather to address issues that aren’t solely about aesthetics. By creating a more densified urbanity within the city, advantages can include reducing vehicular traffic, increasing pedestrian traffic, and increasing the vitality of the street by creating more opportunities for housing and businesses. Addressing obstacles might include keeping the intentions and quality of the city intact, avoiding the ‘concrete canyon’ affect, and deciding when, where, and how the city will grow upward.

Washington hasn’t quite reached its potential to accommodate an increased population and urbanity because of its rigorous adherence to sentimentality - L’Enfant’s intentions for the city’s grid. Proportion and ratio of street, building, sky and specific views are all qualities that affect how a person experiences this city - or any city. Identity also affects nostalgia in DC, with identity as a symbol and that symbol being a physical presence (such as the capitol building). But this concept is so attached to a standard that was set when increasing density was not an issue.

Until recent years, even I wasn’t quite sure what the height restriction really was. I, like many, thought it had something to do with the Dome of the Capitol, not even contemplating that I live in a 14 story apartment. The Capitol and Monument are important symbols, but is it necessary to be able to see them from wherever you are in the city? L’Enfant’s grid allows a network of avenues to stem from the Capitol Building, framing its proud view on pedestrians and vehicular traffic alike. Once approaching the Mall, the boundary of “symbolic space” is immediately felt and that space is adorned with monuments and Smithsonian museums to hold your attention. The atmosphere of the space created by low buildings and wide avenues is something that is a charm to DC. Visitors and tourists permeate the Mall constantly, while residents get their daily exercise by running laps around the monuments. With this said, it can be understandable that fury would rise over manipulating this area in any way. But what about outward from the National Mall? It’s not to propose that the rest of DC morph out of proportion, but rather to promote growth upward to supply an ever-increasing population.

Focus, for instance, on 3 locations within DC that could accommodate greater density: Eastern Market, Mt. Vernon Triangle and Dupont Circle. (Fig. 1)

These 3 distinct neighborhoods filled with different typologies can set the example for how other areas of DC may develop over time. By zooming into a 3 x 3 block area, one can begin to determine primary, secondary, and tertiary conditions or axes based on street width or main network of transportation. For example, when looking at the Mt. Vernon Triangle “swatch” of DC, New York and Massachusetts Ave. are primary. They contain a wider street to accommodate mostly an abundance of vehicular traffic. From there, 5th, 6th, and 7th streets are secondary, allowing for a connection from deeper within downtown to the primary networks. The streets in between that intermingle and feed these flows become tertiary. In a city defined by a very specific and structured grid, you most likely find these conditions fairly easily.

It becomes quite clear that each ‘primary’ leads directly to a void in the landscape, meaning a park or landmark of a certain importance, such as Dupont Circle, Mt. Vernon Square, or the Capitol Building. These nodes within the city will only be intensified by emergent structures past the current height restriction. (Fig. 2)

The first phase of diminishing height regulations can occur within a 5-10 year period. The main principles in phase 1 include preliminary steps in order to intensify the urban plan of each location. Looking at each swatch, void spaces within the blocks must be filled as a first step in increasing density, leaving access roads and alleys as necessary. If a particular location is dominated by parking / empty lots, 75% of the land can be filled with structure; this way the growth becomes a gradual progression, such as the Mt. Vernon Triangle area. The change in growth pattern is more of an expansion outward in perspective rather than solely upward. In subsequent phases, the building masses implemented by the rules accumulates within the block, filling out the expanse of empty lots currently there. This area is already up and coming, but imagine the possibilities and opportunities for this neighborhood if an expansion both outward and upward were to intensify! (Fig. 5)

The most important step during this phase, however, is taking advantage of the Heights of Buildings Act that states a building can be as tall as the adjacent street width + 20’. (Fig. 3) It is important to note that many buildings in DC have not reached this potential (with the exception of Mt. Vernon Triangle). DC can begin to establish a heightened density by taking more advantage of this rule. If building owners choose to increase their heights, all the better. Forcing this rise upon landowners is not realistic, but the modification of height restrictions can be seen as looking forward, rather than backward. New proposals and structures will house the ever-growing density that occurs naturally throughout time. When these new structures arise, they should be built with the notion that the structure will eventually accommodate additional density in the future.

In the second period of phasing out height restrictions over the course of 10-20 years, buildings could be allowed to gradually increase in height on a proportional basis focused on the primary, secondary and tertiary streets that were established in the first phase. The total height of building mass within the blocks may be increased by 75%, 50% and 25% (respective) of the existing.

For instance, if an existing building is 100’ tall on a primary street, phase 2 allows for any addition to be 75% of that height: the new total height would be 175’. This increase produces a gradual growth upward rather than the street-scape completely morphing out of its existing proportion.

This phase in particular affects each location differently. If you look at the Dupont Circle area, for example, phase 2 begins to break the height limit boundary while still keeping intact the main proportions of the street / building / sky. Looking at the Eastern Market swatch, the new regulations cause a dramatic change on Pennsylvania Avenue, but the low-rise residential stays fairly consistent (Fig. 6). In a case where the buildings in question are row-homes, which many believe are one of DC’s charms, they would stay at their existing height. Additions, renovations, or new homes would adhere to the phased regulations, with only a small, proportional change in height.

Phase 3 is projected in 20-40 years. This is where we will see building mass really break the limit. Based on the primary, secondary and tertiary conditions, the height of building additions can be increased by 50%, 35%, and 25% (respective) of existing. During this phase and onwards, additions would be primarily built on buildings that have increased from the preceding phases. Looking at Dupont Circle again, the street section changes quite dramatically in phase 3, but what is important to note is the main view from the primary street (New Hampshire Avenue in this case) is still visible, if not more prominent because of the increased density accumulating around the voids and landmarks carved within the city. (Fig. 4)

Referring back to the initial intentions of lifting height restrictions, the population growth within these areas will grow rapidly allowing for a variety of advancements, including reduced vehicular traffic, for one. The more businesses and housing that is densified within the District will allow for less need to rely on the car, which has an abundance of advantages on its own. This movement also improves the vitality of the street, not only during the day, but at night and on weekends. Lifting height restrictions grants the opportunity to have more residential projects on top of office projects in Washington. Imagine Farragut and the business district of K street having a nightlife and strong residential community that is alive at all times of day. The need for long commutes to neighboring suburbs and towns at the end of a work day could severely decrease, keeping the area’s population, which will inevitably increase, actually in the District.

These are baselines for how the city’s built landscape may evolve over time. Take a look at an aerial image of DC - you can see that divisions of density are already present. (Fig. 7) Through these phases, the intensity of this division increases but allows for these distinct neighborhoods and districts to grow in a continuous but controlled and specified way.

Thinking of the future of the city in this way allows for the imagination of how DC might begin to make a step at altering a nostalgic ideal - and redefining the key components or characteristics of a city that make the experience memorable. What makes DC unique to its visitors and inhabitants is a combination of many ideals, including the Heights of Buildings Act established in 1910 that defined the city as we see it today. It is also the symbol of identity that the nation’s capital is so well known for. It is a plethora of other things as experienced by tourists, visitors, residents, and those that can call themselves Washingtonians. But is a city really successful to its people if it is consistently stuck on an imposed rule that doesn’t leave room for expansion? By addressing the notion of increased density over time, the qualitative and quantitative properties of Washington must work simultaneously, and once those wheels are in motion, Washington, D.C. has the potential to become more than it already is.

Sashi Murthy, an architecture student, will receive her Master of Architecture degree in 2011 from Catholic University School of Architecture, where she also attained her Bachelor of Science in Architecture in 2009.


Anonymous said...

Raising the ceiling on building heights is likely to result in increased demolition of beautiful, older buildings of low physical stature. Currently, these buildings can continue to thrive, but if something much, much larger could be put in their place, development interests would see them gone shortly and tall glass boxes replacing them. Not a pretty vision.

Unknown on Jun 7, 2010, 12:09:00 PM said...

The limits are there for a reason.

Yes, taller buildings can be more glamorous for architects to design. But the limits here provide a compromise between having a livable urban setting for residents and still be commercially viable for businesses. Look at many cities across the US that allow taller buildings and have NO downtown life; Charlotte, NC, Dallas, TX, Atlanta, GA, etc. They have many buildings multiple times taller than any in DC. They also have downtowns measured in only square blocks rather than square miles. Their downtowns are empty after 5 and weekends.

All three of those cities would be better off if they had the foresight to literally "spread out" their density. There is just not the demand for a 75% increase in office or residential space in DC proper. Allowing for taller buildings would actually reduce the amount of development because there would be more supply. Not to mention this would also reduce property values.

The limits of DC is what keeps property values up. The idea of incorporating new residences on K St. is simply not feasible. That is primo office space in this city and any residences built near by would be priced and filled accordingly by high-income residents. You cannot create a Brooklyn atop the Farragut metro.

Could you imagine if this proposal was the standard from the start? The urban core of DC would be 1/3 the size in land area of todays. DC zoning laws are not perfect. But they have worked.

Anonymous said...

Real-world implementation of this extremely complicated scheme (by DCRA, don't forget) would be somewhere between impossible and nightmarish. It also sets up peculiar incentives in terms of phasing of projects (i.e. one is incentivized to wait), and almost completely ignores the great power that is historic preservation.

But the main problem is the focus on areas which are already sufficiently dense to support pedestrian life. Dupont Circle and Eastern Market are two of the city's most successful neighborhoods in this respect--why fix what isn't broken? And Mt Vernon Triangle manages a remarkable amount of urbane pedestrian life, notwithstanding that, thanks to the recession, it's only about 1/3 built. I think its future is assured; in fact, the recession will add needed variety.

The author needs to look at areas like the New York Avenue NE corridor, places that have minimal pedestrian life, and, probably not coincidentally, only a smattering of historically-important buildings. There may be some realistic potential in such areas for taller buildings, especially if upzonings help finance a Metro or streetcar extension (following the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor model). Conveniently, most of these areas are well out from the monumental core, reducing the very legitimate worry that the monuments' primacy will be compromised.

Anonymous said...

And the most boring article of the website goes to... on Jun 7, 2010, 1:44:00 PM said...

I couldn't disagree more with this term paper of a blog entry. The lack of high rise buildings is part of what makes DC so great, and certainly something other people notice when they visit. I once met a guy from NYC, who noted the reason why Central Park is so popular is because it's the ONLY green space in all of Manhattan. I have to agree with Mike, who said there must be compromise between residential and commercial needs.

I can understand "thinking of the future" in terms of the overhead wires debate with the H Street streetcar project.

Also not sure why the author would want to build sky scrapers in the most historic areas of town. The highly residential Eastern Market or Dupont Circle? Why not push for this kind of development in areas like Friendship Heights, the Southwest Waterfront near Nats Park or even the Georgia Ave corridor up to Military Road? All parts of DC that are a good ways from the historic buildings/monuments.

And how successful can DC be commercially with a height ordinance in place? A walk through Chinatown offers a pretty good idea.

Loren Pope said...

I believe two of the author’s assumptions in this essay are flawed: 1) That the height limit is about nostalgia, and 2) That densification would increase the urban “vitality”.

The DC height limit is about an overarching land use policy. That some find it charming or sentimental is just fine, but not the reason for its existence. Density is good. In fact, density is great. The Rosslyn- Ballston land use plan conceived in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was brilliant in providing economic and cultural vitality that enhance adjacent lower density residential areas. The DC height limit, however, creates a moderated density pattern with softer density edges and a variety of other positive physical, cultural and economic qualities. These qualities are not necessarily good or bad, but they are viable foundations for a world class city.

DC’s challenges with population density, urban vitality, and being a pedestrian friendly, 24-hour city don’t have anything to do with building heights. Further, changing the building height limit could be a short term stimulus, but it wouldn’t fix the underlying issues. DC began losing its people and its urban vitality in the 1950’s when the 50 year outmigration began. Depopulation occurred in countless cities around the Country for similar cultural and economic reasons. For some urban areas, whether new or historic, real highrise density may be the only or best answer to create and sustain urban vitality. DC, however, has a hole card. The U.S. Government and all that it brings. DC will be a magnificent city, topping out a mere 12-13 stories, as it fixes its municipal issues and suburban flight becomes a historical event.

Manhattan is great but so is Paris.

Jonathan Fitch on Jun 7, 2010, 3:15:00 PM said...

Mike is bringing up a very important point that, I think, needs to be amplified. There are reasons that the downtowns of the cities he mentioned are empty after work hours and they revolve around real estate economics.

Everyone has heard the dictum that the three most important factors in real estate value are "location, location and location," and this is true as far as it goes. In the creation of real estate value, however, it is the differences in physical location that are most important. If density is allowed to rise on certain downtown parcels, the land value of those parcels will rise--the land becomes more valuable per SF if you can build more program on it; it's price will rise. As the price of land rises, adjacent parcels become more valuable. As they become more valuable, only increased density will allow development on them. To the extent that density drops off in a gradual way (standard zoning) as you get farther from the core, land values will gradually fall. As the process continues, and more of the most influential and important tenants come to rent close to the center, the value of being near them rises; you can imagine contour lines of value . So it is the creation of differences in location that create high property values.

As property values rise in the high-density core, the uses that can be accommodated there become more and more limited. In American CBDs (other than in DC and, to some extent, Los Angeles), only the employers of elite office workers can afford the rents (these areas are often called "financial districts" for a reason). No housing of course, unless it is for the very, very wealthy. Only certain kinds of retail, too. It is no surprise that Tiffany and Van Cleef and Arpels are on 5th Avenue but not Shell or BP gas stations. Neither is it surprising that these downtowns are deserts after quitting time.

In DC the structure is much flatter and, one could argue, more democratic. Because of the height limit, the differences in location spoken of above do not occur. A much broader range of uses and residents can afford to be in and near the CBD, producing the sort of heterogeneity that we value so greatly. That fine-grained mix is simply impossible in the financial districts of New York or Boston or San Francisco. Compare them to height limited cities like Paris or Rome. Have you heard overseas visitors say that DC is the most European of American cities?

Architecturally, there are pluses and minuses to the height limit. We can argue about how they balance, visually, but the scale doesn't lean dramatically one way or another. The limit has, however, made the District both distinctive and more like the ideal of Jane Jacobs or Richard Sennett.

There are a number of other issues that we could/should discuss at this point, but let's keep the response shorter than the post.

Anonymous said...

the southwest waterfront is much closer to the mall and monuments than eastern market and dupont circle and therefore would be a horrible place for sky scrapers as Nikki suggested. Where do these people get these ideas?

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