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Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is ready to give DC more local control over the sizes of its own buildings, a small step forward for self-
"I heard separately to my astonishment, for the first time ever, a rejection of Home Rule," he said. "I expected you all to say, 'Gosh, this will take years and years.' ... I did not expect, for the first time ever, to have people say, 'Please don't give me authority. I can't be trusted.'"
Issa needs to hear from people who do support the idea of Congress loosening its grip over DC. Please send him and other relevant Congressional leaders a letter asking them to let DC residents make their own choices about their built environment (at least where it doesn't directly affect the federal government).
Mendelson argued that "citizens of the District do not support any change" to the height limit, or even the right to make changes in the future, largely because most of the people who could take four or six whole hours, often in the middle of a workday, just to attend a hearing and speak for three minutes opposed change. (Note to Mendelson: Some of us have other stuff to do, like jobs and kids.)
Even if DC doesn't change its building height rules now, sooner or later we're going to need to do something about the housing shortage that's pushing up housing prices so fast. As Harriet Tregoning noted in the hearing, if DC eventually decides that height, even just in a targeted area, is the solution, it might be too late if the House oversight chairman at the time doesn't believe as strongly in local self-government as Issa does.
When Congress granted DC Home Rule in 1973, they were willing to let a locally-elected council and mayor pass most laws, but didn't entirely trust DC to decide everything for itself. They kept power over the courts, didn't let the council change any criminal laws for 2 years, gave the federal government seats on the boards that decide zoning, and forbade the local government from making any changes to the height limit. Each of these is basically a reminder that they only trusted DC citizens so far.
Now, a powerful committee chairman wants to trust us just a little more. Despite some bad apples, the District has balanced its budget for many years now, has reduced crime, and provides municipal services about as well as any city. Any height changes would have to still go through the federal NCPC and hybrid federal-local zoning commission, and Congress could still veto a change. But we're grown up enough to have a say in building heights, whether we end up deciding to change building height rules, or not, or wait until later.
On Monday, DC Mayor Vincent Gray said he will seek a second term. He joins an already crowded field, which will make for a very interesting race. But there's also the question of how Gray has done as mayor.
What are his biggest accomplishments? What are his biggest disappointments? And does he deserve a second term? Our contributors weigh in:
On transportation, Gray has been OK but not perfect. He's done a good job moving the streetcar program forward, but progress on bike infrastructure has moved much more slowly than it did under Fenty. He'd be a low risk/moderate reward choice for a second term. We'd know that we'd be getting someone who basically advances our goals, but maybe not as quickly as a more progressive candidate might. On land use planning, he's worth voting for just to keep Harriet Tregoning on the job.
One Gray accomplishment that I'm fond of is the Vision for a Sustainable DC, which cuts across departments and agencies and sets aggressive goals for emissions reduction and restoration of clean waters and healthy ecosystems. It remains to be seen how aggressively Gray will implement the plan and whether each department will receive adequate funding for their share of the work, but the plan is a significant step in the right direction.
I also applaud Gray for sticking with the streetcar plan despite opposition from many corners, including many voters who supported him.
However, I am unhappy with Gray's positions on minimum wage and labor standards issues. The majority of the Council is ahead of him there. I supported the Large Retailer Accountability Act and am dismayed that Gray vetoed it.
I think Gray and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero have made great headway in planning, laying out a vision and foundation that moves DC in the right direction (Sustainable DC and Age Friendly DC are my two big ones).
We will have to wait and see, though, how implementation plays out (as Malcolm mentioned) either through Gray in a second term or through a newly elected administration that could turn all of that good work on its head. I'm inclined to say he deserves a second term because it's a better bet for successful implementation. But maybe I would also support a candidate that recognizes those accomplishments and is highly committed to being an implementer.
Although "One City" sometimes gets short shrift, Mayor Gray has done much to fill the slogan with meaning. The One City Summit, held in early 2012, brought 1800 residents to the Washington Convention Center.
It was actually successful at getting the participants to work together in diverse groups to identify the priorities for government services and the future of the city. Participants became engaged while educating themselves about the trade-offs of various policies, such as how new business attraction may drive out existing small businesses.
Increasing sustainability and diversifying DC's economy while improving access to it were the big policy winners at the Summit. And Gray's administration has followed up, continuing its support for the Sustainable DC plan, promoting development at the St. Elizabeth's site, and enabling continued growth city-wide through the MoveDC plan and relaxation of the Height Act.
Bringing Walmart to the District is a negative for sustainability and diversifying the economy. While improving the connections between education and jobs will take much more time, it is clear that Mayor Gray is not just continuing past policies on autopilot, but is asking hard questions about how the city and the region can succeed in the years ahead.
Today's push to improve streets for pedestrians and cyclists mirrors the push a century ago for paved roads. Both ideas stated small but grew to become popular movements by increasing public awareness.
Over 100 years ago, maps of "Good Roads" led the push for paved roads by letting travelers know which roads were likely to be passable. In Slate magazine, Rebecca Onion recently posted an 1897 map of "Good Roads" in and around Philadelphia. Onion says that maps like these were a necessity in a time where standards on road quality and the funding for infrastructure was haphazard and sometimes non-existent.
Efforts like this are still happening today. While most of our roads and highways are now paved, many communities recognize that our streets need infrastructure upgrades in order to help more people feel safe while traveling on foot or by bike, as well as driving.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the "Good Roads" movement pushed governments to pave more roads to accommodate the newly-invented bicycle. Today, there is a push to create protected spaces for cyclists to use. Many cities are adopting "complete streets" policies that seek to standardize our street infrastructure and emphasize that roads are safe and accessible for all users whether they're on foot, riding a bike, or driving.
Like the "Good Roads" movements, maps are an important tool in advocating for complete streets. Both advocacy groups and local governments publish maps that show where the best routes to bike are. This isn't a new idea, either. Bicycle maps were being published in California as early as 1896.
In every debate over a new bike lane or changes to street parking, opponents sometimes argue that the status quo is fine and question why it should change. "Good Roads" maps show that our infrastructure is always changing, and the desire for better and more accommodating streets is nothing new.
On Tuesday, the DC Council sent a message to Congress on the subject of self-determination. That message: "Congress, please don't give us more control over our city. We need you to tell us what's good for us. We don't want to make our own choices."
The issue was the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which limits how high buildings can rise throughout the District. ... Most of the debate about the height limit has indeed revolved around whether one appreciates or reviles tall buildings. It would be understandable to think that DC leaders were debating this week whether to loosen the rules that made the city's skyline look the way it does.
They were not. The issue was not whether to increase building heights. It was whether DC residents and leaders should get a say on the issue.
Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.
DC needs to find a place for substantial new housing and jobs in the future, and federal planners now seem to acknowledge that fact. They're willing to create a process, though an exhaustively long one, by which some future growth could exceed the federal height limit.
It's a tiny step forward for the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a very cautious federal agency, but actually a significant one. The blanket height limit made it impossible to even consider creating a skyscraper neighborhood somewhere in the city, perhaps like Poplar Point, or even having an occasional, iconic tower amidst lower buildings.
Last night, NCPC staff published an updated recommendation for changing the federal height limit. They've decided to insist on absolutely no change in the original L'Enfant City (basically everything between Florida Avenue and the rivers), but are willing to open a gate to a very long road for taller buildings elsewhere.
To recap, the federal law, which only Congress can change, limits heights of buildings in DC to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet, up to a maximum of 90-130 feet depending on the area. Outside downtown and downtown-ish areas like NoMA and the ballpark, local zoning restricts buildings far more, however.
The local zoning can change if the Zoning Commission, a board with 3 local and 2 federal representatives, agrees, but that board can't pierce the blanket federal height limit. Under NCPC's proposal, that could happen, but DC planners would first have to define the taller-building area in an amendment to the official Comprehensive Plan, a voluminous document updated every 5 years.
The DC Council, which otherwise has no voice in zoning, would have to approve the plan change, and NCPC, the mostly-federal board with representatives from agencies like the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration, would also have to assent. Congress would then have its own chance to overturn the changes if it chose.
But if, and it's a big if, a future plan for some tall buildings somewhere gets enough political support to convince the DC government, the DC Council, and NCPC, it could become a reality.
It's not a bad idea to ask that a taller building area undergo thorough planning and community discussion. Certainly many argue that we should simply have fewer restrictions on buildings. But that isn't a majority view right now. Eventually, however, enough residents may recognize that severe limits on our housing supply push up costs and be willing to explore solutions.
Those solutions could simply entail upzoning many areas around Metro stations and transit corridors (which wouldn't require height limit changes). Or, maybe it means a lot of tall buildings in one small space, like Paris' La Defense. Or each section of the city has an architectural competition for one distinctive and exceptional taller building.
Under this plan, at least we could have that debate. Those alternatives are within the realm of the possible. The city could try to trade extra height for important amenities that residents really want, as Montgomery County is doing with its White Flint plan.
On the other hand, this path certainly means a lot of veto points. And we know that any change engenders strong opposition, almost no matter what the change. It will be mightily difficult to get a plan for taller buildings past all of these boards.
Still, at least NCPC is willing to entertain the notion. The staff recommendation still reserves for NCPC control over any height limit exceptions, but that's a lot different from a Congressional law totally banning it. Which means that if and when DC needs more height, at least there's a way, even if it's a hard way.
One change would make a lot of sense at this point: if the process for allowing greater height involves so many steps of local and federal approvals, it now seems silly to completely exempt the L'Enfant City. There are tradeoffs between growing in the center, where it's already busy but there is more infrastructure, and at the edges, where some people crave economic development but taller buildings would stand out more.
NCPC staff argue that the federal interest is greatest in the L'Enfant City, where most federal land is, and lesser outside. Plus, just outside the L'Enfant City in Arlington there are already tall buildings, so it seems silly to insist on such a strict rule outside in other directions.
But it's still unclear that having buildings low, boxy, and boring A joint local-federal discussion about where to add height should encompass downtown and L'Enfant city neighborhoods as well as outlying areas. Why simply exclude a place like Hill East/RFK stadium from this discusssion? Or NoMA? NCPC can veto a proposal in those areas if it's not on board, but given that it would have to agree to any change, there's no need to exclude whole sections of the city at the same time.
A joint local-federal discussion about where to add height should encompass downtown and L'Enfant city neighborhoods as well as outlying areas. Why simply exclude a place like Hill East/RFK stadium from this discusssion? Or NoMA? NCPC can veto a proposal in those areas if it's not on board, but given that it would have to agree to any change, there's no need to exclude whole sections of the city at the same time.
Opponents to redeveloping the McMillan Sand Filtration Site often say it'll result in a loss of recreation and park space. But a recent video of the proposed plan by development team Vision McMillan Partners shows a compelling vision of a site with a large park and recreational component.
The newest plan, which the Historic Preservation Review Board called "very tangible and commendable" earlier this month, consolidates the site's green space, and ensures it's available to the whole neighborhood, rather than as piecemeal private yards.
While the fight to get redevelopment moving at the 25-acre site is far from over, winning HPRB approval is one more major hurdle cleared in bringing a 6-acre public park with pool and rec center, dedicated new affordable housing, and rowhouses and apartments to the long-shuttered site.
Like many DC neighborhoods, Georgetown historically had several movie theatres. While none of them are still in operation today, almost all of the buildings that once held movie theatres are largely intact.
Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post ran a fantastic feature Monday on the history of theatres in DC, with a map showing where historic theatres were and existing theatres are. The city had 116 movie theatres and playhouses during the 20th century, six of which were in Georgetown. Let's tally them up!
Above you see a photo of the Key Theatre. Of the historic theatres, it was on the young side. It was opened in 1969 and closed in 1997. Nowadays it (along with the former Roy Rogers next door) is occupied by Restoration Hardware.
Here is the Biograph. It was even younger than the Key Theatre. It was built in 1976 in a former car dealership and lasted until 1996. Like the Georgetown theatre, in its later years it mixed art house with adult fare, but was unable to stave off closure. Like many former theatres in DC, it now houses a CVS.
Familiar to many, the Georgetown Theatre building has lasted several decades, gutted and decrepit as it may be today. However, the facade as we now know it is thankfully not long for this world. Local architect Robert Bell has a contract to buy the building and plans to restore the neon sign and rip off the formstone exterior.
Bell only intends to restore the facade to its state immediately before the formstone was applied. That is apparently a simple stucco style, but unfortunately I couldn't locate a picture of what that looked like. Bell confirmed that he had no plans to restore the facade of the Dumbarton Theatre, which was what became the Georgetown in the 1950s. It was opened in 1913, shortly before this photo was taken:
Bell plans to restore the neon side, making it red, while returning the frame to its original black color. I predict it will displace the old Riggs Bank dome as the iconic Georgetown image once it's finally repaired.
This obviously isn't a theatre, but the Tommy Hilfiger stands at the site of the former Lido Theatre. The theatre was open from 1909 to 1948. I unfortunately could not find any picture of the original theatre. The facade was changed significantly for Tommy Hilfiger, here's what it looked like in the 1990's:
The former Lido Theatre (on the far left). Photo courtesy of the author.
I'm not certain, but chances are that this isn't really the original building. It just looks way more mid-century than turn-of-the-century. The theatre shut in 1948, and that building looks awfully 1950's-ish. I suspect that's when the current structure was built, or it may mean the building's facade was redone later on. So maybe this is one that should be considered "lost."
This is also obviously not a photo of a theatre, but before this building held Nike or Barnes and Noble, it held the Cerebus 1-2-3 Theatre. Like many of the large and similar looking buildings on 14th St., this property was also originally built as a car dealership. The theatre occupied the space from 1970 to 1993.
Last, but not least, on O'Connell's list is the Foundry Theatre. The photo above shows it as it is today, but it hasn't really changed much since the theatre closed in 2002. It was the youngest theatre on this list, having been opened in 1984. For all intents and purposes, it was replaced by the Georgetown AMC theatre, which opened the same year.
So at one point in the late 1970's, there were four different movie theatres open in Georgetown. Now there's just one (two if you count Letelier Theatre) but we've got almost all the old shells. In the age of Netflix and on-demand movies, maybe we should be happy we've even got that.
Crossposted on Georgetown Metropolitan.
DC is awash in murals. Four new murals recently went up as part of an arts festival sponsored by Heineken. Ward 7 residents banded together to give a beloved restaurant a mural. And a filmmaker's making a documentary about what murals mean to DC's culture.
Located on Pennsylvania Avenue SE just east of the Anacostia River, Thai Orchid is the sole sit-down restaurant on a block with a beauty supply store, liquor store, and empty storefronts. Opened in 2010, the locally-owned spot quickly became a local gathering spot. On her blog Life in the Village, Veronica Davis raved about the food, while commenters expressed excitement that they could eat out without crossing the river.
To say "thank you," neighbors want to beautify Thai Orchid and its block with a mural.
It's a testament to a business that took a chance on Ward 7 and represents a continuing commitment to local businesses. Supporters applied for funding from MuralsDC, a partnership between the DC Department of Public Works, the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities, and nonprofit group Words Beats & Life that uses street art to enliven neighborhoods and combat graffiti.
They had commissioned an artist to create the mural, but a small group of residents put a halt to the project, arguing that District funds should be used for more worthy causes. Now, the community is raising money to move forward with the mural without public help.
But murals are still going up elsewhere in DC. Working with MuralsDC, Dutch brewing company Heineken sponsored four murals in Shaw and NoMa and installed them last month. It's part of a larger series of murals Heineken commissioned in Atlanta and Miami. The DC installation coincided with the G40 Art Summit, a street art festival sponsored by the Art Whino gallery in National Harbor.
It makes sense that Heineken chose DC as a location, with its long history of murals celebrating its African American and Latino communities. Filmmaker Caitlin Carroll was so inspired by the city's mural culture that she started working on a documentary about it called Painted City.
The film features art historian Perry Frank, who documents murals both past and present, and includes stories about murals that have been lost, highlighting the art's fleeting nature. Community pride and beautification is a recurring theme in the documentary, and Carroll also highlights the work of local artists who work with residents and kids to beautify their neighborhoods.
Murals, along with public art in general, can let communities show neighborhood pride, inspire others, and provide hope. In an area struggling with unemployment, poverty, and crime, residents see art as a way to uplift and inspire.
As Carroll notes, "Every mural has a story." The stories often have an end as murals disappear due to new development or get damaged in building repairs. But even in their temporary nature, they still serve as a form of community expression.
- More roads won't solve traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia
- Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington
- The reason cyclists love green bike lanes
- Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights
- Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes
- How does DC's proposed Metro loop compare?
- Can motorcycles fit in an urban context?