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A glass tower pops out on Harvard Street

Harvard Street in Columbia Heights, between 14th and 15th Streets, looks like a typical DC street, with a combination of classic row house styles. Except, in the middle, a single glass building sticks out, in more ways than one.

Click on an image for larger version. Images from Google Street View.

Since Google Street View took these pictures, the construction was completed, and the modern, glass facade spans the entire front and of the building and most of one side.

Many neighborhoods are struggling with pop-ups, where zoning allows (say) three stories in a block made up of two-story houses, there's no historic protection, and the occasional homeowner (by right) puts an ugly vinyl-siding third story atop their beautiful old brick row house.

This, on the other hand, pops out in two different ways. First, it projects out closer to the street than the buildings on either side. On many streets, whole rows of houses were originally set back some distance from the property line. Outside of historic districts, though, nothing many blocks lack building restriction lines to stop a property owner from adding on to the front of the house in these cases, even if that breaks up the consistency of the row. DC's Zoning Update process discussed this issue during the Low and Moderate Density Residential working group. The Office of Planning's currently proposed new regulations would let some neighborhoods impose building restriction lines, keeping all buildings behind one consistent line, or build-to lines, requiring all buildings to position the front edge at that line.

The design is a more complex issue. To the east (left, facing the building) is a long row of the early 20th Century townhouses with bay windows; to the east, a brick apartment building, an alley, and then a long row of the brick row houses with porches common in this area. (Is there a name for these two types?) Sandwiched between the two is now this glass tower.

Is this appropriate? I've previously written about my belief that the motley collection of architectural periods diminishes nice blocks like Burling Street in Chicago. In commercial districts and on blocks lacking a specific architectural feel, there's nothing wrong with modern, glass buildings. But this street feels less like a set of individual buildings and more like a few large multi-house buildings. A modern glass tower smack in the middle feels like replacing only one of the Treasury Building's ionic columns with a square marble pillar.

What do you think about this building? Should we allow pop-out additions closer to the street? Does the style of this building detract from the street, or add to it? Is some review appropriate to maintain architectural harmony on blocks like this? And perhaps most importantly, is there a way to get the latter protection without all the baggage and approval requirements of a full historic district?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I don't actually mind it. I guess I could understand why one would, but I don't know that I necessarily agree that the block in question has a specific architectural feel. On that block, you also have a surface parking lot, apartment buildings, at least one other pop-out, etc.

by Nate on Dec 29, 2008 10:51 am • linkreport

How is that design not pastiche?

by Steve on Dec 29, 2008 10:54 am • linkreport

Its not a glass tower, its a masonry tower with large windows.

In other cities it is nice to walk down a residential street and see a nice diversity of styles. Residential blocks in many parts of Chicago are this way.

by spookiness on Dec 29, 2008 11:46 am • linkreport

While I have to agree that it's more of a 'masonry tower with large windows' it does completely interrupt the continuity of the street. The house and apartments on either side get less light, it protrudes obnoxiously into the public realm, and the side facing the apartments (provided it stayed that way post-completion) is a two-tone monster with no obvious matching to specific floors. On the other hand, I tend to oppose specific regulations requiring setbacks or limiting pop-ups because they easily become ammunition for malintentioned NIMBYs and often damper more diverse architectural styles. Perhaps these things are better left solved at the neighborhood level-I can hardly believe that building would have passed a neighborhood review of the design.

by redline on Dec 29, 2008 12:04 pm • linkreport

The problem isn't the architectural style- it's the fact that it juts way out and looks absurd, and blocks others houses previous line of site down the block. It impinges on the rest of the neighborhood. No reason you can't do the same building, just set back like the others. This is an example of a developer trying to maximize profit, neighborhood residents be damned.

by SG on Dec 29, 2008 12:46 pm • linkreport

New York has zoning laws that, in certain districts, require setbacks at least as far back as the buildings on either side of the lot being built on. That would seem to make sense in districts like this, and wouldn't require any advance work to determine "building restriction lines" or "build-to lines" block-by-block.

by Mike on Dec 29, 2008 12:52 pm • linkreport

Isn't diversity a good thing?

Either the property owner liked the design or the developer thinks it will sell, either way its really their call...

by Daniel on Dec 29, 2008 12:59 pm • linkreport

It's tough to tell from these pictures, but I don't have an issue with the modern aesthetic at all. In fact, I think it can be quite complimentary in many cases. The issue here is the break with the traditional urban design of the block, mainly in terms of the front yard setback.

From the level of the house, it's easy to understand why you'd want this - rowhouses don't have windows on two sides, so anything that increases the infiltration of natural light is a nice perk.

Also, this new house doesn't really stick out that much more than the other newer house next to it which has a much more 'traditional' aesthetic. The glass is irrelevant in my opinion, as both of those new houses are filling an old urban typology but with different style. The question is about the urban design.

It's also worth noting that this new glass building isn't breaking any new ground, exactly. The structure it is replacing also had a similar setback - as you can see from the pure aerial photograph, or by looking at the aerial bird's eye oblique views on Live Search maps. The urban design characteristics haven't really changed in terms of setbacks and build to lines.

by Alex B. on Dec 29, 2008 1:14 pm • linkreport

I guess all the setback rules for this block where changed from when they first developed the street, because that seems like it's biggest urban violation.

by Thayer-D on Dec 29, 2008 1:30 pm • linkreport

This seems to be just one other instance in which David hasn't researched the topic adequately. The District has building restriction lines, which you can view in DCGIS. It does appear as though this particular block, however, does not have a building restriction line inside the property line, but other blocks in the area do.

by Andy on Dec 29, 2008 2:00 pm • linkreport

I live on that block and I say this new design sure beats what it replaced (a shell of a flat brick apartment building filled with garbage and I could only imagine what else - no style, windows all gone, just a dump).

The old building came pretty close to the sidewalk as well. From a walkers standpoint, I don't mind the building coming closer to the sidewalk. All the other buildings on that block have some sort of fencing that stick out just as far. They might seem to offer more visual space, but the sidewalk's footprint is the same.

What would bother me would be living on that first floor so close to the sidewalk. It looks like there will be a pretty substantial planting area between the building and the sidewalk. However, I imagine the folks who will come to occupy it will have blinds and curtains drawn permanently for privacy. So much for having big windows.

"The Ivy" to the left seems to be the only building really affected by this jut-out. It too stuck out farther than the previous buildings on that block, so I cant imagine the people there having much room to talk about blocking views.

by Jimmy Dq on Dec 29, 2008 2:34 pm • linkreport

Also, I would add that the aesthetic element this apartment building brings to the walk down Harvard Street is greater than what it takes away in its somewhat imposing frame. Having grown up in an area where every house on the block looks the same, I welcome the diverse architecture. And as Nate points out, Harvard Street has a pretty diverse collection of housing stock.

On the other hand, I loathe pop-ups that don't match the building they were added to. Hideous.

by Jimmy D on Dec 29, 2008 2:42 pm • linkreport

Something is amiss with your webpage. Everything has a 'strikethrough' in it begining with this blog entry.

by NikolasM on Dec 29, 2008 3:30 pm • linkreport

Oops, fixed, thanks.

by David Alpert on Dec 29, 2008 3:46 pm • linkreport

Most often in Columbia Heights this was primarily about greed. Developers large and small with officials often looking the other way were able to squeeze in extra units for quick flip in a once hot condo market, especially for loft units. In a quick flip with an all gentrification is good mentality few cared the long term affects. During the housing bubble architectural styles mattered little beyond the marketing hype. What was done here and many other places was crap.

by W Jordan on Dec 29, 2008 5:41 pm • linkreport

The glass is ugly but doesn't bother me so much. More troubling is the way the building does not line up with the others. Duany and Plater-Zybek write about the notion of a "public room," the idea that a uniform set of building facades creates a public space. Suburban streets can be miserably discordant due to the jagged jumble of fences, yards, houses set too far back, and garages sticking out in front. A semi-uniform set of facades creates a wall of sorts that makes a space. This glass box jutting out breaks all of this up.

by Omari on Dec 29, 2008 11:19 pm • linkreport

Again, this glass box juts out because the building it replaced jutted out too. The developer did not jut it out to gain more space and fuel the 'quick flip gentrification' binge.

This is a quirk of urban design that's only coming to light because of the reinvestment in the area. Would this be an issue if there was an old crappy building on a street like this that jutted out further than the rest of the buildings?

It's a worthwhile jumping off point for a larger conversation of the role of redevelopment in good urban design, but the context of this particular case has to be considered.

by Alex B. on Dec 30, 2008 9:23 am • linkreport

It encourages others to do the same, potentially leading to doing away with the character of a neighborhood. One by itself almost accomplishes that feat anyway.

Agree with Omari.

by Jazzy on Dec 30, 2008 10:36 am • linkreport

I believe someone mentioned that the building this one is replacing jutted out as well. If that is the case then, if the footprint is the same then it was a matter of right. If the building is encroaching on new space then check the permits. I have to get a permit if I want to legally replace my crappy lopsided steps with some decent steps. DC considers your front yard, regardless of the fence, and the steps and maybe the porch, theirs. You have to get a permit to 'legally' change your fence and steps.

Second, its the newness of the building that is jarring. After 5 years it will seem less jarring and your eyes will get used to it, unless it is truly hideous. There is a Susan Reitag (I'm not spelling her name right) near the Shaw/Howard station that is ugly, but now, after several years, I've gotten used to it.

by Mari on Dec 30, 2008 11:08 am • linkreport

This project made worst an earilier poor design. At least the older project was low key crap vs. this high profile crap which takes from the streetscape to line developers pockets. And what is even worst is many of these types of projects now sit 1/2 empty. And are no more than upscale blights on the neighborhood. The same occured on the other side of the street. Now the neighborhood is stuck with these quick flip, streetscape killing monuments to the housing bubble. The project next to it was build in the same vain, but at least it attempts bring something to the table in term of continuity.

Take another look at that block, there was already pleny of diversity without being over the top. The bottomline is the big window approach is cheaper to build and is designed to make a neighborhood look like a commercial wherehouse district. The design and setting of this project was plain inappropriate although legal. It probably took a zoning variance to build. Redevelopment does not have to be crappy.

by W Jordan on Dec 30, 2008 3:01 pm • linkreport

W Jordan, it probably didn't take a zoning variance to build since it got built ... but had it been in a historic district, it might not have gotten built ... and at least there would have been an opportunity for neighborhood input and discussion into its design ... which is David's point. David is asking whether this aspect of historic preservation isn't worth considering as part of the "historic-district"-lite proposal he is making. I guess my question to David would be "What makes it a historic district lite?" How do you get rid of the "approvals and baggage"? ... Do we institute reliance on trust and goodwill? How do you parse further what constitutes the criteria that is regulated? For example, one of the most contentious issues in historic preservation is the preservation of the windows that a building came with. In the historic preservation realm, architects will tell you that the windows of a building area its most important feature and that like a person's teeth, while 'small', a change to them changes the entire look of a building. Would you advocate keeping that feature in the lite version ... or not? And if not, why not? What parts would you keep? How would we decided what parts to keep? ... and which could be thrown out?

by Lance on Dec 31, 2008 9:04 am • linkreport

During the update process of DC's Comprehensive Plan there was discussion about creating a District designation and design review process which sits between a Historic District and what we have now. For CH we talked about creating a "row house" districts. I believe this approach is still on the table as zoning laws/rules are being rewritten.

My experience in Columbia Heights is that both government and smartgrowth folk pretty much turned their backs on us and left us to the housing bubble wolves mainly out of fear, lazinest, political gain and greed. The smartgrowth folk seem to be more interested in pushing their particular agendas than seeing their agendas improve community quality of life.

I don't see the glass tower simply as a matter of taste. It represents an assult on this community whether its buiding was a matter of right or not. I not sure if we need new laws as much as we need to call it like it is. And warn other communities that these particular developers are not good partners.

by W Jordan on Dec 31, 2008 12:42 pm • linkreport

An assault on the community? Give me a break.

by Alex B. on Dec 31, 2008 1:02 pm • linkreport

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