The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


What should be the federal interest in urban design?

Is it in the federal government's interest to prevent tall buildings barely visible on the horizon from the monumental core of Washington? Or near a river? Or dictate the widths of sidewalks?

Photo by JoetheLion on Flickr.

At its November 1, members of the National Capital Planning Commission engaged in this longstanding debate. This time, the subject came up around a new Urban Design Element to the Federal Comprehensive Plan.

The District of Columbia has a Comprehensive Plan which includes two halves: the Federal Elements, covering federal buildings and property and issues that affect the federal government's interest, and the District Elements, which address local neighborhoods and other issues under DC control.

NCPC is creating a new Urban Design Element, and on November 1 released a draft. They are holding a public open house this evening, 6:30-8 pm at the District Architecture Center, 421 7th Street, NW.

The National Capital Planning Commission took its current form when DC got home rule. Before that, the federal government controlled all planning and zoning functions. Much of that transitioned to the DC Office of Planning and Zoning Commission, but Congress wanted NCPC to look out for the federal government's needs.

The question which comes up in meeting after meeting, project after project, is what exactly constitutes the "federal interest." How much of the form of the District should the federal government, and NCPC, dictate? Is everything you can see from any federal building the federal interest, or just policies which actually could impede the working of the federal government in the capital?

Federal facility policies push good design

Clearly, the design of federal buildings is under NCPC's purview, and here they push federal agencies to do much better than they often have. The proposed Comprehensive Plan chapter calls for the "highest quality" of design and construction," with sustainable buildings that integrate well into the surrounding urban fabric, sometimes standing out with an iconic design but sometimes just blending in.

NCPC pushes agencies to include ground-floor "retail and/or cultural resources" in their buildings. The General Services Administration plans this for their headquarters modernization, but many agencies are more fearful that it could represent a security risk, or are reluctant to pay for extra design features that protect the building against any kind of explosion in the public areas.

Other policies push for campuses to allow people on foot or bicycle to travel through, rather than walling off large areas, and to connect to surrounding streets. They prioritize public seating and art in the public space, and urge agencies to keep security features or loading docks as unobtrusive as possible.

At the NCPC meeting, Harriet Tregoning, who represents the Mayor on the commission, said, "This is a huge service ... in terms of providing very explicit guidance to federal agencies in terms of what's being sought and how it integrates with the rest of the city."

"Character of the Capital" policies reach far outside the federal realm

The other (first) section, entitled "Character of the Capital," speak more about the degree the city should feel like a city, even in areas far from federal properties. This section talks about maintaining a "horizontal skyline character," keeping public buildings visible from the waterfront, and maintaining views along major street rights-of-way (read: no pesky wires).

There are also some really important policies here, such as to "promote and maintain Pennsylvania Avenue ... as a multi-modal street bordered by an actively programmed, lively, pedestrian-oriented public realm." That's a goal which perhaps needs more of the "promote" and less of the "maintain" as it has a ways to go, especially to be "actively programmed." Also very important is the policy to re-establish "original L'Enfant Plan rights-of-way wherever possible."

But one section jumps out as of potential concern, which reads:

8. Maintain the prominence of the topographic bowl formed by lowland and rim features of the L'Enfant City and environs by controlling the urban and natural skylines in the Anacostia, Florida Avenue, and Arlington County portions of the bowl as follows:

a. Preserve as much as possible the green setting of the Anacostia hills and integrate building masses with, and subordinate to, the natural topography.

b. Maintain the Florida Avenue escarpment's natural definition of the L'Enfant Plan boundaries by retaining developments that are fitted to the landforms and by promoting low-rise development that can be distinguished from the greater height of the L'Enfant City's core areas.

c. Within the western portion of the bowl, retain a horizontal skyline by relating building heights to the natural slope and rim areas of Arlington Ridge as viewed from the Capitol, the Mall, and other riverside outlooks.

Is it really a fundamental piece of the federal interest to keep from having to look at buildings farther away in the distance? Mayoral appointee Rob Miller asked at the meeting about the fact that Arlington has plenty of quite tall buildings between the "topographic bowl" and the monumental core, and some commissioners noted that they had tried to stop some of that; NCPC even asked the FAA to block the first tall buildings in Rosslyn.

Many people do feel that having low buildings even downtown is a really special part of the District's character. Others argue that it just fosters a city filled with boxy-looking buildings, and that tall buildings with appropriate setbacks can maintain light and air, and create beauty, even more than the current boxes do while also bringing more economic activity.

When it comes to the federal height limit and the downtown core, whatever you believe about urban design, it's clear that the federal government has a role to play in this discussion. When it comes to buildings that don't violate federal law out on the slopes surrounding the L'Enfant City, NCPC planners and commissioners might have opinions, but it's not clear this is an appropriate realm for federal officials to meddle.

Tregoning said that some of the principles "seem to be a stake in the ground when it comes to dictating how private development occurs in the city, including "things that limit height outside of the L'Enfant City."

She pointed to a provision that says that buildings near the shoreline should not block views of , suggesting that a policy which could control "building height in proximity to the shoreline in all waters throughout our region ... is a local determination and not the federal interest."

The issue of the federal interest came to a head when Bradley Provancha, the commissioner representing the Department of Defense, suggested that the on-street parking on M Street in Georgetown prevents wider sidewalks, and perhaps things like sidewalk widths should be part of the urban design element.

Tregoning replied,

This is an example of what we don't want this urban design element to authorize, for NCPC to be weighing in about how we manage traffic and travel in Georgetown. Part of the difficulty for us [NCPC] is trying to determine what is the federal interest. That's our charge as the Commission, not what would be nice, or enhancing to the city or helpful to the city. This document is still imperfect in terms of how it divines that line and needs a little work.
Provancha, mostly jokingly, suggested the federal government "put a large federal building in Georgetown, and then we would have an anchor and a legitimate interest in that portion." On the video, you can hear someone quipping, "Federalize Georgetown!"

This points out exactly the challenge and the problem. Provancha is there to represent the Department of Defense. Sometimes planning choices affect national security and sometimes they affect DoD in particular. But by dint of having this post on NCPC, he wants to comment on sidewalk width, and while he's right that wider sidewalks are really important, it's not a federal matter, nor should NCPC be eager to find a way to make it a federal matter.

Our hybrid system of federal and local control will always yield fault lines at the boundaries of the federal interest and the local interest. NCPC's planners and commissioners need to keep in mind their mission to safeguard the federal interest while also remembering that Congress explicitly chose to give local voters control of most aspects of the government, including planning and a 3/5 majority on the zoning board for non-federal issues. That makes it important to discuss the appropriate boundary of the federal interest and to then respect that line.

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. 


Add a comment »

Why does Washington,DC have to look like other cities? It is special, the nation's capital. I woulnd't mind slightly higher buildings downtown and in other appropriate locations. But let's leave the banal highrises, barren private plazas and useless/lifeless setbacks to other cities.

by GWalum on Nov 14, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

Wouldn't the city becoming unaffordable for federal employees (because of housing scarcity, in part, due to the height limit) be a federal interest too?

by Steve S. on Nov 14, 2012 1:42 pm • linkreport

@GWalum But let's leave the banal highrises, barren private plazas and useless/lifeless setbacks to other cities.

Absolutely, I disagree with the slogan "It sure would be great if DC were full of banal highrises, barren private plazas, and useless/lifeless setbacks" that's up there at the top of every GGW page. Oh wait, that's not actually what GGW wants, is it.

by iaom on Nov 14, 2012 1:51 pm • linkreport

I get so tired of the security BS argument. A government that is supposed to be for the people, by the people should not be withdrawing in fortified buildings.

by Jasper on Nov 14, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

if some bureaucrat decides to skip the bollards to make things prettier, or to ease the security checks to make it easier for the PEOPLE to get in the buildings, and something BAD happens, then the congress critters, the elected representatives of the PEOPLE, will haul said bureaucrat over the proverbial coals, and express the rage of the PEOPLE at the incompetence and neglect that endangered life and property.

I'm sorry, the security BS IS democracy at work, for the most part.

Democracy means putting up with BS, because the BS nondemocracies have is warse.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 14, 2012 2:27 pm • linkreport

Would it not be easier to have the NCPC kind of sort of change its mission to reflect their design standards for all federal buildings (whether in Washington or in Wichita) and leave the rest of the zoning standards and decisions to DPZ and the council? That way NCPC can control the actual buildings that are federal in nature while DC can figure out how to make it work with the other needs the city has (like transportation/environmental whatever).

That way NCPC doesn't nitpick and DPZ can actually focus on the whole city which has more than federal buildings to worry about but the entire city.

And the sidewalks do need to be wider in georgetown but that's unrelated.

by drumz on Nov 14, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

The whole boxy horizontal skyline vs. the increased height will lead to interesting archtiecture is bs. There's no guarantee that another 2-4 story increase in the height limit will make developers do interesting tops. Maybe with setbacks similar to the 1917 zoning in NYC that led to those interesting deco towers, but simply allowing more floors will make for taller boxes, not more interesting ones. Also, any look at a city like Paris or Rome will show that you can have very attractive streets and constant skylines as long as you have architects trained to create beautiful structures. This isn't a call for more style arguments as any style can be rendered beautifully, it's just an acknowledgement that it's not the height limit that impedes beauty, it's the archtiect's imagination.

by Thayer-D on Nov 14, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us