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A building can look smaller without losing a floor

The architects of an 8-story apartment building at 13th and U streets, NW have tweaked their design after the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) came close to asking to remove a whole floor. Instead, they've aptly demonstration how it's possible to make a building feel less large without actually making it much smaller at all.

Image from JBG.

In December, HPRB heard from JBG, the developer who owns the site, and their architect David M. Schwartz about their plans to replace the low strip mall complex containing Rite Aid, Pizza Hut, and other stores with an attractive apartment building.

Historic preservation staff favorably recommended the building, which they said "has many of design characteristics that are found in traditional apartment building design and which would result in a compatible relationship with its surroundings in this location."

The composition has been organized with three vertically-oriented towers so that it doesn't look squat or horizontal; the corner balconies and paired windows help reinforce the vertical emphasis. The rhythm and proportions of fenestration on the residential floors is consistent with historic apartment buildings, while the first floor is designed and articulated to reinforce the street's pedestrian scale and retail character.
A number of nearby residents, however, objected that it was too large compared to nearby townhouses. The board split fairly evenly, with a number of members suggesting deleting a floor. Graham Davidson, who calls buildings "too tall" with great frequency, praised the building as beautifully designed, but still felt compelled to come down on the side of lopping a floor off despite the fact that it would disrupt the elegant proportions.

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler convinced the board to simply ask JBG and Schwartz to try to do something on the 13th Street side, farthest from other large buildings. This week, they will go back to the board with a revised design that makes some small tweaks, but ones that staff believe have addressed the board's concerns.

Previous (top) and current (bottom) designs for the front of the building.

The rounded corner at 13th and U is one story shorter, and there is a more pronounced cornice line at 7 stories that runs along the whole side of the building. Balconies along the top floor in "hyphen" spaces between the center, left and right "tower" elements are deeper as well, and on the back side facing Wallach Place, there are more balconies to break up the solid mass of the building.

Previous (top) and current (bottom) designs for the front of the building.

The staff report says:

The revisions illustrate how relatively small changes in massing can substantially change the perceived height, weight and bulk of a large scale building. While harder to appreciate in photographs of the model ... these changes result in a very different reading of the building. ... The result is a building which reads lower, lighter and more varied at its roofline, and which relates more compatibly with its surrounding context.
I thought the last design related compatibly enough, but this design ought to placate the board, if members can look beyond the simple number of floors.

This change also clearly illustrates how developers and architects can address concerns without actually shrinking the building very much. Neighbors unhappy with a proposal often focus on its total height, but a fairly short building can look imposing while a much taller one does not (just look at some of the beautiful apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue, for instance).

Rather than pushing for fewer floors, neighbors should push for better design and small changes at the corners that can make a difference in a neighborhood's look and feel. HPRB, meanwhile, should praise the architect for these changes and get the project on its way to being built as soon as possible.

Update: HPRB voted unanimously to support the revised design.

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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Rather than pushing for fewer floors, neighbors should push for better design and small changes at the corners that can make a difference in a neighborhood's look and feel. HPRB, meanwhile, should praise the architect for these changes and get the project on its way to being built as soon as possible.

Let's all repeat, "density is not the same as design and I will never say that those buildings are tall and will turn the neighborhood into (insert place with tall buildings that you hate for reasons unrelated to the height of the buildings)"

This is why we live in a city folks.

by drumz on Feb 27, 2013 10:56 am • linkreport

This is an excellent illustration of how traditional design can be easily manipulated to be more pedestrian friendly and scalable to the street. This is the art of architecture that was lost when modernists took over most architectural schools. BTW, there are many newer modernist styled buildings that use these techniques of composition. That being said, there are certain sites where these ideas are irrelevant.

by Thayer-d on Feb 27, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

"Rather than pushing for fewer floors, neighbors should push for better design and small changes at the corners that can make a difference in a neighborhood's look and feel."

Of course the assumption that is being made is that the neighbors really do worry about the look and feel. Forgive my cynicism, but I think in almost every place where the neighbors complain about these things, what they are really complaining about is density.

the col brooks project is a perfect example of the developer making a number of changes to the design and it still not being enough as evidence by the lawsuit that has been filed against.

Neighbors must understand that they won't stop projects and by throwing up unreasonable objections, they don't encourage developers to address their reasonable objections.

by nathaniel on Feb 27, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

typo correction for first paragraph "aptly demonstrated"

by Ben on Feb 27, 2013 12:21 pm • linkreport

In this case the building to be replaced is relatively recent and undistinguished, so the new building seems like an improvement.

However, it seems to me that no matter how you tweak the aesthetics, the height is the height as far as neighbors in surrounding properties are concerned. But that far downtown 7 stories doesn't seem too unreasonable.

"This is why we live in a city folks."

Actually, this is why we live in DC and not Manhattan.

by Chris on Feb 27, 2013 12:28 pm • linkreport

Amen Chris!

by Thayer-d on Feb 27, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

Goot point. Manhattan actually properly regulates setbacks. You wouldn't be allowed to build K Street in midtown.

I like the height limit, but would kill it in a heartbeat if it meant that we got rid of the zoning/regulations that allow places like K Street to exist, with a lengthy canyon of identically-tall buildings with flat facades and zero setback from the street. NoMA's also starting to feel awfully claustrophobic as it gets built out.

Back to the story at hand: I agree that the massing of the original building was pretty problematic, and this design does make a lot of improvements, even though the whole thing does still feel awfully monolithic. It's a good design tweak, but still way too indicative of the bland "square box" architecture that we get so often in DC...

by andrew on Feb 27, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport


by andrew on Feb 27, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

nathaniel, while I don't want to defend the wack jobs in Brookland, regardless of what you or I think about the Col. Brooks project, the fact of the matter is that it abuts against rowhouses and detached dwellings on the same block. I am not speaking about the merits of the case, just the reality of proximity and abutting.

Same goes with the project on U St. While I agree with David's post, you can see why people living across the alley, mostly in 2 story rowhouses, might have some concern about taller buildings.

Most of the projects in commercial districts do in fact abut some residential. But mostly, the general arguments from the neighborhood residents tend to reflexively argue against height, density, change, etc.

OTOH, you can argue that people shouldn't have chosen to live in abutting properties if they weren't prepared for the possibility of change. (I had those arguments with people in Brookland when I was the Main Street Manager then.)

by Richard Layman on Feb 27, 2013 1:09 pm • linkreport

I don't live in Manhattan because I don't have the $$$$.

by m2fc on Feb 27, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

I must say..the building does seem smaller

by Christopher Dixon on Feb 27, 2013 1:25 pm • linkreport

I am not sure if I was misunderstood, but I find DC's building height limits infinitely preferable to the claustrophobic concrete jungle of Manhattan.

by Chris on Feb 27, 2013 1:44 pm • linkreport

I am not sure if I was misunderstood, but I find DC's building height limits infinitely preferable to the claustrophobic concrete jungle of Manhattan.

That's a rather false comparison, however - isn't it?

For one, this project is not maxing out on the allowed height. It is shorter than what the Height Act allows.

Two, the comparison here is not between the Rite Aid building and the proposal, but between the two versions of the proposal.

Three, "Manhattan" is not exactly the opposite of DC's height limited city. Plenty of Manhattan is covered in buildings much shorter than the maximum allowed in DC. Conversely, plenty of DC's height-regulated areas are also full of concrete jungles (see parts of SW around L'Enfant Plaza).

Ergo, the raw height is not what causes clausterphobia, nor does DC's height limit prevent that condition.

by Alex B. on Feb 27, 2013 1:54 pm • linkreport

"Raw height is not what causes claustrophobia"? You lost me there.

by Thayer-d on Feb 27, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

Seems like the developers should try to minimize the visual impact irrespective of neighbors' complaints. Breaking up the massing with variation like the balconies and roofline just seem like sound design ideas. An architect with a real vision of a project wants the building to be compatible with its surroundings as much as any of the neighbors.

by anon_1 on Feb 27, 2013 2:09 pm • linkreport

How does this building turn DC into Manhattan?

Do you know how many cities have 8 story buildings? All of them. The building I'm in currently has 10. There are 8 story buildings on U street.

So yeah, this is why we live in a city.

by drumz on Feb 27, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

It drives me crazy to hear people tap into the "Manhattan" hyperbole. Philadelphia and Baltimore also have buildings taller than seven stories. So do smaller cities like Richmond and Wilmington. So what? The only other city I can think of where people complain about buildings taller than two stories is London. It's pretty unusual in the United States to hear people complain about seven story buildings in core residential areas in walking distance of downtown.

David is correct that changing the look can be productive and show good faith on the developer's part. It can be very productive, if the neighbors don't move their goalposts because they actually desire no change whatsoever. I hope that's not the case with this 13th Street proposal (right next to the Metro!). I have to agree with Nathaniel that eventually you have to approve something and break ground. The inmates can't run they asylum. Otherwise, you'll never stabilize rents in the District and region as they'll remain scarce.

by Cavan on Feb 27, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

So if you prefer an 8 story building to read like a 7 story building because it's in a historic neighborhood full of 2-4 story're an "inmate" of an insane asylum? Talk about hyperbole.

Just because Baltimore has taller buildings, how does that impact this particular site? Not sure every discussion of appropriate height needs to become a proxy for the height limit through out the city. This solution looks like a good compromise, even though a 15 story building might lower your rent by $10 a month. Then again, if you rebuild the whole neighborhood, you might get you're rent down $100 a month, I just don't know.

by Thayer-d on Feb 27, 2013 3:29 pm • linkreport

"Philadelphia and Baltimore also have buildings taller than seven stories. So do smaller cities like Richmond and Wilmington."

I am not sure that makes your argument. I'm not too familiar with Wilmington, but the others (outside of Philly's historic district) aren't exactly enviable urban environments.

by Chris on Feb 27, 2013 3:35 pm • linkreport

Richmond and Baltimore have beautiful urban neighborhoods (The Fan, Museum District, Church Hill, Mt. Vernon, Charles Village, Federal Hill to name a few). Some of them have tall buildings as well. There are nice neighborhoods in DC that have tall buildings.

Again, height isn't the problem here (it rarely is) and really isn't even the reason most people would oppose this.

by drumz on Feb 27, 2013 3:42 pm • linkreport

It's not a "strip mall", it's just a strip, not much different from DC's many "streetcar strips" except it's newer. the building still seems overmassed and likely to make that strip as dead as the one across the street.

by Rich on Feb 27, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

Kudos to the developers for putting up with these Wallach Place residents as long and as patiently as they have.

The building "seems overmassed" is the kind of generalized and content-free complaint that NIMBY wallach place residents have been muttering for years, leaving us with a one-story strip right on top of the one of the city's busiest transit nodes.

David is right. Local residents (of which I am one) should be grateful for the accommodations made by JBG.

by Ward 1 Guy on Feb 27, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

@Rich, I have no idea what you're talking about. Are you saying that the north side of the 1300 block of U street is dead??? That "strip" has a popular Mexican restaurant with lively patio seating, a very heavily trafficked Thai restaurant, and ice cream/crepe shop that draws families, a mom and pop coffee shop, a residential building entrance, and constant foot traffic.

by Ward 1 Guy on Feb 27, 2013 4:55 pm • linkreport

Thayer-d, the point I'm trying to make is that the folks who complain about height usually aren't really complaining about height. We complain about height in our city because we're a special case and the anti-neighbors think that making that argument will get them more sympathy because we have a unique low and mid-rise skyline.

I'm pointing out that while it's good the building renderings look better, I agree with Nathaniel that I'm skeptical that it'll satisfy the complaining neighbors.

D.C. really needs to overhaul its approval process. The city (and region as a whole) needs more housing. We need to get better at calling obstructionism just what it is rather than letting obstructionists hide behind historic preservation or architectural styles or height or facade materials, or "sympathy to surroundings." Historical preservation standards need to be better defined to that everyone knows the rules before this process starts. Same with all other standards. We need to stop erring on the side of anti-neighbors (made sense when we had a shrinking city and the goal was to protect things from becoming parking and highways) and start erring on the side of the needs of a growing city.

by Cavan on Feb 27, 2013 4:56 pm • linkreport

I agree that many people hide behind these reviews and I'm pro development
But let's not paint with too broad a brush. It's possible to want a lot of growth and ask that it enhance what's already great about are city.

by Thayer-d on Feb 27, 2013 5:13 pm • linkreport

The building, as revised, looks beautiful!

The developer has gone the extra mile and has produced a stately design that will add a measure of elegance to the U Street neighborhood. It behooves the HPRB to come to its senses and approve this project in timely fashion. Not to do so will only generate further hostility toward the board and to historic preservation in general.

by Sage on Feb 27, 2013 6:58 pm • linkreport

"further hostility toward... historic preservation in general"?

Why the hostility? I mean, outside of developers.

by Chris on Feb 27, 2013 7:33 pm • linkreport

I agree it is an important consideration with the Col Brooks project that it abuts houses, but this is sort of my point. If the residents of these houses had made a good faith effort to engage with the developers they may have gotten a better result that addressed this valid concern. Instead they just made objection after objection, and every time the the developer changed something, they came up with another reason. My favorite was when they insisted there must be an underground spring on the site even though the developers hydrologist couldn't find it and the residents didn't want to pay for their own assessment.

At some point the Col Brooks people just gave up working with them and pushed on.

It seems to me the same thing may result at the Cafritz on Connecticut, and unlike Col Brooks it doesn't require any variance, so unless those people engage in good faith they may not have their reasonable concerns addressed.

by nathaniel on Feb 27, 2013 8:00 pm • linkreport

n -- wrt that block in Brookland, see my previous point about "wack jobs." Another way to term it, would be people not very good at productively and constructively expressing themselves.

by Richard Layman on Feb 27, 2013 10:26 pm • linkreport

@Chris 7:33pm

When an institution's position or decision is deemed unreasonable by most parties involved, hostility tends to develop toward the institution, particularly if it is seen as inflexible or nonproductive, again and again.

The long-running historic preservation controversy over the Third Church of Christ, Scientist at 16th and I St., NW, is a prime example. Against the wishes of nearly everyone involved, including the church itself, historic preservationists unreasonably continued to fight until the bitter end to save the structure. The key word here is "unreasonable." By being unreasonable, hostility was engendered and an unfavorable light was cast on the aims of historic preservation in general.

To be sure, on occasion it's important to fight hard for a position. But trying to keep the Third Church of Christ standing was not one of them. A lot of local historic preservation capital was expended in that battle, all for nought. It was a loser almost from the git-go. More importantly, it damaged the precepts of historic preservation because a good number of people began to see preservationists as slightly off-base wackos, or to use a more civil word, unreasonable.

Same goes for the proposed JBG development on U Street. This is a project that many want to see built. The developer has jumped through hoops to satisfy an almost unending number of demands. The line from reasonable to unreasonable is on the verge of being crossed, if not already.

Historic preservationists and their noteworthy institutions need to show flexibility. They must be reasonable. They need to know when to dig in their heels and when to let go. Continuing to push for changes to the JBG proposal is unreasonable and nonproductive.

Please note. I'm a big believer in historic preservation and have been a member of the National Trust. It's vital historic preservation activity continues and to robustly thrive. But going down the unreasonable route is not a road to success.

by Sage on Feb 27, 2013 11:09 pm • linkreport

Well said Sage!

by Thayer-d on Feb 28, 2013 5:57 am • linkreport


Richmond and Baltimore have beautiful urban neighborhoods (The Fan, Museum District, Church Hill, Mt. Vernon, Charles Village, Federal Hill to name a few). Some of them have tall buildings as well. There are nice neighborhoods in DC that have tall buildings.

funny you mention charles village in this context. i live in the old goucher subsection of charles village and recently got active in the community association here. they are currently in the process of putting together a package of revisions they want to recommend to the planning department for our zoning update and i've been fighting to try to get some things taken out that include a downgrade of apartment zoning from 10 allowable stories to 6.

by burgersub on Feb 28, 2013 10:09 am • linkreport

I didn't say the anti-neighbors in those cities are any less unreasonable than our anti-neighbors. I hope they didn't get it. Baltimore needs the housing and population.

by Cavan on Feb 28, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

I think Jenkins Row across the street from the Potomac Metro did a pretty decent job of visually making the building smaller even it if it is big. The did some some setbacks and changes in heights but they also changed the material used. Instead of looking like one big building with one exterior which it is, they changed the brick type and other material to make it look like several.

As for the comparison of this project compared to Brookland, I think some of what is going on at Brookland is that what was there was basically a 2 story building and some other small scale stuff with basically a significantly sized bigger building. It is also going in a location that has not much else of that size making it seem that much bigger. Comparison to what was there as well as comparison to what is going to be around it makes a big difference.

by ET on Feb 28, 2013 12:21 pm • linkreport

I understand the concern of the neighbors next to the alley behind the property, but I have little sympathy for them. They enjoy incredible access to the city (restaurants, bars, Metro station, bus lines, close to downtown, etc.) and have reaped the rewards of this access monetarily through increased property values.

Also, there are numerous other locations in the city with row houses and large apartment buildings of similar size in very close quarters, if not abutting. And many of these examples date back to the 1920s or earlier, so there's a clear, long-standing precedent for the relative scale of these types of developments. IIRC, this precedent was included in the staff report.

I recall the HPRB board member comments ('I'm just a boy from Capitol Hill... this seems tall') to be pretty ridiculous, all things considered. Given its ideal location, responsive design changes, and the city's need for more housing, let's hope this project is swiftly approved.

by Jonathan P on Feb 28, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

HPRB approved the revised concept, so clearly they got over their issues and agreed that the setbacks did the job.

by Dave on Feb 28, 2013 5:05 pm • linkreport

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