Greater Greater Washington

Architecture


Vancouver's Beasley: Tinker with height limit very carefully

Last night, Vancouver planner Larry Beasley praised tall buildings, but also praised Washington's lack of them. He argued it could benefit DC to allow height in narrowly circumscribed areas outside downtown, but cautioned DC to be very mindful of the consequent risk.


Photo by _Tawcan.

Tall buildings transformed Vancouver into a world-class city, attracting tourists, knowledge workers and financial investment and accommodating many people comfortably on a small peninsula. It's created a beautiful skyline, with elegantly sculpted towers piercing the sky, but also walkable neighborhoods and active streets.

Vancouver has achieved this through their own breed of tower-building, "Vancouverism." This involves giving great care to all three parts of a tall building: the base, the tower, and the top. The base must directly address the street, filling space at a modest height compatible with other buildings.

In residential areas, they places townhouses in the base, while in commercial areas maximize the transparency of ground-floor windows. In all areas, they put as much retail into the base as the area can support. As Beasley put it, the base must be "gently giving to the street, rather than harsh, brutal, and awesomely out of scale."

The tower itself is then set back to limit its impact on pedestrians, to make it "float out of consciousness." It must slim down as it rises, rather than blindly duplicating each floor plan on successively higher floors. And the top is where some extra artistry comes in, to avoid the bland flatness of many modern buildings while also not becoming "clownish."

Vancouver also clusters the buildings into "constallations," in an artistic "composition that makes a statement" and also ensures views of the sky through the cluster. Vancouver's clusters of towers seem to point into the sky, but not blot it out.


Photo by CanadaGood.
In essence, Vancouver is what the mid-century modernists like Le Corbusier would have built if they had the benefit of decades of experience. They thought widely-spaced towers beautiful and believed they would enhance the quality of life.

Separated by acres of empty land and interconnected by high-speed expressways, they did the opposite, but in Vancouver, this basic aesthetic lives and succeeds because the towers are only a small piece of the puzzle.

Vancouver does not simply permit tall buildings. They extract significant public amenities from them. Developers can only build if they offer these amenities, and a system of bonus densities along with a more discretionary approval process that gives officials leeway to shape projects has helped Vancouver wring nearly every amenity they could think of out of developing their city in recent decades.

In most cities, Beasley teaches how to manage tall buildings because those cities are inevitably going to build tall. However, unlike most cities, Washington, DC has kept a low skyline through the 100-year-old Height Act.


Photo by joshbousel.
That height limit brings many benefits of its own. For one thing, it makes DC particularly notable and memorable, which Beasley pointed out is increasingly valuable in a world economy where most mid-sized cities are increasingly undifferentiated and unremarkable.

It draws tourism, gives greater prominence to key national symbols, and created a "coherent frame of walls around ceremonial spaces." It also reduces the economic incentive to tear down historic buildings.

Of course, as we've discussed here and one questioner pointed out, the value for tourists and the framing of monuments and civic buildings doesn't require extending the height limit to the entire District. Few tourists venture beyond the central neighborhoods and few viewsheds extend past the L'Enfant City. Rosslyn has tall buildings and that hasn't diminished the uniqueness of downtown DC; in some ways, it's accentuated it.

Beasley argued that should DC allow greater heights, it should create a "no go zone" for certain distances from the monumental core. It should not allow heights in historic areas, or on high points in the city, which should remain either natural or host "important public edifices" like the National Cathedral.


Buenos Aires. Not what DC wants to look like. Photo by Natalia Romay.
More importantly, Beasley cautioned against any allowance for greater heights in random and scattered locations. He showed some very compelling photographs of Buenos Aires, which has allowed a variety of tall buildings in an otherwise low-rise city. They have created an unpleasant effect of "increasing confusion" in the skyline, he argued.

If DC were to allow greater heights, Beasley's suggestion would be to do so in a single, small area where there is substantial community support and a desire for specific amenities. Any increases must be tied to those particular amenities. In addition, DC must engage in "thoughtful planning" and a "deliberate urban design analysis" to sculpt any cluster of towers.

For example, if it's not too close to the core, I could see this making some sense in NoMA where there are already tall buildings and few to no historic structures but a distinct lack of public parkland. Could a constellation of such towers make it economically possible to leave one or more areas completely empty and fund construction and maintenance of parks?

However, any height increase, Beasley argued, will need to be significant. DC could start pushing its envelopes slightly, such as allowing human occupancy space in the mechanical penthouses that current law allows over height limits as long as they are set back from the edges of buildings. It could give small density bonuses here and there in the more numerous areas where zoning, not the height limit, restricts buildings.

However, this would not yield meaningful community amenities. The cost of providing residential use in a commercial building is enough that a developer would probably not add it for only a floor or two of extra height, as Dan suggested.

Residents often oppose tall buildings, both because they can disrupt their "intuitive comfort" with the city and also specifically impact privacy, height, or views. However, in exchange for clear and desirable amenities, along with good design, in his experience many residents can ultimately support these projects.

Still, is it worth the risk? Beasley is not so sure. To him, as a visitor, DC has such unique qualities and such an extraordinary accomplishment in its height limits.

Beasley will be join us to continue the conversation for a live chat at 11:00 this morning. What questions do you have for him?

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Great post. I for one am curious though how many residents would really be swayed by amenities offered by developers. Especially in established neighborhoods where residents are well to do in the first place. Just look at Tenley and Cleveland Parks attempts to build modest buildings. The site of the babes billiards project still sits 1 story high where a nice condo building could have stood. If we can't build to heights that the city currently allows how are we ever to build to new heights? Noma could work as it's already developing and denser. Anacostia perhaps would make for the nicest looking skyline. Like Roslyn's viewed from Georgetown it would look great along the water. The east of the river communities could perhaps leverage for library's, school renovations, park upgrades. river clean up, jobs. Perhaps there in our most neglected sector of the city lies the greatest potential to benefit from developer amenities.

by John on May 19, 2010 10:51 am • linkreport

One critique I hear about Vancouver is that it has no downtown nightlife/culture -- is that true and does that have anything to do with the tall buildings?

by Peter Smith on May 19, 2010 11:08 am • linkreport

I agree -- very informative, well balanced, post.

A couple of observations. First, the Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission need to start getting serious again about requiring real amenities if development is approved that is greater than what zoning allows. Several years ago, for example, PUD developers were making serious investments in local parks, schools, etc., or buildng community theater and arts spaces, to provide a counter-balancing amenities for the impacts (extenalities) of denser development. More recently, the view of the Fenty administration seems to be -- even in economically developed areas -- that the developmment itslf is the amenity, because the city hungers anything that promises additional tax revenues and OP just wants to attract more residents (especially of the DINK kind). So if tall buildings were allowed, the amenities would have to be serious, of the type that Vancouver apparently requires.

Second, it is true that vast sections of the city would basically be off limits. The two neighborhoods that John cites probably would be. Cleveland Park is an historic district and also has the National Cathedral (on one of the highest points in the city). Tenleytown is also at a high elevation, with close-in single family residential, so such density and height is probably not workable there either. So you'd probably be looking at NE out New York Avenue, which may not be where many developers would want to be.

Finally, as someone who has worked in Rosslyn, the attraction of the taller buildings there is the views that they offer over the low-scale city, punctuated by the monuments. Most buildings there are mediocre and worse. Even with the "upscale" building there of recent years and buildings that are slghtly more attractive than the older Rosslyn ugliness, the streetscape still has a very unwelcoming feel. Despite valiant attempts to add little plazas and public art, the feeling is still cold -- like the downtown of pretty much AnyMediumCityDowntown, U.S.A. I much prefer the feel and scale of downtown Washington, even with its architectural sameness. Moreover, the new Rosslyn buildings, in my view, have fundamentally changed the view and atmosphere of areas like Georgeown, from many of its north-south streets. Thank goodness for National Airport and the FAA height limits, because it's unlikely they will be able to build much taller in Rosslyn.

by Capital View on May 19, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

One candidate for relaxed building height limits might be the future development of Walter Reed. There's greenspace to allow constellations, it's competing with taller development in south Silver Spring, the historic buildings of Walter Reed could be accommodated without being swamped. But would anyone want to live there?

by Monkey Daddy on May 19, 2010 11:23 am • linkreport

I thought his lecture was night was fantastic and I hope it was recorded for those people who could not attend. From being a supporter of easing the height limits, Mr. Beasley's lecture has made me think otherwise.

I am completely sold on the points that the current height limit has spurred historic preservation of older structures, and I believe Mr. Beasley when he indicated that allowing a modest increase in heights (as many, including myself, have suggested) would not bring a significant economic benefit to the city. I also did not originally think of what chaos land value speculation would bring if there was a serious discussion about lifting the height restriction.

The one point Mr. Beasley did not touch on is that D.C. politics make any changes extremely difficult. Unlike other places where "the people" and neighbors have a voice in the planning process, in D.C. (and especially when it comes to the height restriction) there is only community that really matters: the 535 voting members of the United States Congress.

On the whole, though, I think it's clear that D.C. needs to increase its density in areas in order to keep up with demand for livable, walkable spaces and not just let that opportunity fall to suburban areas like Arlington, Montgomery County where barriers to development like land values and height restrictions are lower. I would like to know Mr. Beasley's ideas on how to make D.C. more affordable so that the city can keep more of its economic potential (not to mention tax revenues) in the city.

by Adam L on May 19, 2010 11:28 am • linkreport

I agree with John about Anacostia. It could really shine as DC's answer to Rosslyn. With a long term plan coupled with the continued development of the streetcar system (all the way to Phase 3), it might be possible to sway more businesses to relocate there and develop a lot of the area into higher rise buildings.

by Teyo on May 19, 2010 11:30 am • linkreport

I agree with almost all the points Mr. Beasley made and am very impressed abuot the aesthetic dimesion of their zoning. Forcing the developers to create a crown to their buildng rather than another bland box top is quite an achievement. The rules actually remind me of the old NYC zoning laws which where responsible for many a beautiful skyscraper from the 20's and 30's. I'm still unsure if due to the geographical differences between Vancouver and DC, it would warrent implementing that method here. Also, there is still so much developable land in and around DC, that I see no need to tinker with something most people recognize as an asset. I'm not sure allowing 20 story towers in Noma is that much more of an incentive than the 10 story buildings there now, some of which are still empty.

by Thayer-D on May 19, 2010 11:34 am • linkreport

@Peter Smith - there is ample nightlife in downtown Vancouver. Check out Granville street, Gastown, Yaletown, etc... Burrard, Robson and a few other streets are loaded with restaurants as well.

by Paul on May 19, 2010 11:35 am • linkreport

Why attack B.A?

That picture you have isn't representative at all. Nueve de julio isn't the "skyline". He might be talking about downtown or puerto madera, but the height restrictions in that area aren't much more than DC.

If anything, that is the argument for DC building 20 story buildings; the larger building fit well into BA. To the extent they are ugly, that is just the concrete style that was popular from the 1960-1984.

by charlie on May 19, 2010 11:43 am • linkreport

To the point about trading amenities for development. Look at this story on Prince of Petworth. The Mayor is spending 400k on a new dog park in the very neighborhood that has been blocking the Giant Development there for years. Rewarding a community that has blocked smart growth that would have increased our tax base with 400k in tax dollars. Fenty could have easily had the Giant developers foot the bill for the dog park in return for more community support for the project. A lost oppurtunity and a waste of 400k.

by John on May 19, 2010 11:48 am • linkreport

oh and the link: http://www.princeofpetworth.com/2010/05/dear-pop-newark-dog-park/

by John on May 19, 2010 11:49 am • linkreport

DC does not have to get rid of the restriction.

How many buildings in DC go anywhere near the limit ?

If more buildings would go near the highest they can get with the limit, plus building to take advantage of the geography sort of earth-sheltered building.

Businesses should spread throughout the city first and then when that room is full raise or get rid of the height restrictions.

Can anyone give me a good reason for lifting the restriction when there is probably about a good 30 sq miles that could be built upon within the borders of DC

by kk on May 19, 2010 12:21 pm • linkreport

@kk

That is exactly the point Mr. Beasley made. Near the end of the lecture, he even advocated for putting a "ring" around an urban center and not allowing any development outside of that area. He estimated that it could take almost 150 years to exhaust all the development potential in that area before people would need to give way to sprawl. I don't think he was specifically talking about D.C. in any real seriousness, but the point was well-taken.

by Adam L on May 19, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport

If DC were to allow greater heights, Beasley's suggestion would be to do so in a single, small area where there is substantial community support and a desire for specific amenities.

I missed the talk, but I'm assuming he's drawing parallels to Paris's La Défense neighborhood?

I'm honestly not sure how I feel about high-density development in DC, particularly if it comes at the cost of existing neighborhoods -- I'm still a bit upset that Capitol Hill lost an entire historic residential block this week.

I'd be even more upset if we ended up with our own Crystal City. Is Rosslyn something we want to emulate either? The "renewal" of Southwest was bad enough of a mistake, and I'm not quite sure we've fully comprehended what went wrong there.

Tom Veil made an interesting point on yesterday's RI Ave Metro story. The entire area could be demolished without displacing a single resident, and be rebuilt to accommodate 30,000 people at "Brooklyn-like" densities, (or an equivalent amount of office space) in a metro-accessible location.

Like Beasley said -- I'm not quite sure we need to rush to build office towers. We may end up better off if we shoot for modest height increases, and an extremely thorough architectural review process. Even with our height restrictions, we've managed to construct buildings downtown that feel oppressively tall.

by andrew on May 19, 2010 12:31 pm • linkreport

there is ample nightlife in downtown Vancouver

that's cool - that's the first time i've heard/read that. i knew nothing of vancouver except that it kept topping 'best cities' lists, or being near the top, and that it had little to no culture/nightlife/etc., especially in downtown.

i did a quick google news search for 'vancouver nightlife' and the 3rd article down said this:

The motivation [to open all these bars and restaurants], Donnelly says — which he shares with his brother Matt, who works for the company as the operating manager at The Calling — is to once and for all ditch the perception that "Vancouver nightlife sucks."

i got into a debate at a bar w/ a vancouver tourist visiting sf -- she _loved_ vancouver. hated toronto. i love toronto, never been to vancouver. i said, "i heard vancouver nightlife is wack" -- she kept saying, "but it's so beautiful." so no objection on the wackness of 'the scene', but i've heard myriad people talk about how beautiful the place is. i figured i'd never live there -- i need some culture/action/etc. maybe i'll get to visit.

couple other quick comments -- what's up with Barwatch and people getting all shot up in downtown Vancouver? i'm not trying to bash for the sake of it, even though it would help my 'case' (i hate tall buildings, if you can't tell), but i do think tall buildings have a natural/inherent anti-human aspect to them -- they have an intrinsic anti-social characteristic -- seems to me, anyways -- so i'm curious about all the crime. in theory, if we design our cities right, we can reduce anti-social behavior. tall buildings, to me, are like cars -- they increase inequality, which increases crime -- exactly as we'd expect.

and building high is supposed to allow what benefit -- more affordable housing for one, i thought -- but that doesn't seem to be working in vancouver. they used to be the most unaffordable city in Canada in 1996 -- not sure if that's changed. maybe it's because everyone wants to live there, or some other factors, but i've never bought the 'high buildings==housing affordability' argument -- i just don't think there's anything to it, and have never seen any evidence to support it. if you know of some, please post it.

some of the language used in this post has to be comparable to the same language that Corbusier used back in the day -- "elegantly sculpted towers piercing the sky"? wow.

there are myriad reasons people don't like towers -- they block the sun, create wind tunnels, feel oppressive, are unsustainable and energy-intensive, etc.

i'm with Mr. Salingaros -- "we are not against tall buildings, but tall buildings seem to be against us."

i'd love to see a building towers skeptic give another, different, opinion on this topic. my mind is made up -- i'm in the process of moving from SF to SJ. but i'd like to be able to return to DC if I so decide. :)

and sometimes the answer is not 'compromise'. if someone wants peace, and someone else wants nuclear war, the answer is not 'a little bit of nuclear war'. ditto offshore drilling -- it should be 'none at all' -- not something between zero and every coast of America.

lastly, as pointed out, building high density does not require building high. see paris, barcelona, etc.

yay, Sun -- i love you! shining on Lance and crew this morning in San Jose! i'll do my best to protect from those mean, nasty tall buildings and the people who would build them!

by Peter Smith on May 19, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

@andrew

No, he specifically cited Rosslyn as something he didn't like... while trying to be gentle, he actually thinks the area has awful urban design.

His biggest argument is that D.C. *could* experiment with higher buildings around transit in areas well outside the ceremonial core (using La Defence as an example). However, the possibly harm caused by land value speculation (which increases building costs to both developers and the final end users) and opening up the 100-year-old restriction to variances may unleash a Pandora's Box on unintended consequences for the city. After listening to his lecture, I agree with his "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach.

by Adam L on May 19, 2010 1:03 pm • linkreport

@Adam

Neat. Thanks for the clarification -- wish I could've been at the lecture.

by andrew on May 19, 2010 2:45 pm • linkreport

Vancouver is beautiful, apparently -- from pictures I've seen, i'd agree with that, in general, but we need to ask _why_ it's beautiful? is it because of the beautiful water and mountains and poofy clouds in the blue sky that make it beautiful or is it because of the buildings?

are these 'elegantly sculpted towers' or 'monocultural rounded vertical glass towers filled with toilet paper rolls'?

http://www.sfu.ca/cupc2007/img/Vancouver_ib.jpg

to me, San Francisco is beautiful because of nature -- the nearby mountains, the hills of the city, the water all around it, the crazy sky/clouds/fog/etc. some of the buildings are nice, and many -- if not most, by now -- of the buildings are simple modern horrors. the flood building is real nice, but all these other modern bricks? blech.

http://www.flickr.com/search/show/?q=flood+building+san+francisco

i suspect, Vancouver, like SF, is beautiful in spite of its tall buildings, not because of them.

and even if we were to approve of tall buildings, why can't they be, you know, nice? do they have to be so shiny and glassy and reflecty and ugly? how about some of those amenities -- like non-glass, non-metal facades? forget the new park, the new whatever -- how about start by giving us a building which will actually add to the beauty of the city instead of detract from it? gimme some Beaux Arts -- gimme something to look at and appreciate. maybe nobody's alive who can still do that stuff, but i'm sure someone can relearn it.

like james howard kunstler said, we need better buildings.

by Peter Smith on May 19, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

Thank goodness for National Airport and the FAA height limits, because it's unlikely they will be able to build much taller in Rosslyn.

Those are recommendations. The FAA has no power over what Arlington can or cannot build.

by J. Randolph Babbitt on May 19, 2010 4:48 pm • linkreport

I love the post and the contribution to the discussion, as always.

Only ONE question: You say that the Height Act reduces the economic incentive to tear down historic buildings. Downtown, it seems that the height limit (along K street, for example) means that we building owners need to extract as much rent as possible, and they will readily tear down older buildings (which are usually ugly anyway) to replace them with clean new glass office buildings. So I would argue perhaps the opposite.

As an aside, I live along 14th St in Logan Circle, and would love to see more density and more amenities. We are no where near the height limit there, so I'd like to see zoning allow us to reach a little bit higher.

Thanks for the post!

by DK on May 19, 2010 5:25 pm • linkreport

Glad that people are realizing that density has little to do with height. I think that parts of town that are over the 6 story human scale look like hell and are very unwelcoming. OTOH we have many areas around Metro stations that are virtually abandoned.

Our residential center neighborhoods are zoned so that you often have a single person or couple living in a 3000 sq. ft. house that has about the same real estate value as a near-by condo of under 700 sq.ft. Just bizarre and a waste of density. We should have much greater density in townhouse buildings, not tall human file cabinets.

Also glad to see mention of enforcing good architecture. In DC architecture is practically illegal.

The best buildings in Vancouver are the public ones with incredible architecture at the Law Courts, BC Place, the stadium, the exhibit center, etc. Our public buildings from Verizon Center to the Convention Center to government buildings are horrible and ugly. We could have done better.

We can if we demand it.

by Tom Coumaris on May 19, 2010 7:44 pm • linkreport

What a great comprehensive report. I offered a similar, one, though with more pictures than words, right here. It was a great lecutre!

http://dcbydesignblog.com/2010/05/celebrating-100-years-of-low-buildings/

by DC by Design on May 19, 2010 8:26 pm • linkreport

DC can stick to its height limit, but Ballston, Crystal City, Shirlington/Bailey's Crossroads, Tyson's and Bethesda should grow up. They can become arterial clusters of denser and higher buildings.

Rosslyn is a mixed bag as an example. In the sky it worked, but on the street level it is, unfortunately, still a dangerous road jungle.

Question to the writers of GGW: Can we ever get an evaluation of the successes and failures of Rosslyn?

by Jasper on May 19, 2010 8:37 pm • linkreport

@David Few tourists venture beyond the central neighborhoods and few viewsheds extend past the L'Enfant City.

But are we building a city for the tourist alone? ... or for us too?

by Lance on May 19, 2010 10:57 pm • linkreport

Near the end of the lecture, he even advocated for putting a "ring" around an urban center and not allowing any development outside of that area.

i definitely like the idea of an urban growth boundary -- sure to get mucho interest. the Randians will freak. we need to discuss it just so we can take in that spectacle. :) the sooner we start organizing for one, the sooner we can make it happen. oregon has a state law. think a couple of other states have pseudo-growth boundaries. the weird part about DC tho, is the whole 'state' is a city, so somehow DC would just have to become part of both VA and MD plans.

He estimated that it could take almost 150 years to exhaust all the development potential in that area before people would need to give way to sprawl.

i like the idea of long term planning, too -- real long-term planning -- 50 years, 100 years, 500 years out (@see Long Now).

by Peter Smith on May 19, 2010 11:08 pm • linkreport

@ Peter Smith: In itself it's a good idea. In Europe many cities have done this due to lack of space, which is never an issue in the US, except perhaps in LA and NY.

But realistically, if you want to set a urban boundary in this area, it will pretty much end up between Leesburg, Frederick, Baltimore/Bowie/Annapolis, Andrews AFB, Woodbridge/Quantico and Manassas. Plenty of infill possible but you can't eliminate the built sprawl.

In the end the problem of course is the ridiculous amount of competing jurisdictions that we have.

by Jasper on May 20, 2010 9:14 am • linkreport

I am trying desperately to understand the aesthetic involved in accepting easing of height restrictions and increased density, especially as they have positive impact on environmental progress. The concept of 'intuitive discomfort' fits when I realize that I choose never to walk or drive through my own neighborhood (Friendship Heights) anymore, because it is pedestrian-unfriendly, cars are all from out of DC, building heights and footprints are gradually forcing a coldness, and the time to drive 3 blocks down Wisconsin Ave. is becoming unacceptable and dangerous. I, instead, have redrawn my radius of comfort closer to upper Connecticut Avenue, where buildings are lower, more human scale, there is still a sense of community, shop-owners are friends, and I can purchase what I need, because the retail space is not dedicated to ridiculously unnecessary luxuries. I'm beginning to believe that the mightiest promoters (and they have their political strengths) of the development movement in this city are only those who monetarily benefit, and that they promote themselves in the color of 'green', with meaningless 'amenities', using their public relation budgets to counter neighborhood orgs and commissions with nasty NIMBY editorials, while never being required to conduct serious comprehensive traffic studies. Perhaps this is too cynical an assessment, but after all, this is the city of influence. Of course, you can build it, but many of us, long-time tax payers may choose to leave it.

by C Richardson on May 20, 2010 3:50 pm • linkreport

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