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Added height with design review proposed for Union Station railyards, Lower Barracks Row

Two zoning proposals, one for the Union Station railyards and one for Lower Barracks Row near the Navy Yard, provide opportunities to allow some development and ensure good urbanism in any projects.


Image by Akridge.

On Thursday, the Zoning Commission will review proposed zoning for the railyards north of Union Station, on either side of the H Street "Hopscotch" bridge.

The Office of Planning proposes allowing buildings up to 130 feet in height, as measured from the H Street overpass. 130 feet is the maximum allowed by the Height Act, but there is debate about where to count zero. If the building fronts a bridge, is the "bottom" of the building at the level of the bridge, or at the level of the ground below?

For the zoning rewrite, OP recommended counting from the ground, not a bridge. But applying that rule for the railyards means that a significant amount of the otherwise allowable building envelope will be taken up by the yards, making it much less financially feasible to build the platform.

Also, with only low building heights, there will be a strong incentive to create boxy buildings that fill up as much of the envelope as possible, whereas with 130 feet of height, it'll be possible to build more aesthetically pleasing buildings. And the site is limited to 6.5 FAR, meaning 130-foot boxes would simply not be allowed.

If approved by the Zoning Commission, this height won't come without strings. Akridge, the developer for the project, will have to submit all buildings to design review including two phases of community review, approval by the Zoning Commission, and approval by the Historic Preservation Review Board. In other words, they won't have the right to build just any buildings, but have to build nice buildings.

Meanwhile, residents and businesses are proposing increasing building heights around 8th Street between the Southeast Freeway and the Navy Yard to 65 and 85 feet, which is still not very high.

As Lydia DePillis explains, that area was limited to 45 feet in 1999 to preserve historic buildings, but it's ultimately led to both historic and nonhistoric buildings sitting moribund. Instead, the proposal would increase the height but also require structures over 45 feet to go through design review with community involvement, preservation of historic structures, and a quality plan.


Potential massing for Lower Barracks Row under 45, 65, and 85 foot limits.
Image via Washington City Paper.

Both proposals follow the principles from Larry Beasley's speech on the height limit to avoid the mistakes of the NoMA upzoning. Simply allowing extra height just gives property owners a one-time windfall that ironically can tie the hands of the ultimate developers. But granting added height subject to some restrictions ensures that public priorities become part of the project allows more housing and office opportunities while sharing the economic gain between the property owners, developers, and the public.

The Zoning Commission hearing is Thursday, 6:30 pm at 441 4th St NW (One Judiciary Square), room 220-South. If you wish to submit comments, you can also send them by fax or email as a signed and scanned PDF to zcsubmissions@dc.gov.

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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Not sure how I feel about huge buildings on H St. The Hopscotch Bridge already rises pretty high above the surrounding buildings.

It'll be especially bad if these buildings turn out to be monolithic blocks, as many in DC do.

This project needs to tread lightly, as it's already guaranteed to have a certain level of negative impact. (Because Union Station needs to look more like New York Penn...)

by andrew on Dec 14, 2010 10:12 am • linkreport

Why exactly would we not maximize the usage this very downtown area and allow a higher FAR?

If you want a pretty building, then they should say so, and not imply it with regulatory rules.

by Jasper on Dec 14, 2010 10:19 am • linkreport

Planning's mathematical calculations on the buildings north of Union Station are too cute by half and will lead to a backlash by preservationists and Congressional allies. If you measure from the overpass, then the buildings' actual height will be closer to 200 feet. Can't imagine that will go over well, especially in an area so close to the Capitol and within the L'Enfant plan. Has Planning asked local residents and property owners how they feel about looking out their windows at a 200 foot tall building?

by Fritz on Dec 14, 2010 10:20 am • linkreport

This will be a good project, but I will be sad when Union Station platforms become underground (so to speak). It's always depressing arriving or leaving New York via tunnels. Hopefully more light will filter in to Union Station, but it won't be like it is now.

by Reid on Dec 14, 2010 10:21 am • linkreport

Let it go high, and make sure it's nice and has class. Trade bulk for vertical expression. DC looks like city that's been flattened by a rolling pin. A few vertical landmarks here and there wouldn't hurt.

Of course it won't fly, but it's a thought.

by Bob See on Dec 14, 2010 10:30 am • linkreport

Most of the current platforms at Union Station are already covered by the depressing parking garage. You only get open air if you're on a train going to or coming from the south.

by BeyondDC on Dec 14, 2010 10:31 am • linkreport

Comparisons to NY aren't very apt (they rarely are). Even if it extends the "underground", or at least under buildings, portion a few more blocks, we'll still be at grade within a half mile or so.

New York has that pesky Hudson river that gets in the way of an aesthetically pleasing entrance to the city via rail. Stupid geography. They should zone the river to be elsewhere.

by TimK on Dec 14, 2010 10:37 am • linkreport

Well, that includes the Northeast Regional. Plus, the Acela is not covered. So for a whole lot of users (including myself) using covered platforms is not common.

Separate question: how tall is the garage? Seems like that is about the highest the buildings will be allowed to go.

by Reid on Dec 14, 2010 10:40 am • linkreport

Interesting proposal but I wonder if this is the right location for more office space. Union Station Metro is already clogged as it is, and the streetcar, while great, isn't expected to add a great deal of capacity.

by Max D. on Dec 14, 2010 10:44 am • linkreport

Ridiculous farce. The intellectual dishonesty is appalling.

Allowing additional floors around the JW Marriott was justified because the buildings became the same height as those on F Street.

by Tom Coumaris on Dec 14, 2010 11:15 am • linkreport

This proposal won't fly with anyone, local or federal. It's a good example of Tregoning let her boss use her office to sneak things through for which she should be the guardian for and not the accessory before the fact. Maybe with Fenty leaving she'll reverse course and take a stand now against this clearly improper and illegal interpretation of the Height Act?

by Lance on Dec 14, 2010 11:32 am • linkreport

David, this is pretty silly. If the site is limited to 6.5 FAR, then being generous about the height limit won't affect the project's viability one bit -- the FAR is the constraint. The aesthetics are even worse. No matter how tall and skinny one built, the huge, tall Union Station Rail Yard still prevents pedestrian access from either 1st or 2nd St NE. You wouldn't even be preserving green space; you'd be "preserving" a blank concrete roof over the rail yard.

by tom veil on Dec 14, 2010 11:39 am • linkreport

@tom veil

This will prevent pedestrian access from what? And to what? I'm not following you there.

by Alex B. on Dec 14, 2010 11:42 am • linkreport

As a close neighbor to this project, and a member of ANC 6C's Planning, Zoning and Environment Committee, I am strongly in support of this proposal. The Office of Planning has been working closely with the ANC on this issue for over 18 months, in hours of public meetings. These meetings have included multiple opportunities for public participation, and there have even been several members of the Committee of 100 involved as well. Most of our suggestions were written into the zoning language.

This project will go a long way towards healing a major physical divide in our community by providing a real North entrance to Union Station, and by providing a continuously active H Street between Gallery Place to the West and the emerging H Street NE Atlas District.

Raising the height, while keeping the FAR at only 6.5, will encourage the new development to include an interesting massing on this site instead of a monolithic office building. At the same time, there are strong incentives for including a significant residential component (residential isn't even allowed under the current zoning), and requirements for extensive bicycle parking, green design, and an active retail mix at the ground level. Overall, the new USN zone will help lead to an excellent development on this site, and a substantial improvement in our neighborhood.

by Tony Goodman on Dec 14, 2010 12:04 pm • linkreport

@tom I'm guessing that the project will include the Union Station improvements that DC requested under ARRA. It would do a lot to reduce crowding in the station by providing a real North entrance.

I have no problem with the buildings being allowed to reach as high as the parking garage, as long as they obstruct the views of the parking garage!

The issue of 2nd and 1st St is a bit more difficult to resolve. Obviously, we don't want to make either of those streets resemble a canyon any more than they already do. There may be access opportunities available on the 800 block of 2nd St to the building's site, although the building won't directly face the street there.

Some questions I have:
* Is the Hopscotch Bridge being replaced anytime soon? If so, will that work be done in conjunction with the new development and/or the streetcar?
* Will 700 2nd St get an entrance on H St?
* Are they planning entrances along the K St Underpass?

by andrew on Dec 14, 2010 12:31 pm • linkreport

@andrew

The only lots that this USN zone includes are the air rights lots over the Amtrak lines (not over Metro). This does not extend to either First or Second, and the ground level at K is both owned by Amtrak and not a part of this zone.

However, both the ANC and Akridge (the property owner) are very interested in vertical connections into this development from First, Second and K, which could be accomplished by acquiring additional property from adjacent owners. This issue is discussed specifically in the zoning text, but can't be rigidly required.

by Tony Goodman on Dec 14, 2010 1:01 pm • linkreport

Will be nice if they incorporate some smoke stacks/chimney within the development to help vent the passenger loading area. Even with new diesels, the neighborhoods next to the railyards get lower air quality.

by Redline SOS on Dec 14, 2010 1:07 pm • linkreport

Isn't the replacement of the H street 'humpback' bridge?

by Randall M. on Dec 14, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

Let me try that again:

Isn't the replacement of the H street 'humpback' bridge part of this project? If so, I think the developers are responsible for it's construction, right?

by Randall M. on Dec 14, 2010 2:22 pm • linkreport

@Randall

No, the bridge replacement is not a part of this. In fact, this is not an actual project that is up for approval: the upcoming hearing is for the creation of a new zone, Union Station North. This includes the air rights lots on each side of H Street, but not the H Street bridge itself. The developer has not yet submitted a development plan - this is to provide the framework under which they would submit their proposal.

by Tony Goodman on Dec 14, 2010 2:41 pm • linkreport

@Tony, I know this is a major concern for the Committee of 100. I don't know who you're referring to as having attended these meetings, but I wouldn't take attendence to mean concurrence. This ranks up there with the wires issue from what I can tell.

by Lance on Dec 14, 2010 5:12 pm • linkreport

"Union Station Metro is already clogged as it is, and the streetcar, while great, isn't expected to add a great deal of capacity."

I think one reason the Metro station is so clogged is because it serves partially as a throughway for commuters coming in from the parking garage even if they are not entering the Metro system. The expansion of the throughway announced this past July should help unclog some of the traffic. If you add a lot of new development, hopefully a lot of new entrances and throughways will be added as wel giving the impression that it's less crowded even if there are more people.

by Scoot on Dec 14, 2010 5:50 pm • linkreport

@ Scoot

Wouldnt it just be better for WMATA to block access Union Station from the 1st Street entrance and make it an entrance only to the metrorail station.

If someone needs to go into Union Station from along 1st Street they can walk up 1st Street to enter Union Station from the front and if they are going to the metrostation from Union Station they can take the entrance that is infront of the west entrance to Union Station.

by kk on Dec 14, 2010 7:15 pm • linkreport

In a city with a 10-story limit, views from a 15-story height should bring profits capable of corrupting even an ANC member.

by Turnip on Dec 14, 2010 8:00 pm • linkreport

@Lance

I certainly don't equate attendance with concurrence. However it directly refutes your earlier contention that OP, and Tregoning in particular, have not been engaging the neighborhood on this issue. It did "fly" with the locals, and was endorsed by the ANC.

by Tony Goodman on Dec 14, 2010 8:54 pm • linkreport

@Tony These meetings have included multiple opportunities for public participation, and there have even been several members of the Committee of 100 involved as well. Most of our suggestions were written into the zoning language.

You make it sound like the Committee of 100 was on board with what got written into the zoning language. I know for a fact that the Committee of 100 opposed eliminating the measuring point from 1st and 2nd Streets and measuring instead from the top of the bridge.

All the 'good' things you say that you want from this project, could equally come from a project limited to the standard height (i.e., '10 stories' as Turnip puts it) and not require additional height (i.e., '15 stories'). Saying that the extra height is needed for bridging that gap is a canard.

by Lance on Dec 14, 2010 10:22 pm • linkreport

Turnip: It's offensive to accuse an ANC commissioner of corruption and we don't allow that here.

by David Alpert on Dec 14, 2010 10:24 pm • linkreport

Yes, Turnip's assertions about the ANC commissioner's motives are not proper. And I'd suspect that it's more a matter of the ANC commissioner being 'blinded' by all the good things being offered to the neighborhood and definitely not anything being offered to him personally. HOWEVER, he did make an excellent point though about the developers wanting those extra 5 stories (i.e., 15 story buildings in a city of 10 story buildings) for the exponential value to a developer of buildings that can look out on others in this city. That's a point that shouldn't be forgotten just because it got said as part of something that was otherwise unjustifiable to say.

by Lance on Dec 14, 2010 10:31 pm • linkreport

Let it go high!!

by beatbox on Dec 14, 2010 11:36 pm • linkreport

Is there an online source for an AUTOCAD file of this area?

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 15, 2010 2:56 am • linkreport

Daniel Burnham will spin in his grave when this atrocity is tacked onto the back of his grand creation. Picture a cartoon igloo--a little porch-thing in front and a behemoth in back. This is all about money. Screw aesthetics.

And yes, there's plenty of indirect light on the platforms that will be lost, not just those out in the open on the east side. Even those under the parking garage extend out in the open on their north end. Don't tell me there'll be no loss of light when all this is covered! You bet you can compare this aspect to NY Penn!

by John Fuller on Dec 15, 2010 12:44 pm • linkreport

I don't get the comparisons to NY Penn Station.

NY Penn Station is always hated on, while her cross-town rival, Grand Central Terminal, is lauded. Except that Grand Central's platforms are also underground.

The critique of NYP isn't about the platforms, it's the rest of the station that stinks.

by Alex B. on Dec 15, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport

Perhaps, and I'm saying this knowing that this will never happen, we can one day bury the tracks from New York Avenue.

by Randall M. on Dec 15, 2010 2:10 pm • linkreport

"I don't get the comparisons to NY Penn Station . . . Grand Central's platforms are also underground . . . The critique of NYP isn't about the platforms, it's the rest of the station that stinks."

--You're right about GCT. So, let's compare the three stations:

Attractive head house: WUS, Yes; NYP, No; GCT, Yes

Platforms above ground: WUS, Yes; NYP, No; GCT, No

That may be why NYP is a target for criticism--two strikes against it--while GCT has one, and WUS has none.

by John Fuller on Dec 15, 2010 3:34 pm • linkreport

@John Fuller

And if I had to weight the importance of a nice headhouse versus dingy tracks, the headhouse would be far more important.

Most train stations have dingy track areas. That's because tracks are utilitarian in nature.

Should the platform areas be well designed? Of course. The loss of a little sunlight is hardly worth the opportunity cost of forgoing the development above the tracks, however.

I'd also note that the current WUS platforms aren't anything to write home about. Many are in poor condition.

by Alex B. on Dec 15, 2010 4:20 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B.: Sorry if I wasn't clear; here's what I mean. Let's say right now, in 2010, you are walking along First or Second St NE. Now, try to walk onto the Union Station rail yard. Obviously you can't, but it's the reason why that's important: except for a small bit of 2nd St, "ground level" on the sidewalk is about two stories below "ground level" on the rail yard. Same thing's true for the north end on K St NE, too. Short of a gargantuan, billion-dollar rebuild that no one wants, there's no way around this problem.

So why do I mention it? Because it factors in to whether we want a tall, skinny building with lots of empty space around it, or a stout building that takes up the whole lot. I'm saying, no matter what you do, it's not like anyone will be able to walk in or out of this development from the North, West, or East. The ONLY pedestrian access points will be (1) the H St Bridge and (2) the H St Streetcar underpass. So if the developers build upward and save some of that 6.5 FAR for a pedestrian area next to the building, it might be a nice secluded little area, but it will not be interacting with the rest of the neighborhood. So the usual aesthetic arguments for tall & skinny buildings don't apply, because the Union Station rail yard is a very unusual piece of geography.

by tom veil on Dec 15, 2010 4:57 pm • linkreport

@Tom

As noted above, we don't have any designs to react to as of yet, and the Akridge people have expressed a desire to make as many connections as possible to the existing ground level. As they should, such connections add a great deal of value to their project.

Likewise, I think the connections along H Street will be more valuable than you lead on. For one, it will make H Street like an actual street, not a street that has a huge gap in the middle while it shoots over the railroad tracks.

by Alex B. on Dec 15, 2010 5:06 pm • linkreport

"We" don't have any designs to react to"? Who ARE you people? Is this a Website of city planners and developers? No wonder you're all so warm 'n' fuzzy about this project. You clearly think it's a foregone conclusion. Alas, you're probably right.

Suffice it to say a Republican-dominated Congress directed the GSA to sell the air rights behind Union Station by September 30, 2002. And sell they did.

by John Fuller on Dec 15, 2010 6:03 pm • linkreport

I don't understand why a height limitation is regularly equated with a limitation on aesthetic possibility? Isn't that a question of finding some architects with real imagination? Why is higher prettier? Tall buildings are usually monolithic, too. If we want variety in height, maybe the developers should build more buildings with a variety of heights --- 130 feet and under.

As for NY railway stations, Grand Central is the better comparison...think about the massive PanAm building rising behind it, shaped like an airplane wing. It dwarfs the station, radically altering - for the worse - its exterior beauty. While the proposals in DC are not so tall, they are just as monolithic and disruptive.

by swededc on Dec 15, 2010 11:13 pm • linkreport

Build a teardrop shaped canolpy over the area not shown, and then to the north a cover, as shown:

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2008/02/extending-legacy-with-grand-arc.html

Give it side walls more appropropriate as an extension of Washington, D.C.'s monumental core- look at Union Stations flanking service roads with their 7 and 11 lamp posts and extend that ....

IMHO both that parking garage and the more recent US Securities and Exchanges Commission as constructed are attrocious- as shall be the current so-called Burnham II plan.

I absolutely agree that he must be rolling over in his grave, if not utterly nauseated.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 16, 2010 1:35 am • linkreport

"you're all so warm 'n' fuzzy about this project"

Let this atand as a textbox example in comparision with the Grand Arc of the mediocrisy induced and sustained by the politically corrupt ancient regime.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 16, 2010 1:39 am • linkreport

Regarding my point about the walls being more appropriate for this Capital City Gateway:

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2008/02/monumental-and-mundane.html

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 16, 2010 2:01 am • linkreport

@John Fuller

If you want me to react to a design, then show me a design. If you want me to react to the concept of air rights, then I will - it's a great thing for DC.

@swededc

You can't really expect a comparison to development behind Union Station (that won't be much larger than the existing parking garage) to the Pan Am building - which comes in at 800 feet tall.

by Alex B. on Dec 16, 2010 9:10 am • linkreport

The proposal advocates for a height of 130' along H Street, and the same height for any other buildings because they won't technically be along any street. The question of fire safety comes to mind. In very tall buildings, away from any street, how would people be rescued? Would DCFD need additional equipment to provide the same level of protection that they provide for nearly every other building? Would DC taxpayers be required to pay for new equipment? Would the developer pay? Would people in danger just be SOL?

I'm not completely against raising the height limit, but we should first settle questions about where the additional density and height should be. Then infrastructure (public safety, transportation, utilities...) should be built to support it. Then we can build up knowing we've done it in a way most likely to benefit us. If we're not smart about it, it'll cost us in some way or another.

by Amber on Dec 16, 2010 9:32 pm • linkreport

There are already lots of 130' buildings downtown. There are even a number of taller ones on Pennsylvania Avenue, not to mention unusual ones like the Cairo, Old Post Office, National Shrine etc. which have height limit exemptions. This building would not require special fire equipment.

by David Alpert on Dec 16, 2010 9:55 pm • linkreport

I'm late to this discussion, but would decking over the train tracks provide any hope of some green space?

by Ward 1 Guy on Jan 24, 2011 4:54 pm • linkreport

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