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Breakfast links: Things change, things stay the same

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.
Taking on the Height Act: Washington City Paper's Lydia DePillis is reopening the Height Act debate with her cover story this week, arguing the height limit should be scrapped, at least in key areas like downtown and around Metro stations.

"Urban plaza" proposed for Tysons: A developer submitted plans for a 1.3 million-square-foot mixed-use project next to a future Tysons Metro station. The project includes a "European styled esplanade" at the Metro entrance. (Post, Cavan)

Twinbrook TOD stuck in neutral: Developer JBG is asking to renegotiate its land deal on a major project at Twinbrook Metro. The developer has finished much of the private floor space in the project, but says they can't afford to build a parking garage for Metro riders included in the original deal. (Examiner, Mike M)

Signs, they are a-changin': The Central Liquor sign at 9th & F in Penn Quarter may see major changes soon. Today the Historic Preservation Review Board will consider allowing the building owner to change the sign to say "Joe's Souvenir," replacing the 'C' with an American flag. HPRB says it has not considered a historic sign change in recent memory. (The Location, Kim Bender)

Federal government increases telework options: Last week President Obama signed a bill that put the Federal government on a track to implement more telework options to avoid complete shutdowns of the government like happened during last year's snow storms. (CNN)

DDOT portal more cool, less useful: The DDOT Transportation Access Portal looks cool, but, because the data it shows is only very cursory, and doesn't allow any deeper perusal, it's not particularly useful. (RPUS)

Community radio held up by commercial lobby: The National Association of Broadcasters and its chief, former Senator Gordon Smith, are blocking a bill that would expand access to low power FM (LPFM) noncommercial community radio stations. LPFM stations can play a crucial role in local community outreach, information and public safety. (Prometheus Radio Project, Lynda)

Breathing your neighbor's smoke: A study in Pediatrics shows that children who live in apartments have a higher exposure to second-hand smoke, even if their parents don't smoke. But would the suburbs really be healthier for kids given all the other holistic public health issues that plague them? (Environmental and Urban Economics, Matt')

And...: MWCOG is seeking new community members to join the 2011 Air and Climate Public Advisory Committee. (Region Forward) ... Consumer confidence is higher in the District than elsewhere in the region. (City Paper) ... Arlington has launched an online map tool for reporting neighbors who don't shovel their sidewalks. (TBD)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.
Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 


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It's important to urge congress to pass the Low Power FM radio bill so DC and hundreds of communities across the nation can have real community radio, instead of having to hide under the radar. Stop making community radio jump through hoops!

by Lynda on Dec 16, 2010 9:02 am • linkreport

It's not just DDOT, but many of the websites that have gone "Web 2.0" in a way that reduces the amount of information available. The DCRA website has significantly reduced the materials available, and those that are still there are much more difficult to find. Sure, the graphics are pretty but it's much less useful than it once was.

by ah on Dec 16, 2010 9:26 am • linkreport

Am I alone in thinking that neon liquor signs are ugly? Maybe they are a Historic Example of a Small Business using Garish Lights to Sell Addictive Substances to the Homeless during the Marion Barry Era, but that hardly seems to be the aspect of that era that's worth celebrating.

by tom veil on Dec 16, 2010 9:26 am • linkreport

Maybe this is coming later, but... WaPo article on ACS data showing uptick in transit use: "More D.C. area commuters leaving the driving to others, census data show"

by Just161 on Dec 16, 2010 9:49 am • linkreport

Ah, using technology to anonymously rat out your neighbors. Sweet. I hope county property gets lots of complaints submitted. And the sidewalks on the S. Glebe Road bridge over Rt. 50 were impassable for most of last winter due to piled up ice and snow. I guess it's VDOT who will get the fines for not clearing those. Me? I live in a neighborhood with no sidewalks.

by ksu499 on Dec 16, 2010 10:08 am • linkreport

I wonder what repeal of the height of buildings act would do to public transportation #s...probably increase them quite a bit!

by Matt Glazewski on Dec 16, 2010 10:17 am • linkreport

Could someone explain to me why it was okay to put a big "Silver Spring" sign that changes the viewshed of the historic parking lot in downtown Silver Spring, yet this sign change is not allowed?

by Ben Ross on Dec 16, 2010 10:26 am • linkreport

The neon sign issue is an interesting one. Back when Hank's opened it had a similar issue. The building sported an iconic neon sign from its precedessor which was a pizza place long associated with that spot. Hank's did something akin to what this applicant is proposing, and I'm not sure it was a success. The color of the sign got changed, holes from where the neon letters remain, and probably most offensive was that the neon part of the sign got changed into non-neon cutout letters. I.e., trying to save the sign did away with what was the beauty of the sign ... (a) it's neon artwork and (b) the shop it was associated with ... a late night pizza shop that anyone whoever patronized the nightspots along that stretch got to know very well given that it was open late night.

Perhaps the solution to something like this is simply to leave the sign ... and let the proprietor put another sign below it ... or on the door ... or in some other place where it does its job, without keeping the original sign from doing it's job ... keeping the memory of times past alive AND keeping as art work something that the community has come to appreciate as iconic artwork ... And not just using it as a base for another sign as Hank's did. I.e., respecting the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law.

by Lance on Dec 16, 2010 10:27 am • linkreport

I don't think you've gotten Lydia DePillis's stance quite right (and maybe it's just that some of the nuance is lost in a short description). At no point does she say the Height Act should be eliminated only in certain areas. In fact, she wants to do away with it completely and use zoning to limit heights. You also linked to the much shorter blog post instead of the full article (in case anyone missed it).

by Steven Yates on Dec 16, 2010 10:30 am • linkreport

Steven Yates: Thanks, I've corrected the link.

I put that last clause in about "at least in key areas." I see your point and it's hard to summarize a long article on a complex subject in 2 sentences, but she does say this:

The only realistic way to change D.C.’s height limitations is as part of a strategic, comprehensive planning process that allows for higher development where it makes most sense: Downtown, around Metro stations, along the waterfront, and where wide inbound streets cross the District line and are bordered by much taller buildings, like the spot where Georgia Avenue crosses into Silver Spring.
Maybe "... at least starting in key areas ..." would have been better than "... at least in key areas ..."?

by David Alpert on Dec 16, 2010 10:38 am • linkreport

@David Alpert:

I think I would have gone with something like:

"arguing the height limit should be scrapped, and to instead use zoning to limit heights but still encourage growth in desirable areas, particularly around Metro." (or something that's less of a run-on)

But in the end it's an editorial decision which you could split hairs about for much longer than is worth it.

by Steven Yates on Dec 16, 2010 10:49 am • linkreport

Except of course that downtown makes the least sense for multiple reasons including (a) it's the heart of the L'Enfant Plan, (b) it's where we have the highest concentration of historic buildings to lose, (c) it's definition (as defined the author is loose and broad at best ... Does it include Dupont north of the circle?), (d) building high there blocks the openess and views of the monuments and Capitol for everyone uptown from there ... and a view of Washington itself from across the river (unless of course we're prepared to let ourselves be defined as a 'small' and 'second rate' city of skyscrappers), etc. etc.

GGW had a good article some months back by a planner from (I think from Vancouver) who despite being a champion of height back in his own city, recognized and acknowledged that give the very different circumstances of DC (for example it's not 'fenced in' by waterways or mountains and can expand) that the Height Act was the greatest boon to DC.

Lydia DePillis didn't even bother to take into account this Smart Growth expert's views. Given that she posts regualarly on this blog, she has to have known them. I tells us a lot about where she's coming from.

by Lance on Dec 16, 2010 10:57 am • linkreport


The map indicates she is suggesting taller buildings in "Eastern Downtown/NoMa" Looks like the area she is talking about is bounded by NY Ave, 7th St, E St. and the train tracks (or something like that, the map isn't entirely clear). Still within the L'Enfant plan but certainly nowhere near DuPont Circle. I imagine there are some historic buildings in that area but few are springing to mind. In any case, zoning could still prevent historic buildings being torn down. Without knowing specifics on exactly how high and where, it's hard to say who's views are going to be blocked (though I can't imagine that many). In fact, taller buildings might allow some people to have views of the Washington Monument and the Capitol.

by Steven Yates on Dec 16, 2010 11:10 am • linkreport

I very much enjoyed Larry Beasley's (the planner from Vancouver) presentation on the height limit. I have two main critiques:

1. He talked abstractly about the benefits of density, but never really touched on the real reasons to think about changing the height limit. The reasons to change is where the real discussion is, and he glossed over it.

2. He offered a very nuanced and well-thought out approach to how one should change the height limit, but then ended with a final conclusion that we shouldn't change it at all. I thought his conclusion did not follow the evidence he presented beforehand, and it seemed like pandering to the audience and the host (the NCPC).

3. His images presented pictures of the federal Washington. When speaking of the height limit, he showed lots of pictures of the Mall and the Capitol and other Federal structures surrounded by other federal lands that won't be affected by any increase in height, anyway (no one's going to bulldoze the Dirksen Senate Office Building, for example). Not only did he gloss over the real benefits of density, he then framed his case in the images of Federal Washington - not the city that we all actually live in. In essence, he was making his case against a strawman plan.

Like I said, the core approach to how we might change heights was great - it included an emphasis on urban design, mass transit, etc.

by Alex B. on Dec 16, 2010 11:36 am • linkreport

Honest question: Are there community radio stations that aren't 24/7 Christian stations?

by andrew on Dec 16, 2010 11:46 am • linkreport

Would the DC area would be eligible for any new LPFM stations under the community radio bill?

by Gavin on Dec 16, 2010 11:51 am • linkreport

@andrew - I hope it would would mean more (any!!) college stations playing music. I can't get over the poor choice of music stations in DC. I don't understand it. There are so many colleges and the only one with a radio station is AU with WAMU which is definetly not student run. This is a city with a music history and is currently considered one of the best places for live music but our radio station choices don't reflect it. I don't get it.

by Tina on Dec 16, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport


Downtown also makes sense for some reasons, more sense than Anacostia, at least. Downtown is the most desirable and expensive area in the city for office space and doesn't seem to have enough residential units, either. The demand is there. It's also more centralized and has more transportation options than places farther out. I personally like how we've built out what we call downtown and can't grow much farther out, and then debate whether to go taller. Building taller downtown would allow us to grow while not having to change the character of neighborhoods on the periphery.

The L'Enfant Plan aspect of this is important, but shouldn't be the end of the discussion IMO. The trade-offs that people like Alex and Ryan A. have talked about are important to consider. We'll always have wide streets and diagonal avenues that create interesting views, and we don't have to touch the Capitol and Dupont. There's just a question of whether it's acceptable for tradition to stifle growth to a certain extent.

I think we should develop and enhance our zoning, but I also think height limits should be lifted in high demand areas. One of my biggest beefs is with the idea that we can lift the height limits in areas somewhat far from downtown, with much less demand and infrastructure designed for much lower density, and still have them be walkable, dense, vibrant, etc. without some very fundamental infrastructure changes being made.

by Vik on Dec 16, 2010 12:21 pm • linkreport

@Tina: You're forgetting WHUR, Howard University Radio.

by Herschel on Dec 16, 2010 12:23 pm • linkreport

I don't really care what the sign says, as long as we stem the tide of souvenir shops and fro-yo stores showing up in Penn Quarter. The whole area's starting to look like a huge flea market.

by OX4 on Dec 16, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

@Gavin Yes, the DC area would be eligible. There are already a couple in the area...I wrote a post on it about a year ago.

Columbia Heights has a pirate radio station, but is this bill passes, they could apply for a permit and become more legitimate.

by Lynda on Dec 16, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

The article on indoor air quality and smoking was measuring townhouses as well as apartments, so if you believe their science, most of suburban dc is probably just as unhealthy. However, I suspect their science was more about banning smoking in multi-use buildings than anything else.

I suspect a lot of the angst about height limit laws is related to recent arrival obsessions about statehood and lack of local control. Throw in some fashionable market economics and you're money. In reality, the height control law has created an absolutely unique city. Nobody walks around Tysons, Rosslyn, Ballston or Chevy Chase saying, wow, how nice. They may be great examples of smartgrowth and transit use, but they are real failures as urban villages.

by charlie on Dec 16, 2010 1:27 pm • linkreport

If we raise the height limit through zoning, let's not have plaza bonuses. Plinth+Tower.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 16, 2010 2:21 pm • linkreport

@Herschel -IIRC WHUR is not a true college station either. Again, iirc it has commercial programming that plays canned "Adult Urban" music, yes?

by Tina on Dec 16, 2010 3:05 pm • linkreport

@Tina -- I agree DC radio is lousy.

It takes institutional commitment to grow a good community radio station, such as WMBR in Cambridge Mass. Many (most?) urban colleges cash out their stations, such as WAMU. The WMBR is really good example of what is possible, but it must be entirely run by volunteers -- when a station starts begging for enough money for staff, that is when their DJs stop playing what they think is good and start playing what they think their audience wants to hear. In addition, however, a community station needs an institutional sponsor, to provide the address for the studios and music library that need to persist far longer than the volunteers can. Since there are no institutions in DC that have stepped up, why would they now with low power FM?

Some cities do not have good Mexican restaurants, because the market to support them is not there. Likewise, I have my doubts that the DC listening audience is willing to support good radio. I doubt that low power FM will cure this.

by goldfish on Dec 16, 2010 3:15 pm • linkreport

Very interested to hear why you believe less information is available than previously. We have added everything from the previous site and added tons of new information, new apps like that allows people for the first time to view license, permits, certficate of occupancy, tax and owner info and more on any DC property. We also added the ability to search for whatever it is your looking for without having to guess the route. Email me anytime to discuss what may be a better way to present the information.

- Mike, DCRA
michael (dot) rupert (at) dc (dot) gov

by Mike Rupert on Dec 16, 2010 3:33 pm • linkreport

@goldfish, Lynda explained that low power FM doesn't need an institutional sponser, like the Columbia Hgts station (read the article she links to). When I lived in Chicago 500 years ago I used to listen to a neighborhood station like that (in Humboldt Park). I disagree with your assesment that there's not an audience for good music radio in DC. Again, DC is considered a great place for live music. That wouldn't be true if there wern't people supporting it. Plus DC has a history of good music radio. WAMU used to be an airwaves leader playing folk, bluegrass and oldtimey. WPFW has some great music programming too but its limited and they also have a lot of talk programming.

You and I are certainly not the only ones out here who would apprecieate some better music radio choices with DJs who are free, like when I was a kid. I wish I could pick up the Col Hgts stn. where I live.

by Tina on Dec 16, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

@Tina -- I have gotten over the disappointment by listening to my stations on the internet. They are so good!

But why is it in DC, when a promising station appears, it disappears in a few months? Because the license owner sells it. Note that large private institutions such as Howard and Georgetown (which has a station that does not reach much beyond its campus) have not supported community radio. Apparently the universities in this town feel very little obligation to the larger DC community.

A community station may not need a permanent address, but if it has one, it will be much stronger.

I have been watching this issue for a while, and also have hoped this new law would improve DC radio. But in the meantime the radio has gotten worse. This makes me think that the fault lies with the audience. I have spoken to many people over the years about this, but most, my SO included, just don't have much appreciation for this kind of radio.

by goldfish on Dec 16, 2010 4:09 pm • linkreport

railing against the height limit is one of those things journos and bloggers do when they can't think of anything better. It's unlikely that doing it now or in the near future will unleash much in the way of useful change.

by Rich on Dec 16, 2010 5:36 pm • linkreport

For the height limit in Downtown has anyone suggested something similar to what they did in Tysons? where they capped the amount of commercial space but left the amount of residential square footage untouched? Could buildings get a height bonus due to residential units?

by Canaan on Dec 16, 2010 7:12 pm • linkreport

i didn't feel the Tall Buildings article was very compelling.

the only thing i even found to be really objectionable about the article was its general conclusion (scrap the height limit). it's like one of those articles that your publisher asks you to write just because he ran into that developer magnate guy at a recent dinner party -- the end result is not likely to be very moving.

but, in fairness to the author, i guess it's about as good a job as one could do trying to sell that pov. i wonder if writers just get bored sometimes, and just say, "you know what? you know what really gets people worked up in this town? tall buildings. and i'm tired of bike lane debates, and mayoral politics, and home rule -- not enough changes in this town -- everything changes but it all stays the same -- we need to remedy that -- gimme some tall buildings debates for a few months."

repealing the height limits -- truly a solution in search of a problem.

i did like a couple of the comments a lot, tho -- here's one:

as a DC native that has since moved to explore education opportunities, i hate coming home to see less and less of the sky. i grew up in downtown DC and have very vivid memories of being able to see the city fireworks from any city sidewalk. now, i have to go to a friend's rooftop deck in a city that has never been about rooftop decks. i miss the skyline and, however selfish that may be, i wish to preserve it.

i loved that about DC. i don't think u should have to give up the sky just because you want to live in an urban area.

and the next comment is on-point, too:

Let me get this straight, we have a one-of-a-kind city with gorgeous vistas, a street-level intimacy not found in any other city in the US, and a Viennese stateliness to building scale and street architecture, and you want to erase this in a blur of shadows and glass boxes so that we can match wonderful places like downtown bethesda and Roslyn. Hmmmm.

i really like these 'aesthetics' arguments. i think beauty is important, and underrated, and it's going to continue to see greater recognition in the future (as further research continues to back up its importance). that's the first thing i thought of when i read Richard's comment about 'Signature Streets' -- beauty. 'Places worth caring about,' as JHK would say. places we can take pride in, and enjoy just because they're so darn beautiful -- people want to come there and we don't have to have a 'craft fair' or 'Kwanzaa Festival' -- "people just go because it's pleasurable to be there". people might not want to pay to build wide sidewalks and bike lanes, but they _might_ want to pay to build a 'Signature Street' (which just happens to include those things) -- something they can enjoy and brag about -- a truly awesome place to be. beauty is important. tall buildings degrade the beauty of a town, generally-speaking, i'd argue, except maybe at night.

i doubled-back to look at the photo/image accompanying the pro-tall buildings article, and i noticed it was very pretty. and why was it so pretty? well -- the sky was pretty, and you could still see the sky because it wasn't being blocked by tall buildings. once you have tall buildings, say goodbye to those awesome red-sky sunsets.

by Peter Smith on Dec 17, 2010 10:21 am • linkreport

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