Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Architecture

Development


This McMansion is actually four townhouses

Some people who live in single-family homes resist anything other than single-family homes being built around them. But as our region grows, there will be a growing demand for townhomes and apartments. What if we just built them in disguise?


The "Great House" near Tysons Corner. Photos by the author.

Great Houses and "mansion apartments"

With its sweeping lanes and European-inspired houses, the Carrington neighborhood near Tysons Corner looks like any recently-built luxury home development. But there's something strange about the two houses at the end of the cul-de-sac. They look just like all of the others, except for one difference: each house has four mailboxes.

This is the Great House, a four-unit townhouse designed to look like a large, single-family home. Like DC and Montgomery County, Fairfax requires developers to build affordable units in new developments, but they often stick out like a sore thumb. When Carrington was being built in 2001, the county worked with builder Edgemoore Homes to help subsidized, $120,000 townhomes blend in with homes several times as expensive.

Each Great House is comparable in size to its neighbors and uses the same materials. But instead of one, 5,000 square-foot house, you have four, 1,200-square foot townhouses. Only one of the doors faces the street. A driveway runs around the back, where each townhouse has a two-car garage.

This isn't a new idea, nor one limited to subsidized housing. The "mansion apartment building" has been a recurring concept in housing design for decades.

Many of these buildings were built in the DC area around World War II, a period when there was a lot of demand for affordably-priced housing and very little supply. You can find them in a wide variety of places, from Chevy Chase to Damascus.

The ultimate compromise

The Great House could be a particularly useful housing type as the region grows. A recent study from George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis estimates that the DC area will need 548,000 new homes over the next 20 years. About half of those units will need to go in the District, Montgomery, and Fairfax counties. And 60% of them will need to be townhouses or apartments.


A recently-built "mansion apartment" in Denver's Stapleton neighborhood.

Many of those homes can go in redeveloping commercial areas, like White Flint or Tysons Corner. But those areas won't be able to satisfy all of the demand and, besides, some people may not want a high-rise apartment. The Great House or "mansion apartment" offers a useful alternative.

It also allows people who don't make six-figure incomes to live closer to transit or the region's job centers, meaning they're not driving on our congested roads. It opens up some of the region's most sought-after neighborhoods and the amenities they offer, like top-ranked schools. And it reduces the pressure to develop natural and agricultural land on the region's fringe.

Those things don't really matter to neighbors who spend lots of time and effort to "maintain the integrity" of their single-family neighborhoods. But seeding their neighborhood with a few Great Houses that provide housing diversity while blending in could be a compelling alternative to building traditional apartments or townhouses there instead. Of course, they aren't possible under most zoning laws, which only allow single-family homes in "single-family neighborhoods."

This housing type is also uniquely suited for large families. When my mother's family emigrated here from Guyana in the 1970s, her father (my grandfather) wanted a place that could fit his nine children, some of whom were grown and starting their own families.

Grandfather passed up a big house on 16th Street NW for this mansion apartment building in Petworth, which had four apartments, each with their own entrances and kitchens, perfect for his adult children. Today, it's still in our family, though we rent some of the units out to other people.

This type of housing is a sort of compromise between those who desperately need more housing options and those who don't want those housing options in their backyard. It's not the only solution to our housing needs, but it's definitely an important part of the toolbox.

Architecture


Here are the three teams who could redesign MLK Library

Designed by Mies van der Rohe, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown DC is an architectural landmark, but the 1973 building doesn't meet the library's needs. Can it be brought back to life?


Photo by Christine on Flickr.

From a shortlist of ten qualified applicants, DC Public Library (DCPL) has chosen three teams: Mecanoo Architects with Martinez + Johnson, Patkau Architects with Krueck+Sexton and Ayers Saint Gross, and STUDIOS Architecture with the Freelon Group. All three teams have experience with libraries, historic preservation, or the DC area.

By next month, each team will produce two schemes: one for the library alone and another that adds a few floors and other tenants. The library will pick one scheme, although interim Chief Librarian Joi Mecks cautions that the design will not be final. But asking the architects to design for both options, rather than picking one now, pushes the most contentious aspect of renovation into public debate.

Since its landmarking in 2007, plans to upgrade the library have proposed adding office space somewhere on the site. Although a public agency might occupy the space, several groups have denounced what they see as privatization of a fundamental public space. But the potential revenue has proven tempting, because unlike other big-city library systems, DCPL has no endowment.

As recently as 2006, the widespread assumption was that the building was unsalvageable. Mayor Anthony Williams proposed moving the library somewhere else. This time, however, a strong contingent has pushed to restore the current building.

A pro bono team proposed dramatic alterations in 2000, but it was never taken seriously. More recently, the Urban Land Institute called for office floors above, while an exploratory scheme by Freelon proposed an aggressive renovation. All three visions concurred that the library's current configuration is unsuited to DCPL's actual needs.

Less is more…problems

There are a few challenges in renovating MLK Library. One is that the function of a library has shifted dramatically in the past 20 years. Another is the building's flawed design. But the most pressing is the building's deterioration.

Designed to mid-century construction standards, the library is expensive to heat and light. It has required ad hoc upgrades as technology changed. Decades of deferred maintenance have exacerbated flaws in the original design, from the windows to the bathrooms.

The details and finishes are not what Mies envisioned for a grand central library, comparing poorly even to buildings designed by his office at the same time. The colonnade and expansive glass walls on the library's first floor were supposed to make the interior feel like part of the same public ground as the street. But hemmed in by parking ramps in the middle of the block, the setback has instead become a dim, unsafe space.

Inside, confusing stairways and frequently broken elevators lead to dim hallways, claustrophobic reading rooms, and a windowless central space. On top of that, only two of the collections at the MLK Library are unique to the DCPL system; most of its materials can be found in neighborhood branches.

Each of the selected firms will have to reposition the library for a digital culture. Libraries aren't going away: the card catalogs may be gone, but they remain public places for learning and collaboration. The new Digital Commons, with meeting rooms, an on-demand book printer, and an extrusion 3D printer, shows that the tools have changed but libraries remain relevant.

Teams have international and local expertise

In choosing the three design teams, DCPL looked for experience first. Rather than stage an open competition, where eye-grabbing visuals and one-liner buildings often overshadow pragmatic concerns or proven experience, the library chose from 10 teams that responded to a Request for Proposals in November, who themselves came from a group of almost 30 firms that submitted their qualifications back in September.

So what qualifies these firms to compete? How can we understand their approaches when it comes time to judge the results?

Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson

Mecanoo is a major architecture firm in the Netherlands with experience designing libraries. Their TU Delft library pioneered the idea of a library as a public resource, not just book storage. Patrons at their recently-completed Library of Birmingham move up from a public first floor through a series of dramatic atriums.


Section drawing of the Library of Birmingham, courtesy Mecanoo.

Historic preservation is a specialty of local firm Martinez + Johnson. In the DC area, they restored the Takoma Park and Georgetown libraries. The restorations brought the buildings up to code while removing unsympathetic alterations.

Patkau Architects/Krueck + Sexton/Ayers Saint Gross

Patkau Architects are a well-regarded small firm based in Vancouver. They have worked on several high-profile libraries, including the Grande Bibliothéque de Québec and a renovation of the Winnipeg Millennium Library, opened up an introverted Brutalist building with a staircase that doubles as a reading room. (Full disclosure: one of the firm's partners, John Patkau, taught me in graduate school.)


Winnipeg Millennium Library reading room, courtesy Patkau Architects.

Krueck + Sexton are a longstanding Chicago firm with significant connections to Mies. The firm renovated Mies' landmarks S.E. Crown Hall and the Lake Shore Drive apartments, restoring original details while adding updates like insulated glass. They have two projects in the area, a new building in NoMa and a renovation in Foggy Bottom.


860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, renovated by Krueck + Sexton.

Ayers Saint Gross are locally-based and specialize in master plans such as the one for St. Elizabeths. They've worked on a number of libraries, mostly for Baltimore.

Studios Architecture/The Freelon Group

Studios Architecture is an international firm that's best known in DC for the pavilions at Canal Park, done with landscape architects Olin, as well as a mountain-shaped residential building in White Flint. The firm has also done some historical preservation work, notably the restoration of an early wrought-iron building in Paris.


Canal Park pavilions (with Olin), courtesy Studios Architecture.

In addition to the 2012 study, Freelon Group has already completed a minor renovation of MLK Library and designed new libraries in Anacostia and Tenleytown.

Citizen engagement necessary

DCPL's leadership deserves praise for finding a future in a library that was all but abandoned. Miesian architecture has produced incredible spaces, and a renovation could bring the brilliance to light by restoring, adapting, and contrasting the new with the old. Mies sought to produce buildings that were adaptable and extendable, and these renovations will be a test of that ambition.

It's unclear whether MLK Library can work with another occupant, particularly a commercial one. But when the architects reveal their designs on February 15th, the building's ability to evolve won't be an abstract question. We will see six possibilities representing different ideas of what a 21st-century library should be.

Even before the designs are finished, the public can have an impact. The library has set up a brief survey and crowdsourcing page to gauge interest in particular uses. You can also volunteer for a focus group by contacting Martha Saccocio at martha.saccocio@dc.gov.

Development


Town square could wake up Wheaton's sleepy downtown

Wheaton could get a new town square with an amphitheatre, performance space, and a dramatic ramp connecting it to the Metro station. It's part of Montgomery County's latest plan to revitalize Wheaton's struggling downtown, which officials released earlier this month.


This could be Wheaton's new town square. All images from the Montgomery County Department of General Services unless noted.

Representatives from the county and developers StonebridgeCarras and Bozzuto presented the new design December 11 in a public meeting at Wheaton High School. Montgomery picked them in September to build a square and a government office building on the site of a parking lot and the Mid-County Regional Services Center, a sort of "town hall" for Wheaton and surrounding areas, both located on Reedie Drive near Georgia Avenue.

It's hard to create an exciting urban place around an office building, since there isn't a lot of activity after the workers go home. Residents were skeptical of an earlier design for this project in September, but many of the changes the architects made in response will help make the streets and square livelier.

Square connects downtown to the Metro

International design firm Gensler and local landscape architects Oculus designed the square, which is three-fourths of an acre in size. It straddles Reedie Drive, which today has three lanes, but would be rebuilt as a two- or even one-lane street with wider sidewalks and street trees. A special paving pattern would tie the two sides of the square together, and the street could be closed for events.


Site plan showing the square (left), government building (middle) and apartments (right).

On the south side, there would be a space for performances. Next to it, a WMATA-owned grassy lawn at the corner of Georgia and Reedie would become a stepped amphitheatre. WMATA has told the county they're open to this, said Ana van Balen, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center.

On the north side would be outdoor seating and dining areas, as well as a fountain or public art. A steel structure dubbed an "armature" would wrap around the square, forming the performance stage and containing a ramp that would descend from the square down to the Metro bus bays and station entrance. Banners, lights, and other decorations could hang from it, allowing it to change in appearance over time.

Designers add ground-floor retail space

Lot 13, which fills an entire block at Reedie and Grandview, would give way to a 12-story building housing Park and Planning, a new Regional Services Center, and offices for other county agencies. Behind it would be a high-rise apartment building, which would be built later. An underground parking garage would fill the block below them.

Originally, the architects placed the Park and Planning auditorium on the ground floor facing the plaza, but it's since been moved upstairs. Now, both buildings have ground-floor shops and restaurants along the length of the square, Triangle Lane, and most of Grandview Avenue. The auditorium still faces the square, meaning people will get to see what's going on in there, but the retail will help make the square more active.

"We don't want this to be a space that empties out after 5pm," said Al Roshdieh, deputy director of the county's Department of Transportation, which owns the parking lot.


Left: Residents felt the Park & Planning headquarters design looked like a "downtown DC office building." Right: The new design.

The building's glassy façade, which neighbors said looked like a "downtown DC office building," was swapped out for one with a mix of glass, aluminum, and earth-toned fiber cement panels. The architects passed around samples of the panels, which will "break up the façade and make it more interesting and animated," reflecting a "bolder expression of Wheaton's character." The building will also have several environmentally-friendly features, including a green roof and treating grey water and storm water on site, making it eligible for LEED Gold certification.


Rendering of the "jewel box" and retail along Triangle Lane.

They also closed off an alley between Triangle and Grandview, which would have extended the pedestrian passage between Georgia and Triangle. The passage will end at a "glass jewel box"-looking structure containing the entrance to a parking garage. Doug Firstenberg from StonebridgeCarras said it would bring more people, whether coming by foot or car, to Triangle Lane, where most of the new retail will go.

30 years since talk about Wheaton's future started

The team hopes to finish the final design next year, start construction in 2016, and open in 2018. By then, it will have been almost 30 years since Montgomery County began talking about how to revitalize downtown Wheaton in 1989. A deal with developer BF Saul to build a much larger project fell through last year after the County Council balked at the cost.

Not surprisingly, residents are disappointed, and wanted to see more from the new plans. "I like the building about the same as the old one," said neighbor Randall Spadoni, who lamented that the connections to Wheaton Plaza across Veirs Mill Road were "awkward."

Resident Danila Sheveiko wanted more green space. More than a few people compared the new building unfavorably to the newly-opened Exchange tower, which one man called "one of the worst buildings in Wheaton."

There aren't many places in the DC area where people are as hungry and eager for new investment as in Wheaton. Some residents may be underwhelmed by the county's new, smaller proposal. But with an iconic town square and a building that helps activate the street, this design has the right pieces to spark a larger revival.

Architecture


What would taller buildings mean for DC's architecture?

Would lifting the height limit lead to better architecture? It's not that simple, say architects. There are many people and forces, both cultural and economic, that shape the built environment, not just height.


The Cairo Apartments. Photo by David on Flickr.

Proponents of relaxing the height limit say that it would improve the quality of architecture, but they usually mean that new buildings will be less boxy if there's less pressure to maximize floor area. Yes, this might encourage more setbacks, deeper walls, more varied patterns, and richer textures. It might also lead to buildings that are just taller versions of the same boxes.

We asked several experienced architects to weigh in on the topic. Some oppose revisions and others support them. But they all note how aesthetics, human comfort, and building performance get trapped in between money and the law, and offer tangible ways to improve the urban environment with or without relaxed height restrictions.

Form follows finance

It may be helpful to think of a speculative office building as a machine for making money. In order to provide a very high level of service to a large amount of floor space, modern office buildings are packed with mechanical equipment and consist of highly engineered assemblies from structure to skin. We can see when money has been spent on high-quality finishes and beautiful details, but the real luxury is empty space.

Given the demand for space downtown, developers want to maximize revenue. The high rents enable them to finance the construction of multistory buildings to multiply the rentable floor area. In any location, physics, human needs, and legal restrictions constrain the design of buildings. Since you can't go beyond a certain height, there's a perverse incentive to use every square inch of the zoning envelope, an effect noted by several of the architects we asked.

Marshall Purnell notes that this pressure encourages facades with no depth. A four-inch-thick glass curtainwall assembly opens up a lot more space than a foot-thick cavity wall with insulation. Large windows can make smaller perimeter offices feel bigger. Flat and glassy looks modern, maximizes space, and carries a dubious aura of sustainability. It works well enough for owners, but produces a thin public realm.

Matt Bell of Perkins Eastman notes that the worst offenders in terms of boxiness suffer from bad proportioning and composition. Relatively modest setbacks and architectural texture, combining patterns, recesses, and different materials, can make a world of difference. The Investment Building and 1999 K Street both show how minor massing details can significantly diminish bulkiness.


Left: Photo of 1999 K Street NW from Jahn Architects. Right: Investment Building by NCinDC on Flickr.

In order for greater height to enable better architecture, it would have to change the value proposition of those architectural features. Niches reduce revenue and flexibility, so there is a disincentive to use even little recesses for office buildings. With less of a need to maximize every square inch, developers might agree to increase the facade depth and reduce setbacks. The equation for finishes and detail, which cost the same amount for each floor, would remain unchanged.

Revised limits could make for more sustainable interiors

Robert Peck, who works on office design at Gensler, notes that the height limit contributes to "unusually low ceilings" in Washington. Buildings, he argues might be more efficient with higher floors to let light penetrate deeper into the building. Light enters a window at an angle, so a ray entering higher up goes deeper, especially if it can be reflected with a light shelf.

Shalom Baranes argued a related point a few months back: greater floor-to-floor heights allow ducts to be more efficiently shaped and routed. The efficiency of ducts depends on the directness of the route and the ratio of duct surface to volume. A circular or square cross section is best. But in cramped ceilings, flattened ducts and circuitous routes require air to move at faster speeds. Not only does this waste energy, it's noisier.


Section through One Bryant Park, showing floor heights from CookFox Architects.

I'd also add that higher floor heights allow heat to move away from human bodies. Designers can further this by distributing air through the floor and returning it through the ceiling. Because the fresh air does not mix with the stale air, lower volumes of air can flow at slower speeds and warmer temperatures and still achieve the same level of thermal comfort. And there are still further techniques that can be used when ceilings are less congested.

Interestingly, these requirements suggest that building height might be better regulated by the number of floors, rather than by absolute height. The cost of higher floor heights would remove the incentive for outrageous floor heights in most cases, while reducing the pressure on building systems. Traditionalist architect Léon Krier has argued that this produces building heights that vary within certain limits, with extreme differences uncommon.

We could shape the height and density

None of the architects support unfettered height increases. Cities are more than just economic engines. Land use is deeply intertwined with transportation, community, and aesthetics, and the purpose of planning is to balance those interests to produce a thriving city. It's in the city's interest to promote a public realm that benefits citizens.

The official statement of the DC chapter of the AIA calls for "A thorough, in-depth study," of the city's height limit, arguing that "well-designed, taller structures will provide an interesting counterpoint and add visual interest and variety to the skyline." The authors, David Haresign, Mary Fitch, and Bill Bonstra, have been working with the Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission to discuss ways of managing the height limit.

They argue that the rationale behind the 1910 law is outdated, so new regulations that reflect modern building standards and aesthetic needs should be the beginning of any conversation. Outside of areas with federal interest, they point out that the DC government should be the organization to determine those needs.

Even if Congress were to change the height law, it would require revising DC's Comprehensive Plan, last changed in 2006. Roger Lewis, architecture columnist for the Washington Post, echoes the DC AIA's call for detailed planning. An insistence on transparent planning, he argues, is the best way to ensure equitable outcomes for a growing city. Analysis of geographical information could enable an approach that replaces a one-size-fits-all approach with one that carefully tunes height for livability.

The city might also look for more specific ways to shape the city's architecture. David Varner of SmithGroup points out that the comparative devaluation of existing buildings could lead to premature teardowns. To prevent this, he suggests a transfer of development rights system, where property owners could sell the windfall development rights to other landowners to offset the costs.


One Franklin Square, with setbacks and towers, by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The District could offer height in exchange for design review or mandate a set of design codes in exchange for greater height. Architect Travis Price looks to incentive zoning, allowing buildings to reach higher in exchange for architectural features. Combined with setbacks, buildings in his imagining would reach into the sky with sculptural features most analogous to the towers and setbacks of One Franklin Square, although he'd prefer to do without symmetry.

Even without a formal system of incentive zoning, the regulations could be better tailored to architectural content. The NCPC's modest revisions allow people to occupy penthouses, currently used mainly to store mechanical equipment, and at best hidden by a setback. This might encourage more exciting roof structures, adding interest to DC's skyline.

Architecture isn't determined by economics alone

Residential blocks, the other major kind of multistory building, face slightly different restrictions. Zoning is more restrictive than the height limit in most places. Revising the height limit wouldn't have an effect on the sense of the city for many years. Before any changes actually happen, there will be time to fine-tune plans and settle on an effective regulatory method. DC will never look like Manhattan.

Defenders of the Height Act accurately say that the current law has benefits, such as encouraging developers to build to the lot line. We are fortunate that the height limit discourages the shattered streetscapes of some cities. But it's a side effect of a rule that has many negative side effects, namely increased cost of living. If the city needs strong streetwalls, then those should be required. If a low roofline gets more sun to the streets, then regulation based on solar exposure would be more precise.

The height limit, as it is currently structured, is too crude of a tool to encourage the built environment most people want. Horizontally, the building regulations may permit too much, but vertically there's no flexibility. A careful revision of the height limit could resolve much of the blockishness of DC's architecture, but absent more effective guidelines, there's no guarantee the public realm will reach a higher quality with more height.

One thing the architects reiterated is that good design requires clients to desire it. As Marshall Purnell notes, his ability to realize good design depended on having the good fortune to find clients who want it. No matter how talented an architect is or how much design review there is, the quality of the environment depends ultimately on an owner's desire to contribute to the public realm.

To read the full comments of the architects, click here.

Arts


New murals sprout across DC

DC is awash in murals. Four new murals recently went up as part of an arts festival sponsored by Heineken. Ward 7 residents banded together to give a beloved restaurant a mural. And a filmmaker's making a documentary about what murals mean to DC's culture.


Design for a mural at Thai Orchid in Ward 7. Image from MuralsDC.

Located on Pennsylvania Avenue SE just east of the Anacostia River, Thai Orchid is the sole sit-down restaurant on a block with a beauty supply store, liquor store, and empty storefronts. Opened in 2010, the locally-owned spot quickly became a local gathering spot. On her blog Life in the Village, Veronica Davis raved about the food, while commenters expressed excitement that they could eat out without crossing the river.

To say "thank you," neighbors want to beautify Thai Orchid and its block with a mural.

It's a testament to a business that took a chance on Ward 7 and represents a continuing commitment to local businesses. Supporters applied for funding from MuralsDC, a partnership between the DC Department of Public Works, the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities, and nonprofit group Words Beats & Life that uses street art to enliven neighborhoods and combat graffiti.

They had commissioned an artist to create the mural, but a small group of residents put a halt to the project, arguing that District funds should be used for more worthy causes. Now, the community is raising money to move forward with the mural without public help.

But murals are still going up elsewhere in DC. Working with MuralsDC, Dutch brewing company Heineken sponsored four murals in Shaw and NoMa and installed them last month. It's part of a larger series of murals Heineken commissioned in Atlanta and Miami. The DC installation coincided with the G40 Art Summit, a street art festival sponsored by the Art Whino gallery in National Harbor.


One of the Heineken murals. Photo by Lewis Francis used with permission.

It makes sense that Heineken chose DC as a location, with its long history of murals celebrating its African American and Latino communities. Filmmaker Caitlin Carroll was so inspired by the city's mural culture that she started working on a documentary about it called Painted City.

The film features art historian Perry Frank, who documents murals both past and present, and includes stories about murals that have been lost, highlighting the art's fleeting nature. Community pride and beautification is a recurring theme in the documentary, and Carroll also highlights the work of local artists who work with residents and kids to beautify their neighborhoods.

Murals, along with public art in general, can let communities show neighborhood pride, inspire others, and provide hope. In an area struggling with unemployment, poverty, and crime, residents see art as a way to uplift and inspire.

As Carroll notes, "Every mural has a story." The stories often have an end as murals disappear due to new development or get damaged in building repairs. But even in their temporary nature, they still serve as a form of community expression.

Architecture


No, DC is not going to be like Paris

Supporters of DC's height limit say restricting building heights has worked to keep Paris beautiful. But embracing the Parisian built form would have unintended consequences on DC's neighborhoods.


Demolition near l'Opéra in Paris, 1877. Photo by Charles Marville

The mid-rise Paris that we know today was built not by a democracy, but by a mad emperor and his bulldozer-wielding prefect. As Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning said in a recent WAMU interview, "Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them essentially block after block of small apartment buildings."

"If we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate easily 100 years' worth of residential growth," she added. "But they would be very different neighborhoods."

A haunting exhibition of photographs by Charles Marville, now on view at the National Gallery of Art, offers us a glimpse at how this change manifested itself in Paris.

The city government hired Marville to document the systematic demolition of central Paris' low-rise neighborhoods, the construction of new mid-rise neighborhoods (the ones we know today) in their stead, and the widespread displacement of the center's low-income residents to the urban fringe. (Numerous books have been written about the era, notably "Transforming Paris," by David Jordan.) There were technological limits on buildings in that era, too: elevators were slow and expensive, and the new water mains could not supply satisfactory water pressure to the upper floors of many buildings.

Not dissimilarly, downtown DC's horizontal march has steamrolled numerous low-rise neighborhoods in its wake, from Chinatown to Foggy Bottom. Now that only a few blocks are left for downtown to grow into, office buildings are muscling into Shaw. This is only natural for a mid-rise city: Paris' mid-rise urban fabric superimposed on DC would spill outside the diamond, vastly larger than the existing downtown.

That path of destruction is why most other growing cities in this century (i.e., built-out but growing central cities, from London and Singapore to New York, Portland, Toronto, and San Francisco) have gone the Vancouver route and rezoned central industrial land for high-rises. This method allows them to simultaneously accommodate new housing, and new jobs, while keeping voters' single family houses intact.

By opposing higher buildings downtown, DC's neighborhoods are opposing change now, but at the cost of demanding far more wrenching changes ahead: substantial redevelopment of low-rise neighborhoods, skyrocketing property prices (as in Paris), or increasing irrelevance within the regional economy as jobs, housing, and economic activity get pushed further into suburbs that welcome growth.

Among large North American cities, only Toronto has joined DC in making a concerted effort to redirect growth into mid-rise buildings along streetcar lines, and only as an adjunct strategy in addition to hundreds of high-rises under construction. (The two metro regions are of surprisingly similar population today.) Yet there, just like here, neighborhoods are up in arms at the very notion.

DC cannot put a lid on development downtown, in the rowhouse neighborhoods, in the single-family neighborhoods, and on the few infill sites we have left, and yet somehow also accommodate enough new jobs and residents to make our city reliably solvent, much less sustainable. The sum of remaining developable land in the city amounts to 4.9% of the city, which as OP demonstrates through its analysis, cannot accommodate projected growth under existing mandates.

Something will have to give. A good place to start is a loophole-ridden law imposed back when DC was a protectorate and when Greater Washington counted fewer residents than today's Asheville or Quad Cities.

The Office of Planning has suggested a reasonable framework for a subtly revised Height Act that can accommodate growth and change while preserving the city's cherished urban design and historic neighborhoods. Adapting the rigid 130' cap to a street-width rule maintains the Height Act framework along our ceremonial avenues, where our city's namesake actually set a height minimum.

Along streets like L'Enfant Promenade, Washington had the right idea: taller buildings will better frame vistas. Beyond the L'Enfant City, the Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance will continue to ensure that most buildings never reach the 90' Height Act maximum, but the city will have the flexibility to adapt to evolving construction techniques and special opportunity sites.

As DC re-adjusts to a new century of urban growth, after a lost generation of population decline and disinvestment, inaction poses a far greater risk than action. Paris' combination of horizontality and verticality is undeniably beautiful, but its unique form resulted from a peculiar historical process that I would not wish upon an American city today.

The District of Columbia Council is accepting written testimony about the Height Act until next Tuesday. For more information or to send your comments, visit their website.

A version of this post appeared on West North.

Public Spaces


Murals can brighten DC's blank walls

DC's great public spaces work that way because they're surrounding by active and visually interesting things. How can new places become great as well? By making sure they aren't surrounded by blank walls. Murals are a good start.


A blank wall behind the new District Flea market near U Street. All photos by the author.

Like many, I joined the herd that flocked to District Flea, the new flea market from the creators of Brooklyn Flea, on its opening day in September. But by the time I entered the market at 9th Street and Florida Avenue NW, a blank grey wall disrupted my train of thought. The wall belongs to the Floridian, a condo building completed a few years ago.

Have you ever walked in a space and said, "This is wrong?" That's what I did.

After regaining my composure, I thoroughly enjoyed the event and vendors, especially the shop that had two amazing terra cotta pipes for sale. (Hopefully they aren't sold yet.) Thankfully, District Flea will continue until the end of November, and hopefully it will return next summer.

But if District Flea officially makes its home in this lot, something has to be done with this tidal wave of a wall intimidating patrons like me. A mural would be a good way to enliven this space and make it more visually appealing and inviting.


Photo by cisc1970 on Flickr.

Compare it to Brooklyn Flea, where the historic neighborhood context provides several beautiful vantage points for visitors to enjoy. These buildings may not be part of the market, but they add to its atmosphere and character in a way a blank wall simply doesn't.

Painters have created murals around DC for decades, but they can be hard to find. In Cincinnati, my previous home, it seemed as if every empty wall in the city had art on it.


A mural in Cincinnati.

The District is fortunate enough to have Murals DC, an organization that helps to replace illegal graffiti with artistic works, revitalizing sites within the community while teaching young people the art of aerosol painting. They are responsible for over 30 murals throughout the city, and perhaps could help to create one here.


"A People Without Murals Is A Demuralized People," a mural in Adams Morgan. Photo by art around on Flickr.

I might be crazy for feeling bullied by an inanimate blank wall, but a mural is still worth pursuing. I'm sure District Flea's parking lot is already a likely site for a new apartment building. But until it's forced to move, we should still strive to make this site a better a place to be.

Architecture


Topic of the week: DC's height limit

As part of a new weekly series on Greater Greater Washington, we'll take a topic that is relevant in the week's news and allow our contributors to briefly weigh in on it. This week: proposed changes to DC's height limit.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Dan Malouff had a great post on the topic and there have been several stories featured in the Breakfast Links recently on the subject. Should DC keep its height limit, tweak it, or get rid of it all together? Are there possible consequences people aren't considering? Two of our contributors weigh in:

Canaan Merchant: I think the original reasons for it are outdated and the current arguments insufficient. That doesn't mean I think we will start digging foundations for skyscrapers on the Mall anytime soon. I think we can protect the things we like about the height limit by changing the argument from "why should we let this building be tall?" to "why shouldn't we let this building be tall?"

In his original post, Dan Malouff compares DC's height limit debate to Paris'. I would like to point out the lessons we can learn from London. London has a special neighborhood for high-rises at Canary Wharf, similar to Paris' La Defense or our own Rosslyn. But it has started building very tall buildings in central London as well because there is still a lot of demand there. In DC, demand will remain high for downtown office space as well, even if we do allow much taller buildings in areas like Friendship Heights or Poplar Point.

London hasn't stopped protecting its views either, like King Henry's Mound, a hill that is 10 miles away from St. Paul's Cathedral. In DC, we can do the same thing from some of our most famous viewing points while still allowing taller buildings in many other places as well.

Eric Fidler: One point that was largely absent from last Monday's DC Council hearing is that new housing exceeding the 130-foot height limit will produce more affordable housing thanks to DC's Inclusionary Zoning laws.

Critics often refute the supply-and-demand argument for greater heights by noting that all the new tall apartment buildings are expensive. That is true because new apartment buildings, like new clothes and new cars, can command a price premium over their older counterparts. Today's pricey, new buildings become tomorrow's discounted, "lived-in" buildings.

However, DC's Inclusionary Zoning law requires that new residential projects with more than 9 units set aside 8% or 10% of units for affordable housing.

Assuming Congress relaxes the Height Act, then DC amends the Comprehensive Plan, then the Zoning Commission amends the zoning text and map to create taller zones with higher height and FAR limits, these new, taller buildings will produce more Inclusionary Units. Think of it another way: 10% of a 22-story building is greater than 10% of a 13-story building.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Transit


Mosaics could make navigating Metro easier

The Metro can be disorienting for a newcomer. For a long time after I moved here, I got turned around every time I changed trains at L'Enfant Plaza, and always ended up having to go back and read the signs. Could mosaics of the world above make it easier to navigate?


Mockup of a mosaic depicting the convention center at the Mount Vernon Square Metro station. All images by the author.

Metro's uniformity makes it difficult to navigate. I was describing this for a friend who grew up here, and he knew what I meant. My mother doesn't take the metro at all, he told me, because she can't read. The signs aren't any help to her, so she has to stick with the bus where she can see landmarks through the windows and not miss her stop.

Here I was griping because I had to read the signs to navigate the metro, while my friend's mother, like millions of other American adults, isn't able to use the metro system at all because she can't read the signs. I am a mosaicist, which means I make mosaics. When my friend told me about his mother's situation, it gave me an idea: why not put mosaics in the metro depicting the view on the street above?


Mosaic of my dog, Buddy.

Here is a picture of a 4'x4' mosaic I made of my dog, Buddy. Notice how the background in the mosaic meshes with the fence behind it. Imagine mosaics similarly made mounted inside the coffers (those pockets you see on the sides and ceilings of the underground Metro stations) depicting the street view overhead. As a train pulled into a station, you could "look out the window" to see where you were.

The mosaics, especially if illuminated, would help dispel the Metro's gloominess by adding color and "sunlight" to the platforms. At the same time, because they would sit inside the coffers, they wouldn't interfere with the grand vistas of architect Harry Weese, who designed the stations.

This project could engage the community, bringing in neighbors of each Metro station to select the subject matter for their station's mosaics. WMATA could set up a website where residents could offer suggestions for neighborhood landmarks or vote on others' submissions. WMATA could even advertise the submission process as a way to give every DC area resident a stake in "our Metro."


Mockup of a mosaic for the Gallery Place Metro station.

Mosaics could be of recognizable landmarks specific to the area around each station, like the Friendship Arch at the Gallery Place-Chinatown station or the Capitol dome at Capitol South. Or they could be of an interesting view, like the tops of rowhouses, or the entrance of the Thurgood Marshall Academy for the Anacostia station.

Each mosaic would have to satisfy artistic and technical conditions. For example, a mosaic of the skyline wouldn't work because the subject matter is too big to be rendered mosaically with sufficient detail. After passing WMATA review, the local ANC could select a final design from a list of top vote-getters.

The cost could be very reasonable. Each metro coffer is 100 inches wide. If the mosaicist used standard 5/8" x 5/8" ceramic tiles, the rendered mosaic would look very much like the mock-ups depicted here. The cost to complete a station would be less than the $250,000 per station WMATA already has budgeted for public art along the new Silver Line.


Detail of a potential mosaic.

Mosaics would be resistant to vandalism, easy to maintain, and easier to clean than the concrete they would cover. They could be made in sections, then installed all at once overnight with no disruption to service. They would also be durable. In my view, one of the primary benefits of installing mosaics in the Metro is that they could be historical windows into our time for future generations of riders.

Visual cues in the Metro system could add interest to every rider's experience. They're especially helpful for visitors and newcomers as well. But for those who struggle with illiteracy or a learning disability, mosaics below ground depicting the street scene above ground could provide life-changing benefits.

Development


Eric Colbert releases new renderings for 5333 Connecticut

Architects Eric Colbert and Associates shared renderings of the latest design for their proposed apartment building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue. Few renderings of the project have been available until now, so it's been difficult to understand how it will look.


Rendering of 5333 Connecticut's front entrance. All images from Eric Colbert and Associates.

The design depicted in the renderings is substantially the same as the one presented at an ANC3G meeting in August, when commissioners voted for the Memorandum of Understanding with developer Cafritz.

Colbert applies planes of glass and white frames to a glass block in manner similar to the neomodernist apartment buildings of Richard Meier. Two of those buildings are regarded as kicking off the trend for glass-enclosed apartment buildings in New York.


5333 Connecticut from Kanawha Street.

The sides of the building that face single family homes have significantly fewer windows, addressing the light pollution concerns the neighbors are reasonably worried about. Having such an dramatic transition from one side to another puts a lot of pressure on the corner, architecturally. Colbert negotiates this shift with a line of windows on the edge of the Kanawha Street wing, shown above. Whether this shift succeeds will depend on how transparent the glass appears at a given time of day.

The change of transparency is driven by the sun, whose heat and light are serious concerns in a glazed building. The renderings show similar treatments on both the north and south elevations of the building. That much glass on the southern exposure will lead to an excess in heat in light, but on the northern side, the glass might also abate the worries about shadows by reflecting light down to the street.


5333 Connecticut from Connecticut and Military.

To me, the building is the most successful at the edges of the projections from the sides of the building. There, the relationship between interior walls and the opaque frame around the edge makes it feel like volumes have slid out from the building. This could have been a simplistic, cheesy move, but Colbert's office wove translucent balcony railings into the white frame. The result is a sensitive corner, a feature often absent in glass-heavy modern architecture.

Unfortunately, this sensitivity is absent where the building touches the ground. Considering that the ground has been so controversial, the design would be better if the walls changed as they met the landscape designed by Trini Rodriguez. Whether becoming more solid, showing the weight of the building, or simply transitioning from vertical to horizontal, this relationship is key to producing a building that feels appropriate for its site.


5333 Connecticut from Connecticut and Kanawha.

Developer Cafritz has stated their desire to have a building that is contemporary and of its time, and meant "glass." However, glass is only "modern" when it calls attention to relationships of inside and outside, ground and sky, and between the people who look through it as neighbors. Like any materials, how a window shapes our environment is more important than the sheer technological thrill of transparency.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC