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The Eisenhower Memorial is moving forward, but metal tapestries might get in the way of the view

A proposed memorial to President Eisenhower in Southwest DC keeps trudging through the federal approvals process, even as it's surrounded by controversy. But federal planners want some changes, especially to the way the memorial affects views of the Capitol.


The Eisenhower Memorial from Independence Avenue, SW. All images from Gehry Partners/AECOM.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) will review the project at its meeting Thursday. NCPC doesn't decide whether the memorial is aesthetically good enough; that job lies with the Commission on Fine Arts. But it will consider whether the design meets various technical requirements, complies with federal laws on memorials, and most of all how it fits into the commission's interpretation of the L'Enfant Plan.

The NCPC staff recommendation carries a lot of weight with the commission board, which will make the decision. The big news in the report was that repeated tests found that the 80-foot-tall stainless steel tapestries, which are a major (and very controversial) part of the design, dramatically exceeded durability requirements.

The National Park Service also found that the memorial's maintenance costs would be about the same as those of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and less than half of the World War II Memorial's.


A 2014 plan drawing of the memorial square.

The report says that the current design meets 4 of the 7 principles NCPC set down for the memorial in 2006: It creates a green space, respects the surrounding architecture, helps to restore Maryland Avenue, and creates a unique commemorative space.

However, the staff had some objections about how the tapestries affect the monumental openness the NCPC sees in the L'Enfant Plan. Other concerns revolved around lighting and pedestrian circulation.

The design of the memorial has changed considerably over the past four years. Critics have portrayed Frank Gehry's attitude as inflexible, but the NCPC submission package shows a dizzying number of alternatives and tweaks. Documents given to the CFA show even more.

In the wake of a bitter conflict with President Eisenhower's grandchildren, Gehry added larger-than-life statues in front of the bas reliefs, adjacent to a life-size statue of teenaged Eisenhower. These changes rightly put more emphasis on Eisenhower's accomplishments.

Officials wanted to be sure the tapestries would survive exposure to the elements over a long period of time. Independent studies tested tapestry elements' resistance to corrosion, impact, and fatigue. The corrosion tests subjected the tapestry to water, salt, soot, and sulfur dioxide, simulating acidic pollution that causes damage to the stone and bronze typical of DC's monuments.


The side tapestries serve as gateways to the memorial complex.

Using the stainless steel alloy that the fabricator has chosen, 317L, there was almost no corrosion, and welds held 5 times the expected load even after a thousand-hour salt water shower. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense, and the Smithsonian Institution concluded that the tests met their standards.

The Park Service also dismissed concerns from opponents that trash would accumulate; the largest concern seems to be that the designers did not pay enough attention to the effects of bird poop.

Viewsheds strike again

However sturdy, the tapestries infringe on the Maryland and Independence Avenue rights-of-way, the NCPC staff report argues, and diminish the significance of the surrounding buildings in making an urban space.


A model shot of sightlines through the 2013 version.

The report finds that the tapestries and columns change the view towards the Capitol significantly, specifically narrowing it from the full 160-foot right-of-way to a 95-foot gap. The Gehry team argues that the rules permit artworks like the tapestries to occupy the right-of-way, but not a 50' gap at the center called the cartway. The designers say that the tapestries frame the view of the Capitol Dome, bringing more attention to it.

NCPC staff agree in principle, but say the 10' diameter, 80' tall columns and semi-opaque screens impact the view enough to violate this rule. Moreover, they say this approach contradicts L'Enfant's vision for wide-open monumental avenues.


A comparison of setbacks and the outboard column.

Similarly, the NCPC report found that one column along Independence Avenue extends past a 50-foot setback line matching the adjacent Wilbur Wright (FAA) and Wilbur Cohen (SSA) buildings. The design team argues that since setbacks on Independence Avenue range from 24' to 133', NCPC's choice to use directly adjacent buildings is arbitrary.


Streetwalls along Independence and Constitution.

Finally, the report finds that the way the tapestries create a semi-transparent precinct within the existing building fabric overshadows the existing buildings, particularly the LBJ Department of Education building. The bottom third of the tapestries would be almost solid, the middle section would be around half solid, and the top, around 20%. The report deems this level of density to be too high to respect the architecture of the building behind it.


Rendering from Reservation 113, showing the impact of the tapestries.

I understand the concerns of the NCPC staff. The L'Enfant Plan is a landmark that deserves respect. However, compared to the rigor of the technical analysis, the justifications for the principles are a little thin.

Unoccupiable columns are not buildings. Semi-transparent screens are not simply walls. The reciprocal views aren't ruined on Maryland Avenue. Screening a background isn't the same as blacking it out. Using the unremarkable, objectlike Wilbur Wright Building to establish a 50' setback needs more justification than what's in the report, particularly since NCPC violated its own height rules to approve the MLK memorial.

Conceptually, treating the 160-foot corridor as the total viewshed turns it into a beautiful abstraction unmoored from the experience of people actually there. It defers too much to the beautiful emptiness that's great for looking at but not so good for daily life.

There's already a stately, monumental avenue across the Mall. The Eisenhower Memorial offers a future for Maryland Avenue that preserves the key view while putting pedestrians first.


The LBJ Promenade, showing potential uses.

The memorial's most underappreciated aspect is the proposed LBJ Promenade, a street-sized walkway framed by the Education building and the tapestries. Meant to make more of pedestrian connection than is currently there, that kind of dense space is what a live-work Southwest needs. The NCPC may still find fault with the position of the tapestries, but I'd be more persuaded by their reasoning if they emphasized the tidiness and monumental emptiness less for this site.

The Eisenhower Memorial still has a long way to go before a shovel hits the ground. The agencies with power to approve or halt the memorial have very different opinions. The Commission of Fine Arts likes how the tapestries frame the view to the Capitol, but a few members question their ability to enclose the space. A Congressional committee has proposed stripping funding from the memorial for the year, but that might change if NCPC approves the design. There is a lot of uncertainty at this time.

At the same time, the team has met many of the objections from the Eisenhower grandchildren. The technical evaluations of the memorial have been promising. The doubt in my mind has been eroding. It's too early to count the memorial out.


A tapestry, the east path, and the presidential tableau.

Architecture


A hidden height limit holds back affordable mid-rise construction in DC

In "The Three Little Pigs," one pig builds a house from straw, a second from sticks, and a third from bricks, with very different consequences. Notably absent is any mention of each little pig's construction budget. For humans today, it's not protection from wolves, but out-of-control budgets that determine our choices of building materials.


New residential construction in Takoma. Photo by the author.

The 1899 Height Act set a construction limit of 90 feet in much of DC, effectively 7 or 8 stories. This height poses a particularly vexing cost conundrum for developers seeking to build workforce housing in DC's neighborhoods. It's just beyond one of the key cost thresholds in development, between buildings supported with light frames versus heavy frames.

Fire safety codes require that buildings over 6 stories have heavy frames, but rents in most of the city don't quite justify the considerable added cost. Instead, valuable land near downtown sits empty, outlying areas that could support taller buildings instead get low­-rise buildings, and the city gets fewer new housing units. New construction techniques could offer a way out.

The difference between heavy and light frames

Heavy frames rely on fewer but stronger steel or reinforced concrete columns to hold up the building, and are better known as Type I fireproof structures. Light frames rely on many small columns (usually known as studs), and are usually referred to as Type II (if masonry or metal) or if wood, Type III (with fire resistive treatments), Type IV (if made from heavy beams), or Type V (if little fire-proofing has been applied) construction.


Left: Type I: 1100 1st St. NE in NoMa. Right: Type III: Apartments in Fort Totten. Photos by Mr.T in DC on Flickr.

These structural types are rated using the degree of fire protection that these structures offer, with lower numbers denoting more fire-resistant structures. In DC, they're defined in the city's building code, which is based on an international standardthe International Code Council (ICC) and its "I-Codes."

The ICC's Table 503 sets limits on how high different types of buildings can be. Thanks to technological improvements to wood and fire safety improvements to buildings, mid-rise buildings can be built up to five floors high using Type III construction. These five floors can, in turn, be placed atop a one-story concrete podium to build a six-story mixed-use building.

How much cheaper?

Light frame construction cuts costs in two principal ways. Light frames use fewer materials in the first place and thus have smaller ecological footprints, particularly since cement manufacturing is one of the most carbon-intensive industries.

They are also built from standardized parts that are usually finished off-site, rather than on-site, so materials are cheaper, on-site storage and staging (e.g., cement mixers) require less space, and construction is faster. That further reduces overall construction costs, since developers pay steep interest rates on construction loans.

These cost savings really add up throughout the entire building. The ICC's Building Value Data provides a comparison of national average per-square-foot construction costs for different kinds of multi-family building construction.

$104.74Type VLow-rise wood frame
$119.77Type IIIMid-rise wood frame, fire-resistant walls
$139.01Type IIMid-rise, light-gauge steel
$150.25Type IHigh-rise fireproof

Similarly, the RS Means construction cost-estimator database provides 2012 estimates (adjusted for local prices in DC) that show an even steeper premium for high-rise construction:

$136.70Type VLow-rise wood frame, 3 stories
$162.87Type IIMid-rise, light-gauge steel & block, 6 stories
$246.32Type IHigh-rise fireproof, 15 stories

As the ICC figures show, switching from Type III to Type I construction increases the cost of every square foot by 25.4%. Thus going from, say, a six-story building to seven stories only increases the available square footage by 16.7%, but increases construction costs by 46.3%. This results in a difficult choice: go higher for more square feet but at a higher price point, or take the opportunity cost, go lower, and get a cheaper, faster building?

In most other cities, the obvious solution is to go ever higher. Once a building crosses into high-rise construction, the sky's ostensibly the limit. In theory, density can be increased until the additional space brings in enough revenue to more than offset the higher costs. As Linsey Isaacs writes in Multifamily Executive: "Let's say you have a property on an urban infill site that costs $100 per square foot of land. Wood may cost 10 percent less than its counterpart materials, but by doing a high-rise on the site, you get double the density and the land cost is cut in half."

Yet here in DC, the 90-foot height limit on residential areas, and commercial streets outside the core, tightly caps the additional building area that could pay for the substantial cost premium of building a high-rise.

Within the twilight zone

For many areas in DC, land is expensive enough to fall into a Twilight Zone. These areas are expensive enough to require high-rise densities, but the local rents are too cheap to justify high rises' high per-foot construction prices.

These areas are not super-trendy like 1st Street NE in NoMa or 14th Street NW in Logan Circle, which are seeing an explosion of Type I construction (and prices to match, with new apartment buildings selling for $900 per square foot). Nor are they outlying areas, where developers think the opportunity cost of forgoing a future high-rise is acceptable and thus proceed with Type III construction.

The recent apartment boom has given local residents a good, long look at Type III construction: in outlying city neighborhoods like Brookland, Fort Totten, Eckington, Petworth, off Bladensburg Road, and in town centers like Merrifield and White Flint.

In areas that are in-between, a lot of landowners are biding their time, waiting until the moment when land prices will justify a 90-foot high-risea situation which explains many of the vacant lots in what might seem like prime locations.

My own neighborhood of Southwest Waterfront is just one example. Within one block of the Metro station are nine vacant lots, all entitled for high-rise buildings, but their developers are waiting until the land prices jump high enough to make high-rises worthwhile amidst a neighborhood known for its relatively affordable prices.

While the developers wait, the heart of the neighborhood suffers from a lack of customers within walking distance; the resulting middling retail selection, vacant storefronts, and subpar bus service reinforces the perception that Southwest Waterfront is not worthy of investment. Nearby Nationals Park is similarly surrounded by vacant lots, with renderings of eight-story Type I buildings blowing in the breeze.

In NoMa (east of the tracks) and the western end of H Street NE, projects like 360 H and AVA H Street were redesigned after 2008's market crash so that they didn't require Type I construction. The redesigns reduced costs, reduced the developers' need for scarce financing, and made the projects possiblebut also reduced the number of units built. AVA was entitled for almost 170 units, but was built as 138 units: building 20% fewer units cut structural costs by over 40%, according to developer AvalonBay.

Elsewhere, some other development projects have similarly been redesigned with faster Type III construction, even as future phases assume Type I construction. Capitol Quarter, the redevelopment of Capper/Carrollsburg near Navy Yard, might win an award for the shortest time between announcement and groundbreaking for the mixed-income Lofts at Capitol Quarter.

Several blocks west, the first phase to deliver at the Wharf will be the last phase that was designed; in fact, the idea of redeveloping St. Augustine's Church as a new church with a Type III residential building above came years after design began on the high-rises to its west.

New technologies can break the logjam

If it weren't for the Height Act, developers wouldn't just sit and wait on sites like these. They'd probably just build Type III buildings, and if there's still demand, they could build Type I downtown towers with 20+ floors. But due to the Height Act, DC is one of the only cities in America where there's a substantial market for 7-8 story buildings.

To break this logjam without changing the Height Act, DC's building community can embrace new light-frame construction techniques that can cost-effectively build mid-rise buildings without the need for steel beams and reinforced concrete. Local architects, developers, and public officials could convene a working group to bring some of these innovations to market, and thus safely deliver more housing at less cost.

Cross laminated timber (CLT), a "mega-plywood" made of lumber boards laminated together, has sufficient strength and fire resistance for high-rise structures; it's been used to build a 95-foot residential building in London and a 105.5-foot building in Melbourne. The ICC has approved CLT for inclusion in its 2015 code update, but the city has leeway to approve such structures today under a provision that allows "alternate materials and methods."

Cities like Seattle have started to evaluate whether to specifically permit taller CLT buildings. The Bullitt Center, a zero-impact building in Seattle, uses CLT for most of its upper-story structure.


The Bullitt Center. Photo by the author.

Type II buildings, often built with light frames of cold formed (aka light gauge) steel, can achieve high-rise heights but the ICC limits them to the same heights as Type III. (For example, 360 H Street was re-engineered from Type I to Type II, and lost two stories in the process.) Prefabrication, hybrid systems that incorporate other materials, and new fasteners have made mid-rise Type II buildings stronger and most cost-effective.

However, as the RS Means chart above shows, Type II might be cheaper than Type I but remains more expensive than Type I. Similar prefabrication has been applied to Type I mid-rises on the West Coast to reduce their costs.

By embracing these advancements in structural engineering, as well as providing relief from onerous parking requirements, DC could more easily and affordably build the mid-rise buildings that will house much of the city in the future.

Thanks to Brian O'Looney, partner at Torti Gallas and Partners, for sharing his expertise. A version of this post appeared on West North.

Architecture


Design could make or break the 11th Street Bridge Park

Washington has long turned its back on the Anacostia River, and in turn the neighborhoods east of the river. The 11th Street Bridge Park could become one of the city's most distinctive places, turning disused bridge structures into a connector and destination. With a design competition now underway, all that's left to do is design and build it.


An early park rendering by Ed Estes.

That's a tall order, but the project was born out of ingenuity. The proposed park takes advantage of foundations left over from one of the 1960s highway bridges. Rather than connect Capitol Hill to Anacostia, the highways isolated both.

Originally intended to feed the inner loop freeway, the old bridges were great for driving through the riverfront neighborhoods on the way to something else. When the city rebuilt the bridges in 2012, the city was left with an obsolete, but not totally useless, bridge next to the new local span.


The Bridge Park site. Image by the author using base from Google Maps.

The possibility of doing something with the remnants stuck in the mind of Scott Kratz, who at the time worked at the National Building Museum. At a meeting with then-Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning, he brought up the concept of reusing the bridge. To his surprise, she immediately thought it was a great idea.

Since then, Kratz has been figuring out the details and building support for the Bridge Park, now working full-time on this project at THEARC in Congress Heights. That organization has held 195 meetings on both sides of the river to find out what the bridge would need to be, with a focus on reaching out to residents who often feel ignored in efforts to improve the city.

Now, THEARC and its appropriately named parent organization, Building Bridges Across the River, are looking to open the dialogue to everyone who benefits from the Anacostia. Since the park will likely be privately funded but publicly owned, raising the $35 million required to build and endow the bridge park will be a major goal. The other key part will be a design competition.

The Bridge Park must be more than a park

Given the precarious site and high cost, this project is risky. Getting the design right can make all of the difference between a world-class park and a white elephant, as Dan Malouff has previously noted.

Rather than stage an ostentatious open competition where flashy, iconic images predominate, Kratz went to the communities first. Some of those 195 meetings were charrettes, design meetings where stakeholders identified what was missing from their neighborhoods and how the bridge could fix them. When professionals do get involved later this month, they'll be screened based on their experience working with communities as much as design skill.


An early park rendering by Ed Estes.

Participants in the outreach meetings have focused on a few ideas for the park again and again. Because the East of the River neighborhoods face high obesity and hypertension rates, active recreation figures prominently in visions for the park. This includes playgrounds, as well as conventional sports areas, since there isn't one in Anacostia proper. In a similar vein, the Bridge Park staff are interested in introducing urban agriculture to the bridge, possibly fruit trees.

Encouraging residents to interact with the river is another goal. This might mean a dock as much as a environmental education center. Artistic output forms the final side: an outdoor performance space, or even a facility for an arts nonprofit could be part of the project. In general, Kratz sees art as crucial to letting the community take ownership of the park when it opens.

Turning the site's challenges into opportunities

I would like to see programs that take advantage of the elevated site. Since it's not an automobile bridge, the Bridge Park doesn't need to be flat, symmetrical, or even the same width all the way across. A skate park might suit the site perfectly. It's a loud activity that needs uneven terrain to play up its acrobatic elements.

Urban agriculture, on the other hand, seems counterintuitive. Planting beds would require importing large volumes of dirt and building a heavy-duty structure to support it. There are sites in Anacostia on actual land that seem more obvious for a farm.


The site boasts incredible views. How can the park make them even better? Photo by the author.

The main challenge the site faces is its isolation from busy streets. The first piers of the Bridge Park are ¼ mile from Good Hope Road on one side. On the other side, M Street SE is a long walk along the Navy Yard's fences and a highway viaduct.

Kratz realizes this problem, so he worked with students from Virginia Tech to find every possible connection, especially to the Anacostia Riverfront Trail. They proposed lighting and community art to enliven the sidewalks to M Street and Good Hope Road. Arriving with a gym bag might still present an obstacle, so Kratz is working with DDOT to install a stop for the Anacostia streetcar, which will run over the new bridge.

Streetcar access will be the most important factor in drawing residents to the active recreation sites. For casual recreation, how the designers locate activity areas could make those walks easier. With major attractions at either abutment of the bridge, visitors would come to pick up their kid from an event and kill time by talking a walk down to see the great view downriver.

Bridge Park needs to feel like a place to succeed

These designers will face a site pretty much unlike any other. Journalists frequently compare the Bridge Park to New York's High Line, but there are several crucial differences. For one, the High Line runs for 1.45 miles through dense neighborhoods, well connected to the streets below.

Reusing the entire structure of an old railroad viaduct, the High Line was stuck with relatively tight dimensions, ranging from 30 to 88 feet. That's about size of a tennis court. The 11th Street Bridge Park has the potential to stand 160 feet wide and 800 feet long, around the size of three professional football fields end-to-end.

And pedestrian bridges sometimes have places to rest, but they rarely are destinations by themselves. There are a few unbuilt parallels, like Thomas Heatherwick's Garden Bridge in London, or OMA's Jean-Jacques Bosc bridge in Bordeaux, but those still function primarily as transportation infrastructure.

There is one project that has actually gets beyond the transportation deck: a pedestrian bridge in Providence. Reusing the piers of what had been a highway bridge right through the center of town, the new bridge connects two sections of a greenway.


Providence Bridge Park, a glimpse of our possible future. Image from PVD Planning.

Architect inForm and engineer Buro Happold created a structure that varies width and height: In one place, a delicate bridge, while on the other, it's grassy steps down to the river. With all of this three-dimensional variation, the designers were able to put a café in the middle.


The Providence Bridge Park is landscaped, not flat. Section drawings from PVD Planning.

What's nice about the Providence project is that it looks a lot like a street: it has the multi-layered activity that happens when people are passing by, relaxing, working, and working out. To be successful, the Anacostia Bridge Park needs to sustain this kind of activity. The design of the project, from how the activities are arranged to the way it interprets the river artistically is what will do that.

The designers' test will be to take the communities' desires and layer them within architecture that connects the mundane to something bigger in the context. In other words, the park should make a basketball game feel as connected to MLK Boulevard as to the flow of water underneath. The players should sense that they're playing 20 feet in the air and a mile from the Capitol.

The bridge park can't solve that many problems. But it can create a place of confluence between the city's different constituencies. If everyone feels they own this park, it can be part of a more inclusive revitalization of Washington.

To find out more about the Bridge Park, please visit bridgepark.org. The design competition will be announced on March 20th.

Architecture


Wheaton's Youth Center represented the future in 1963. Could it do that again in 2014?

50 years ago, the Wheaton Youth Center brought local teens together around rock-and-roll and symbolized the idealism of the young, fast-growing suburb. As pressure grows to replace it with a new recreation center, can this building adapt to become a part of Wheaton's future?


All photos by the author.

To some, the 1960s-era building at Georgia and Arcola avenues is a local landmark with a storied musical history, but to others, it's an eyesore and an exercise in nostalgia. They can't even agree on what to call it: preservation supporters use its original name, the Youth Center, while opponents call it the Rec Center.

Whatever the name, county officials have been planning to demolish it and the adjacent library and put them in one new, $36 million building on the site of the library. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board both recommended the building become a historic landmark, but it doesn't seem to have many friends on the County Council, which will make the final decision.

"Where rock-and-roll was invented"

When the Wheaton Youth Center opened in 1963, it won awards for its Japanese-style architecture. But it was better known for hosting famous musical acts, like Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart, and Led Zeppelin, who may have played their first US show there in 1969.


Eileen McGuckian of Montgomery Preservation, Inc. and the guys who hung out at the Youth Center as teens.

Local musicians played the youth center's stage as well, including a 13-year-old Tori Amos, then living in Rockville, who gave her first public performance there at a talent show in 1977. In December, the kids who once hung out at the Wheaton Youth Center came back to celebrate the building's 50th birthday with cake and a screening of filmmaker Jeff Krulik's documentary "Led Zeppelin Played Here."

Krulik, who lives in Silver Spring, says the building helped nurture a music scene in Wheaton. "Places like this are where the rock-and-roll concert industry was virtually invented," he says. "The building speaks to me. The walls talk."

"This was the cool place to be," says Olney resident Rick, who grew up in Wheaton and hung out at the Youth Center every weekend. "It kept us off the streets, gave us focus...all the things that young people should learn." Rick only recently learned about the building's architectural history, but says "that alone" makes it worth saving.

Is preservation a "fanciful plan"?

To current users, however, the recreation center is too small and falling apart. December's party happened in a crowded hallway between the gym with the leaky roof and the computer lab with four machines.

The county didn't have to consider preserving the building because it wasn't on its survey of historic buildings, a prerequisite for historic designation. The last survey was done in 1976 and doesn't include any buildings from the 20th century, because nobody thought they were historic yet. Planner are working on a new survey to identify which buildings deserve further study, says historic preservation planner Clare Lise Kelly.

Naturally, residents anxious for a new recreation center fear that designation will add unnecessary delay and cost. Outside the party, opponents planted little yellow signs reading "NO DELAY" all around the building. Last fall, the Planning Board recommended keeping the old recreation center since the new one would be built next to it anyway, which wasn't received well.


How the new recreation center and library (right) could fit in with the old one. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.

"If the Planning Board wanted to add another element to their fanciful plan, they might as well have added a zoo for unicorns," wrote Olney resident and library board member Art Brodsky in a letter to the Gazette.

Both sides disagree how much it would cost to rehabilitate the building, which has never been renovated. Architects Grimm + Parker, which is designing the new facility, estimates it could cost nearly $7.8 million to bring the building up to code and move in the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, currently housed in the library. Advocacy group Montgomery Preservation, Inc. hired a structural engineer to assess the building, who says it would cost just $1.3 million for more basic improvements.

Community leaders say neither price is worth it. Before a public hearing last night, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who represents Wheaton, sent an email blast to her constituents asking them to testify against preservation. "We can - and should - find ways to honor the history of this facility in the new design, but not through historic designation," she wrote.

Could the Youth Center represent the future again?

The Wheaton Youth Center is young enough that people don't consider it truly historic, but old enough to be unfashionable and in disrepair. But for a community that grew up in the 1950s and 60s, buildings like the Youth Center are as much a part of Wheaton's heritage and Montgomery County's heritage as Victorian rowhouses are in DC, setting it apart as a product of its time.

Eileen McGuckian, president of Montgomery Preservation, Inc., was a student at Blair High School in Silver Spring when the youth center opened. "It's the period of hopes and dreams, of things happening...it was exciting," she said.


Inside the gym of the Wheaton Youth Center where bands used to play.

But Wheaton has changed a lot over the past 50 years, from a largely homogeneous, middle-class place to one that's much more socioeconomically and racially diverse. At the party, Rick said that many of his friends growing up have moved out to Olney or Damascus, taking their memories with them.

And it was hard not to notice the contrast between the older white guys standing on the stage, reminiscing about their days playing in rock-and-roll bands decades ago, and the young, mostly black and Hispanic kids playing pickup basketball on the floor. For kids growing up in Wheaton today, this building belongs to a past they can't relate to and people who don't live there anymore.

Preservationists have to prove that a building that reflected Wheaton's future in 1963 can still be a beacon today. One option is leasing it to a nonprofit group who would fix the building themselves, like the the Writer's Center, housed in the Bethesda Youth Center.

Kelly sent me a list of 13 organizations willing to take over the building, including arts groups, theatre companies, and the Ethiopian Cultural Center, which serves the region's quarter-million Ethiopian immigrants. These groups represent where Wheaton is today, and they might help this building become a valued part of the community again.

In any case, it might be too late for the Wheaton Youth Center. But I hope we'll give Montgomery County's other notable modern buildings a second chance. If you think this building deserves historic designation, you can email the County Council at mailto:county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov.

Architecture


Northeast Library reopens with just the right changes

On Monday, the Northeast Neighborhood Library in Capitol Hill reopened after a $10 million modernization. Bringing it up to date required only a few major alterations, but the real challenge was finding new life in the 82-year-old building.


Children's collection, second floor showing integral shelves and benches. All photos from DCPL.

The function of a library has shifted a few times since 1932, when the branch circulated its first book. This most recent renovation positions it as more of a "third place" for the public without abandoning its core purpose as a public resource. Whether residents come to hear a story, use a computer, or attend a community meeting, some of the branch's 45,000 books are always in the background on built-in shelves.

Those shelves are emblematic of the way DCPL conducted the renovation. They're original, designed for 1930s book sizes. Unfortunately books have become bigger, particularly picture books, so a big part of the collection no longer fit.

Rather than rip out the shelves, library officials chose to expand them 1.5 inches with matching walnut woodwork. They're still not big enough for everything in the collection, but this kind of shrewd modification keeps the historic character without getting in the way of modern life.

When the city commissioned Albert Harris, the municipal architect from 1923-1934, to design the building, he did so in the Colonial Revival style. Since at least 1911, the Commission of Fine Arts had favored that style as a common look for DC's public buildings. The modest materials used by far-flung Georgian architects like brick and painted wood meant the style could be built inexpensively. It was also in fashion, since the reconstruction of Williamsburg was prompting architects to search for their roots.


Northeast Neighborhood library when it opened in 1932. Photo Courtesy DCPL.

But the revival of Georgian architecture meant drawing inspiration from building types that don't fit so well in an dense environment. Harris styled his building after mansions and courthouses that stood alone in fields.

On the site at 7th Street and Maryland Avenue NE, Harris' tight composition left an empty lawn on the most prominent corner. In the renovation, the exterior architect, Bell Architects located a patio there, so that the library has a front porch. With WiFi, of course.

A path runs from the patio around the back to a glass-enclosed staircase in the rear. The previous staircase ran clumsily through the central room, creating awkward spaces on either side. The new staircase fits into the footprint of a disused garage. The stairway's sunniness provokes the opposite sensation of the MLK Library's windowless, dreary stairwells: you want to climb it and see what you can see from it.

The staircase solves two other problems the building had. One is that the original entry couldn't be made ADA-accessible. The accessible door is in the glass tower, opposite the front door on 7th Street. Coming from either way, visitors enter into the same foyer and then into the library. What is effectively a single entrance shields the reading rooms from the noise of coming and going, so children can rush up to their spaces on the upper level and community members can visit the meeting room without disturbing patrons.


The new foyer, looking towards the glass stairway and circulation desk.

The lack of a good meeting room was the other problem before the renovation. Vines Architecture, who designed the interior, converted two underused rooms through discreet structural changes. New girders to hold up the mezzanine and basement ceilings converted what were once claustrophobic spaces into three public meeting rooms. This saved the airy rooms on the first and second floors for reading.

Other changes follow this trend of discreet interventions. The librarians wanted a more open space, so they could more easily monitor the rooms. The architects responded by placing the reference desk at the center of the building and cutting passages through the walls around it.

The cuts are low compared to the original doors, and the architects integrated them into the wood paneling, so you barely notice them. The things we take for granted nowadays, like good lighting, central air, and plenty of outlets are present, but not at the cost of the library's coziness.


Downstairs meeting room, with columns removed.

Beyond these quiet changes, the restoration had a light touch. The flaxen paint scheme and cork floor tiles are historically appropriate details that also suit contemporary expectations. The reading tables are recreations with one minor tweak: power strips. It's striking how good design can serve radically different uses with only minor alterations.

Since the beginning of its capital campaign in 2006, library officials have rebuilt 10 of the 26 branches. With the opening of the Northeast Library, they will have renovated five historic buildings. Three planned projects remain: Woodridge, which is under construction, West End, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. central library.

As we consider how to renovate that building, the Northeast Neighborhood Library might offer guidance. Here, carefully chosen alterations have an impact that goes beyond their immediate function. An understanding of what was good about the historic fabric revealed what needed to change. It's worth considering how much alteration is required to make a work of architecture better. A few little changes can do a lot of good.

Architecture


One of these three visions could be the MLK library's future

Last week, the District of Columbia Public Library unveiled the six visions for the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. While the designs aren't final, each option offers a very different approach to preserving the historic library while accommodating new uses.


Team Two's "community mixer" atrium. All images from DCPL unless noted.

Three teams of architects produced two designs each, one where the library renovates the historic building by the office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and another that also adds two or three stories of apartments to the building. For all teams, the mixed-use scheme and standalone version share a common design up until the fifth floor. The residential additions do not affect the public spaces below.

The three teams approached preservation with a few common elements. All projects leave the exterior alone. All schemes preserve the horizontal character of the ground floor, except in key locations. The changes they make stand apart from the original building, and all projects treat the Mies building as an artifact of a different time.

While libraries used to be a place where users only interacted with staff, now they're about users interacting with each other. To respond to this new purpose, the teams had to consider what kinds of spaces suited the new program. Do the existing deep floors still make sense? How do you fit new spaces, such as a lecture hall into the building? Importantly, the teams had to find a way to better connect the floors of a building that, despite having lots of glass, has very little natural light.

Because each scheme proposes major changes in the activities of the building and how visitors will move around, it's worth reading the design presentations, which we have embedded.

Team One: Mecanoo + Martinez and Johnson

Dutch firm Mecanoo and local partner Martinez and Johnson propose alterations that maintain the horizontal character of the building, even going further than Mies. Starting from the modernist's fixation on open-plan spaces, they envision removing all of the opaque barriers from the three library floors. The architects grouped programs floor by floor, so youth collections are on one floor, quiet specialty collections on another, and the noisiest, least library-like uses activate the "market" ground floor.


Team One's mixed-use design seen from 9th & G.

Library offices occupy the north side of the building up to the 5th floor, a blob-shaped mechanical penthouse surrounded by gardens. In the "development" scheme, a block-long bar of apartments sits on the penthouse, clearly distinct from the original building. The bar slants in plan from from north to south, which emphasizes the horizontal character of the original building and picks up the angles of the 10th & G building to the west and the Pepco building to the east.

To connect the public floors, Team One proposes replacing the yellow brick elevator and stair area just inside the entrance with a large atrium clad in glass panels enameled with the pattern of marble that Mies frequently used. This makes the vertical circulation one of the most visible parts of the building.


Section drawing through Team One's standalone design, showing stair cores.

Team One mostly respects the ceiling and ground planes of the first floor, but they also cut a light shaft around the rear to bring natural light to the basement. They also eliminate the low brick walls around the north side of the building, hopefully enlivening the dark arcade. This scheme would also leave the original exterior walls in place, but adds insulated glass walls to prevent heat loss, saving on energy costs.

Team Two: Patkau Architects + Ayers Saint Gross

The collaboration between Patkau Architects and local architects Ayers Saint Gross produced the most conservative scheme. The design centers on a courtyard extending from the second floor to a fabric sunshade embedded with communications technology on the third. Called the cloud, the exuberant shape framed by the courtyard reflects the team's approach of making alterations within Mies's order.


Section drawing through Team Two's mixed-use design, showing central courtyard.

Team Two's key alteration is a circulation core directly opposite the main entrance. Escalators take visitors up to a fifth-floor garden and down to the basement, which contains the technological aspects of the program, an auditorium, and the teen collection. A double-height lobby visually connects the entry with the upstairs courtyard, where all of the library's different users would mix. The design of most reading rooms remains relatively unchanged.

The residential component changes the building more dramatically. The standalone building has a small pavilion and a green roof on the fifth floor. The mixed-use variant continues the courtyard up, with a public colonnade around the skylight. Mies imagined the building with a fifth floor, so Team Two extends the original facade without windows as a kind of screen, with floors 5-8 rising behind it in a gray, transparent skin.


Team Two's mixed-use design seen from 9th & G.

In addition to the cloud, Team two proposes some unconventional changes. Most radically, they replace the parking ramps with car lifts and valet-only parking. I don't know of any buildings in DC that use this approach, although it is definitely used in other cities.

Team Three: STUDIOS Architecture + Freelon Group

Team Three proposes the most radical alterations to the Mies building, invoking the zeitgeist argument Mies himself was fond of. Their concept aspires to create a new urban space at 9th & G, inside and outside of the building. The design would gut the upper three stories of the southeastern corner and replace it with a floating, golden zig-zag block containing expanded functions of the library. A continuous stair from the basement to the fifth floor cuts an atrium into the space.


Section drawing through Team Three's mixed-use design, showing stair and atrium.

The design would open the great hall to a three-story atrium. This change is probably the most controversial feature of any of the three teams' designs. Otherwise, the first floor remains largely unchanged. Team Three does propose constructing a cafe underneath the G Street colonnade, as well as one inside the main hall.

If the library chooses to develop the mixed-use scheme, the added block would snake out of the building in a U-shape around the courtyard skylight, ending in a cantilever over the 9th Street sidewalk. The stair slope would pause at the 9th & G corner before climbing atop the residential bar to become an intensive green roof with community gardens. The way Team Three's bending bar sits atop the building leaves the 9th & G corner undisturbed and framed as a public space.


Team Three's mixed-usee design from 9th & G. Courtesy DCPL.

Team Three calls for the residential volume to use a curtain-wall system that uses mathematic equations to generate the shape of each component, some of which are more transparent than others. The floors within are conventional slabs. The patterns are carried through to flooring in the entrance that echoes the main staircase as well as the existing lights in the ceiling.

They're not done yet!

DCPL insists that nothing is final about these designs. That is certain. The library needs to decide whether to develop the mixed-use option, and what kind of legal structure it would have. Then, library officials will work with citizens and the architects to further evolve the design. Then, the evolved scheme will undergo at least two design review processes. By the time this process is complete and DCPL solicits contractor bids, the design could change quite dramatically.

The architect teams will present their projects this Saturday, February 15th at 10 am in the MLK library. If you can't attend, the library is livestreaming the event. The designs are also available at each branch library, and DCPL has a website where you can submit your thoughts.

The needs of the library are complex. A single image can't capture the particular experiences of different users, and each of the options involves trade-offs.

Personally, I prefer Team One's overall plan, especially if the library goes ahead with a mixed-use program. Although I appreciate Team Two's sensitive alterations, Team One's solutions for the program, environment, and circulation embrace the strengths of Miesian architecture, but reimagine them in a way that suits the new expectations of urban libraries. It reminds me of two groundbreaking examples of libraries for a digital society, the Sendai Mediatheque and the Idea Store, Whitechapel.

If Team One's design is the beginning of a public building of that caliber, DC will be in good shape.

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.

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