Posts about Density
A proposed skyscraper in Tysons Corner will be 435 feet tall, making it the tallest in the DC region, and first to breach the 400 foot threshold. The building is proposed as part of the SAIC redevelopment, adjacent to the Silver Line's Greensboro Metro station.
Traditionally, the tallest skyscrapers in the region have been in Rosslyn. But Rosslyn is in the flight path to National Airport, so buildings there can't rise higher than 400 feet. A bevy of development projects in Rosslyn, Alexandria, Tysons, and North Bethesda are in the 300-400 foot range, but this is the first serious proposal to crack 400 feet.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board unanimously voted to approve the controversial Chelsea Court townhouse development near downtown Silver Spring. The vote ends a 3-year fight between local builder EYA and a group of neighbors who said the project was too dense and would harm the environment.
The vote allows EYA to build 63 townhouses, including 8 Moderately-Priced Dwelling Units for low-income households. It will restore a historic house on the site of the Chelsea School, located on Pershing Drive one block north of downtown Silver Spring.
The private, special-needs school first announced their plans to close and sell their 5-acre campus in May 2010. Most of the school's students live in the District or Prince George's County, and administrators want to focus on teaching them at public schools closer to home.
History of neighborhood opposition
Neighbors in the surrounding Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association, or SOECA, have strongly opposed Chelsea Court from the beginning. They worried about traffic and density and said that townhouses didn't belong in a "single-family neighborhood", especially when the property was only zoned for single-family homes.
The Planning Board approved rezoning the land for townhouses in 2011, but it was rejected by the County Council, who said EYA's proposal for 77 homes was too dense. The Council eventually granted the rezoning for a reduced number of houses last year. Neighbor Thomas DeCaro filed a suit against the county saying they acted illegally, but the case was dismissed.
More recently, SOECA argued that Chelsea Court violates state and county environmental laws. A consultant hired by the neighborhood says EYA ignored Environmental Site Design requirements to preserve natural features. Opponents say cutting down the property's mature trees and removing its steep slopes will cause runoff into a stream buried below Ellsworth Drive.
In a letter to County Councilmember Valerie Ervin, SOECA president Jean Cavanaugh urged her to "take all steps necessary" to ensure that Chelsea Court incorporated ESD "without regard to the possible loss of development intensity."
However, officials from the county's Department of Permitting Services say the site's natural slope was already removed to create sports fields for the school decades ago. "I understand that you may not agree and that you have expressed significant opposition to the project," replied DPS director Diane Schwartz-Jones. "In our opinion, the applicant has complied with the standards spelled out in the Montgomery County Code and with [Maryland Department of the Environment] standards."
EYA willingly makes changes
According to this planning staff report, EYA's latest design includes several changes in response to neighbor concerns. They've agreed to provide more parking than required, move a private road serving the new houses and restrict turns to or from it to discourage through traffic in a neighborhood where most streets are already blocked off.
In keeping with existing houses in the neighborhood, EYA's townhomes will be only 2 or 3 stories tall, as opposed to the 4-story homes they normally build elsewhere. Townhouses facing Springvale Road will be designed to look like single-family homes in order to blend in with existing homes across the street, while a double row of trees will shield them from sight.
Meanwhile, 51% of the property will be preserved as open space, including small courtyards between the rows of houses and two pocket parks. This figure also includes the private yard of the 150-year-old Riggs-Thompson House, which the school is currently using. EYA will turn it back into a single-family house. Planners say this counts because the house's yard contributes to "a general appearance of openness."
At yesterday's meeting, 18 residents gave testimony about the project, including several supporters who noted EYA's responsiveness to their suggestions. "I'm pleased to see what EYA has crafted and look forward to the development coming to fruition," said Robert Bacon, who lives a few blocks away.
More density in Silver Spring is environmentally and economically sustainable
It's not surprising that neighbors don't want to see trees cut down to build Chelsea Court, but this property isn't a virgin forest. It's a school campus that's already been cleared and built on. Building here is the environmentally responsible thing to do because it reduces the pressure to build in actual environmentally-sensitive areas.
Chelsea Court is also located in an urban area a short walk from one of the region's biggest jobs, shopping and transit hubs. 60% of downtown Silver Spring residents already get to work without a car. Meanwhile, an independent study of EYA developments, including ones in Silver Spring, found that their residents walk more and drive less. Building more homes here means more people get to do the same, reducing their energy use.
But for all of the environmental benefits of being here, Silver Spring is an increasingly expensive place to live, due to the high cost of land and the expense of a 3-year-long permitting process. At an Urban Land Institute talk last summer, EYA partner AJ Jackson said that the time and money they've spent trying to get Chelsea Court built could add $50,000 to the price of each home.
Neighbors might say that maximizing density means bigger profits for EYA, but in reality, it means EYA can spread the cost of land and permitting over more homes, making them less expensive. $50,000 may not seem like a lot, but it means fewer people can afford to live in Silver Spring.
While people deserve a say in what happens in their community, the bitter and vitriolic fight over Chelsea Court sets a bad example for future projects. Not only does it create bad blood, but it encourages destructive suburban sprawl and makes Silver Spring a less affordable place to live.
We have to find a way to have a constructive dialogue about development, because this community's going to grow and change whether we like it or not. In the meantime, Chelsea Court has been approved. Not everyone will be happy with the Planning Board's decision, but they made the right one. Now it's time to get this project built.
The DC Office of Planning is revising their proposed zoning update after realizing that it does not properly respect the character of areas zoned as a "single-family neighborhoods." Under the new draft, each such neighborhood will allow only one, single family per neighborhood.
DC has had successful experiences with such single-family neighborhoods, say officials, such as the Lafayette Square neighborhood, which contains only one family and is also one of DC's most highly sought-after residences.
OP points to language in the DC Comprehensive Plan, such as a reference to "single-family zones" in policy LU-34, which it hadn't been aware of because planning officials had never read the comprehensive plan. The Zoning Commission also clarified this distinction in its order of February 8, 1999, when it differentiated "multi-family zone districts" and "single-family zone districts."
The activist group Neighbor for Neighborhood praised the change. "DC's comprehensive plan promised to respect our neighborhoods, including those zoned as single-family," said Bella Smith, the group's founder. "Having other families nearby can create noise, trash, and other problems that impact our quality of life."
Guinevere Stonefueler, Deputy Director for Development Review at the Office of Planning, explained that residents will be allowed to have any number of "domestic servants" as well as a matter of right on the property, so long as their quarters are less than 450 square feet, not taller than 10 feet, and not have a balcony that faces any other dwelling. Also, the building must have been constructed prior to 1880 or receive a "special exception" from the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
Historic Preservation Review Board member David Grahamsfather added in an email on the Chevy Chase listserv that having to see other buildings out the window of one's house is contrary to the historic pattern of the city in these areas, such as in Chevy Chase prior to 1880. HPRB chair Margaret Sukseeder added that the plan will preserve the view from Virginia.
Councilmember Mario Koopa also praised the revised draft. "After speaking with constituents, we have been very concerned about the zoning proposals," she said. "We feel it's important for our residents to have the right to park any number of cars in front of their houses, and with more than one family in a neighborhood it's possible that there might not be room if someone owns more than 50 cars."
Streets in the new zones will also clearly not need sidewalks, since there will not be enough residents to utilize them.
Virginia resident Marshall Newman, one of the only two people permitted to be married in Virginia since the Commonwealth amended its constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman in 2006, will join OP as a contractor to advise on how to implement the plan.
And Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in an interview that he will likely seek to impose a similar zoning regime in Democratic-leaning areas such as Arlington County and all parts of Prince William County with a large Latino population. This would make room for a new network of HOT lanes, one to every individual household, which the Commonwealth Transportation Board recently authorized using all of the money from the recently-passed transportation funding bill.
Supportive residents of Cleveland Park plan to seek a zoning overlay that would prevent any businesses from closing even as the population of the neighborhood declines to one family, expressing certainty that a zoning overlay would allow them to guarantee the type of neighborhood shopping strip they want.
Last week's post about census tract density in the DC area showed which neighborhoods inside the Beltway are densest. Now let's look at the densest spots in the core areas of other large cities.
Urban areas are defined by the US Census as geographically-connected areas with a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile (ppsm). The standard provides a uniform definition of "city," more useful for national comparisons than political boundaries. These maps show the central county in each of America's 20 largest urban areas, in order beginning with the largest.
1. New York: America's biggest city breaks the scale. While others on this list might have a few neighborhoods in the top density category, New York is covered end to end. It's one of only 4 cities with tracts above 100,000 ppsm. Its peak is 200,000 ppsm.
2. Los Angeles: Despite its reputation for sprawl, LA compares favorably to the densest cities after New York. Its peak density of 94,000 ppsm is well above DC's.
3. Chicago: Home to probably the single densest census tract in America, a 508,000 ppsm anomaly that's so small it's not visible at normal scale. Besides that tract, Chicago tops around at about the same level as LA.
4. Miami: Thanks to more narrowly-drawn census tracts along its high-rise coast, Miami's peak density shot up from 38,000 ppsm in 2000 to 77,000 ppsm in 2010, but the actual change wasn't as significant on the ground.
5. Philadelphia: At 64,000 ppsm, Philadelphia's peak is about the same as DC's, but Philly's rowhouse neighborhoods extend farther out.
6. Dallas: Dallas' density dropped significantly. It has fewer dense tracts in 2010 than in 2000, and its peak is down to 44,000 ppsm from 57,000 ppsm.
7. Houston: Unlike Dallas, Houston appears to be densifying. Oddly, its densest area is not the core.
8. Washington (with Arlington & Alexandria): Washington is has more dense neighborhoods and a higher peak than in 2000. The numbers shown on these maps are slightly different than those on Michael Rodriguez's map, which used a different map projection to calculate area. These census numbers are official.
9. Atlanta: Not only is Atlanta shockingly sparse, its densest tract fell from 41,000 ppsm in 2000 to just 21,000 ppsm in 2010. The explanation? A downtown public housing complex was demolished, erasing the population of the densest 2000 tract.
One of only 4 cities with a tract above 100,000, Boston has a single tract that reaches 110,000 ppsm.
11. Detroit: Detroit's peak density of 18,000 ppsm is about the same as in 2000, but the number of mid-density tracts in the 10,000-20,000 ppsm range declined significantly as the city continued to empty.
12. Phoenix: Central Phoenix didn't change much, and tops out at 23,000 ppsm.
13. San Francisco: San Francisco has more tracts above 100,000 ppsm than any city except New York. It tops out at 161,000 ppsm.
14. Seattle: With a peak of 51,000 ppsm and a small but significant core, Seattle occupies a middle ground between the older denser cities and newer sparser ones.
15. San Diego: While downtown San Diego densified compared to 2000, and its 50,000 ppsm peak is higher, some of its other denser neighborhoods are sparser in 2010.
16. Minneapolis: Minneapolis' changes were minor compared to most other cities. Its peak was 25,000 ppsm in 2000, and it still is in 2010.
17. Tampa: By far the sparsest city on this list, Tampa's peak of 13,000 ppsm means it has no tracts in the 3rd or 4th categories, and precious few crack even into the 2nd.
18. Denver: Like a smaller Minneapolis, Denver looks much the same. Its peak of 23,000 ppsm is respectable for a mid-sized non-coastal city.
19. Baltimore: Baltimore's lone tract in the densest category is an impressive 86,000 ppsm, but that tract is down from a whopping 176,000 ppsm in 2000. What happened?
20. Saint Louis: Saint Louis' losses have been less drastic than Detroit's, but they still hurt. Its peak is down to a Tampa-like 13,000 ppsm, from 15,000 ppsm in 2000.
I made all these maps using American FactFinder on census.gov, which has data for every county in the United States. I couldn't have done it without Geoff Hatchard, who walked me through the laborious census.gov process. If you'd like to make your own maps, I documented step-by-step instructions. Godspeed.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Density is a good thing for urbanism. More density means more shops and amenities nearby, better transit service, and shorter walks. But what qualifies as dense? Overall city density is often reported, but a more telling statistic is neighborhood density.
Thse two maps show DC neighborhood density at the time of the 2000 census (top) and 2010 census (bottom). I made the 2000 map using census.gov sometime after the 2000 census. Michael Rodriguez created the bottom map just recently. Unfortunately the two maps use different scales, but they're still informative.
In 2000 the densest census tract in the DC region was in northern Columbia Heights, between Spring Road and Newton Street. It had 57,317 people per square mile (ppsm). In 2010 that tract is up to 59,209 ppsm, but that's only good enough for 2nd place in DC, and 3rd regionally.
The densest tract is now southern Logan Circle, between Rhode Island and Massachusetts Avenues. It's boomed and is now a whopping 67,149 ppsm.
The rest of central Northwest, from Mount Pleasant down to Massachusetts Avenue, varies from around 30,000-50,000 ppsm. Capitol Hill is in the 20,000-30,000 ppsm range.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria, the tract at the corner of I-395 and Seminary Road is up to 59,886 ppsm, 2nd densest in the region after Logan Circle. There hasn't been any new development in that tract since 2000, but the suburban-style apartment towers in it may have fewer singles and more families, which could account for the increase. Crystal City is 45,448 ppsm, and Ballston is 43,788 ppsm.
Suburban Maryland's densest tract is in Langley Park, at 49,354 ppsm. Downtown Silver Spring is 34,816 ppsm, and downtown Bethesda is around 11,000 ppsm.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
If "Inside the Beltway" were a city, how would it compare to other major cities? It would be
almost the size of Los Angeles but half as dense a little larger in area than Chicago but less dense than Los Angeles.
The latest Census data show that Montgomery County reached 1 million people, a statistic that has gotten a lot of worthy attention. Still, let's remember that jurisdiction boundaries are pretty arbitrary. As commenter AlanF also pointed out, DC, Arlington, and Alexandria (the "core jurisdictions") have just about reached 1 million as well (999,662 as of the latest Census estimates).
Michael Rodriguez decided to analyze "inside the Beltway" as if it were its own city. Given the way the Beltway separates communities, it's a good natural boundary and means more than the artificial lines between counties or between DC and Maryland.
Inside-the-Beltway would have about 1.7 million people.
in 423 square miles. That's a little smaller than Los Angeles and only about half the density of people per square mile.
Update: Commenter npm points out that Rodriguez's table appears to be incorrect, and "Inside the Beltway's" density may be more like 80% of Los Angeles' rather than 50%.
Update 2: A reader with access to GIS systems has estimated the land and water area of "Inside the Beltway." Plugging in those numbers, and assuming that the other numbers on the table are correct, the table would look like this.
Update 3: Rodriguez has updated his post and fixed the errors in the DC and "Inside the Beltway" numbers. I've updated the table to reflect them.
|Inside DC Beltway||266||10||256||1,725,686||6,749|
|District of Columbia||68||7||61||632,323||10,298|
|New York City||469||166||302||8,336,697||27,541|
The lower density than Los Angeles comes because most of the land inside the Beltway is actually not very dense, except for central DC, Capitol Hill, along Georgia Avenue, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, bits of Silver Spring and College Park, and a few other places.
Also, if "inside the Beltway" were a city, metonymy in the national press would be even more severe than it is today.
The architects of an 8-story apartment building at 13th and U streets, NW have tweaked their design after the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) came close to asking to remove a whole floor. Instead, they've aptly demonstration how it's possible to make a building feel less large without actually making it much smaller at all.
In December, HPRB heard from JBG, the developer who owns the site, and their architect David M. Schwartz about their plans to replace the low strip mall complex containing Rite Aid, Pizza Hut, and other stores with an attractive apartment building.
Historic preservation staff favorably recommended the building, which they said "has many of design characteristics that are found in traditional apartment building design and which would result in a compatible relationship with its surroundings in this location."
The composition has been organized with three vertically-oriented towers so that it doesn't look squat or horizontal; the corner balconies and paired windows help reinforce the vertical emphasis. The rhythm and proportions of fenestration on the residential floors is consistent with historic apartment buildings, while the first floor is designed and articulated to reinforce the street's pedestrian scale and retail character.A number of nearby residents, however, objected that it was too large compared to nearby townhouses. The board split fairly evenly, with a number of members suggesting deleting a floor. Graham Davidson, who calls buildings "too tall" with great frequency, praised the building as beautifully designed, but still felt compelled to come down on the side of lopping a floor off despite the fact that it would disrupt the elegant proportions.
Chair Gretchen Pfaehler convinced the board to simply ask JBG and Schwartz to try to do something on the 13th Street side, farthest from other large buildings. This week, they will go back to the board with a revised design that makes some small tweaks, but ones that staff believe have addressed the board's concerns.
The rounded corner at 13th and U is one story shorter, and there is a more pronounced cornice line at 7 stories that runs along the whole side of the building. Balconies along the top floor in "hyphen" spaces between the center, left and right "tower" elements are deeper as well, and on the back side facing Wallach Place, there are more balconies to break up the solid mass of the building.
The revisions illustrate how relatively small changes in massing can substantially change the perceived height, weight and bulk of a large scale building. While harder to appreciate in photographs of the model ... these changes result in a very different reading of the building. ... The result is a building which reads lower, lighter and more varied at its roofline, and which relates more compatibly with its surrounding context.I thought the last design related compatibly enough, but this design ought to placate the board, if members can look beyond the simple number of floors.
This change also clearly illustrates how developers and architects can address concerns without actually shrinking the building very much. Neighbors unhappy with a proposal often focus on its total height, but a fairly short building can look imposing while a much taller one does not (just look at some of the beautiful apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue, for instance).
Rather than pushing for fewer floors, neighbors should push for better design and small changes at the corners that can make a difference in a neighborhood's look and feel. HPRB, meanwhile, should praise the architect for these changes and get the project on its way to being built as soon as possible.
Update: HPRB voted unanimously to support the revised design.
A Washington Post editorial this weekend on Mayor Gray's sustainability plan all but explicitly endorses the zoning update:
Perhaps the most promising short-term proposal is to revamp the web of municipal regulations that discourage more people from living closer together and near public transportation. ... Property owners, for example, would be able to convert basements or over-garage space into livable quarters with less hassle, and those on transit corridors would be able to build up.Proposals to allow accessory dwellings and relax parking minimums indeed will "revamp" regulations that inhibit living in many neighborhoods and near transit. Unfortunately, OP is not really making it any easier to "build up" near transit corridors, except to the extent that parking minimums make building more expensive.
The zoning update is an excellent start and worthy of the Post's endorsement. Still, it is just one incremental step of many that will be necessary to reach Mayor Gray's ambitious yet excellent goal of adding and retaining 250,000 more residents by 2032.
Neighbors in downtown Silver Spring say a proposed 11-story apartment building is too tall for the area. But as the project goes to the Montgomery County Planning Board, whose staff recommend approving the project, there are still problems with the proposal. It's not the height, but the design of a single, long building instead of two.
In 2009, local developer Robert Hillerson proposed building a mixed-use complex with apartments, shops, offices and a hotel on most of a city block between Georgia, Thayer and Silver Spring Avenues and Fenton Street.
Community members supported that plan, but weren't as excited about a new design Hillerson and national apartment developer Fairfield Residential Company presented last summer. As I wrote in October, what was originally a pair of buildings surrounding Mayor's Promenade, a planned pedestrian passage between Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street, has morphed into one monolithic, block-long building with an underpass through it.
On Thursday, the developers will present a revised design (PDF) to the Montgomery County Planning Board, which is also holding a public hearing on the project. Neighbors, civic groups and even county councilmembers have written nearly 100 pages of letters to the board, mostly in opposition. They're mainly worried about the project's height and density, which one resident feels could turn Silver Spring into Crystal City.
While some good changes have been made since the summer, this project still isn't ready to go. It's not the height or density, both of which current zoning allows and which are in line with the rest of downtown Silver Spring. The real issue is with its design.
New design improves park, sort of improves building
As before, Studio Plaza will be broken up into two phases. The first phase, which is going before the Planning Board now, is for one 11-story building with 415 apartments, including 61 Moderately Priced Dwelling Units and 10 Workforce Housing Units for low-income households, and 10,000 square feet of street-level retail space. A second phase, to be approved later, will could add up to 340 apartments, 26,000 square feet of retail, and a 78,000 square foot office building.
There's the aforementioned renovation and extension of Mayor's Promenade and a new street, which help break down a big block and will improve pedestrian connections between Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street. At the intersection of the two is a 13,000-square-foot park, which will be privately owned but open to the public. The park will sit atop a parking garage meant to replace the existing parking lot.
Designed by Alexandria-based landscape architecture firm ParkerRodriguez, the park is one of the plan's highlights. Before, it was just a bunch of blobs of lawn and pavement randomly thrown around. Now, there's a simple, rectangular lawn divided in half by Mayor's Promenade. It's big enough for picnics and playing catch, with room for some planters in a geometric pattern that provides visual interest.
Facing the park is retail space, which has a terrace for outdoor dining, a shaded "amenity terrace" for tenants of the apartment building, and 8 ground-floor apartments with "real doors" and porches. Local artist Dan Steinhilber will make 23 public art pieces out of tubular steel, including lampposts, bike racks and benches, that will be placed throughout Mayor's Promenade and the park.
The building, designed by WDG Architects of DC, is better as well. The old design used dark-colored brick and had narrow, relentlessly repetitive windows, which made the building feel large and heavy. That's been replaced with a mix of warm-colored bricks and bands of glass broken up with attractive teal accents. It's a more conservative design, but it helps the building feel less imposing.
Setbacks make the building now appear to be 9 floors tall on Thayer Avenue and 10 floors on Silver Spring Avenue. And on the new street, the building peels back ever so slightly at the intersection with Thayer Avenue, drawing visitors into the public park. Looking at the renderings of the building at night behind the low-rise storefronts on Georgia Avenue, I can start to imagine this building in real life.
Still a "very long building"
However, the biggest issue with the previous design remains: the first phase is still "a very tall, very long building," in the words of county planners, that bridges over Mayor's Promenade. Having a pedestrian passage that connects two streets and a park is probably the coolest part of the entire project, but this design choice turns it into an afterthought.
There are legitimate reasons for having one building instead of two, namely the ability to have one consolidated lobby, elevator core and service area for the entire complex. But as I've said before, breaking this building into two, or at least having a more delicate connection or bridge from one side to the other, would make the promenade a nicer space and assuage residents' concerns about the building's height and mass.
Fairfield and Hillerson should look to the apartment buildings at Rockville Town Square, which WDG also designed, for a better solution. They also bridge over pedestrian passages that connect the square to surrounding streets, but the bridges step back from the street so they're not as deep as the rest of the building, which allows light and air into to the passage.
This project is as long if not longer than Studio Plaza, and it's only 5 or 6 stories tall. Why doesn't it make sense to do the same thing for an 11-story building?
Studio Plaza has its merits: it provides housing in an area where it's in high demand, and is close enough to transit, jobs and shopping that residents won't drive as much or at all. It'll improve connections in downtown Silver Spring with two new streets and give people a new park for hanging out in.
However, the Planning Board still shouldn't approve it. We can't do much about its height, nor should we. But we can improve the way this building looks and relates to its surroundings. There have been a lot of less-than-great buildings in downtown Silver Spring, but this is a substantial project in a very prominent location. It deserves the best design possible.
Check out this slideshow of Studio Plaza, including the 2012 and 2009 plans.
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