Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Height Limit

Government


In the planning process, social media talk is often cheap

People who testify at long public hearings or write letters aren't the only ones with opinions about important planning issues. A lot of conversation happens online, on Twitter and blogs, but commissions that make decisions often don't see or consider this kind of public opinion. How can the old, formal processes mesh with new ways of communicating?

Last summer, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning analyzed the District's height limits in a report requested by Congress. Residents joined in a spirited conversation, not only about the shape and form of the nation's capital, but also about the future of our city.

District residents, local stakeholders, and citizens across the nation voiced strong opinions on both sides of the issue. I was responsible for designing NCPC's process for engaging with residents and stakeholders, and reviewing their feedback. I found a big divide between those who participated online versus in person.

Those who attended public meetings, submitted letters, or delivered testimony generally opposed changes to the federal law. Meanwhile, those who spoke up on social media like Twitter and blogs such as this one were more open to exploring opportunities for strategic changes.

However, at the end of the day, only comments we received through the NCPC website or in person at hearings could shape our work as planners and be passed along to members of the Commission to inform their decisions. The people who spoke up online, other than through the project's website, weren't part of the formal process and didn't get the same weight.

Feedback on building height is just one example of how new methods of communication are revolutionizing how people engage with plans and projects. How can planners better respond to and incorporate all the public's opinions? What we can do to make it easier for you to get your opinions in the places where it will count?

Discuss this online or in person on April 9


Image from NCPC.
We will discuss this issue further at a panel on April 9, "Talk vs. Action: Making Your Opinion Count" at NCPC's offices, 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500. I will moderate a discussion about how new forms of communication and public engagement are trans­forming the public process and decision-making.

Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert is on the panel, as are Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards of Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood.

We will talk about questions like:

  • How can public agencies and other organizations reach out to bridge the communication gap?
  • Should online commenters be encouraged to use traditional, tested approaches?
  • Should organizations formally consider feedback presented through informal channels?
  • Are there new or better ways to foster conversations amongst these different audiences?
I want this program to reflect you. Send in your thoughts, opinions, and questions by posting them to the comment section below. I will keep an eye on this post and incorporate what you have to say into the program. Also, you can tweet your thoughts to me @NCPCgov, using hashtag #SpeakerSeries.

And, I hope that you will show up to the program. The NCPC Speaker Series is free and open to the public - just let us know you are coming with an RSVP.

We have also created a short promo video:

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.

Politics


Where will DC's next 200,000 residents go? The mayoral candidates weigh in

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here is the first of 2 posts on discussions about housing with candidates for mayor. See all of the posts here.


Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.

"We've been a city of 800,000 before, and we're going to be a city of 800,000 again," said Muriel Bowser. "Keep in mind, the city's population at one time was 800,000 people," said Jack Evans. "The city used to have 800,000 people, but we have only 640,000 today," said Andy Shallal.

When talking about growth and development, multiple candidates for mayor brought up this number. In many cases, they were citing it as evidence that there must be plenty of room in the city to add 200,000 new people. How can there notthere used to be!

But the city looked very different in 1950. Families were much larger. A lot of row houses had become boarding houses during World War II. Homeowners lived in one room and rented the rest out to unrelated people. Americans got married younger and had children younger. In short, our existing houses that have one or two empty nesters or a young couple with one child today might have held 5 or even 8 people 60 years ago.

What would our candidates for mayor do about it? Mayor Gray talked about "air rights." Evans and Bowser both pointed to less developed areas of the city; Evans highlighted Shaw, where we were speaking, as a corridor ripe for new housing and retail. He talked about his experience pushing for the Whole Foods, then Fresh Fields, to come into Logan Circle; during the first meeting, Fresh Fields representatives wouldn't even step out of the car, while today that is "the largest-grossing Whole Foods in the chain on a per-square-foot basis."

Bowser referred to her efforts building support for development at places like Walter Reed. She would like to see DC more proactively plan for the housing we need, through citywide and small area plans. She promised to make sure that the Comprehensive Plan, which is up for revision again soon, finds room in the city to grow back to 800,000. That's important, because according to the Office of Planning, even building everything to the limits in the Comp Plan won't be enough for our housing needs after 10-20 years.

Where exactly the housing might go, Bowser was less clear. She also proudly defended her efforts to remove a floor from a proposed building at the Takoma Metro, saying that there needs to be a participatory process to make sure residents are comfortable with a new development. But, I asked, doesn't that mean that every project will get a little smaller, lose a floor, and so on, I asked? Will that prevent us from building enough housing in the aggregate?

She wasn't concerned. "There are going to be some very smart people to make sure [the new residents] will have a place to live." And later, "The thing I know where there is a lot of demand is that the units will be created. In markets where people are looking for housing, and it's profitable for them to create housing, they will."

Tommy Wells criticized most of the thinking on this issue as being very "linear" and "two-dimensional," saying that as our needs change, many people will use space differently. More younger residents are willing to move into smaller spaces because instead of needing to own or rent all the space they'll use, people are "using the collective of shared space that they all pay for together," such as common rooms in buildings and public places like parks in the city.

Meanwhile, he said, offices are also using less space as fewer employees have their own offices, employees spend more time working at home, and people use common areas. Therefore, he said that people at one of the downtown business improvement districts think that some office space can become housing.

Andy Shallal is worried about the trend toward building smaller units. "I think those types of developments [are] overdone throughout the city," he said. "They're temporary housing, because when people get married, have a child, they can't really live in those small spaces. I'm just worried about this rush to build these small units, cookie cutter units, is going to make the city less desirable for families that want to live in larger homes."

Wells has an idea to deal with that:

I've been working with another architecture firm and a major developer to do what I call "flex buildings." With a flex building you can build small apartments, but as your life changes you can aggregate, so if you have a small child or your life changes in another way, you can add above or below or to the side, instead of bldg a fixed infrastructure with 3-bedrooms, 2-bedrooms and 1-bedrooms. That's an old way of thinking. The future of cities like ours is an adaptable way of thinking, not a linear use of space.

Another way to add flexibility is to let people rent out their basements or garages, as has been proposed in the DC Zoning Update. Shallal said, "I think we have to have some flexibility in those types of zoning laws. ... These homes are empty nesters now with one or two people living in a 3-4 story townhouse. For those people who are becoming elderly, maybe they want to have a little income and stay in their home. ... I think it's a great way to keep people who have lived here a long time to be able to stay in the home they've lived in ... rather than building another high-rise of apartments that are overpriced and end up requiring lots of parking."

Bowser isn't on board. She opposes the Accessory Dwelling Unit recommendation in the DC zoning update, though she tried to couch her opposition as minor and generally praised the zoning update. "I think that having our zoning codes not be reviewed in a comprehensive way for 50 years ... I think that they spent a lot of time on a lot of different issues. I think at the end of the day I have only 4 areas I wanted them to ... that's pretty remarkable for a 5 yr process. I think they have looked at all of the concerns."

What she didn't say is that the "only 4 areas" of concern are essentially the major policy recommendations of the zoning update, such as accessory apartments, corner stores, and parking.

Bowser also reiterated her opposition to any changes in the height limit.

I think the Congress should focus on things that we've asked for, and we've asked for budget autonomy. I think Congress should focus on how we unhinge our city from the federal government's budget. We're not a federal agency, we're a city. We collect our own taxes and we should be able to spend our own revenues. ...

You've got to wonder why they are focusing on something that nobody in the city has saideven including the development community, the government, the councilmembers saidthat we need or want and the things we do need and have asked for have been totally ignored. You've got to wonder about the motive, don't you?

Mayor Gray, meanwhile, defended his administration's efforts to change the federal Height Act.

What I think wasn't entirely clear was that we weren't proposing a particular change or a specific change in the height limits. What we were proposing was that the District have more control over setting the height limits, which would still give the people of the city a chance, through the Comprehensive Plan, through zoning, through legislation, a chance to be able to address, specifically, proposed height changes.

It was not that we would go out on Rhode Island Avenue and say we were going to have buildings that would be 37 fett tall. It was to say, just like we say with budget autonomy, shouldn't we have greater control over our city, especially areas outside the L'Enfant city? So we've sort of stopped at this stage, and we're working now to try to make sure people are clear about what it that we were proposing. But it wasn't that Building X was not going to become 14 stories higher than what it was.

In fact, Gray became the most energetic and animated just after we'd turned off the cameras, when perhaps he was more relaxed. He told stories about how he'd contacted DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson when Mendelson introduced his resolution against the height limit. It's a home rule issue, not about the heights, he'd tried to convince Mendelson, an argument which didn't go anywhere to Gray's evident frustration.

Tomorrow, we'll look at what the candidates said about public land and subsidized housing. Meanwhile, you can watch the entire exchange on housing with each candidate.

Evans:

Wells:

Gray:

Bowser:

Shallal:

Government


Harriet Tregoning looks back on her time as planning director

Harriet Tregoning, DC's planning director since 2007, is leaving to take a job with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. During her years at the helm of the Office of Planning, she has pushed DC to adopt smart-growth policies touching nearly every aspect of the city: land use, transportation, the economy, and more.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Her influence has been felt. If nothing else, what other planning directors can you name? We sat down with her for an exit interview.

RK: I can't believe you're leaving.

HT: Me either. It's breaking my heart a little bit to leave. I love this job.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as planning director?

Nothing I'm going to tell you was the work of me alone by any means. I really feel like I was fortunate to be in the city with a set of colleagues at a particular time where some significant change was possible.

I think we fully became a multimodal city during my time here. And the transportation choices have just multiplied enormously in DC, and I'm really proud of that whether it's bikeshare, additional carsharing options, whether it's the many coming miles of streetcar lines.

Those are all things I didn't have a singular hand in, but I certainly did my part to encourage those things and push them along and make sure we had supportive land use that really makes that possible. I think having convenient, walkable neighborhoods where you can meet a lot of your daily needs is a huge part of the transportation solution. And that's something that transportation officials throughout the region now routinely say, that yes, land use is an important part of transportation.

What about your biggest regret?

I have some unfinished business, I won't call it a regret. The change we've seen in transportation is an example of the kind of pace of change coming to cities all across America, and one of the biggest changes is really what's happening in our economy.

I think cities have a lot to say about that, whether it's with their land use, whether it's about how to fund infrastructure. A great example is the Clean Rivers Project that DC Water is working on. We've been very supportive of the idea that instead of using these big pipes to deal with our combined sewer overflow issuesone solution is to build, the technical term is to build ginormous pipes underground that will allow that stormwater to be stored and treated later.

Those pipes are fantastic. We've committed in our city to spend $4 billion on this, but the pipes, all the labor, all the materials, all the equipment comes from outside our economy and when they're done, the 80-plus days of the year when it rains more than a quarter of an inch those pipes will be of some use.

But if we build green infrastructure instead, we'll have a cooler city, a shadier, more pleasant city. We'll have more habitat for birds and wildlife. We'll have more parks, we'll have more green space. We'll also have the jobs that come with that that aren't high barrier to entry. We'll have the ongoing need to maintain these things, which also provides employment.

That seems to me like a better kind of solution, especially when that type of job is the thing that's disappearing from our economy. If we get the jump on this, every other place in the country is headed in this direction so we also create an export economy in services. That idea, that urban places can really take the lead in creating jobs and restructuring economies to benefit existing residents, I think that's a major challenge that's facing all cities and that's something I hope to work on in my new job.

I thought you were going to say something about the zoning rewrite, or the height act.

No! I'm so happy that I was the one who got to begin the dialogue aboutthis isn't the end of the conversation, this is just the beginning. I think it's fantastic that we had this unexpected opportunity to talk to residents about it and raise the specter for the first time since the 1960s where growth is an issue in the city, where we're going to have to figure out how to accommodate this growth.

What will DC look like in five or ten years?

I think we're definitely going to continue to grow. We're going to see more diversity in our economy. In ten years we might see the first driverless cars on the street. I think the sharing economy that has really taken hold is going to become a lot more ubiquitous.

For people in the middle class who are feeling pretty secure in their jobs, I keep thinking about the federal government having essentially eliminated 40,000 positions in the past few years. Those kind of changes are going to be happening throughout the economy. Even driverless cars, does that displace the need for taxis? For bus drivers?

My goodness, more examples of decent paying jobs going out of the economy. I think we're going to find that the sharing economy is going to be a way to maintain a quality of life that isn't as expensive.

Huh. Is the sharing economy something you'll tackle in your new position?

Certainly from a broad perspective on sustainability, it's less wasteful of resources but it's also a real community builder.

What lessons from DC are you bringing back to federal government?

Hopefully I'm bringing a lot from DCI learned so much in this job, it's overwhelming. It makes me very excited to go back to the federal workforce. I started my career at EPA, and then I went on to state government [before her job in DC]. And I didn't know a thing about how states and local governments worked, but now I have at least some inkling.

Also, I think I'll make people sick by talking about the example that DC is setting. There are so many things DC is doing well, and so many problems that are similar to issues faced by cities everywhere. It's an example and an inspiration.

Are you still going to bike to work?

(laughing} It's just transportation! It's not a statement. I don't think my time will be less valuable to me in the future. That's the reason I bike. It's the fastest way to get where I need to go.

Any rumblings about who will replace you at OP?

I don't know, but the mayor announced last week that they were looking inside the agency for an interim director, which is something I think is a brilliant idea.

This post originally appeared on Elevation DC.

Meta


Topic of the week: Greater Greater 2024

Wednesday marks the start of 2014, but what about further into the future? We asked our contributors what they hope to be writing and reading about on Greater Greater Washington in 10 years.


Photo by Joe on Flickr.

Dan Reed: I'd like to write about how the region's ethnic enclaves, from Langley Park to Annandale, have become the new hot spots, drawing investment from around the globe as the cool kids finally realize there's a big world outside DC, and it's got much better food. Meanwhile, the Rockville Metro station gets renamed "Chinatown."

Jim Titus: I hope to read that that Metropolitan AME complains about DDOT's insensitivity to churches, while the city makes excuses. Church officials complain that CaBi needs to completely empty its 60-bike dock early on Sundays, to prevent the dock from exceeding capacity at the 11:00 AM service.

But DDOT says the real problem is that the new "trikeshare" three-wheelers used by most elderly parishioners each take up two spaces. Church officials concede that the dock never fills at the 7:45 service, which is generally attended by younger members.

Michael Perkins: Goal for the next five years is for DC to take the experience in San Francisco to heart and get serious about managing their curbside parking. Adjust hours and prices to ensure people can find a space if they're willing to pay what it's worth.

Ben Ross: Construction of a new Metro line through downtown DC, and new rail lines in the suburbs. And a reorientation of the Montgomery and Prince George's transportation departments, like DC and Arlington, to operate urban complete streets rather than suburban highways.

Canaan Merchant: 1) Hopefully I'll be reading about construction on a number of new transit lines. 2) Hopefully we'll see so many people on bikes that we'll need to discuss how to handle bicycle congestion. 3) How the city has adapted under new buildings that have broken the current height limit. 4) What the city has planned for an RFK site that is now focused on providing new housing/retail for the city and not more stadiums and parking lots. 5) How the Columbia Pike streetcar has aided in transforming the corridor and led to calls for streetcar expansion throughout Northern Virginia.

Chad Maddox: How the region has successfully absorbed many more residents while simultaneously managing to keep housing relatively affordable. Also, how the District has become a national model for its efforts to eliminate concentrated poverty and residential segregation in its borders.

Tracey Johnstone: That better coordination among local transit agencies, combined with the implementation of free transfer among subway, light rail, bus, and streetcar increased transit usage by over 25%.

Adam Froehlig: In a controversial effort to address chronic bike congestion on the MVT and the 14th St Bridge path, NPS and DDOT implement all-electronic bicycle tolls. A local bike commuter is quoted in the news as saying it will force him to switch to driving while another complains that the revenues will go to the private collector and WMATA instead of to path and bridge repairs.

And after years of false starts, the District finally implements a mileage tax. The effort is seen as a colossal failure as non-DC-registered cars are exempt and the elimination of the gas tax prompts Maryland drivers to suddenly flood DC streets such as Benning Road and Georgia Ave to take advantage of the cheaper DC gas.

Neil Flanagan: I'd like to hear Montgomery officials getting anxious about how successful Prince George's Smart Growth program has been. That it's putting pressure on DC to drop rents, but won't someone think about the historic Greenbelt gas station that's going under?

Also, "Daddy, what's a Millenial?"

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.

Architecture


Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is ready to give DC more local control over the sizes of its own buildings, a small step forward for self-government. He expressed shock this week that many DC leaders, including DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson, are rejecting the opportunity.


Issa wants to loosen the Congressonal yoke. Photo by Ludie Cochrane on Flickr.

"I heard separately to my astonishment, for the first time ever, a rejection of Home Rule," he said. "I expected you all to say, 'Gosh, this will take years and years.' ... I did not expect, for the first time ever, to have people say, 'Please don't give me authority. I can't be trusted.'"

Issa needs to hear from people who do support the idea of Congress loosening its grip over DC. Please send him and other relevant Congressional leaders a letter asking them to let DC residents make their own choices about their built environment (at least where it doesn't directly affect the federal government).

Mendelson argued that "citizens of the District do not support any change" to the height limit, or even the right to make changes in the future, largely because most of the people who could take four or six whole hours, often in the middle of a workday, just to attend a hearing and speak for three minutes opposed change. (Note to Mendelson: Some of us have other stuff to do, like jobs and kids.)

Even if DC doesn't change its building height rules now, sooner or later we're going to need to do something about the housing shortage that's pushing up housing prices so fast. As Harriet Tregoning noted in the hearing, if DC eventually decides that height, even just in a targeted area, is the solution, it might be too late if the House oversight chairman at the time doesn't believe as strongly in local self-government as Issa does.

When Congress granted DC Home Rule in 1973, they were willing to let a locally-elected council and mayor pass most laws, but didn't entirely trust DC to decide everything for itself. They kept power over the courts, didn't let the council change any criminal laws for 2 years, gave the federal government seats on the boards that decide zoning, and forbade the local government from making any changes to the height limit. Each of these is basically a reminder that they only trusted DC citizens so far.

Now, a powerful committee chairman wants to trust us just a little more. Despite some bad apples, the District has balanced its budget for many years now, has reduced crime, and provides municipal services about as well as any city. Any height changes would have to still go through the federal NCPC and hybrid federal-local zoning commission, and Congress could still veto a change. But we're grown up enough to have a say in building heights, whether we end up deciding to change building height rules, or not, or wait until later.

Contact Congress

This petition is now closed. Thank you for participating!

Development


Topic of the week: 4 more years for Gray?

On Monday, DC Mayor Vincent Gray said he will seek a second term. He joins an already crowded field, which will make for a very interesting race. But there's also the question of how Gray has done as mayor.


Photo by AFGE on Flickr.

What are his biggest accomplishments? What are his biggest disappointments? And does he deserve a second term? Our contributors weigh in:

Dan Malouff:
On transportation, Gray has been OK but not perfect. He's done a good job moving the streetcar program forward, but progress on bike infrastructure has moved much more slowly than it did under Fenty. He'd be a low risk/moderate reward choice for a second term. We'd know that we'd be getting someone who basically advances our goals, but maybe not as quickly as a more progressive candidate might. On land use planning, he's worth voting for just to keep Harriet Tregoning on the job.

Malcolm Kenton:
One Gray accomplishment that I'm fond of is the Vision for a Sustainable DC, which cuts across departments and agencies and sets aggressive goals for emissions reduction and restoration of clean waters and healthy ecosystems. It remains to be seen how aggressively Gray will implement the plan and whether each department will receive adequate funding for their share of the work, but the plan is a significant step in the right direction.

I also applaud Gray for sticking with the streetcar plan despite opposition from many corners, including many voters who supported him.

However, I am unhappy with Gray's positions on minimum wage and labor standards issues. The majority of the Council is ahead of him there. I supported the Large Retailer Accountability Act and am dismayed that Gray vetoed it.

Erin McAuliff:
I think Gray and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero have made great headway in planning, laying out a vision and foundation that moves DC in the right direction (Sustainable DC and Age Friendly DC are my two big ones).

We will have to wait and see, though, how implementation plays out (as Malcolm mentioned) either through Gray in a second term or through a newly elected administration that could turn all of that good work on its head. I'm inclined to say he deserves a second term because it's a better bet for successful implementation. But maybe I would also support a candidate that recognizes those accomplishments and is highly committed to being an implementer.

Matt Malinowski:
Although "One City" sometimes gets short shrift, Mayor Gray has done much to fill the slogan with meaning. The One City Summit, held in early 2012, brought 1800 residents to the Washington Convention Center.

It was actually successful at getting the participants to work together in diverse groups to identify the priorities for government services and the future of the city. Participants became engaged while educating themselves about the trade-offs of various policies, such as how new business attraction may drive out existing small businesses.

Increasing sustainability and diversifying DC's economy while improving access to it were the big policy winners at the Summit. And Gray's administration has followed up, continuing its support for the Sustainable DC plan, promoting development at the St. Elizabeths site, and enabling continued growth city-wide through the MoveDC plan and relaxation of the Height Act.

Bringing Walmart to the District is a negative for sustainability and diversifying the economy. While improving the connections between education and jobs will take much more time, it is clear that Mayor Gray is not just continuing past policies on autopilot, but is asking hard questions about how the city and the region can succeed in the years ahead.

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