Posts about Urban Design
While repair work continues on the Silver Spring Transit Center, the entire block around it remains roped off. On Friday morning, big signs appeared asking to turn the space into a temporary park.
Six black-and-white posters hang from the fences around the transit center on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue, reading "Move the fence? Let's use this space." They sport photos of different activities that could happen there, like outdoor movie screenings, musical performances, and festivals. In the bottom-right corner is the hashtag #DTSS, meant for people to respond on social media.
Two Silver Spring residents placed the signs early Friday morning. They asked not to be identified to keep the focus on the message, not the act itself. "The Montgomery County election has just happened; people have gotten reelected," they said. "This is an issue a lot of people ran their campaigns on, but not a lot has happened."
They added, "We wanted to do this to bring back the bigger discussion…which is: what is the future of the transit center? What are the short-term uses of the site?"
Montgomery County broke ground on the transit center in 2008, which was supposed to tie together local and regional bus routes, the Red and future Purple lines, and MARC commuter rail. Work stopped in 2011 after workers discovered serious structural defects within the $120 million complex.
After some disagreement between the county and builder Foulger-Pratt about who was responsible and how to fix the building, repairs began in June. County officials say the transit center could open next year.
The transit center in 2012. Today, the space around it is covered in grass. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Recognizing that the fence is necessary because the transit center is still an active construction site, the sign-hangers say they hope WMATA, who owns the land, would be willing to move it away from the sidewalk. "We talk about Silver Spring being this urban, vibrant place, but our biggest asset, our front door, is horrible," they said. "What is a chain-link fence for us to be presenting to the region when we're trying to attract people to live here, to work here?"
Moving the fence even 20 feet away from the sidewalk, they argue, could still keep people out of danger while creating space for aesthetic improvements or other activities. "This can significantly improve the experience of people who use the transit center," they say. "You could add some trees and planter boxes, so you could move them easily."
This isn't the first time community members have discussed the land around the transit center. Earlier this year, Councilmember Hans Riemer and former Planning Board chair Gus Bauman proposed turning it into a park.
The sign-hangers say that's not their goal. "It's a prime development site, not a future long-term open space site," they say. "But we can enjoy it while it's here, and help inform what happens here in the future."
So far, the two signs immediately outside the Metro station have been taken down, but the other signs on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue remain.
For years, the ground-floor shops at the Guardian Building in downtown Silver Spring have sat empty. To lure new tenants, the building's owner brought the space to life with fake storefronts.
The Arkin family has owned this six-story office building, located at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street, for decades. But as owner Michael Arkin's health declined and he wasn't able to keep the building up, many of the retail tenants moved away, retired, or passed away. After a stroke a few years ago, his sons took over management of the building. "We had our work cut out for us," said son Devin Arkin, who grew up in Silver Spring but now lives in Chicago.
The sons renovated the building and commissioned an sculpture for the lobby of 1950s-era hardware they found in the basement. But they weren't sure what to do with its nearly 7,400 square feet of empty retail space until they read about towns in Northern Ireland who disguised their empty shops with murals depicting open, lively businesses.
Arkin's advertising firm Huckleberry Pie crafted scenes of busy stores, like a men's wear store and a bakery, and fitted them over the empty windows. Workers toil away behind the counter as ducks and chickens peer out from door frames. Discrete "For Lease" and "Build to Suit" signs appear between images of food and goods.
Cameron Street is a few blocks away from the shops and restaurants along Ellsworth Drive, and as a result there isn't a lot of foot traffic. The Guardian Building isn't alone in having an empty first floor. The Cameron, an apartment building across the street, lost one of its two ground floor tenants, an outpatient surgery center. And two blocks away at Cameron and Spring streets, there are ground floor spaces at United Therapeutics' new headquarters that have been vacant for nearly four years.
If all of the storefronts on Cameron Street were filled, it might actually become a compelling destination that could draw shoppers and diners from other parts of downtown Silver Spring. But since most of them are empty, nobody wants to be the first to take the risk. (Other than Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the first floor of the Cameron, which as a chain can draw customers on name recognition alone.)
Hopefully, the Guardian Building can buck the trend. Its fake storefronts may not convince anyone, but it does look better than it did before. Hopefully, they'll catch the eye of potential tenants soon. According to this marketing brochure, the space is still vacant.
Problem: The Ballston Common Mall isn't working very well. Solution: Open the mall up to the surrounding streets, so it becomes the center of a lively community rather than a walled-off separate place.
Ballston is one of the smallest malls in the region. It can't compete well against bigger centers with more stores, like Pentagon City or Tysons Corner. Instead, the mall generally only draws customers from a small area nearby, and thus makes less money than other, bigger malls.
Meanwhile, being an enclosed mall that serves mostly local traffic, it saps sidewalk retail away from Ballston's neighborhood streets. Stores that would otherwise be on the sidewalk are instead bottled up in the mall.
To fix this, developer Forest City plans to face more stores to the sidewalk, and give them more inviting storefronts. It will replace nondescript mall doors with open-air plazas that naturally extend the street into the mall. Capping the building will be a new 29-story residential tower.
Forest City still needs to work with Arlington County to finalize and approve plans. For now, these are just concepts. But if all goes well, the 1980s-style Ballston Common Mall will transition to become the contemporary Ballston Center in 2017 and 2018.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
The more riders who use a bus stop, the larger and more amenity-filled the stop should be. That's the message behind this nifty infographic from Arlington, showing the basic types of stops, and when they're appropriate.
Much of the outcry over Arlington's "million-dollar bus stop" seemed to stem from the widespread belief that all bus stops are the same. But while the Arlington stops did benefit from a redesign, the general idea that "a bus stop is a bus stop is a bus stop" is wrong. Actually there are several different kinds, appropriate in different times and places.
For very small stops, used by less than about 40 passengers per day, simple "flag pole" bus stops are perfectly fine.
Bigger stops serving up to a couple hundred people per day need a little extra space for waiting, and at that level it's nice to provide basic amenities like seats and trash cans, so transit agencies step it up with sheltered bus stops.
But what if there's even more passengers? What if you're getting as many riders as a light rail or BRT station, on the order of a few hundred or even a thousand per day?
At that level you naturally need a station comparable to light rail or BRT, bigger with more waiting area. And it makes sense to introduce even more amenities that can speed up service or improve the customer experience, like high curbs for level boarding, off-vehicle fare payment, real-time arrival displays, and bike racks.
Meanwhile, when hundreds or thousands of riders a day are using a single space, it's no longer just a bus stop. At that point, it's a highly-visible civic gathering spot.
And as important it is to provide transit riders with attractive facilities, it's also important even for non-transit riders that our civic spaces be attractive. Thus it's appropriate for large transit stations to look nicer (and cost more, and last longer) than a row of mass produced bus shelters.
The continuum of transit stations doesn't even stop there. For more than 1,000 riders per day you start to need entire buildings with space for multiple vehicles, bathrooms, a staffed information desk, and more. Or you need bus subway stations, which are vastly more expensive still.
What's appropriate on Columbia Pike?
With about 16,000 bus riders per day, Columbia Pike is already the busiest bus corridor in Virginia. Buses on Columbia Pike carry more riders each day than the Norfolk light rail, and about as many as either of VRE's two commuter rail lines. It's a serious transit corridor.
And it's only going to get more serious. With the streetcar, transit ridership on Columbia Pike is expected to approximately double, to over 30,000 per day by 2030.
That's a lot of riders. That's considerably more than any bus route in DC, and about 1/3 the expected 2030 ridership of the Metrorail Silver Line. That many riders need and deserve good facilities.
What's odd about the debate in Arlington is that everyone seems to agree Columbia Pike needs vastly improved transit, but people are outraged about the costs anyway. Opponents to the planned streetcar aren't saying "don't build anything." They're saying "build BRT instead."
Putting aside the fact that full BRT is impossible because Arlington isn't allowed to dedicate Columbia Pike's lanes for transit, these expensive bus stations are exactly what BRT looks like. No matter whether you favor streetcar or bus, big transit stations are necessary.
And no matter where you go, they're expensive. For example, BRT stations in Eugene, OR run $445,000, while in Grand Rapids, MI they're $662,000. Norfolk's light rail stations are $762,000.
Naturally, Arlington isn't building these larger transit stations at every bus stop. They're only going in at a handful of the busiest stops, where passenger capacities meet that threshold of a few hundred per day, or soon will.
For example, according to Arlington Transit Bureau Chief Steve Del Giudice, the eastbound Walter Reed station is currently hosting about 525 boardings per day (that's boardings only, not including alightings). Assume it doubles with the streetcar, and Walter Reed will soon have over 1,000 boardings per day.
That's half as many boardings as the Arlington Cemetery Metro station. Far too many for a simple shelter.
Ask someone about driving in Bethesda or Silver Spring on a weekend night and he or she will give you a mouthful: "There's nowhere to park!" But as those communities have grown, their parking demands have actually gotten lower. On an average day, thousands of spaces there sit empty.
Montgomery's downtowns have lots of empty parking spaces. Image by the author using data from MCDOT.
This Friday, transportation planner Tom Brown and I will talk about parking and placemaking at Makeover Montgomery II, a conference about strategies for urbanizing suburban communities organized by the Montgomery County Planning Department and the University of Maryland. In 2011, Brown led a team at Nelson\Nygaard, where I now work, that recommended ways Montgomery County could better use its parking to promote and strengthen its downtowns.
Montgomery County has had its own municipal parking authority since the 1940s. A 1952 spread in the Washington Post's "Silver Spring Advertiser" section boasted, "Look at all the parking space!" in downtown. But downtown Silver Spring couldn't match the sea of free parking at new suburban malls like Wheaton Plaza, and it began to languish.
Many communities around the country faced the same story, especially older suburban communities that have more in common with revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods than in greenfield developments on the fringe. Yet these older suburban communities often have the power of place: unique, local shops and businesses, walkable streets, and vibrant public spaces. Today, people will eagerly deal with the hassle of parking to visit places like this and, increasingly, to live in them.
When Silver Spring started competing on place, not parking, it started to take off as an urban destination for the entire region. And a funny thing happened: as more homes and offices and shops were built around the Metro station, filling downtown's gaps and vacant lots, the demand for parking actually decreased.
According to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, the demand for parking in Silver Spring actually peaked in the early 1980s, when it had fewer residents and jobs. Today, a majority of downtown residents get to work without a car. Over 40% of downtown's 9500 parking spaces are vacant all the time.
Realizing that its parking policies needed to reflect how people actually got around in its downtowns, county officials asked Nelson\Nygaard to offer suggestions. The resulting Montgomery County Parking Policy Study recommended reducing or eliminating parking requirements in urban areas, since there was already a glut of parking spaces, and finding ways to direct drivers to underused lots and garages.
Officials are starting to take the advice. Last year, the county passed a new zoning code that still mandates parking in new developments near transit stations, but requires far fewer spaces than it does for more suburban, car-dependent areas. That will conserve land and reduce building costs, as structured parking garages are very expensive to build lowering the barrier for potential residents and businesses who want to come here.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has introduced demand-based pricing in Bethesda, setting higher rates for on-street parking spaces and lowering them in garages to encourage drivers to park there instead. This frees up on-street spaces for drivers staying for brief periods; reduces circling for a space, which causes congestion; and sends a message to drivers that they'll be able to find a space.
People will choose to live, work, and hang out in Montgomery County's downtowns not because it's easy to park there, but because they're great places to be. Some parking will be necessary, but these places will thrive if our community leaders focus on urban design and create complete streets that welcome everyone who already comes to Silver Spring or Bethesda by foot, bike, or transit.
Makeover Montgomery II runs from this Thursday through Saturday at the Silver Spring Civic Building in downtown Silver Spring. We'll be part of a panel discussion this Friday afternoon at 1:45 pm. For more information or to register, visit the conference website.
As part of a deal to build a replacement for the Tenleytown Safeway, residents are looking for the right public benefit to ask for. But the rare opportunity to get a big donation is bringing out narrow interests.
At the February ANC 3E meeting, Steve Strazzella of developer Bozzuto presented the latest iteration of a 5-year-old plan to redevelop the so-called "Secret Safeway," located at 42nd and Davenport streets NW. Bozzuto plans a block-long, brick building with 4 stories of apartments atop a 65,000 square foot supermarket and two levels of parking.
The project is a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which gives an owner more flexibility with a property's zoning if community representatives and the DC Zoning Commission agree to it. There are basically two ways a PUD contributes to a neighborhood: through public benefits, or amenities within the project itself. But it's unclear who will benefit from what the community's asked for.
The proposal has some benefits all by itself
Safeway originally needed a PUD because it wanted a new supermarket bigger than what could fit on the part of the site zoned for commercial use. In response to community pressure, the company agreed to build the store as part of a mixed-use development that is often the foundation of a more vibrant, walkable neighborhood.
In many ways, the proposed building is good on its own. What is currently an ugly one-story building that turns its back on the street and has acres of impermeable parking lots would be replaced with a new store, 200 rental apartments and extensive green roofs, all a quarter-mile from the Tenleytown Metro station and a half-mile from the Friendship Heights Metro.
Bozzuto has hired a new architect for the project, Maurice Walters, who also designed the Arts Walk at Monroe Street Market in Brookland. The developer wasn't willing to share any images, but as before, the apartments will range from studios to three-bedroom units, perfect for an area known for its family-friendliness.
The plan will absorb the adjacent WMATA chiller plant, allowing the building to have an inviting, street-friendly facade for the entire block. A loading dock in the rear will be fully enclosed, hiding loading activities from public view.
Neighbors unsure what the public benefit should be
At the ANC meeting, the neighbors largely supported the project. No one opposed it outright. For his part, Strazzella came to the commission ready to negotiate. Owners of the adjacent rowhouses worried that the proposed building would block their sunlight, but already the building was lower than previous iterations. Residents were divided on whether the building had too many parking spaces, and whether residents should be able to get parking permits.
Everyone generally agreed that Bozzuto should close a slip lane that lets southbound drivers speed off of Wisconsin Avenue onto 42nd Street. Instead, traffic would have to slow down and turn right, reducing cut-through traffic without sacrificing connectivity. In its place, there would be a small park just outside the entrance to the new store.
Beyond these points, discussion broke down. In a preemptive gesture, Bozzuto came with plans for a 4,000 square foot community building to occupy a corner of the lot on Ellicott Street. The building would hold meeting space, but it was unknown who would own it. While the main building featured quality design, the community building was bland and uninspired.
In the subsequent discussion, one woman said it would be better used as a park. Another said it should become a new house. Commissioner Sam Serebin insisted that it should be an outdoor pool. The commissioners agreed to talk it out, but Strazzella indicated that Bozzuto wanted to file with the Zoning Commission within 60 days.
To me, the community building makes little sense. There's no clear need for this kind of functional space. More importantly, there's no reason for this kind of building to be placed on a solidly residential street. But at the meeting, it felt like everyone agreed that the ANC had to extract something from the developer.
How do you decide what a community benefit is?
Part of the problem is that there is no framework to decide what's appropriate at this site. The Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Study would have identified community needs and combined them into a menu of amenities. In that scenario, either the developer or the ANC could see whether the benefit would be appropriate. In the absence of that or any plan, the public is left grasping for any chances it gets.
ANC 3E negotiated an meticulous PUD for the Babe's Billiards redevelopment nearby by focusing on the benefits and negative impacts of the project. This is a much bigger project, so there's more opportunity to toss around big-ticket items. But rather than seeing the PUD process as a mere transaction between a developer and the public, both parties should view it as a chance to build a neighborhood together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite years of planning to transform Tysons Corner from a car-oriented edge city into a walkable downtown, some Northern Virginia residents are surprised to learn that Tysons' 4 Metro stations will not be surrounded by parking lots.
The confusion seems to stem from a mix-up about what Metro stations in Tysons Corner are supposed to accomplish. Are they places for DC-bound commuters to board, or are they the destination stations for people working in Tysons? There will surely be some of both, but most users will be the latter, and they're who the line must be designed to best serve.
If stations are surrounded by parking that will reduce the number of buildings within walking distance of Metro. Not only that, it would also make the walk less interesting and more dangerous, since walking through a busy parking lot is hardly a pleasant experience. That in turn would reduce the number of people who could use Metro to commute to Tysons. That would undermine the entire project.
The main purpose of the Silver Line project is to transform Tysons Corner. Tysons is a behemoth, with about the same amount of office space as downtown Baltimore. It can't grow or continue to prosper as a car-oriented place. Nor would it make sense to invest almost $7 billion in a new Metrorail line if it were not going to support a more urban Tysons, or serve easy commuting into Tysons.
Consider other walkable downtown areas, like downtown DC or Rosslyn. Would it make sense if Gallery Place Metro station were surrounded by parking instead of buildings? Of course it would not. Tysons will one day be the same. It may not look like that yet, but it never will if its best land is used for parking lots.
Yes, it's true there should be enough parking along the Dulles Corridor for commuters into DC to use the system. That's why there are large parking lots at the Wiehle Avenue and West Falls Church stations. There's no need for drivers to enter congested Tysons Corner to find parking, when more highway-oriented stations exist specifically for that purpose.
Alternatively, those few drivers who do want to park in Tysons will surely be able to do the same thing they do in Ballston, DC, Bethesda, or anywhere else: Pay to park in a nearby garage, and walk a couple of blocks. As more new buildings are built near Metro stations, there will be more available private garages to pick from.
There may be some small number of people currently living in Tysons who refuse to walk to stations, and will have to drive out of Tysons to find parking. That's unfortunate, but accommodating them with parking lots at urban stations would make those stations less convenient for the larger number of walkers, and future walkers.
Temporary parking isn't a panacea
Some suggest that since it may be a few years before all the land near Metro stations is developed, it could be used as interim parking on a temporary basis. In fact, that's exactly the plan at the McLean station, where 700 parking spaces will be available at first.
That could be a workable idea in a few places, especially at McLean, which is the easternmost of Tysons' 4 stations. But it's less practical than some may assume, because most of the land surrounding these stations isn't currently empty.
For example, Greensboro station is surrounded by strip malls. They will eventually be redeveloped into high-rises, but in the meantime the property owners make more money with retail there than they would with just parking.
In places where Fairfax County or WMATA can strike deals with landowners to let Metro riders use existing parking lots, that's fine. But it does not make sense to tear down functional money-making buildings and replace them with temporary parking lots. Especially when there are better parking options elsewhere for drivers hoping to park and ride.
The bottom line is that Tysons Metro stations were planned correctly. Some interim measures are OK if they're practical, but surrounding Tysons Metro stations with parking would undermine the entire reason for running the Silver Line through Tysons in the first place.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Last month, downtown Wheaton got a new Safeway, complete with 17 floors of apartments on top. While the new building gives Wheaton a skyline, it also has a lot of above-ground parking and blank walls, making the surrounding streets less inviting to pedestrians.
The Exchange, a new apartment building with a ground-level Safeway, towers over downtown Wheaton. All photos by the author.
Downtown Wheaton is having a residential boom, with 900 apartments in various stages of construction. Over half of them are in the Exchange, which is located across from the Metro station at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive and has a Safeway on its ground floor.
It's one of several residential projects with supermarkets being built around the region. Representatives from developer Patriot Realty says they were inspired by the Safeway with housing above at CityVista in Mount Vernon Square. There's also a Safeway with apartments above being built in Petworth, and a Giant with housing recently opened at the old O Street Market in Shaw.
Wheaton is one of the highest points in Montgomery County, and placing an 17-story building on top means it can be seen for miles in each direction. The county's plan for Wheaton calls for many more buildings like the Exchange, but for now it towers over the downtown's one- and two-story strip malls. And it fills most of a city block, meaning it faces not one, but three streets.
Seen from Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the Exchange (left) looks like three smaller towers. The Computer Building is on the right.
Baltimore-based architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht tried to visually reduce the building's mass by making each wing look like a separate "tower." From many points in downtown Wheaton, it actually does resemble a cluster of small, thin towers.
It works well with the other buildings on Georgia Avenue that are being built or were built a few years ago. The Exchange's "towers" pair nicely with the Computer Building, an office building one block away that's being converted into a 14-story apartment tower. Together, they create an interesting rhythm with the two other mid-rise buildings on the same block, which were built in the mid-2000's, and the six-story Solaire Wheaton across the street, which will open later this month.
Of course, the Exchange also has ground-floor retail, unlike all of those other buildings. The Safeway and an attached Starbucks have lots of big windows facing Georgia Avenue and even an outdoor patio with seating, which will likely attract people and make the sidewalks active when it's warm out.
But the building's structured parking garages threaten to undermine all of the good design features it has. The "towers" sit atop a podium containing several stories of parking for residents. The Safeway sits below that, at street level, and below it is another parking garage for grocery shoppers. Together, the parking garage and Safeway are about as tall as the mid-rise MetroPointe apartments next door.
Montgomery County's zoning code requires lots of parking in new apartment buildings, even when they're literally across the street from a Metro station. Underground parking can be really expensive to build and the foundation could have impacted the Metro station, even though it's one of the world's deepest. So the developer chose to put some of it above ground, and some below.
That means if you stand in front of the Safeway and look up, you see several floors of dark "windows" meant to make the parking garage blend with the apartments above. Around the corner on Reedie Drive, people leaving the Metro pass blank walls. The building's on a steep hill, so you're walking next to the parking garage, not the Safeway. If there wasn't so much parking, there could have been some small shops here instead.
Turn the corner again to Fern Street and there's basically six stories of blank wall facing Veterans Park: loading docks and shopper parking at the street level (it's set into the hill, so you can't see it from Georgia); the double-height windows of the Safeway, all of which are papered over; and three stories of resident parking.
Urban parks should have buildings with entrances and windows and storefronts facing them, which give people a reason to visit the park and provide "eyes on the street" that make it safer. There's already a public parking garage on one side of the park, and it's disappointing that the designers and developers didn't take the opportunity to do something different, or that Montgomery County didn't make them.
It's likely that many residents won't bring cars to the Exchange given its proximity to Metro and location in a walkable neighborhood. If the developer had been able to build less parking, there may have been more opportunities to shape the building's mass to make it feel even less bulky. And there may not have been as many blank walls. There could actually be apartments and shops looking out onto Veterans Park.
Montgomery County's working on a new zoning code that would demand less parking near transit, but it's too late for this building. It's unfortunate, because the Exchange sits on a really prominent site in downtown Wheaton. It's also the first high-rise to be built there, meaning it will set the tone for decades of future development.
In some ways, the Exchange is a good precedent for the projects to come. But it may also be a cautionary tale, showing developers what not to do.
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