Category Archives: Local

Local Reno Park Project

The Giant Circle at Fort Reno

tenleytown parks 1902

I found the 1910 Parks Commission Plan earlier. Now I’ve been able to find a higher resolution version of the plan, albeit a little different. This one is from the original, famous McMillan Commission report. Click the images to see the whole city.

This is the first time a park at Fort Reno was proposed. Here, it’s imagined as a much bigger circular park centered around the now obliterated, high point of DC. The Black-populated town at Fort Reno was still pretty small; the streetcar had only arrived a few years before. Similarly, you can see that the Chevy Chase Land Company had only begun to make forays into the District. 

The Nebraska Ave and Yuma street parkways are visible. You can see how large they wanted Soapstone Valley park to be, extending up to 38th Street. They also wanted to acquire the slopes of Broad Branch Valley. That would have linked up with Fort Reno, as part of the first iteration of Fort Drive.  Below is a map showing the rights-of-way for the 1897 Permanent Highway Plan and existing roads.  

Is there anything else you see?

tenleytown highway 1902

After the break, a GIF, a GIF, a GIF, I say, a comparative GIF! read more »

Local planning

The 1970 study that said DC’s zoning is obsolete

In a post today on Greater Greater Washington, about the third delay of the Zoning Update, David Alpert and I mentioned a report from 1970 that called the 1958 zoning code outdated. 

That was in response to Mayor Gray’s announcement that the Zoning Commission would not close its records until September 2014, so we weren’t able to share as much as I wanted. Here’s more:

Barton-Aschman were hired by the pre-home-rule Walter Washington administration to examine the code after the MLK assassination riots, Urban Renewal, the Metro, and freeway revolt. Not all of their comments were negative, but the technocratic, autocentric attitude that ran through the 1958 process was nowhere to be found. 

These events had big impacts in the ideologies of the planning community. So, just 12 years after the code was passed, they saw a code that was plagued by assumptions that no longer applied and solutions that only seemed to make things worse:

A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.

Some things changed after this report was published. Parking minimums got lower. Much of the city was downzoned. Overlays were used to make custom tweaks. A more general PUD was introduced. And certain downtown zones became more open to residential uses, making it less of a nighttime wasteland.

Still, some of the ideas these planners found outdated in the Nixon years are still are at the root of the problems the city faces today.  read more »

Architecture Local

The Misfortune of Commodore Barry

The Commodore Barry monument in Franklin Square gets lost among the many dead generals of Washington. A timid notation of historical personage, it presents no case for relevance. It’s particularly sad because of what we could have had:

BarryMonument_sm

In 1906, an alliance of Irish-American groups decided they wanted a monument that would assert their participation in the founding myth of the United States. This had been denied; before 1700, the principal means of Irish immigration was through indentured servitude. The Irish, upwardly mobile and increasingly tired of their second-class ethnic status, were making a bid to become White.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a friendly society, saw the Revolutionary War naval hero John Barry as precisely the man to plug into the American foundation myth. The French had done it with Rochambeau and Lafayette. The Poles would do the same with Kościuszko, and the Germans with von Steuben

The Hibernians wanted the best, so they courted the judgement of stars: Daniel Burnham, Frank Millet, and Herbert Adams, among others. They had no idea what they were getting. read more »

Architecture Local

Fort McNair – McKim, Mead & White, 1907

From Collected Works

 

Charles McKim really loved those boxy trees, didn’t he? Otherwise, a hidden gem.

Local planning

Is there an anti-Tregoning?

Recently on a few community boards, I’ve seen posts arguing whoever replaces Harriet Tregoning is obviously going to disavow “smart growth.” The problem is: where are they gonna find someone like this?

I’ve never met a professional planner who opposes the policies that constitute smart growth. Give or take a few things, what gets called “smart growth” is the standard approach of almost all urban planners. Despite Tregoning’s involvement in consolidating the agenda of Smart Growth, most of what she supports is the product of 50 years of empirical study of what makes cities work.

Outside of the mainstream, there are socialist and libertarian positions to urban planning. Their positions are significantly more radical than anything OP has proposed.

The topic is worth discussing, because today the Post endorsed Muriel Bowser for Mayor and the Mayor, Vince Gray, appointed Rosalynn Hughey as interim director of the Office of Planning. Whether she becomes permanent or steps down, OP will probably view the city’s problems from the same position Tregoning did.

Gray’s development policies were basically the same ones as Bowser’s mentor, Adrian Fenty. Fenty’s policies were really just versions of Tony Williams’ strategies, developed by Ellen McCarthy and Andy Altman. Tregoning wasn’t that different. She was just more upfront – and willing to be hated.

So there’s little threat that Tregoning’s policies will be rolled back under a revanchist OP. The best the intransigent opponents of development can hope for is spineless. If they truly believe that Tregoning sold out the city to developers, what do they think spineless will do?

 

Local planning

When the future was Cleveland PARK

I do love the neon signs, though!

I think a number of people are perplexed as to why Sam’s Park & Shop in Cleveland Park is landmarked. Aside from the political pressure of a well-connected population dead set on preventing the density that would actually save their failing retail strip using historic preservation laws, the site does have some significance.

The Park & Shop was point along the trend to adapt retail architecture to modern conditions. In this page from the May 1932 Architectural Record, the author praised the Park & Shop in contrast to a traditional main street retail strip. He might as well have been describing the service lane block.

If only they'd bulldozed those awful storefronts the strip wouldn't be faltering!

I think a lot of people look back on the beginnings of autocentric planning  and think that the people who conceived it must have been deluded, but to them these choices seem eminently rational. A lot of people also seem to pin the autocentric turn on the Modern Movement and Le Corbusier in particular. This issue of the Record points in another direction: it is unequivocal about the need to redesign retail for the automobile, and merely reports on the International Style as an interesting trend in Europe with good goals.
If anything, Modernism was just a way to aestheticize the rationalist fixations of Modernity like efficiency, objectivity, or hygiene. After all, the first auto-oriented shopping malls were executed in historicist styles. The movement away from urban life began well before that, although Modernists certainly took it further.
It’s a complicated story, one that I don’t really know much about. Luckily, one of my professors, David Smiley, wrote a book about it. Pedestrian Modern, how the desire to accommodate the automobile and pedestrian safely crossed with American modernists’ interest in retail, before 1960s radicalism made that contaminated.
Our Park & Shop comes in towards the beginning of the story.
Local Other

A few posts on Greater Greater Washington

The more I’ve written for Greater Greater Washington, the more I’ve realized that I need to write for a different audience here than I do there. At the least, I’d like to be more specific about architectural issues here and write about its intersections with DC and Upper Northwest on Greater Greater Washington.

So, I’ve decided to stop cross-posting articles from GGW other than ones that are themselves pretty specific to discussions of architecture, for example, the Architects on the Height Limit series. However, I will periodically link to the articles I’ve contributed to for readers who don’t read GGW. 

Stuff I wrote:

I also had comments in four group discussions:

Architecture Local

Taller buildings, better 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, 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.

L'Enfant's Tomb by AlbertHerring on Wikimedia

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.

read more »

Architecture Local

Marshall Purnell on the Height Limit

Pepco building by Devrouax + Purnell.

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished DC architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This comment is part of that series

The argument being used to push for a change in the height limit is misunderstood at best and disingenuous at worst. Washington is full of boxes because developers want to build out to the very maximum FAR available. The measurement is taken from the inside face of glass. This means any relief in the facade results in lost FAR. This makes the city very much a city of two dimensional facades not architecture. There have been noted exceptions to this of course but they are not the norm. All things being equal, allowing for taller building will probably result in taller boxes. Developers will still want to maximize the envelope at the expense of some needed relief. They will still keep hiring the same architects and hope for different results. There’s a definition in that last sentence.

Another solution would be to hire more creative architects. However, if you become popular for creating Washington boxes it seems the development community will beat a path to your door. They get a building with maximum income potential (translated: space) for a modest cost and a downright meager fee with no push back from the architect for any idea suggested, good or bad.

I have had the good fortune to have some clients that were not driven by maximizing the FAR so much as building to their limited budget and providing the best design value.

Marshall Purnell, FAIA, is director of Devrouax + Purnell Architects, and former president of the American Institute of Architects. 

Architecture Local

Roger Lewis on the Height Limit

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This testimony from the NCPC hearings on the Height Limit is part of that series.  

Thanks to these historic limits, the nation’s capital has remained a uniquely memorable, low- and mid-rise city. From many places in the city, views of America’s most iconic, symbolically significant structures – the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the White House – have been preserved because downtown skyscrapers cannot be erected.

Yet there are places in the District of Columbia where height limits established decades ago are today inappropriate and unnecessarily constraining, a reflection of outdated planning and zoning practices from the early and mid-20th century. These practices were characterized most notably by designation of large areas – land use zones – within the city limited to predominantly one use and uniform height limit. Broad-brush, one-size-fits-all planning and zoning failed to take into account, within each land use zone, locational variations in topography, solar orientation, views and vistas, proximity to parks, adjacency to civic open spaces, and infrastructure, especially transit. It did not differentiate between mid-block properties and properties at major intersections.

Today’s city planning, urban design and architectural principles and techniques – such as computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – are far more sophisticated and effective. Broadbrush strategies of the past are obsolete. We now can engage in fine-grain planning, urban design and zoning. We can identify, analyze and designate specific sites in the city where increased building height and density make great sense aesthetically, environmentally, functionally, socially and economically. This “smart growth” approach can enhance the city’s urban and architectural qualities while yielding fiscal benefits for the city. Furthermore, enacted as an incentive bonus overlaying existing zoning in appropriate locations, increased building height limits – and density – can engender development of much needed affordable housing.

Where should height limits change? In the downtown l’Enfant Plan area of the District, including traditional residential neighborhoods, height limits should remain substantially unchanged to preserve the center city’s dominant character and skyline. But there are specific sites – such as the Southwest and Anacostia River waterfronts – where upward adjustment of height limits would be beneficial without jeopardizing the city’s historic profile. Outside the l’Enfant Plan area, many sites could be suitable for higher buildings, especially near Metro stations and major roadways.

The only equitable, professionally responsible method for identifying places to raise height limits, and for determining new height limits, is to create a detailed, city-wide plan, prior to any rezoning, based on a rigorous, comprehensive study. This is essential to avoid piecemeal, property-by-property relaxation of height limits through variances, exceptions and ad hoc rezonings, a process too often influenced by political and financial pressures. Because municipal and federal interests are involved, the building height study and plan should be prepared collaboratively and transparently by the D.C. Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission.

Many Washingtonians are apprehensive when anyone suggests modifying D.C. height limits. They envision Rosslyn-like skyscrapers rising all over town, ruining the capital’s historic image. Some believe that raising D.C. height limits anywhere would set precedents invariably opening the proverbial “barn door” to greedy developers in league with corrupt politicians, enabling high-rise buildings throughout the city.

But skeptical citizens need to understand that, through fine-grain urban design, prudent legislation and precisely targeted, well enforced land use regulation, the barn door will not and cannot be thrown open. Therefore, revisiting D.C. height limits requires not only a credible, city-wide planning effort, but also an on-going public education effort to help citizens recognize that legislation adopted over a century ago can be improved.

Roger Lewis, FAIA, is a registered architect and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. For over twenty years, he has written a column for the Washington Post. 

This post is a version of Lewis’ July 19th, 2013 testimony before Congress.