Matt Bell on the Height Limit

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

Certainly the possibility of an enhanced skyline is suggestive and more height may mean a more interesting skyline in places. But the primary concern should be how the buildings address the street and add to the vitality of our city. Any such changes to the Height Act would be well advised to take that into consideration. Yes, the skyline of New York is great and tall buildings are much the reason. But the 1916 Zoning Code of NY also resulted in a wonderful sense of urbanity, where the tall buildings “behaved” at street level, defining public space and reserving their more celebratory features for many more stories up in the air.

But, it’s doubtful that similar effects will be tolerated in DC. So, where does that leave us? On one hand, the question is one of urbanism. K Street, while generally ugly (it is not the Rue di Rivoli!), has a sense of urbanity that is impressive on weekdays from 8 to 6. More residential development would help in the off hours. Those buildings, for better or for worse, define the street, have active ground floors and provide the continuity of the street wall necessary for any successful downtown.

Thinking architecturally, DC buildings can be proportionally a little squat, so perhaps more height might help. But while many lament “squatness” as a given condition of DC design, its really a question of understanding and manipulating the proportions of the facade and the vertical surface. After all, Paris has short buildings and people seem to like it!

So, will more height give us better designs? I’m doubtful. It may give us more development opportunities and greater density in places. And those are powerful and perhaps good reasons. But better quality? It ain’t necessarily so.

Matt Bell, FAIA, is a principal at EEK/Perkins + Eastman in DC. 

David Varner on the Height Limit

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

As Shalom Baranes has written, there are good things to come from modest increases in height (one story or so) with no parallel increase in density. This would enable a saavy building owner and creative architect to articulate their design more aggressively, creating better spaces for its users and a more interesting façade. Today’s market in D.C. is marked with significant efforts to differentiate seemingly similar properties and the ability to sculpt and offer alternative space plans is appealing. Also, the concepts of sustainable workplaces don’t need to be “of the future”, and the healthy vibrancy of daylighting and views in our homes is always appealing.

An increase in height doesn’t, however, protect the city from vanilla design and established real estate conditions favoring hyper-efficiency in office planning (such as GSA, for instance), or the increase in the cost of structure or skin, might not appeal to every landowner. Take a look around the region, though, to see how height relates to design quality; it would be better if it was more energizing. I think it will open the gap between designs aiming at the upper percentile market and the mainstream, and to me any opportunity to increase in the average design quality will ultimately enhance the District.

I would be interested in seeing a dialogue about the impacts of changing the height limits in the core downtown areas that have 130 ft to 165 ft height limits. There are huge investments in place, many with trophy designs that might be negatively impacted by a neighboring property that could now leap past them. It could become a bit of a dinosaur discussion that forces change on deep labyrinths of dark office space, and I’m all for removing the pressures that forced creation of those spaces.

One tool that might be useful is already in place — the Transferrable Development Rights provisions in the Zoning Code. This has the net effect of increasing heights in the three receiving zones currently entitled for TDRs. If we were to create new zones, perhaps we could control the locations of new height districts and preserve others along the way.

Relaxing the height limit in a big way — say, for instance, doubling it — creates opportunity for aspirational skylines in a historically flat city. Provided, of course, we can deal with the impacts to sensitive neighborhoods and transportation issues. I think that the CBD should be spared a huge evolutionary jump, though, out of respect for the original planning and beauty in the monumental core. So I’d advocate for new districts where additional height could be created. There are underserved sectors of the city that might attract investment in this new concept, and we might see a futurist vision of Metro emerge out of the hugely successful planning that began over fifty years ago but now seems to struggle with stagnation and capacity questions.

In summary — as an academic exercise, YES, relaxing the height limit will increase design quality in D.C. The scale of a 21st century urban environment should not be bound by 18th and early 20th century idealisms. The scale of our endeavors, the speed of our activities, and the agility of our culture is better off with more variety and greater opportunity for good architecture

David Varner, AIA, is Vice President for office design at SmithGroup in DC.

Robert Peck on the Height Limit

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

There’s not going to be enough height under any proposal to have slender towers dotting the skyline. However, a slightly higher height limit, slightly higher being around 20 feet, could allow us to indent buildings without losing development density and that would add interest.

But maybe the best outcome would be higher floor to ceiling heights in the same number of floors that we have now; usually a maximum of 12. Washington has unusually low ceilings. Higher ceilings allow more natural daylight to penetrate deeper into the floors, which is good for everyone; providing a healthier environment and lower energy use.

Relaxing the height limit in DC as a means to better architecture is a bit of a trick question. I think that it increases the chances for better architecture than the current regulations do, but it does not guarantee it.

Robert Peck, Hon. AIA leads the Workplace Consulting division at Gensler‘s DC office.

Travis Price on the Height Limit

Lloyd’s of London building, Richard Rogers, and Willis Building, Foster + Partners

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

Will more height bring better architecture? Yes and no. Initially, on the one hand, I would say no for 2 reasons. The current height in concert with the street widths has a major influence on keeping human scale paramount and thus makes great street in a friendly city.

Scale is an immensely powerful design directive on human behavior. It also forces development to expand at a human scale inside the city limits. This tends to fill the city with better living and a better ecological footprint instead of leaving vast areas of land squandered while nondescript high-rises further alienation.

On the other hand, the boredom of boxes is equally discouraging. Flatness contributes to a banal and far too homogenous city. Some fun and upward joyful shapes could readily dance with the civic memorials such as the National Cathedral, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument. Arlington’s taller boxes are exactly what we don’t need in DC.

Chimneys on the roof of by Antoní Gaudi’s Casa Mila

I would propose a future approach. For each city block, each building gets a moment of roof delight by allowing additional partial floors stepping back 15 feet per floor from the parapets, up to 5 stories and with 50% reductions in footprint per step. This would give us some refreshing chaos and rhythm to the city scape without overwhelming us with high boxes.

This is much like [former New York mayor John] Lindsay’s incentive zoning approach for Manhattan but at a much smaller scale. Let the architects go wild with this one. Incentivize a bit of freedom for creative developers and architects to break heavy thumbs of symmetry and repetition whenever possible.

So, no on big heights, and yes on complex delights! To paraphrase Churchill as many do: First we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us. Let’s shake up the shapes and shake down the boxes! Let a few stories happen with a fun jury of outside reviewers and not just only well-intended public officials under the heavy thumb of conformity and regulations. Perhaps along with Fine Arts Commission, let’s have a Fun Architects Commission.

Travis Price, FAIA is director of Travis Price Architects in Georgetown.


David Haresign, Mary Fitch and Bill Bonstra on the Height Limit

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished DC architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This official statement of the DC Chapter of the American Institutes of Architecture is part of that series

The 1910 Height Act was necessary to insure the safety of the citizens of the District of Columbia. It was an appropriate response to a very real threat to fire safety. But since then, the District has enacted zoning and building codes that go well beyond the 1910 Act, and in many cases, provide more protection to the city’s unique skyline than the Act does.

Moreover, the language of the Act is limited to the architectural technology and building science of the early 20th century. For example, in 1910 it was not possible to include life safety equipment in a mechanical penthouse, so occupancy of a penthouse was prohibited. Many of the Act’s other requirements include similarly archaic language that is at odds with modern building and life safety codes.

It is our conclusion that this outmoded language should be brought up to date to reference modern building codes in place in the District. We held a workshop with NCPC staff this summer to help draft language to make the Act more consistent. Furthermore, we strongly agree with the recommendations included in DC’s Height Master Plan that protecting Washington’s cultural resources and physical character is the job of the District of Columbia and not that of the federal government.

We believe that the federal interest in the height of buildings should be limited to areas immediately adjacent to the Monumental Core and critical view corridors. We believe that current building and zoning codes in the District now provide better protection for non-federal areas of the city than the Act.

Finally, with respect to the alternatives described in the study, we believe additional height may be possible in carefully selected spots, with adequate public input, around the District. Moreover, we believe that the proposed 200-foot cap used in the study is arbitrary and that additional height above that cap may also be appropriate for areas outside the Monumental Core and its environs.

While we respect the horizontal character that makes Washington DC unique, we believe well-designed, taller structures will provide an interesting counterpoint and add visual interest and variety to the skyline. This would, of course, require a thorough, in-depth study.

David Haresign, FAIA is the current president of the Washington Chapter of The American Institute of Architects. He and Bill Bonstra, FAIA are principals of Bonstra|Haresign. Mary Fitch, AICP Hon. AIA, is the executive director of AIA DC.

How can Fort Reno’s history come to life?

Fort Reno Park is not a great park. It’s mostly unstructured green space: empty and unpleasant. It does have a great community garden, tennis courts, and two playing fields. But, those uses collectively occupy only a fraction of the land. And they don’t really draw anyone in. Even Fort Reno’s most popular event, the summer concerts, are a lucky accident.

In fact, the only users who really enjoy the park are dogs. The empty fields at Fort Reno are great for letting dogs run free. The only problem is that it’s illegal. Dogs must be on a leash on NPS land. There is just nothing right with Fort Reno Park, is there?


Now, it’s easy to spitball amenities to fix the park, but Fort Reno is uniquely charged with history. There’s was a Civil War Fort and then a Black town bound up in its formation. Buried under the grass are vast possibilities to impregnate our lives with history. On the other hand, as more and more residents return to the district, we will really need useful parks.

So, how do you take this kind of site and interpret it while also making it a great urban place?

A recent project in Brooklyn shows us a few ways.

photo copyright nic lehoux

Strategy One: Put a frame on it 

Take a look at the Weeksville Heritage Centerlocated in northeastern Brooklyn. Not so much of an open space as a corner of East New York, the site preserves five houses from a historical Black settlement. Most of Weeksville came down for projects during Urban Renewal, but a tiny portion remained, wedged laterally into a block.

Like Tenleytown, Weeksville was quite some distance away from the city (Brooklyn), but was later absorbed by urbanization. Unlike Tenleytown, none of the roads were converted into the grid, and few of the houses were. Tenleytown used to be two settlements: a largely White area near the Wisconsin-River intersection, and the Black town occupying what is now Fort Reno Park. Very little of both remains.

1907 tenleytown baist s

Weeksville was “rediscovered” in the 1960s by an extension class at the Pratt Institute. Residents were still floating around, but its history was unofficial and uncollected. In the same sense, Tenleytown was rediscovered in the 1970s, as the last people to remember it tried to collect their memories. Weeksville has been slowly doing the same for years.

Washington College of Law animation

I came across this animation of the new Washington College of Law. I think SmithGroup did a very good job with the brief they were given and the attitudes of the HPRB. The only thing that could be improved is the lawn fronting Tenley Circle, which could still become an exceptional space where law students could interface with permanent residents amicably.

In a related development, however, the DC Court of Appeals found that the Zoning Commission miscounted the number of students added to the “Campus,” i.e. the residential portions includes to be 1,000 people higher than claimed. The Zoning Commission will have to reconsider this issue.

Construction continues at the Tenley Campus.

Support the Zoning Rewrite: Accessory Apartments

This Wednesday will be the hearing for the Zoning Rewrite section pertaining to accessory apartments, or accessory dwelling units. This will be the most contentious debates over the changes to the zoning code required to keep DC thriving in the 21st century.

Accessory units give homeowners flexibility in the use of what are often large properties. The extra income is nice to have for some people. For others, it’s a lifejacket. When my class at yale designed and built a house, the client required a rental unit specifically because it added financial stability for the low-income family that bought it. For renters, it could bring a large amount of housing stock to the market with marginal capital costs and a lower profit motive, keeping prices down.

For communities, the economic diversity added to the vast single-family family neighborhoods will bring vitality and justify transportation improvements that all can enjoy. By allowing the elderly to downsize in place, welcoming new families, neighborhood ties stay strong while adding new residents. In most of Northwest, parking remains ample, so  the addition of a few small households will have a very minor impact.

But I don’t want to overstate the effects. For the most part, making them “by right,” will only legalize already existing apartments. Rental units in R-1/2/3 zones are widespread already, despite being illegal. Furthermore, because the regulations were written in 1956, when domestic help was more common, if the renter picks up the paper or waters plants one weekend when the owner is on the Eastern Shore, the apartment is legal. That’s silly.

upper northwest zoning
This is what One-Size-Fits-All looks like.

Now, a significant amount of opposition to the accessory provision has come from Chevy Chase residents, who claim that the provision is forced on them as “once size fits all.” But, in fact, zoning hundreds of acres as single family homes without any community nodes is the essence of “one-sizing.” Permitting a little flexibility allows for fine-grained land use decisions. It’s important to remember that although regulations keep the city safe and clean, but they should be justified. Chevy Chase hasn’t shown why it’s special.

Learn how to testify in person or by mail. The zoning commission is independent of the council and take comments seriously. Your communication with them matters.

BONUS: To share the nature of this opposition, follow the break to read testimony from one of the most outspoken opponents, Linda Schmidt, to see how extreme you have to get to criticize the proposal. Learn why some world-weary advocates call detached accessory apartments “schmitthausen.” These comments are fairly typical from her.

Washington Post on ShotSpotter

I’ve mentioned my interest in ShotSpotter, as well as data mining of aesthetic qualities before, but the Washington Post has a detailed article about its use in DC. Among other things, I noticed that it has no coverage west of Rock Creek.

In 2007, the District assumed ownership of the detection system, expanding its coverage in the years that followed. ShotSpotter now reaches into six of the seven police districts and covers about one-third of the city. Its greatest coverage is in Southeast and Northeast, records show.

ShotSpotter is also linked to a system of closed-circuit cameras, which police hope will capture the aftermath of shootings in real time. To guard against vandalism, officials do not publicize the sensors’ appearance or reveal their locations.

Also explained is one of the more useful distinguishing properties of gunshot noise:

The blast of a gun is different from other explosive sounds because it is directional, meaning that the noise changes its frequency as the bullet moves through space. A person may hear a gunshot a half-mile away if the gun is fired toward him. But a person 200 yards away may hear nothing if the gun is fired away from him.

It’s worth a read.

McMillan Commission Park Plan

It’s been a while since I looked at Tenleytown’s history, but I came across this map on Wikipedia. It shows the changes proposed in 1902 by the McMillan Commission to the Permanent Highway Plan. Meant to make DC more befitting a national capital, it generated several key ideas that would change Tenleytown, beyond its integration into the suburbs:

  1. A park on the site of Fort Reno / Reno Town. The circular parkland shown in the upper left-hand corner radiates out a quarter of a mile from the original point of greatest natural elevation. This is now obliterated by the water tanks. Reno Town certainly still existed at this time, but the political maneuvering that erased the black community from Tenleytown hadn’t begun. It’s possible that Sen. McMillan was collaborating with Sen. Newlands, the founder of Chevy Chase, to suggest this, but I have no proof. 
  2. The Fort Circle Parks system appears here for the first time. The country was beset by nostalgia for the Civil War at the time, so it’s not surprising that the planners decided to commemorate those events with a set of parks that incorporated the former sites of the forts that protected Washington during the war. This plan would undergo many revisions, slowly becoming more of a highway until it died in the early 1960s.
  3. Yuma street is depicted as a parkway, running from the daylight of Murdock Mill Creek, into Soapstone Valley. Very little evidence for this idea remains. Principally, Yuma’s right of way is slightly wider than the surrounding streets.

I have seen this map in person at the Washington Historical Society, and there are lots of fascinating details. I will try to get a larger upload, but enjoy this for now.