Tag Archives: density

Local

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.

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Architecture Local planning

American’s Unexceptionalism

While American University’s campus plan is a net benefit for Ward 3, the architecture currently proposed for the campus is mediocre at best. Beyond the land-use planning, East Campus and North Hall’s proposed buildings offer little in terms of aesthetics. The spaces are disorganized and the forms are uninspiring. On the outside, the buildings don’t relate the street well, and the facades present foggy contextualism.

Instead of well-executed buildings, the design revolves around appeasing neighbors while important aspects are left undeveloped.

For East Campus and some of the Main Campus buildings, AU hired Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm with offices in Alexandria. They have designed a large dorm at Catholic University, Opus Hall, similar in style and form to AU’s proposed facilities. Other design work was executed by the university’s large in-house architectural group and the firm of McKissack & McKissack. read more »

Architecture

Caracas

The New York Times reports on the appropriation of an unfinished building in Caracas by squatters. It has more in common with opportunistic slums than the politically minded squats that make news in Europe, in that it’s a isocosm for the outside. In addition to the poor and jobless, bankers make do in an economy that isn’t helping any income bracket.

Once one of Latin America’s most developed cities, Caracas now grapples with an acute housing shortage of about 400,000 units, breeding building invasions. In the area around the Tower of David, squatters have occupied 20 other properties, including the Viasa and Radio Continente towers. White elephants occupying the cityscape, like the Sambil shopping mall close to the Tower of David and seized by the government, now house flood victims.

This heterogenous mix of lives is spread over a limited vertical circulation, that than the interconnected mat of housing and streets and sewers. It’s actually a bit like the linear city or the city-building, the Unité. Particularly in its provision of upper-level bodegas:

A beauty salon operates on one floor. On another, an unlicensed dentist applies the brightly coloured braces that are the rage in Caracas street fashion. Nearly every floor has a small bodega.

…without the designer.

Local planning

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
This past week, Safeway revealed their plans to renovate the Safeway at 42nd and Ellicott Streets, along Wisconsin Avenue in the northern reaches of Tenleytown. What they propose (huge PDF) is a dramatic improvement over the bunker-like current building, and will enliven a dreary section of the neighborhood. However, the project includes no residential or commercial component on top of the new stores, despite its location roughly one-half mile from both the Tenleytown-AU and Friendship Heights Metro stations. Like the TD Banknorth building across Wisconsin Avenue, these patches in the urban fabric will better the community, but without more of a plan, they are just patches.

The new Safeway will activate 42nd Street, which is separated from Wisconsin Avenue by just a small triangular park. Instead of a forbidding blank wall, Safeway plans some outdoor seating for an in-store Starbucks. Residential Ellicott Street will get a landscaped park in front of the store’s substantial setback. The surface parking lot will become an enclosed one-story parking wing, and the loading dock will move to Davenport Street, adjacent to Georgetown Day School, screened from the street by a brick wall.

Courtesy the ARD (how nice of them) and Torti Gallas
Courtesy the ARD and Torti Gallas

Unfortunately, Safeway wanted to be expedient with the design and worked with one of the five neighborhood organizations that claims to represent the community, the Alliance for Rational Development. As their double-plus inaccurate name implies, ARD opposes most, if not all development of sites along Wisconsin and in Tenleytown. Their policies are transit-oriented-denialist, insisting that the area is optimally zoned and built up, and that any more growth will only have negative effects, primarily on the supply of parking.

Some of their concerns for any given project can seem legitimate when viewed without context, ignoring of the multiple benefits of well-designed areas with mixed uses. But Tenleytown’s zoning only allows for densities along a very narrow band on Wisconsin Avenue, closer in form to a suburban arterial than an interconnected city neighborhood. Many other lots, just a block or two from the Metro have no opportunities for development at any scale, because they are zoned as low-density in spite of their location at a major node in the city’s infrastructure network.

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Architecture Reno Park Studies

Reno Park Update 090827: Uses

After some awesome long nights, the map of buildings is ready. This was a major hurdle in the project, so expect a slew of posts over the next few days. All I have left are the pedestrian paths, before it’s all analysis and design. So:

all

This is a figure-ground drawing of all the buildings, by use. Keep reading for breakdowns by use. read more »

Architecture

ConX: Modular steel construction

ConXTech is a Bay Area company that has finally brought the steel frame into the 21st century.

Now, that phrase trite, but what they have mass-customized the design of steel beams and then greatly simplify the assembly. It reduces design time, reduces the amount of labor needed, reduces energy expenditures, and provides a sturdier and more flexible alternative to wooden frame structures. Those stick-built structures are the most common design of 1-5 story residential construction, however, ConXTech is looking to make 5-12 story structures affordable as well. To do so, they have approached the whole building process in a slightly different way.

With ConX, the architect must involve the manufacturer in the design process, as the company custom builds the structure offsite in a factory. ConXTech needs to schedule the amount of work and materials necessary, while the architect needs access to their computer components at the schematic design phase. Still, it’s really not unlike the conventional process in which plans are sent to a structural engineer for engineering work, just that the engineer is the manufacturer too. Integrating the manufacturer reduces overhead, while entering the design development phase with a working model of the structure keeps the building lean and reduces the number of design changes that result from unexpected structural revisions.

So, once the project does reach construction, the CNC robots cut out pre-designed structure members to specification, as each piece is needed on the job site, delivering the product only as necessary. The system consists of vertical and horizontal beams, joining elements, wall panels, whole flights of stairs, and various other parts for specialized situations. Because the factory environment allows for meticulous control and use of accurate cutting, the frame and all other elements are extremely precise, resulting in better quality and speedy assembly. The frame itself is put together using snap-in-place fittings that a steelworker then bolts into place to meet code.

It’s a persistent myth, perpetuated by traditionalists, that steel is not a sustainable construction material, due to its embodied energy, which is around eight times that of wood. However, embodied energy, that is, the amount of energy required to make the materials and then assemble them on-site, rarely exceeds 20% of the total energy required for a building torn down after only 50 years. Steel frames overwhelmingly outlast that timeframe (steel-framed buildings from the 1880s are still around, and we have no idea how long they will ultimately last), so the percent of energy the frame requires diminishes in relation to heating, cooling, and interior renovation costs. They also use much less material, allow for greater density, and when they are torn down they can be wholly recycled, but I’m digressing here.

planning Reno Park Studies

Reno Park Update 090804B: Transit Fade

Ok, so for the second set of transportation analysis, I’ve compared transit accessibility to lot areas. Even without buildings, it’s possible to get a sense of the transit-accessible public space here. Areas that are lighter have more transit options. Again, Tenleytown is a hub of activity, where the blocks around the circle and the Metro stop are major transfer points that get a lot of street traffic.

property-transit

So, Chevy Chase isn’t really the most transit-accessible place in the world. Even if I had used a 1/4 mile radius for buses, there would have been a dark spot there. Also, note that the commercial strip between Fessenden and Ellicott streets is in the 1/2 mile radius overlap between Tenleytown and Friendship Heights, which may contribute to its success, in spite of being somewhat isolated by the hill to the south. Read on for a breakdown of plans. read more »

Local

North of Tilden: Developments in development

Tenleytown: The armpit of the area, a former bank parking at 4501 Wisconsin Ave, has sprouted scaffolding. Developed by the Pedas Family, the site will become a one-story, 3,677sf retail site, although the developer has not listed a client. The Pedases are better known for their empire based around the Inner Circle cinema, but also for Circle Parking and Circle Management. Physically, their most distinctive building is the Michael Graves-designed International Finance Corporation building at Washington Circle. Always a good improvement to see an empty lot get filled.

Mmmmm... postmodernism.
Mmmmm... postmodernism.

Tenleytown: The Ward 3 Aquatic Center, or the Wilson Pool, as everyone will call it, will have a formal opening, complete with Fenty,  on Monday, August Third, at 10:30 AM. The Hughes group have put together an inoffensive structure, but it supposedly boasts the capability for daylighting, natural ventilation, and water-loss mitigation, earning it a LEED Silver certification. The pool has been desperately needed since the shoddily built predecessor started falling apart at a more rapid rate in 2003.

Hawthorne, Palisades, Green Acres?: Opposition to sidewalks continues in the hinterlands of DC, where DDOT has been adding the badly needed infrastructure. This time, it’s over in Palisades, on Chain Bridge Road and University Terrace. Roger Lewis and Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh went on the Kojo Nnamdi show. Lewis shared some interesting history, but it was Cheh that laid down the law, insisting on sidewalks, but also demanding DDOT involve community members more. The two both agreed that the rational need for a network of sidewalks was a no-brainer. Callers disagreed, for some reason, mostly that “they’re not used” and they’ll “ruin the character of the neighborhood.” The panelists offered reasonable responses to the entitled views of opponents.

However, aside from the Cheh-Lewis lovefest, the two missed some important points, such as the dubious wisdom of low-density, limited-network streets in the middle of the city. One of the callers declared that residing in the area seemed like living in the country, but near the city. That’s just swell, but neither addressed whether having such low density a mere 4 miles from the center of town was a good idea. Also, Nnamdi and Lewis both guiltily admitted to driving on University Terrace routinely. Listen to the conversation, it’s worth some down time.

planning

Middle path density gets some news

Option A
Option A (by nydiscovery on flickr)

This  past weekend, the East Bay Express (a paper in Oakland), wrote a fairly balanced article about the battles over densification in Oakland and Berkeley. Although it took as its subject a particularly acerbic debate over local development projects, the scenario is the same everywhere. The article presents three largely oppositional theses: tall buildings are environmentally sound, all density is environmentally unsound, and that density can mean Paris as well as Manhattan. Each one is given a fair voice, but ultimately only the middle path comes out looking informed.

Of course the commenters jumped out of the starting blocks and onto their respective causes: the electric car, renewable energy, zero population growth, THE IMPORTANCE OF WRITING EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS, planting “subsistence” gardens in quarter-acre lots, and obviously the meme that developers are profiteers and gentrifiers. But what none of these people seemed to see was that the options of a pleasant human environment and a limited footprint on the natural world are not mutually exclusive.

Option B (from baslow on flickr)
Option B (from baslow on flickr)

Read the article; take a look at the section on pages 3 & 4 in particular, where Mike Pyatok, an architect with decades of experience, drops the usual truth bombs.

In an environment with artificial scarcity by way of outdated and strict zoning, the costs of land allotted to tall development, prices will be too high, even for luxury development. 5-8 story buildings are cheaper, more comfortable, and more energy efficient on a regional scale. Similarly, the need for a large footprint to justify the vertical costs means a less refined urban grain and less human-scale detail and fewer potential owners.

As long as cities are lusting for the skinny towers of 1920s New York, opponents will only see a superblock grime of the 1970s. Unfortunately, those skinny towers never made much money and definitely won’t nowadays. So, many opponents are simply reacting to unreasonable visions of the future with equally wrong visions of dystopia. Expect to see knees jerking until city councils and armchair planners ask for middle density.

Architecture Local

The Future Was Classical

While I finish writing the Forest Glen essay, please enjoy this alternative scheme to the Mc Millan Commission “Kite” Plan, rendered by arch-traditionalist genius/maniac Leon Krier in 1985.

Theres nothing like a fantastical image to start the weekend
There's nothing like a fantastical image to start the weekend, is there?

You can take a gander at other views of the plan here, although you might be surprised at who owns them.  His explanatory drawings and diagrams offer  dead-on critiques of the City Beautiful and Modernist planning that have turned central DC into a lifeless pile of stuttering architectural gigantism.