Tag Archives: zoning

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The 1970 study that said DC’s zoning is obsolete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the third delay of the Zoning Update, David Alpert and I mentioned a report from 1970 that called the 1958 zoning code outdated.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Still, some of the ideas these planners found outdated in the Nixon years are still are at the root of the problems the city faces today.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

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.

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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.  

 

Architecture Local

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. 

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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Reno Park Studies

Reno Park Update 091128: ANC Analysis

If we compare the other legal structures to the ANC geography, some other interesting trends come to light. Take the elementary schools, for example:

ANC-schools read more »

Reno Park Studies

Reno Park Update 091125A: Preservation / PUD

Two small additions to the analysis of zoning regulation. First are PUDs. PUD stands for Planned-Unit Development. In a PUD, a developer negotiates with community representatives, offering certain amenities to the public in exchange for some reprieve from aspects of Zoning Codes. There are four PUD structures (in red) here: Van Ness Station, the Saratoga, Friendship Center, and Mazza Galerie.

PUDs

The other major legal framework is the landmarking system. There are a handful of landmarks (red), the Grant Road Historic District (blue), and the not-landmarked-but-sensitive Fort Drive area (yellow). The master plan will have to harmonize with the legal strictures imposed by them.

landmarks

Local

Small Town Politics: Just Safeway

Gate way

I apologize for the delay, but here’s the Safeway portion of the ANC meeting. However, this should get everyone excited for December’s meeting, no?

Safeway sent Avis Black, the Regional Real Estate Manager for DC, as a representative instead of their pricklier spokesman. She reiterated Safeway’s position as wanting to work with the community and then stood for questions.  And I mean stood there – she faced the audience for at least an hour of tempered but stern questioning. And for all the criticism, everyone was polite and cooperative. In fact, most of the other people who spoke brought up, again and again, that they wanted changes to the plan, not no growth at all. Actually, many present were conducive to a project that would build an as-of-right building above a store that was still larger than the existing one, but not so gargantuan as the proposed.

First to stand was Adam Rubinson, the de facto leader of the critics. He likewise reiterated his requests for Safeway to make substantial changes to the design of the new store. He listed off the general complaints everyone involved has heard so far, as well as some new ones. I’ll repeat them here for people who weren’t there. read more »

Local

Small-Town Politics: Everything but Safeway

The Current covered the November 5th ANC 3E meeting, but it’s worth discussing it in a format that’s indexed by Google – and one that doesn’t use two inflammatory headlines for one ANC meeting. Hyperbole is something that can only be applied to Zoning Commission cage fights. Speaking of which, the obvious topic of the night was the Tenleytown Safeway, but like any good spectacle, that discussion came only after a long development. Actually, the debate over Safeway’s PUD was so long that I’m going to put it up as another post tomorrow.

After the crime report and some perfunctory zoning adjustments, a manager at Maggiano’s in Friendship Heights discussed their mandatory re-application for valet parking. The loss of parking is one of DC’s bugaboos, but he assuaged the concerns with cold, hard facts about where they park. Friendship Heights’ traffic is particularly bad and people from nearby neighborhoods complain about visitors parking in along the narrow streets to the east. So it was a huge surprise to learn that the garage under that block is largely empty most of the time. That suggests that most people will take the stress of driving around Jenifer Street over paying to store their cars, have parked in one of the other garages, or that a good number of the shoppers crowding the streets have arrived on transit. It definitely requires further study. The application was approved, and they moved on to the Reno School.

Jane Maroney, the newly elected Deal PTA chair spoke on behalf of the school in regard to the future of the Jesse Reno School. She explained Deal’s intents for the building in general: that it will be used as a performing arts facility and school nursery that could double as public meeting location. Apparently the two major goals are to keep the main building secure at night and reserve the dulcet tones of the band for infants who will only remember the experience subconsciously.

The blocked archway became a source of contention.
The Reno School. The blocked archway above was a source of contention.

The Jesse Reno building is unquestionably a historic structure, so the debate came down to whether to landmark it now and then renovate, or to renovate and then landmark it. Either way, renovations have to undergo Historic Preservation review because the structure was built in 1903. Deal received money from the city to renovate it, but hasn’t yet hired an architect. Board Member Waldmann of the Tenleytown Historical Society explained a little about its history as a segregated school and the lone survivor of the town of Reno, but her justification for why landmarking was so essential with everyone on board could only be justified with shadows of reckless demolitions during Barry years, so eventually the board voted 3-2 against the nomination. Oddly, the Bender-Frumin-Serebin and Eldredge-Sklover split is the same way they voted on the Janney application.

So, that was the lesser part of the meeting. The rest comes tomorrow.

Reno Park Studies Uncategorized

Reno Park Update 091005B: Zoning

So what is the relationship between zoning and buildings? (Again colors are off!)

zoning-building-forms

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