Archive for the ‘DC Height Limit’ Category


September 9, 2009

Basic Training

The Tsarchitect had a great reminder on the importance of the basics today – linking to a video from William Whyte, from a video version of his great work, the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

Part 1:

The remaining sections of the video are available here: (onetwothreefourfivesix)

I hadn’t watched the video since graduate school – thanks for the reminder.  It’s well worth a viewing.

NCPC Items

A couple of items related to the National Capital Planning Commission:

JDLand had an item a while back about their largely favorable reaction to the 11th Street Bridges project – with the exception of the streetcars, of course.

However, they are not at all happy with DDOT’s decision to choose a streetcar system with overhead wires, and the document goes into detail on how this works against federal interests, as well as listing what non-overhead-wire streetcar options exist out there (none in the US so far). Their conclusions (page 22):

“Recommends that DDOT not include streetcar system components for overhead wires as part of the 11th Street Bridge project and that DDOT prepare an environmental impact statement for its proposed District wide streetcar system that examines potential impacts on the L’Enfant City and Georgetown and that includes an analysis of propulsion systems that do not require the use of overhead wires.

“Advises DDOT that the Commission does not support a streetcar system with overhead wires because it supports the unobstructed views to important landmarks along the city’s streets and avenues that are integral to the District’s unique character and result from the long-standing federal statutory prohibition against using overhead wires in Washington City (the L’Enfant City) and Georgetown.

“Encourages DDOT to pursue alternative propulsion technologies for the proposed streetcar system that do not require overhead wires in accordance with its January 24, 2008 commitment to include dual vehicle propulsion requirements in a solicitation package for the development and implementation of the broader streetcar system beyond the Anacostia and H Street/Benning Road corridors.”

Meanwhile, at GGW, Matt Johnson has a post up on potential freight rail bypasses of DC, triggered in part by safety concerns, and in part by the NCPC’s desire to remove the current rail rights of way though the District.

These aesthetic concerns shouldn’t be underestimated, but from my perspective, the minimal obstruction of streetcar wires isn’t worth the kind of opposition the NCPC is putting up.  Even if you take wires as a negative (which I do not think is a given), the net results are certainly a positive for DC.

Shopping Spree

Transit Miami reminds us all of a post from the Infrastructurist back in May with a nice comparative chart of transit costs by mode, with references to specific projects.

Modernism in DC

DC MUD had a great interview with architect Ali Honarkar (designer of the Lacey) with some great tidbits on DC’s style, height limits, and NIMBYs:

DCMud: Lacey has gotten attention inside DC, but also outside DC. What do you attribute that to?

Yeah, I don’t know! (laughs). We designed it to get attention, that’s what you do. We’re not going to write a hit song and apologize, you want it to be played. Actually we’re getting more national than local attention. I’m a little disappointed with the local media, and I think it may be driven by sponsors, this very conservative southern town. You would think the Washington Post, as local media, should know what’s going on around here. We’ve seen the Lacey in New York blogs, LA blogs, and architecture blogs, and I’m always amazed how they find us. But they don’t have to find you here, we’re here, they should know what’s in their back yard.

On sustainable design:

DCMud: So green is not cheap, design is not cheap, how do you combine those two goods, and still make it affordable?

Its hard, there are metropolitan cities, like NY would be the first, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, they have that. You put up a building anywhere in New York, they will still line up if its good. I think the DC culture, within the last 10 years has really changed, you see a lot more emphasis, not just on housing, but the restaurants, you see a lot more design, restaurants, bars, we’re getting there slowly but surely. We’re not very good at that, we just do it. There were so many ways to make the Lacy cheaper. But at the end of the day, the architect, the developer, have to be able to look back and be okay with it. The average life of a building is 25-30 years, we’d like to see the building there in a 100 years. Real estate is a long-term thing; we don’t do things for marketing purposes. With the whole green movement, nobody ever uses bad materials on purpose. Another way the AIA is using – you know when the record companies stopped using vinyl because it was no good – the same with the AIA, we achieved it in the Lacey, we’re doing it in a small residential project, you put a good project out there, people will follow.

On height limits and NIMBYs:

DCMud: Height restrictions and historic preservation?

It’s partly that, but, no offense to attorneys, you do any work in DC, forget the ANC and historic preservation, but every other neighbor is an attorney. Its great to have pride in where you live, but people feel like they get to claim it, we see that all the time, we always feel like we don’t want to deal with it any more, but then we get a good client, who wants to do something different, and we say, okay, lets do this again. Its not historic preservation, I think its more the people in the neighborhoods that want to stop the process.

Do you think the height limits are a good thing?

I like them; I think you are most creative when you are challenged. DC is my favorite city, and you have New York for that. London, Paris, the scale is completely different, most European cities are like that. I like the height restriction where it is, we should just be a little more creative. We have suburbs to balance stuff out.

Links – Mono…D’OH!

July 7, 2009

With apologies to Lyle Lanley, it’s worth reporting that Disney’s genuine, bonafide, electrified, six car monorail! crashed.  Is there a chance the track could bend?

The Transport Politic notes the damage this kind of fantasy has on useful transit advocacy.   The Simpsons really does the same thing, when you think about it.

But the fact that more Americans have probably ridden the Walt Disney monorail systems than have chosen to take advantage of their local transit offerings is problematic. That’s because Disney presents a space-age vision for what public transportation should be, and it’s that fantasy that many Americans want in their trains and buses, not the mundane services like light rail and buses that most communities can actually implement. Meanwhile, Disney can offer the convenience of rapid transit in a safe, well-monitored environment, something difficult to do day-in, day-out in a real city.

The most damaging effect of the Disney monorail is the pervasive idea among virtually everyone other than transportation people that it represents the ultimate in transit technology. That’s why cries for “monorails!” come up at every turn when communities consider new transportation systems, even though monorails are consistently more expensive and less reliable than their two-track counterparts. It’s a mystery why people find the idea of the single, elevated track so exciting, but Disney’s example may be one explanation.

That Simpsons episode looks more and more prescient.  “…but Main Street’s still all cracked and broken!”

Avent vs. Glaeser. Ryan Avent takes Ed Glaeser’s recent Op-Ed on high speed rail to task over at Streetsblog.

Glaeser is correct that a good place to begin addressing our transportation failures is by pricing congested highway and air routes more effectively.

But we have every indication that doing so would significantly increase demand for rail services, while also raising tens of billions of dollars every year that could be used to construct a rail system that would be cleaner and faster than driving or flying. Contra Glaeser, pricing our existing infrastructure would make it painfully clear just how badly we need an effective intercity rail system.

In environmental and economic terms, the case for major investment in high-speed rail is quite strong. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to take wing whenever economists start writing about public spending.

Indeed.  Others take the social aspects of Glaeser’s proposition.  Any way you slice it, it’s pretty clear that Glaeser’s pop economics doesn’t do much in persuading the transportation blogosphere.

NIMBY’s Aren’t Environmentalists. The East Bay Express has a great piece on the role of cities and density in the environmentalism.  It’s a lengthy piece, but well worth the read.   The article makes several key points about how conventional thinking about managing urban growth, even with explicit intentions to be environmentally friendly, or to be affordable, often hurts the overall outcome.   Most importantly, the fight against density in developed, transit accessible areas is a major impediment to sustainable urbanism.

When put into a DC context, the article raises several key points about building heights.

Much of the heated debate over the plan has been about tall buildings. After eighteen months of meetings, a city-sponsored committee recommended that the council allow four 100-foot-tall buildings, and four that are 120 feet tall in the downtown area. However, the city’s planning commission, which is more development friendly, came up with its own plan that would allow six 120-foot-tall buildings, and four that are 180 feet tall — as tall as the existing Wells Fargo building, the city’s tallest. Both plans would also allow most new buildings to be built at a maximum height of 85 feet. The council appears to be leaning toward approving the denser plan, which some critics decry as “the Manhattanization of Berkeley.”

Hmmmm.  Where have I heard those arguments before?

In truth, the fight over building heights is misdirected. Tall buildings are unlikely to be built in Berkeley anytime soon because they’re too expensive to construct. The real difference between the two plans is that the less dense one will probably result in no tall buildings, while the other will probably produce four. The reason is that developers prefer buildings that are less than 75 feet tall or greater than 180 feet, but not in between. So any plan that calls for 100-foot- or 120-foot-tall buildings is unrealistic.

Why? In buildings that are less than 75 feet tall, developers can use wood framing, which tends to be relatively inexpensive. But above that height, fire-safety codes require them to build with reinforced concrete or steel, which costs a lot more. As a result, developers can’t make a tall building profitable unless it’s at least 180 feet in height (seventeen stories). Anything shorter than that means that the developer won’t generate enough money from selling condos or renting apartments to pay for the high costs of erecting the building in the first place.

Of course, with land values as high as those in Downtown DC, you can easily justify going as high as possible – even though those heights fall within that ‘unrealistic’ zone of 100-120 foot tall structures.

Oakland could achieve plenty of density with 75-foot-tall housing developments, Pyatok argued. Assuming that such buildings can house about 150 people per square acre of buildable space, that works out to about 96,000 residents per square mile. As a reference, Manhattan is home to about 65,000 people per square mile. “It’s just a misunderstanding to think that you have to have high-rises to get high density,” said Pyatok, who also has been studying the potential growth of Upper Broadway with a group of graduate students. “I really think that a 75-foot height limit throughout a great deal of downtown could create a lot of density.”

This is more or less the situation we see in a lot of DC, at least with regard to the height limit (and therefore upper cap on density).  What’s missing, of course, is that most of DC’s areas built to max height are office districts, not residential ones.  Fear not, however – there are solutions to this, as well:

Oakland, he believes, should limit skyscrapers to Broadway, near the 12th Street and 19th Street BART stations. Or, he said, the city should take a hard look at what San Francisco and other cities have done. San Francisco limits both building density and height, but allows property owners to buy and sell development rights to construct skyscrapers. So if you’re a property owner and you do not intend to build a high-rise, then you can sell the space above your building to another developer, who then can add it to his or her property and build taller. As a result, San Francisco has been able to protect historic buildings while controlling land values and spurring growth.

For DC, a transfer of development rights program to encourage the sale of density rights from areas worth protecting (whether they be existing rowhouse neighborhoods or the height-capped and very high value downtown) and transferring them to a designated receiving zone could be a framework to grow the city around in the future.  Designating a few receiving areas, such as Poplar Point, would allow some taller buildings (perhaps eclipsing that dead zone where building up doesn’t make economic sense) to give DC a high rise district similar to what we see in Rosslyn, Silver Spring, and Bethesda.  Doing so with a TDR program would continue to encourage infill development and densification within the city while still allowing an outlet for development pressures in areas of the city we wish to protect.

With any such plan, of couse, the devil’s in the details – but it’s certainly worth considering, in my mind.

Links – higher, faster, more conservative…

June 30, 2009

My Firefox browser is full of open tabs with sites I’ve been meaning to link to over the past few days, but haven’t had the chance – so here goes.

Higher (?) – Last week, there was an interesting back and forth between several DC bloggers over DC’s height limit.  BeyondDC and Ryan Avent had an interesting exchange, followed by Matt Yglesias chiming in, as well as the Tsarchitect citing previous posts about the very same topic – since it seems to pop up (heh heh) every few months or so.

My personal view sort of splits all of those presented.  I think the height limit has served DC well by ensuring that development achieves full coverage – downtown DC is virtually devoid of surface parking lots, something that’s rather uncommon for American cities.   At the same time, it’s not too hard to envision a future where all of DC’s developable lots are taken, making it difficult to both continue to grow AND maintain the character of some great existing rowhouse neighborhoods AND focus development around urban transit hubs.

I think an interesting solution might be to create a designated high rise district within DC, where there is no height limit.  Poplar Point might serve that role well – like London’s Canary Wharf, such an area would be a place to focus taller development, perhaps accompanied by a transfer of development rights programs from the high demand but height-restricted areas in downtown.  Of course, such a plan would necessarily require a much stronger effort in building up transportation infrastructure as well, but I think building heights there on the same scale as Rosslyn would preserve the form of DC’s monumental core, provide an area to grow the tax base, and bring some much needed amenities across the Anacostia.

Faster (?) – Several good reads on high speed rail planning:

I can’t argue with these points – upping the speed of these trains to 110 mph service isn’t really high speed by any definition.  The notion that travel time should be more important than top speed is actually correct, but of course the two concepts are linked very closely together.

At the same time, even the upgrades that allow for 110 mph service – things like grade separation, signalling systems, etc. – will offer tremendous benefits to current rail service and can also be applied to future high speed service.  Those grade separations may not work for true 220 mph TGV-like service, but they could very well take an Acela-like train, operating with a slightly slower top end, but still very fast.

In short, there’s no reason to not pursue both incremental improvements and also the ‘big’ plan.  However, what both of these efforts need is a unifying national strategic plan.

Transportation isn’t conservative or liberal – Two interesting items on the roles of conservatives in planning and funding transportation.  PBS has a long interview with Rep. John Mica (R-FL) on the need for transportation investments:

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: You are a Republican – and you support transportation and infrastructure spending?

REP. MICA: Well, I tell you though, if you’re on the Transportation Committee long enough, even if you’re a fiscal conservative, which I consider myself to be, you quickly see the benefits of transportation investment. Simply, I became a mass transit fan because it’s so much more cost effective than building a highway. Also, it’s good for energy, it’s good for the environment – and that’s why I like it.

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: If anything, you’d say that your time in Congress and on the Transportation Committee has brought you around to these ideas?

REP. MICA: Yes. And, seeing the cost of one person in one car. The cost for construction. The cost for the environment. The cost for energy. You can pretty quickly be convinced that there’s got to be a more cost effective way. It’s going to take a little time, but we have to have good projects, they have to make sense – whether it’s high-speed rail or commuter rail or light rail. We got to have some alternatives helping people – even in the rural areas – to get around.

Good stuff.  Always good to see these kinds of viewpoints from Republicans, as most of these infrastructure decisions really ought to (and have in the past) transcended petty partisan differences.

Mica also raised some great points about the need to reform the process of building infrastructure in the US:

REP. MICA: The second part is speeding up the process. Most projects that the federal government is involved with take an inordinate amount of time for approvals, and they cost much more because there are so many delays and hoops that people have to go through.

I offer what I call the Mica 437-day process plan, which is the number of days it took to replace the bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Rather than the seven or eight years it takes complete any other bridge, which would be the normal time frame.

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: And why did it just take 437-days to complete?

MICA: It was done on an expedited approval basis, which I think you could do with most projects that don’t change the basic footprint of the infrastructure that you’re rebuilding.

I was born and raised in Minneapolis – and was in the city during the immediate aftermath of the I-35W collapse.  When I went back to visit my family for the holidays, it was simply amazing to see the bridge complete and open so quickly.  I’d stress Mica’s point further – we need to reform the process in many ways, but the time delay for using federal funds is a high price to pay.

Along the lines of conservative stances on transportation, Infrastructurist has a nice interview up making the conservative case for public transportation.

If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that all forms of transportation are heavily subsidized.