Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The use value vs. the exchange value of place: density, height, and urban design and aesthetics

I weighed in on the "middle finger" expansion of a typical rowhouse into a 5 story condominium in "Civic aloofness and civic f*ck y** in architecture."

Separately, GGW covers the same ground in "Pop-ups may look weird, but they're OK;," and argues that the building is fine, because the height fits in with nearby buildings, and adding density is a good thing.

In my comments on the GGW entry, I make the point that there are three very different issues in the argument, and that the post only elucidates one and is therefore incomplete.

1. adding floors to 2-3 story buildings that are 100+ years old -- in theory I am not against this, but it's almost impossible to do it in a way that respects historic architecture

2. whether or not additions are reasonable or "too tall" -- I argue that 5 story neighborhoods aren't unreasonable, but they are atypical in DC.  But that doesn't mean that I have a problem with it.

3. aesthetic wholeness and balance, in terms of the width and proportions on the block,  In other words,  one building sticks out and doesn't work, while sets of contiguous buildings at different heights works, even if seemingly discordant in terms of height.

The issue isn't the height of buildings per se, it's that each of these issues needs to be addressed simultaneously, rather than separately or not at all.

There are plenty of blocks in the city that have residential buildings of multiple heights, but they aren't examples of a single tall building sticking out from the rest--usually a mix of apartments and traditional rowhouses, such as this block, the east side of the 1300 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW in the Logan Circle neighborhood.
 1300 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW

The apartment building is 5 stories + basement, the rowhouses on either side are large 3 story buildings with raised basements (probably apartments).

The buildings are grouped so to speak by height so that there is context and wholeness, so that while the heights vary and are juxtaposed, the overall effect is balanced, unlike the so-called finger building under discussion.

Similarly, the 200 block of C Street SE on Capitol Hill mixes 2 story rowhouses, 2 story rowhouses with rented basements that are above grade, and a 5 story apartment building.
200 block C Street SE

Probably people at the Space Syntax research group in London could come up with a good mathematical formula to provide guidance on how many buildings/what width you need to produce an organic juxtaposition of building heights in a residential neighborhood.

I do know that this building project isn't doing it.

Interestingly, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article I just quoted from in another entry, "Mobile interviewers look to city residents to help craft a plan," has a really great set of quotes on this exact issue:

Public art and design of the built environment are underrated aspects of urban life, but they can make or break a place.

Morton Brown, the city's manager of public art, said it usually comes down to scale. A 10-story building in a corridor of three-story retail is dissonant. A modernist wedge would deeply jar historic rows of Victorians. When urban designers talk about a harmonious scheme, they talk about ease of pedestrian movement, the relationship people have with the street aesthetic -- both man-made and natural -- and the blend and complement of materials, textures and colors.

Urban taxpayers should care about the aesthetic of the built environment. A good aesthetic is good for business and has staying power; the discord of bad design costs more because we want to replace it before the materials are worn out. It's also about context, Mr. Brown said. A new building can go up in harmony with old buildings "if it has listened to and echoed design cues," he said. ...

We want to raise the bar on public and private property. We've gathered every community design plan that has ever been done in neighborhoods, to pick out the 'greatest hits' of each and to educate people on best practice models."

The art and design plan will result in the city's first design manual, which will be a guide in the planning department for each area of the city. "That way, developers can say, 'OK this is what the people have voted on and what the city deems to be important,' " Mr. Brown noted.

As for public art, he said, "It tells visitors and residents who we are, that this is a cultured place, a progressive city, and we want you to come and live here."

It is a shame that the region's self-described go to blog on urbanism doesn't get this with regard to urban design issues in Washington, where the city is an example in multiple respects of leading planning theory (L'Enfant, City Beautiful, etc.) and urban design and historic architecture are key defining elements of the city's livability and are a primary source (along with transit) of the city's resurgence and attractiveness.

Jan Gehl's "Close Encounters with Buildings" paper is another good resource on this general topic.

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At 4:42 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Gresham's law in action.

bad idea (more density=cheaper rent=more beer) chases out the more complex idea.

At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I said on your previous posting on the pop-up, there is no accounting for taste. (Alex B confirmed my supposition by stating that he had no problem with design circumstances that I consider and listed as "eyesores.")

What I should have added is that part of the issue--as you have noted here repeatedly regarding planning, design, transportation, etc.--is that there are no "standards" per se, just a lot of what I refer to as "ad hockery."

Yes, we're supposed to be guided by the L'Enfant Plan, City Beautiful, HPO, OP the Federal Commission on Fine Arts and the like, but the reality is it's almost always much more about political and financial clout and the personal taste of those that possess it. This often boils down to choosing what's in fashion at the moment (as well as cheap and easy to assemble) rather than seeking to develop a project based on classical principles of balance, proportion, and scale (the Golden Mean has stood the test of time) and using high-quality methods and materials to build (in today's argot, sustainable).

Some of it may be a generational thing. When I attended architecture school in the 1960s and 70s, International Style was all the rage and I begged my mother to dispense with all the family antiques, which I thought were dreadfully old and musty (thank God, she ignored me).
Some of it may be inseparable from the restlessness of human character always seeking the next frontier and the new, new thing.
And who would have the temerity these days to claim the right to determine such standards? Carter Brown has been dead over ten years!

Thus has it always been (at least in my lifetime) and will probably always be.

At 6:04 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

well, I do try to lean on the era of signficance for when neighborhoods were predominately constructed, and the prevailing architectural styles within those neighborhoods.

For my neighborhood it would be bungalows, four squares, and colonial revival.

There are a number of good historic preservation guidelines that cover patterns really well. Richmond, Montgomery County, Roanoke, and Milwaukee are particularly good, plus the Philiadelphia Rowhouse Manual.

I rely on those kinds of frameworks, and this for retail buildings, to guide my "proclamations."

But yes, speaking of taste, when I first got involved in this stuff, I would be positively excited by footings being poured, because it meant investment in the neighborhood, which was rare.

But then I saw the results, most often execrable.

That has made me very much hard hard hard hard core in terms of design review, whether or not it is a historic district.


When people get the chance to do something bad, most often, they do so.

Hence design review.

The thing in the GGW thread, is I do not understand why Dan and Alex B., both of whom I have so much respect for, are so immune to the concepts of aesthetics and urban design principles as it relates to building modification.

it's worse because GGW is seen as the go to blog on urbanism, and is held up as a national best practice example.

Similarly, Dan's apologia for Walmart in GGW--when only 2 of the 6 Walmart locations will be mixed use, has been--has been picked up and repeated without question, in many other leading new urbanist publications, online and print.

Were I one of the editors of GGW, I would have argued strenuously against this publication.

It also is an example of an inadequately presented framework for evaluation.

I present those frequently, not to show off, but to raise the discourse, and to provide people with criteria with which they can make judicious decisions.

At 6:06 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

oops, left this off:

At 7:42 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Off topic, related to public diplomacy and branding.

I hear you on it shows investment, but this is late in the cycle. It loooks as if the property (1013 V) sold in 2003 for just short of 100K, and then changed hands in 2011 for 400.

Probably hoping to sell 3 units for about 450 each. I can't imagine they are that pleasant except the top unit, and that is a very long walk up. Minimal parking.

The good thing about urban real estate it is much harder to engage in a boom. That isn't to say people don't try.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... I found out that the bungalow on my block that sold for $460 had been broken up into three apartments. It was bought by someone who wants to live there, who is committed to reformulating the interior.

I was talking to the next door neighbor's daughter (she is an interior designer, worked for Extreme Makeover and other tv home shows) and she first opined that maybe the house had been purchased by a flipper.

I made the same point, that the amount of money houses sell for in the neighborhood, and the cost of the renovations, meant that a flipper couldn't make any money...

Because "flippers" can't make much money in a hotter market with ordinary projects (buying low, fixing minimally and selling high) because there are few low-priced houses, they are "driven" to doing crazy things like this.

... on a separate note, I've always wondered why DC doesn't identify all the empty lots in various neighborhoods, and work to get them filled... I used to look at lots in Woodridge and think about moving buildings that would otherwise be torn down.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

charlie -- thanks for the USC cite. Excellent. Years ago I used to link to a public diplomacy blog which went defunct.

if you're willing to share your email address w/me, please send to

semi related to the USC blog entry, when I was writing the stuff a couple days ago, I was doing a search on Kathy Smith, and came across a thesis written about DC Heritage Tourism's activities on U Street. I haven't attempted to read it yet, but the title reminds me of the thrust of the USC blog entry.

I think there's a lot of interesting work in theses, that too often we don't hear about.

I meet with students from time to time, and it's usually interesting for me. They don't always like it though if I tear apart certain hypotheses.

I like meeting with students because it's two way. I am introduced to new lines of inquiry. But I always ask that they send me their final product. Some find that off putting and then don't deal with me anymore.

But I've read some good papers, I really appreciate their work.

At 9:30 AM, Anonymous charlie said...


And on that stretch of V, there is one large empty corner lot (v and 10th?), although there have been "plans" for it for years. Several rundown storefront churches and their parking lots, including one across the street from the finger. Also the Lincoln Theatre parking lot.

And the idea that you could buy the rest of the houses and turn them into a larger condo in bunk. Just look getting 5 owners to agree, and they are about 500K each. That is 2.5 for the land for less than half a block.

At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not understand why Dan and Alex B., both of whom I have so much respect for, are so immune to the concepts of aesthetics and urban design principles as it relates to building modification.


Many of us are withholding judgement because the project isn't done yet. It sure looks weird now with the wood but it could blend in better in the end.

I mean look two houses to the right of this pop-up and you've got two rowhouses that have fugly awful stonework on the front that looks ridiculous. And it didn't even take a height increase to ruin them.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... withholding judgement. Hmm, I used to do that from 1987 to about 2000. I had enough data points by then to be convinced of the necessity of design review.

When someone explained to me about what historic designation means in DC in terms of design review provisions, it took me seconds to agree to begin doing historic preservation related survey in the H Street neighborhood.

A developer doing this kind of project, almost prima facie you know it's gonna be s***.

... it reminds me of the conversations in H Street stuff, when I would say "blah blah blah H Street CDC" and people would counter, "why don't you talk to them?" not recognizing I did, plenty of tiems. "I'd say, why don't you talk to them..." then they would. Eventually they understood that talking to a wall doesn't do much good.

Similarly, ten years ago or so I had a letter in the City Paper where I used the line something like this:

better than cinder block isn't the design standard that we should be using for the evaluation of projects (such as the the then new building at 8th and H built by the HSCDC after they demolished historic buildings).

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ah, the same goes for "better than a parking lot."

I'd rather hold out, keep the parking lot for longer, and get a better project.

... I'd say, H Street has sucked for "3X years" [counting from the 1968 riots] waiting just a little longer for a better project isn't going to hurt us.

It can take years. E.g., the apt. building + Giant Supermarket on H Street is the result of agitating against a 50,000 s.f. BP station. It took more than a decade to get this much better end result.

I'd say the wait will be worth it.


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