Good urban opportunities often degenerate: 1511 A Street NE, Washington, DC
Last week, the Washington Post had a story, "Under zoning code, few restrictions on what can be built on NE property," about a tricky development "battle" in Northeast DC, where a developer intends to develop a five-story condominium building in the midst of two-story rowhouses, to take advantage of the higher height allowed within a commercially zoned lot, which happens to be the zoning on this otherwise residential block. (The issue is also covered at Popville, see "Dear PoPville – Loss of Historic Property Due to Zoning Hold Over")
The commercial zoning is left over from when the block had been home to a streetcar barn (which has since been redeveloped as condominiums and rezoned as housing) and once the streetcar-bus barn was abandoned, the adjacent zoning was not changed.
But this is not unusual. For example, the block (pictured below) bounded by the 200 block of K Street,200 block of G Street, and the 900 blocks of 2nd and 3rd Streets NE are almost entirely two-story rowhouses (one portion of the block is a two-story commercial buidling) is zoned C2A, because it abuts the Metropolitan Branch railroad tracks. Nothing prevents these buildings from being demolished and the block getting rebuilt--other than the cost and time required to assemble the block.
I call the development proposal tricky because it's not necessarily outlandish for a five-story residential building to abut two- or three-story rowhouses, at least back when these neighborhoods were originally constructed, when it was not uncommon to mix apartment buildings and single family houses on the same blocks.
- Mixing apartment and single family housing on the same block was typical in locations close to major streets, commercial districts, and transit stations.
- Taller buildings tended to be constructed in those places, and heights dropped with the distance from the center
It is only since that time, after the introduction of modern zoning rules, that residential districts were designed to be constructed predominately of only one type of housing.
What makes this proposal "tricky" is that
1. the developer is known to be problematic
2. the design, especially the facade treatment, appears to be cheap and ugly.
I wonder if the developer had proposed a facade treatment of high quality, would the residents would still oppose the project? There are many examples around the city, dating into the 1940s of both a mix of apartment buildings and rowhouses on the same block, but with decidedly compatible designs.
There isn't a particular rule of thumb about the relationship between the height of the apartment building to the rowhouses. They can be about the same height (but with the same or a different number of floors), or the apartment building may be one-, two- or three-stories higher than the rowhouses.
My sense is that as long as the facades and mass of the buildings are compatible, height isn't necessarily the issue. There are so many examples across the city of attractive yet simple designs of apartment buildings cheek by jowl with rowhouses that the developer could have drawn upon to produce something quite nice.
I wonder how much grief in development and zoning matters could be avoided if developers would start off with a decent rather than execrable design?
This is an incredibly simple, value engineered box of an apartment building on the 1200 block of Perry Street NE in Brookland, but its straightforwardness is far more attractive than the building proposed for 1511 A Street NE