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.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Design of the apartment building at the Takoma Metro: offering better design cues

Technically, the design shown in the rendering for the proposed EYA apartment building at the Takoma Metro Station is a placeholder, and a final design will be produced pending other stages of the planning process.

But yes, the building design as currently rendered is not particularly special and I would argue that the site--at the heart of the neighborhood and its commercial district--is deserving of a more distinguished treatment given its location in/between two historic districts.

Gables Apartments, Blair Road, Takoma DC
The Takoma Park Historic District Brochure (DC) discusses the period of architectural significance of the district and provides information on the architectural styles which typify the area.

-- City of Takoma Park, Maryland Historic Preservation
-- Design Guidelines for Commercial Buildings, City of Takoma Park
-- Montgomery County Historic Preservation
-- Montgomery County Design Guidelines (introductory chapters on history of the county, and architectural history, and a chapter with two-page descriptions of each historic district)

Ideally, the design could reference one of these styles, as is recommended by Stephen Semes, author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation ("The Bias Against Tradition," Wall Street Journal) who argues that new construction in historic districts should be complementary and reference historic styles rather than employing a more "modern" and usually visually discordant, design.

It happens that one of the nearby apartment buildings, Gables Takoma (pictured above), which opened in 2008 on Blair Road on the west side of the Metro Station, has a reasonably distinguished design.

It was designed by area architect Eric Colbert but is of high quality because the building was designed to be sold as condominiums.

Instead of condos, it became an apartment building as a result of the 2008 real estate crash and financing problems faced by the original owner, who then sold it to the Gables Apartments group (owned by Trammell Crow).
Rebirth of the Ocean House

In the early years of Takoma Park, there were many large buildings constructed out of wood in the Victorian styles of the time, and I think that high quality wooden buildings such as the Ocean House Hotel in Rhode Island are good examples of this kind of architecture which could be referenced in designing a facade treatment for a building at the Takoma Metro Station.  (Flickr photo by Centerbrook Architects.)

This building is on the service drive of the Southeast-Southwest Freeway between 4th and 8th Streets SE in Washington, DC.

It has a vague Second Empire feel at the top of the building/cornice line, and some of the brick buildings constructed by the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Takoma Park in the 1930s evoke that style.

The building pictured in this postcard is still extant, but is enveloped on the north, east, and west sides by other buildings.

It's located between Willow and Laurel Streets on the west and east, Eastern Avenue on the north, and Aspen Street on the south, and can be accessed through the alley off Aspen or a walkway from Eastern Avenue.

This is one of the buildings that is part of the Monroe Street Market project in Brookland, on land owned by Catholic University and developed by Abdo Development and the Bozzuto Group.

It's a more distinguished design, at least from this elevation (looking east from Michigan Avenue towards Monroe Street), than is typical of such buildings that are being constructed across the city.

Another building, not pictured, along the Metropolitan Branch railroad, references warehouse style architecture typical of buildings constructed along the railroad line in the 1920s and 1930s.

This is another building in the same development, and is located on the south side of Monroe Street.

I'd argue that there are some "proportion" issues with this design, but the general idea pertains.

These buildings vaguely reference some of the historic architecture present in buildings on the nearby Catholic University and Trinity University campuses.

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At 10:08 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Good lord, that is an ugly proposal.

The contrast to Brookland is striking. On paper, I should like EYA as they are the only one interesting in building family sized buildings inside the beltway. That being said they all come off as cheap and low rent. I was shocked how bad the ones out in the Mosaic district turned out.

Abdo does a far better job.

At 7:52 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I still haven't made it out to Mosaic District.

EYA constructs two types of buildings: rowhouses and apartment buildings.

Over time, they've come to develop great prowess with rowhouses, at least in DC.

Some of their rowhouses, e.g. by Bryant School on Independence Ave. SE, built in the middle of last decade, have such good cornices and construction that it is difficult to figure out that they weren't constructed in the 1880s-1910, but are modern construction.

While I don't totally "love" the Arts District Hyattsville project because the designs are a bit too funky for my taste, they are okay.

Their rowhouse program shows iterative learning over time.

Ironically, one of the key people in that area back in the last decade then went to work for Abdo (but he doesn't work at Abdo either, any more).

Apartment buildings by EYA don't seem to show the same level of consideration and advancement in design quality.

Abdo did a great job with Monroe Street Market. I want to take a bit of credit, not so much with that project, but for pushing them to employ a warehouse-acknowledging design for the new apartment buildings at Senate Square, their first big new project (it opened in 2008), riffing off buildings along the rail line (including the great REA Building across from the then Children's Museum).

This is the REA building:

They referenced similar design cues for their Arlington lofts project and the building along the railroad tracks at Brookland.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Fair enough. And there isn't enough for the EYA to fit "into" at the Mosaic district townhouses.

At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it does not take high technology or billions of dollars to construct a decent roofline that is not just another flat roof redundancy. These damn developers who call themselves architects have forgotten how to make domes, spires, turrets, etc. The excuse is that it is too expensive but it turns out people would rather live and live around better made buildings. I was reading a book called "Brunelleschi's Dome" about how the Florence Italy cathedral was built in the early 1400's- pre industrial age technology- that I am convinced could NEVER be built today with all of the so-called high tech solutions we have because craftsmanship on this incredible level is no longer permitted or legal. We have lost our edge.And whatsmore- nobody is even dimly aware of how far we have decined.

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

EYA only built the THs in mosaic, not the apts. The THs low on decoration, but quite daring for georgian heavy NoVa, and I think very attractive. Charlie, as usual, should be taken with a grain of salt - well actuall a lot of grains of salt.

At 3:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

craftsmanship is a lot more expensive than it used to be - every check the living standards for craftsmen in 15th c florence? Or even for the italian immigrant craftsmen in NYC in the 1890s.

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

And yes, you can be modern and "stark" and good quality. I live in one -- and I'm painfully familiar with the shortcuts.

Another interesting look:

If you look at builder sentiment and their recent earnings, they are seems strong growth in parts of the country where "Millenniums" get jobs. What is being neglected in the affordable housing argument in DC is the macro picture. DC economy is shrinking a tad and clearly the types of jobs that attract overeducated 20 years olds don't always translate into jobs that can support buying a house.

At 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

there is amovement in the CHRD and HPRB to make all new construction in historic districts as modernist as possible and not complementary to existing buildings- this is absurd, destructive and downright asinine and needs to be done away with immediately. This is another example of the total bankruptsy of historic preservation in DC and in the USA. Aesthetics are no longer imnportant. These people need to leave DC and go out to Northern Virginia immediately.

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the Italains were not the only craftsmen in the USA who built quality- this is a maddening stereotype. german Americans helped to build the US Capitol building when Walter came in from Pennsylvania and brought the workers he knew could do the job. It is total bullshit to insinuate that quality work is too expensive- this was the excuse back i the 60's when builders would not build in brick " its too expensive" it was just that they were not used to doing work that way and it was out of the box thinking for that time. Now days we have excellent and well made new brick buildings with tar paper rooftops that fall down every 7 years. I beg to differ about expense. Actually it is more expensive to do a shitty job and have to correct it or to rebuild every 10-20 years. This notion that good workmanship is out of range of todays needs in the WORLD'S most AFFLUENT nation in history- is completely obsolete.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

anon -- more expensive "depends." If you are developer looking to sell soon after you have constructed the building and long before basic systems need to be repaired, rehabbed due to normal use, the more you spend "on quality" is in fact expensive.

Portfolio investors, which are few in number, have a different approach, because reducing total life cycle cost because of higher initial investment in quality comes back in economic return.

Most of the ways that the taxation regime works for commercial property militate against building high quality for the long term.

At 6:11 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt "the design" and historic districts, the general interpretation in the field is that new buildings should look different and be "of their time."

Others argue that un-complementary buildings diminish the overall architectural quality of an otherwise "historic" community.

This is the argument of Stephen Semes (I have the book but need to just sit down and read it straight through...), Calder Loth, sr. architectural historian of the State of Virginia, and others. I am in this camp generally, at least for residential commercial districts. I can see accommodating modernist architectural in central business districts and city centers.

At 6:20 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt charlie's comments about the nature of DC's economy, I am in agreement, e.g.,

Housing prices are escalating beyond the capacity of maybe all but the top 10% of the income earners, depending on access to capital for downpayments.

OTOH, smaller units in multiunit buildings allow for ownership for "lower" income earners.

I am not good enough at finance to figure out if buying such units is a good deal for the long term.

AH especially for the impoverished, is yet another issue.

At 6:29 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

note wrt an earlier comment by charlie on the cited blog entry, I was referring to the commercial real estate market not so much in and of itself, but as an indicator of the demand for space to support "exchange."

It is exchange that drives the economy, and as the federal government "declines" in various ways, its role as the chief element of DC's economy diminishes, and right now there aren't other industries out there seeking to pick up that slack, especially as the cost of space is still high.

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well I'm basing it more on the philly fed, which had a good heat map of the regions and what is growing.

And while I'm not arguing the secular trends you've described, were not seeing it (yet) in housing. But I'm positing this latest push on afforadble housing is reflecting that panic.

And also that the GGW generation is starting to learn that city life is great in your twenties but starting to be problematic in your thirties.

(Another trend that has been true since the 1950s at least!)

And I'd differ with you on whether housing is afforable for the "10%"; if you believe the numbers buying housing in the DC area is affordable (albeit expensive) for at least half the population.

A house in a nice part of DC is not. A house in the good part of MoCo or Arlington is not. But housing yes.

And you're cofusing wealth vs income again. The real problem is that buying a house is once again being restricted to higher wealth households. Subprime is also making a comeback but requires substantial down payments.

Going back to the aesthics part of the problem is the lag time. What looks good now does not always age well, and what looks bad now can age well. For example, visitors seem to love facading in DC.

The real reason you want diversity in housing stock so the entire area does not age at the same rate.

At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

also this:

At 4:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was not discussing quality construction, but decoration. The kinds of artistic decoration found in 19th and early 20th century buildings was quite labor intensive IIUC, which means that it was possible because of low wages. And unlike quality construction, decoration does not reduce life cycle costs.

At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Im not sure what the GGW generation is. I am over 50 and I appreciate GGW.

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting cover story/article from Aaron Weiner week before last. Thought it was amusing that he finally did some in-depth research and analysis with clearly some original thoughts and no one appears to have read it and/or cared.


At 5:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Posted this weeks ago somewhere else on your blog... I think for the same reason, which was to chime in on Charlie's comments on wealth vs. value.

I like Rushkoff's analysis of the Internet age being developed not "with the needs of humans in mind" but with a "very confused idea of the way corporate capitalism works."

The Internet is being developed "to serve the unacknowledged operating system underlying all of this which is old-school, Industrial-Age capitalism."


At 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And lastly, meant to post this WaPo article on Jim Abdo's reception in Little Washington from a few weeks ago.


At 4:48 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the Little Washington stuff is kinda funny. It's really about reproduction of space for Washington weekenders.

A couple weekends ago was at an "art camp" in PA but on the border with NY State, and Narrowsburg, NY which doesn't have a restaurant like The Inn at Little Washington is nonetheless shifting its retail and what not in response to weekend residents out of the NYC metropolitan area.

The same goes for Hudson, NY ("The Fabulous Beekman Boys"...( etc.

At 4:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

i think I picked up that City Paper but haven read it yet. It is true that generally I don't feel super motivated to read Aaron's work. Obviously, he feels the same way about my writings since they are never mentioned in his daily links list...

At 4:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... and yes charlie, my 10% number was an overeaction to pricing escalation (and tougher mortgage underwriting).

The JCHS map is interesting.

At 4:57 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt the hood as you age, it's really about neighborhoods. It happens that my first Nat. Trust annual meeting was in Cleveland in 2002, and I went on tours of the Warehouse and Gateway districts. The tour leader was the director of the revitalization organization and he pointed out that people living in the Warehouse District age out around the 35 years old, as they get older, marry, want to have kids, etc.

The trick is to have other neighborhoods that are attractive to different age groups/household types so that people can stay in the city. For parents, schools of course are a big issue, which is a problem in most center cities.

DC has been fortunate to have such neighborhoods/urban villages attractive to different demographics (like Brookland, Takoma, Tenleytown, etc.).

The thing about condos/multiunits is that increasing numbers of people are living singly and/or prefer that type of housing, and aren't limited to younger demographics.

Obviously this has been true for a long time, as exhibited by the old apartment buildings along Connecticut Avenue especially, from Kalorama to beyond Van Ness... and I do think it's reasonable to add this kind of housing to neighborhoods where it doesn't exist and can be accommodated without significantly challenging neighborhood identity.

At 5:01 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Ahh, I saw that story lede and I wasn't interested. There's nothing really new in that. It's been an issue for awhile, not here maybe, especially in Vancouver.

What is interesting is that DC seems to be so desperate for finance capital... that I don't understand.

E.g., the example of the Marriott project and $5MM from someone from China... that's 1/104, less than 1% of the total financing.

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ahh, I saw that story lede and I wasn't interested."

Am not sure which "story lede" (Rushkoff or Weiner) you're referencing or what "issue" you think he's discussing but the Rushkoff viddy--as well as a whole string of YouTube pieces he's done around his various books--is well worth the 12 or so minutes it takes to watch it.

Although coming at from a social science perspective, Rushkoff observes, and has some great insights on, some of the same economic phenomena as Henderson did 30-40 years ago and he is challenging us to think differently about it.


At 11:42 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well we are all getting off track from aesthetics.

With that in mind:

I'd take Weiner's article as further evidence of that -- professional investors realize DC is has been overbuilt.

Although I didn't realize that fundrise has sold out to the Chinese.

At 4:43 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

yes, I was referring to the Weiner article. But the point about the DC job market and stagnancy is relative. Many investors buy property in cities like DC, NYC, or London because of the comparative safety such investments offer vis a vis their home countries.

That will likely pertain for some time, although the job market will impact the demand for new construction, obviously.

At 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"yes, I was referring to the Weiner article."

Ah, that changes everything!

"But the point about the DC job market and stagnancy is relative."

I couldn't agree more. And, yes, while Weiner's article was focused on the "foreign investment in exchange for visa's"--which should have been an eyeball magnet--it also confirms my sense that DC continues mindlessly down the well-worn, semantic path of everything economic being about private real estate development (sponsored by public largesse), which is great for the landed gentry (the rentier class) but not so great for the 99% nor for the future.


At 6:11 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

see the upcoming post on Monday about an International Garden Festival for east of the river.

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