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.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Historic preservation Tuesday: Thinking of preservation as 2015 approaches

2029 Connecticut Avenue2029 Connecticut Avenue NW, DC.  Flickr photo by Josh.

Even though historic architecture and urban design are some of the city's most important competitive advantages compared to other communities, the city's preservation protections only extend to buildings or areas specifically designated as historic, even though there are dozens of neighborhoods and thousands of buildings that are equally "old" and deserving of designation.

Some other cities, such as Lancaster, PA and Boston, have design review processes in place for the entire city, whether or not the area is specifically designated as historic, because those communities recognize the importance of the building fabric and architectural quality to neighborhoods and the city overall.

By contrast, the quality of DC's architecture and built environment faces constant diminishment in the face of design-inappropriate additions and modifications to existing buildings and average and poorly designed new buildings.   The city is throwing away some of its key competitive advantages without much forethought.

A recent article in the Boston Globe, "Renovating in Boston? Not so fast,"discusses the various review processes there, including providing a link to a Boston Redevelopment Authority publication which outlines the building review process. From the article:
The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Urban Design Department is responsible for conducting design review in some instances for exterior changes to homes and small businesses, BRA spokesperson Nick Martin said. They want to make sure your changes are “consistent with the character of the neighborhood.”

To get your changes approved, you have to set up a design meeting with the BRA design review staff and explain the scope of your project. The time your design takes to get approved will likely depend on how major your changes are – are you adding a roof deck or dormers? Or are you building a porch?

Come prepared with photographs, and a good understanding of how your changes could impact abutting properties.
Without that level of design review, a lot of aesthetically challenged building alterations occur, as well as just general bad design.

For example, according to the Washington Business Journal, a new building at the east end of H Street on a triangular lot is proposing some kind of wacked treatment that is counter to the historical tradition of focusing on the shape of the building as the key element of its architectural character.

Instead they are proposing ersatz bolt ons on the side elevation, drawing the focus away from the angular shape of the building

The architectural design of 109 Prince Street, Manhattan, focuses on the angularity of the building site rather than through adornments calling extranormal attention to the building as opposed to its shape.  Wikipedia photo.

But there is nothing in DC building codes to prevent them from making this wrong-headed move.

Another example is how the apartment building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue NW will have a glass facade, whereas virtually all of the other apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue have been constructed with brick facades.

Boston is fortunate to value architectural context sensibility to the point where they have a well developed process for reviewing residential and commercial properties, with design guidelines, to ensure proposed changes are context sensitive.

Rendering, 5333 Connecticut Avenue NW.

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At 4:18 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

Wow, I never thought I would see you lead a huge call for NIMBYism. A design review for the whole city? Terrible, terrible idea. Great way to kill construction jobs, tax revenue, and put a lot of power in a bunch of idiots. Great way to have a ton of boring faux historic buildings go up all over.

Bad, bad idea.

The h st building you cite looks good. And I never saw what the issue was with that glass building on Conn. Ave. I guarantee if it was a faux historic building the neighbors still would've bitched just as much.

No no no!

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

there is a difference between calling for better design and not any development at all.

I've always argued that I am not against development, just s***** development.

With regard to either the Florida Ave. or Connecticut Ave. buildings, I have no problem with the constructing of buildings in those sites, or at that height.

All I am saying is that the designs could be better and context sensitive.

I don't think that qualifies as nimbyism.

2. I had a meeting a couple weeks ago with an infrastructure person and we were talking about the smart growth advocacy community. I mentioned a problem with the credibility of the CSG isn't that they take money from developers, but that they are reflexively in favor of almost any development at a Metro site, even if the particular proposals aren't particularly good or dense. ... that as the less dense, less good projects are junked for something better later, and they are equally in favor, they don't seem very credible.

3. ... plus, given that I am one of the more articulate proponents of increasing the height limit (albeit to fund Metrorail expansion in DC, as well as other transportation and infrastructure investments) again, I think it's unfair to call me a nimby.

At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

Yes, the designs could be better (though I don't see any particular objections to the H street or CT ave projects). However, the assertion that design review will actually result in 'better' design is dubious at best. How do you define better?

If you want better development, then you need to make the better development outcomes the path of least regulatory resistance. My fear about design review is that the opposite is true, it makes the best outcomes the most onerous in terms of process, and that adds money to the cost of building, which means that only luxury development can pencil out.

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Well, we're going to disagree on this to some extent. I believe it's an acceptable tradeoff for projects to take longer with the addition of design review.

But your general point, that better development needs to be incentivized by an efficient regulatory process is one I agree with.

It's just that with developers, some are good and care about quality and others don't care at all. And argue that crap is actually exemplary.

That's the struggle within the issue.

Remember that my focused entry into this kind of stuff started with Greater H St. At first, I would be excited when I would see the evidence of projects -- clearing land, digging foundations, etc. But the majority of the time, the projects were crap, and didn't really contribute to an economic climate that would in turn spur other development.

Similarly, in 2002 I learned about Cleveland's "Business Revitalization District Overlay" which calls for development and design coordination in areas that have been designated as priority development areas, the idea that coordination ensures ROI and reduces the likelihood of bad projects.

I have seen enough development in DC to believe that design review is very important. Obviously, I feel this way or I wouldn't keep bringing it up.

There are only a few companies doing exemplary work, which proves that the companies don't need to be goaded. Design review is a way to goad in a systematic manner.


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