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.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Some egregious examples of popups in DC

(I discussed this last week, but it's an evergreen topic.)

One of the most distinctive elements of DC's architectural identity is defined by the built form of the city's older neighborhoods, primarily those neighborhoods constructed before 1930.

At that time, the organization of residential property construction was much different than today, where subdivisions of more than 1,000 lots are developed by a single firm.  Back then, it was typical for a "developer" to construct only a few buildings at a time, on scattered lots.

In neighborhoods like Georgetown, Capitol Hill, or Dupont Circle this resulted in a rich and differentiated ensemble of related but distinct buildings, much different from today's "production" subdivisions constructed with a handful of front elevations and architectural styles.  DC's oldest neighborhoods have dozens of differently designed but complementary and "fitting" residences buildings on a single block.

The popup phenomenon is the result of two gaps in DC building regulations:

(1) design review extends only to those neighborhoods that have gone through the process of historic designation.  While ore than 20,000 buildings are located in the city's historic districts, a greater number of equally "historic" but undesignated buildings are present in other neighborhoods that haven't gone through the historic designation process.

To solve that problem, I suggest that the entire city should be subject to a basic level of design review, whether or not a building or area is designated as a landmark or a historic district.

(2) the maximum height that is allowable for residential districts according to the zoning code is significantly higher than that which was typical when DC's neighborhoods were first constructed.  In undesignated areas, it is a simple matter to get permission to build additions/an additional story on houses and apartment buildings.

Taller buildings, albeit usually executed poorly, can create visual incongruence and diminish the overall aesthetic experience and historical identity of DC's residential blocks and neighborhoods.

Yesterday, we checked out some estate sales in Upper Northwest, which gave us a chance to check out some areas of the city we might not normally get to, and I saw some "interesting" examples that support my thesis.

The mansard roof has been used since the late 1800s to add height to buildings in a stylish manner, but it is fair to say that more modern use of the technique has some problems with execution.

3600 block of S Street NW, no pop up. This block was in fact constructed by one builder. Each side of the block has a repeating, but differentiated set of facades. Each side of the street mirrors the other.

Similar ensemble, with pop up, across the street

End unit pop up, 3600 block of S St. NW

Unmodified end unit across the street.

Popup on a wood frame Italianate rowhouse.  It's likely that the house on the right once looked like the house on the left.  This is on the 500 block of Jefferson Street NW near where I returned the Zipcar.  This block is quite interesting.  It has houses dating from the wood frame era--these houses probably date to the 1870s, brick rowhouses dating to the 1880s or 1890s, "Wardman-style" rowhouses from the 1910s-1920s, bungalows, and some infill apartment buildings, some with an art deco style.

Popup on an apartment building on Wisconsin Avenue in Cathedral Heights (by Cafe Deluxe and the new Giant Supermarket).  Note that the proposed restrictions on pop ups would have no effect on properties in commercially zoned areas, including the apartment building pictured below, and the "famed" middle finger building on V Street NW ("D.C. developers take rowhouses to new heights," Washington Post).

And buildings next door which show how the pop up building once looked.

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At 8:59 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Rather disturbingly, I had a dream about you and urban issues this weekend.

In particular, how to create a modern design district in DC.

I put the dream up to the blue cheese. That said, like the dream of RNA, it may reveal something.

Two issues pop up -- pun intended -- from this posting.

1. Preserving a look and feel. It is a granular level issue, as you said block by block. Bath, England vs. Beverly Hills. Walking up Massachusetts Avenue the other day, you can see the issue wasn't confined to today. But having the buildings all from the same time does create more cohesion.

2. In most parts of DC, the issue with the pop up isn't the height but what do you do with the party walls. Brick everywhere highly unattractive.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

vinyl siding is unattractive too...

I happened to take a photo today of the Harris Teeter in Kalorama (the old roller rink), that's art deco streamline. Beyond that period, good "modern architecture" can be tough to find. It's out there though. Just rare.

(wrt bad dreams, a couple years ago I had a dream I was on City Council as a temporary fill in and shared an office with Vincent Orange...)

At 6:15 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well, that is a worse dream.

I was walking up 11th, and thinking the modernistic new construction there would qualify as urban friendly. And the new Atlantic plumbing building? Push that with 965 Florida.

As you said in Vancouver, the infill buildings can do it given certain building constraints.

Upper NW is an intresting case for popus and ADUs. On one hand have a of "stranded" buildings that could use investment. Also hard to make the case that one ugly popup will ruin the value of the rest of a block.

On the other hand, in 20-30 years preserving the integrity of the block will result it in being cute and charming.

So in addition to being more granular on design zoning, having some sort of incentive/tax programs to encourge that long term investment might be helpful.

At 8:59 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

incentive tax programs to encourage LT investment. Good point. I do wonder though what they should be because sometimes I have a hard time figuring out why people who own high value houses need incentives to make the decisions that would make their properties more valuable.

OTOH, tax incentives can help, especially to mediate the immediate cost of using higher priced materials--e.g., brick for a facade expansion rather than Hardie board (siding).

I'd rather spend on the incentives just to accelerate the likelihood of better design choices.

I am probably way wrong in believing that if we give people more technical assistance they'll do a better job, but that's a big element of it.

But the rehab assistance programs in cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Chicago's program focused on their bungalow building type specifically communicate the value of technical assistance.

wrt your point about incentive programs, I am working on a piece about adding 91,000 housing units to DC in order to meet the goal of 850,000 residents and how to go about doing it and whether or not it is realistically achievable given current processes.

One thread of the piece is to add basement units, in many places you'll have to dig out basements to accommodate units there, which isn't cheap.

Another would be to identify the lots that are empty for some reason, and get houses on them.

To do this, a kind of quasi-govt. entity should be doing the kinds of purposeful incentives, etc., in order to move it forward in a concerted way, at scale (by building a platform and process for cost effective "reproduction"), otherwise it won't really happen at a scale that matters.

that's a different form of govt. incentive program...

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

oh wrt "modern" vs. old, I have come to believe that there are really two elements that matter in addition to "design". First, the quality of the ground floor/first two stories at how they relate to the street and general context, support pedestrian activity, etc.

The second is the quality of the materials, does the building look cheap from the outset or not?

The design issue is key though in terms of "wearing well" because at least for owner occupied housing (condos), the facade is likely to never change. OTOH, rental housing is likely to receive design updates as warranted by the market and positioning needs of the property. (cf. Jane Jacobs' point about "old" buildings and the need for class b and c rental rates...)

But modern architecture doesn't have to be crappy. Some is decent in fact.

The problem is when it is sculpture and deliberately disconnective architecturally, and whether or not the broader ensemble of the built environment is strong enough to withstand the disconnect and embrace and include and envelope the object.

At 9:12 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well, I'd go back to the LT incentives and banking historic areas.

Again, some of of it being granular. For example, removing trash pickup from alley living and putting in common trash facilities. Or targeting a block with street repair, sidewalk repair and tree care.

In terms of expanding, yes, digging out basements is good. Removing tenant protection for large apartment buildings so they can be turned over. I'm sorry, but paying $1000+ a month for window AC is not acceptable anymore.

Removing tenant protection for private landlords as well so they have more control over who they rent to.

Getting back to the rooming house/group house ideal in areas.

Moving low density section 8 out and replacing with high density market rate.

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

all good ideas. the thing would be to continually work at thinking innovatively.

wrt "trash" there is a 1992 NYT Magazine article on Paris, and how the national govt. subsidizes the city's operation (and some complaints that rich people get more subsidy than those in greater need). One of the things the article points out is how Paris' sanitation department is considered probably the best municipal sanitation agency in the world, the various innovations, etc.

Getting that level of innovation is unlikely here, but even things like combined trash collection in alleys would be a step forward.

Just as I point out we should do yard waste interdiction in the outer city, it'd be possible to do specific practices for alleys.

Although I was in Terrace Court SE yesterday, during trash pick up as it happens, and they have individual cans per house, but they are in a collective area. You see that in some other alleys as well.

Again, by doing composting and recycling at a serious level, the amount of trash generated could be significantly reduced.

If we could do similar kinds of rethinking across other agencies, we'd be way better off.

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous charlie said...


In terms of the modern stuff, both great points.

They are ugly, but I wish the exterior sun shutters were more in use in the US. Very effective in terms of blocking solar heat.


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