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D.C.'s height limit: Measure of their impact


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#1 Guest_donaltopablo_*

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 06:27 PM

D.C.'s height limits: Taking the measure of their impact
Mike Livingston
Contributing writer
It's a popular myth that the Washington Monument is decreed by law to be the tallest building in the District of Columbia. However, D.C. does have height restrictions that leave the 555-foot-tall monument and the Capitol pretty much unchallenged -- and create a pleasant atmosphere few other major cities can achieve, planners and architects say.


"President George Washington issued the first building height regulations for the city in 1791, concerned as much about structural and fire safety as about urban design," wrote architect Roger K. Lewis for The Washington Post in 1994.

Thomas Jefferson was quoted in the same piece, hoping the new capital would emulate Paris with buildings "low & convenient, and the streets light and airy."

That image of D.C. was threatened, many people believed, in 1894 at 16th and Q streets NW where Thomas Franklin Schneider built the 14-story Cairo apartment tower (today a condominium building), which soared to the unprecedented height of 160 feet.

Neighbors cried foul, and Congress in 1899 enacted a height limit for the District prohibiting private buildings from topping out higher than the Capitol, which reaches 288 feet above Capitol Hill at the crest of the Statue of Freedom.

A revised height law in 1910 did away with the fixed maximum. That legislation, still in effect, states that no new building may be more than 20 feet taller than the width of the street in front of it.

For example, the height limit for buildings fronting a 110-foot-wide stretch of Connecticut Avenue NW is 130 feet, while the limit for buildings facing 60-foot-wide residential streets in Cleveland Park would be 80 feet. At some parts of Pennsylvania Avenue, however, a height limit of 160 feet is permitted.

The law allows the District government to grant exemptions for "spires, towers, domes, minarets, pinnacles" and engineering structures such as ventilation shafts, fire sprinkler tanks, telecommunications risers and elevator penthouses. Such exemptions are administered by the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment.

Only in Washington?

As a result of the height limit, in Washington, "the buildings that represent the most prominent institutions ... have the most prominence on the skyline," says Howard Decker, chief curator of the National Building Museum (www.nbm.org), adding, "It's extraordinary that there is still a city where that's the case."

At one time, height restrictions weren't so unusual. Many large U.S. cities adopted statutory height limits in the early 20th century, Decker explains.


When architect Daniel Burnham worked on Chicago's master plan of 1909, he envisioned a skyline of 20 stories or less. Burnham had served on the 1901-02 McMillan Commission that planned the "monumental core" of modern Washington -- and favored a 160-foot height limit. Chicago's limits were respected until the 1930s, the age of the art deco skyscrapers.

Even New York City, about a century ago, had height limits based on the amount of sunlight reaching the street.

Architect Michael Wynn Stanley, with the D.C. firm of Leo A Daly (ww.leoadaly.com), moved from New York five years ago and says Washington's height limits were "quite a shock ... a little frustrating in the beginning."

On one of his first projects in D.C., Stanley recalls, he was trying to fit 2.3 million square feet on a given site, and "I kept hitting my head on the ceiling." In New York, the project would have taken the form of a 20-story tower.

However, since then Stanley has come to appreciate the benefits of height restrictions. "Over a couple of years of working here and living in the city, I have to say I'm an enormous fan" of the limits.

While the streets of New York sometimes suffer from a lack of sunlight and warmth, he says, in Washington "the quality of the streets is terrific because of daylight and air."

A brick on the head of the city
Does the height limit push developers into the suburbs?

Stanley doesn't think so.

"This city is still incomplete," the architect says. "There are large portions of this city that are just open parking lots."

Even without height limits, there is no guarantee that a project would go to the District instead of the suburbs, says Greg Smith, a transit advocate with Friends of the Earth (www.foe.org). "Cities with tall skylines have sprawling suburbs too."


D.C.'s height limit actually might make the city more attractive, Decker says.

The restrictions have "sparked the development of a variety of different kinds of centers of activity," he says, mentioning Penn Quarter, Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle as examples.

Those neighborhoods feature a mix of residential and commercial real estate, including retail and nightlife as well as offices.

"One wonders," Decker says, "if the vitality of these centers is a result of the fact that the city has a brick on its head."

Sneaking space into buildings
Low height limits mean low ceilings -- a 10-story building in D.C. is not as tall as a 10-story building in Manhattan, and it's hard to build more than 10 stories in the District.

Rob Reis, design director in the Washington office of Minneapolis-based Ellerbe Becket (www.ellerbebecket.com), says his firm is "constantly being asked how to make [office] space feel more open and light and airy."

Thus the design of the interior, as well as the facade, is affected by the height limit.

"The restrictions," Reis says, "have led to creative solutions."

Outside, for example there may be a high ratio of "glazing," or window surface, to masonry. Inside there are design tricks with ceilings, floor plans and decor.

Some clients, forgo the suspended ceilings usually seen in office suites and expose mechanical elements in exchange for more headroom.


Others try to maximize interior sunlight with floor plans that position open lines, rather than individual offices, in front of windows.

Ellerbe Becket's work on the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center features a horizontal skylight along the cornice, illuminating office space with no side windows.

The limited vertical space in the District-- in contrast to the 9-foot-plus ceilings typical of Rosslyn high-rises -- stimulates "more design effort," Reis says. "We look at the materials we use, the colors, compressed mechanical systems" to make 8 and a half vertical feet feel more like 9 and a half.

Although people try a variety of design elements to deal with the height restrictions, Washington has more aesthetic safeguards in place than most cities, including the Historic Preservation Review Board and the Commission of Fine Arts, architects and others say.

If you build downtown, Decker of the building museum says, "you'll have a lot of people looking over your shoulder."

Perhaps the converts are the most devout.

Stanley, the transplanted New Yorker, concludes that "Washington has a far better living standard, and environmental standard, in its urban fabric" than a city of skyscrapers.

 

#2 tocoto

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 09:40 PM

In many cities it seems like we are going back to density over height. At least in residential areas.

#3 Allan

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 09:52 PM

This is a very interesting article. Thanks for posting it. I like the way Washington has a height limit. It makes D.C. the most European looking American city.

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 11:05 PM

This is a very interesting article. Thanks for posting it. I like the way Washington has a height limit. It makes D.C. the most European looking American city.


I always thought Boston was American's most European city.

#5 Allan

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 11:10 PM

I always thought Boston was American's most European city.

You do bring up a good point. I never really considered Boston to be that European looking, but now that I think about it, it is. It is safe to say that D.C. is more like Paris, while Boston is more like a lot of other European cities. I think I need to take a trip to Europe now to make a final decision about which one is more European looking. LOL.

#6 Neo

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Posted 17 February 2004 - 06:52 AM

Mmmm, Europe. I've always wanted to live in Europe, but only for a couple of years, just enough to get a taste!

#7 Allan

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Posted 17 February 2004 - 07:08 AM

Mmmm, Europe. I've always wanted to live in Europe, but only for a couple of years, just enough to get a taste!

Me too, but I'd never be able to afford it...unless I win the lotto or something. So I guess I better keep dreaming.

#8 mikey

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Posted 23 March 2004 - 09:56 AM

I live in Europe and I can say our city's are nice. Nice to live in because of the 'human' size of the buildings and natural street plans. But American ciy's are so impressive with their skyscrapers. In Europe we have a lot of height limits because of the historic backgrounds and old buildings and monuments. In Germany their are few city's (Franfurt!) bombed in world war 2 with many skyscrapers. Rotterdam and a part of London have also skyscraper because of that. But they aren't that tall.I never been in the US but it seems that every big metro area has a downtown with skyscrapers. Washington DC looks a little bit like the 'Haussman' Paris with hise wide boulevards and monuments. Outside the 'Ville de Paris' there is a district with skyscrapers 'la Defense'. Paris has not the amount of tall buildings like chicago for example. But is very densely populated and have a lot of tall appartement blocs and doesn't have sprawling suburbs. The suburbs are mixed with houses and appartment blocks and are very urban. A very nice European city is Barcelona which has also big boulevards like Washington DC and Paris and only 2 skyscrapers.

#9 mikey

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Posted 23 March 2004 - 10:07 AM

and I saw a very nice picture from Boston somewhere in the forum and it looks really very European. In Europe exept of London, Paris and ,if you call it Europe, Moskou. Their are no metro areas with more than 5 million people. But we have lot of 2 a 4 million metro area's like Rome, Napels, Barcelona, Hamburg, Berlin, Madrid, Vienne, Prague, Munchen. Some loos a bit like Boston butt wth less skyscrapers.

#10 tocoto

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Posted 23 March 2004 - 05:44 PM

Many american cities look european in one way or another since they were founded by europeans, and some were cities long befor ethe US was a country. Boston, Montreal, Quebec City, Philly, NYC, DC and many smaller cities have very european areas in terms of architecture and density.

A question about Paris: I have heard there are only a handful of buildings over 400 feet and none over 500'. Is that true?

#11 mikey

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Posted 23 March 2004 - 07:19 PM

I know de tour de Montparnase is 210 meters high and i think (i can be wrong) it's the tallest within the city limits of Paris. http://ladefense.free.fr/ The picture on the opening page shows 'La Defense' a district outside the Paris City limits(the trees in the middle of the picture.

#12 mikey

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Posted 23 March 2004 - 07:38 PM

Another link about height limits in paris:http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,1076477,00.html

#13 bigbuilding

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Posted 25 March 2004 - 08:26 PM

I always wondered why DC didn't build tall.

As we all know DC has one of the highest rents in the world which means companies can't afford office space.

It would be nice if they allowed a certain area to have tall buildings.

#14 thumper

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Posted 03 May 2004 - 05:53 PM

I did not know there was a restriction, but it makes sense now that you think about it. I like the effect it has however since it makes for a nice walkable city where that doesn't seem like being in a canyon.

#15 Spartan

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Posted 03 May 2004 - 06:33 PM

That is an interesting article. I've been to Europe a few times, and to me DC seems more like Paris or London as far as height goes. But DC lacks areas like Paris's Avenue des Champs-Elysées. So, when I think of DC its like of like a Paris grid with a London theme. The other problem with DC is that its major tourist attractions are all concentrated along The Mall while other areas in the city are less travelled by tourists.

(This is not to say that DC or London has no shopping, but they don't have areas or main drags that are particularly famous for it.)

#16 DCjedi7

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 08:44 AM

DC is very european, consider the traffic circles, the little parks on every corner, the Marble buildings. IT sooooooo reminds me of Paris as well. maby thats what Le'fant was thinking when he planned out the city. but didnt care about how people got around, instead he focused on the look of the city. it's very easy to get around DC, I can go blind folded around here. :huh:

#17 johnconndc

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 09:19 PM

That is an interesting article. I've been to Europe a few times, and to me DC seems more like Paris or London as far as height goes. But DC lacks areas like Paris's Avenue des Champs-Elysées. So, when I think of DC its like of like a Paris grid with a London theme. The other problem with DC is that its major tourist attractions are all concentrated along The Mall while other areas in the city are less travelled by tourists.

(This is not to say that DC or London has no shopping, but they don't have areas or main drags that are particularly famous for it.)

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I'm afraid i have to disagree. Georgetown, which is right on the DC side of the Virginia/DC border (the potomac river) is famous at least throughout the U.S. as place to go to shop.

#18 DCjedi7

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Posted 04 March 2005 - 08:57 AM

Yea I'd have to agree. I lived there Gosh darnit!!! also Downtown you can shop too

#19 SoFla

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Posted 08 March 2005 - 12:22 PM

Having lived in Washington and Boston, I think that New Orleans is the most European city in the US, both in looks and in attitude. I do think that DC is very European in its layout, (thanks to L'enfant), and it is one of my favorite places to live.

#20 JPN0731

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Posted 18 March 2005 - 09:41 AM

You do bring up a good point.  I never really considered Boston to be that European looking, but now that I think about it, it is.  It is safe to say that D.C. is more like Paris, while Boston is more like a lot of other European cities.  I think I need to take a trip to Europe now to make a final decision about which one is more European looking.  LOL.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


After having lived in Europe and hearing how Boston was so "European" I was surprised to find that it was a lot less like Europe than DC or even Portland, Oregon (or Portland Maine!) for that matter. I don't mean to diss on anyone's city but I found Boston very American looking. It might be European in a Manchester or Birmingham, UK sort of way.

A lot of European cities have strikingly modern buildings that add a nice contrast to the old architechture. Boston seemed trapped in the "colonial" plague that seems to dominate most of the NE USA. And the suburbs of Revere et al look so typically American cookie cutter. I did love this one building that was right over the top of the freeway heading West though. It was very 60's looking.

I know I am really gonna catch hell for this but after three long days in Boston, we packed up and headed to Portland, Maine for a couple of days and had a much better time. After that, we refer to Boston as BUSTon from now on... sorry.