How Important is a Skyline?
This morning, the New York Times editorial page raised the alarm about a gigantic new skyscraper on 7th Avenue that–since the City Council gave it the go-ahead this afternoon–will obscure views of the Empire State Building from the west and New Jersey.
"This is no ordinary development issue. The Empire State is central to this city’s image. Any decision to alter the skyline so radically deserves more time and more public consideration," the Times fretted. "...The real issue for the city is this: Whatever skyscrapers come next, they should be future icons."
For D.C., this isn't so much an issue, since height limits essentially prevent any building other than the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument from defining the skyline at all. But Rosslyn, which fancies itself "Manhattan on the Potomac," has started to think seriously about it. At a forum in April, Rosslyn Renaissance–a coalition of businesses and developers that reviews most major projects in the mini-city–convened panel of architects discussed this very issue. Anthony Markese of skyscraper designer Pickard Chilton made the case for a sculpted skyline.
"If Rosslyn is going to attract tenants from D.C., if it's going to compete on a much larger stage, if you are going to achieve this idea of a first class urban center, I think you have to allow for views and height to draw tenants from D.C. It's critical that those tower tops have meaning," Markese said.
The problem is, the Federal Aviation Administration has a height limit for Rosslyn that prevents much creativity.
"The hardest, most difficult problem we face with right now is the skyline is just sheared off because developers are building right up to that max," Markese said. "There's nothing left in terms of the Floor Area Ratio or in terms of the program to help the buildings meet the sky."
Others on the panel thought the skyline shouldn't be a huge priority. Instead, Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates said that the ground level–with its too-wide streets, inward-oriented buildings, and disorienting geography–should be Rosslyn's biggest focus.
“Exactly what's going out there at 300 feet doesn't really matter. The most important thing in any city is what's happening at the first 30 feet," Tumlin said. "And so, to a certain degree, we wonder if you have the process backwards, if instead of asking what should the shape of the skyline be, shouldn't we be asking what is the shape of the public realm in the first 30 feet and then figure out how much skyline you need to sell the developers in order to raise the funds that are needed in order to create what you want on the ground level.”
With regard to the skyline, there are a couple relatively transformative projects in the pipeline for Rosslyn: The CentralPlace towers, which had to get a height exemption, will have curved rooves. And 1812 North Moore, the highest building in the area at 35 stories, will have a pyramid. No Empire State Building, but it's something.
The most important part of those new developments, though, will be how successfully they manage to engage the street. It's hard to judge 1812 North Moore; it has space for two-story retail fronting the street, but no visuals of what the building will look like from the street. The CentralPlace project looks better: It has a large, attractive-looking pedestrian plaza on top of the metro bordered by shops and cafes, promising to become "a hub of pedestrian activity."
That's one thing Rosslyn could use–a hub. As Tumlin put it, "You never know when you've found the center of Rosslyn, because there's not one."
For now, there's just the quickly thrown-together temporary plaza with large paint splotches and triangular awnings. In a hopeful gesture, for the summer issue of its magazine, the Rosslyn BID put the project on the cover.