Housing Complex

Should We Care About Views of Union Station?

Diagram courtesy of the Committee of 100 and Capitol Hill Restoration Society.

In today's Post, Jonathan O'Connell sums up the squabble between Akridge and preservation groups over the definition of "sidewalk": That is, from where the developer should be able to measure the 130 feet prescribed by the federal Height Act for its Burnham Place project over the tracks leading into Union Station. Akridge–with the Office of Planning, D.C. Council, and local ANC in agreement–thinks they should be able to measure from the height of the "hopscotch bridge" over H Street, which would allow buildings to rise nearly 160 feet above the railroad tracks. The Committee of 100, National Capital Planning Commission, and Capitol Hill Restoration Society all see that definition as a desecration of the Height Act, and a ruination upon views of the iconic Union Station. "It's the equivalent of a medieval castle," said CHRS board member Monte Edwards at a Zoning Commission hearing in early January.

The preservation groups sketched up some drawings of what they thought the massing would look like if the height were measured from the bridge (one view above), and their testimony was enough to persuade the Zoning Commission to ask Akridge to come back with studies to illustrate the height measured from the sidewalk. Akridge had submitted a more extensive set of drawings, embedded in the document below.

It's important to note that the reason why Akridge wants a to measure from the higher point isn't to squeeze all the square footage out of the development that they can. In fact, Akridge's David Tuchmann says that reducing the height wouldn't necessarily result in less space–it would just allow his architect, Shalom Baranes, more space to make better buildings.

"Allowing taller buildings in some locations on the site would allow for a higher quality development from an urban design standpoint," Tuchmann writes in an email. "Building up instead of out (while holding the density level constant) allows larger and more interesting open spaces, plazas and pedestrian pathways. And variation in heights and massing keeps the buildings themselves less monolithic. We believe these are the greatest benefits to allowing some taller structures in the proposed zone."

Well, you all know what I think about this. But even if you accept the Committee of 100 and CHRS's argument that we shouldn't obstruct views to Union Station, it's not clear from their drawings that the project's taller version even would–the station might be more difficult to see from the north, but it's still perfectly visible from all the viewsheds that they measure. Iconic buildings do not have an inviolable right to their own skyline. And if a more interesting skyline will result from more height, preservationists should be arguing for the higher measuring point, not trying to knock it down.

[scribd id=47478166 key=key-2bt40iljz17qtyv65u3r mode=list]

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    On that CHRS and C100 image you use as the header for this post - where are the trees?

    At first, I thought the existing parking garage is way taller than they show here, so I went to check it via google maps streetview. And, by positioning myself at the same intersection they show above (Louisiana and North Capitol), the only direct view to Union Station is directly along the Louisiana Ave axis. The rest is all obscured by trees.


    So, are CHRS and C100 demanding that we cut down these view-obstructing trees in order to preserve these sacred vistas of Union Station?

  • The AMT

    I think the point you make - that even iconic buildings are not entitled in perpetuity to their own unencumbered skylines - is a good one. The iconic vistas featuring Union Station are not north of the station, and many of the views from the south would not be greatly affected, judging by the preservation groups' own images. And, as Alex points out, the views are partially obstructed by trees, anyway.

    I wish people would realize that the Height Act is not an end in itself - if you support it, you need to have a reason to do so because of the great costs it imposes on everybody in the city. If you think that the Height Act is worth it, great - but it is not worth it to have a Height Act just to have a Height Act. Sometimes it seems like the Cmte100 etc. forget that.

  • Ktriarch

    Lydia, in the third line above, I think you meant to use the word prescribed instead of proscribed. Proscribed means forbidden.

    And @ The AMT, those of us who support the Height Act don't need a reason to do so. It's a federal law enacted by Congress, and nobody but Congress has the authority to change it. Maybe those of you who don't support it need to come up with some more compelling reasons to change or get rid of it.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Alex B.

    Good point.


    Grammar schooled! Thanks, I've changed it.

  • The AMT

    @Ktriarch - Pragmatically I understand your point (I've been one to call "scoreboard" myself), but there are very real costs to the Act, as has been argued time and again by writers like Lydia, Ryan Avent, Dave Alpert, Matt Yglesias, and several others. What I meant in my comment was that it seems that defenders of the Height Act are treating it as an end unto itself. More generally - if you support something, you should generally have a better reason for doing so than "that's the way it is." Otherwise we miss out on a lot as a society.

    Focusing on this instance, where the neighbors have approved of the plans and even the defenders of the Height Act have created a bunch of renderings showing what little impact on the important views the new buildings will have, what virtue is there to interpreting the Height Act so strictly?