Should We Care About Views of Union Station?
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.
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