Housing Complex

Is 90 Feet Too Tall For Pennsylvania Avenue?

Really, it's not all that large. (Stanton/Eastbanc)

All the judgments are in on preliminary designs for the former Hine Jr. High School, as interested parties ready themselves for its hearing before the Historic Preservation Review Board next week. They all have various issues with the architectural quality of the designs, which will be refined over the coming months. But the most fundamental question is one of size: How big is too big for such a prominent site across from a metro station and the historic Eastern Market?

At the moment, Stanton/Eastbanc's plans call for an office building on 7th and Pennsylvania that would rise to seven floors, or 88 feet. According to the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, that's "simply too tall and too large to blend gracefully with its Capitol Hill neighbors." The Eastern Market Metro Community Association agreed, insisting that the developers stick to a height limit of 60 feet, as endorsed by ANC 6B two years ago. 

The staff of the Historic Preservation Office, however, wasn't so worried. "Given the breadth of the wide avenue, the relative hierarchical importance of this building in the totality of the project, and the site's frontage on a L'Enfant square and adjacency to a Metro station, additional height in this location is not inappropriate provided that the building is otherwise designed to 'enhance the character of the district and respect its context,'" reviewers wrote, recommending only mild setbacks on the top of the building.

I'm inclined to trust the HPO on this one. This isn't 1850. Metro stations are only as useful as the things that exist there to go to. And from everything I've heard, Barracks Row and Eastern Market retail could really use daytime traffic from the number of office workers this building would house.

But putting height aside, the mentality that everything should stay the same as it's always been–and that if there must be new things, that they blend perfectly in with their surroundings–is even more egregiously on display in EMMCA's demand that developers scrap plans for retail on 8th Street based on their psychoanalysis of what Pierre L'Enfant would have wanted (italics in the original).

L'Enfant probably envisioned, on his first visit to what was to become Washington, this 8th Street SE carrying commerce north from the river, then turning left at Pennsylvania Avenue SE and continuing to carry this neighborhood's commercial district to the U.S. Capitol. Logically, that meant L'Enfant intended residential on D Street north of Pennsylvania Avenue. We can stand at the intersection where L'Enfant stood today, and see what he had in mind. If ANC 6B and HPRB does not act, however, that historic opportunity will be gone forever, as the relationship between commerce and residence, the commercial and public ties between the U.S. Capitol and this busy commercial street, the intersection where the residential neighborhood meets Capitol Hill's main commercial district, will be clouded and blurred by this incursion of commercial along the 700 block of D Street.

That, dear readers, is one of the most absurd things I have ever heard. The L'Enfant plan is valuable, to be sure, but if it were so sacrosanct as EMMCA suggests, the entire city would be frozen in amber–certainly not the thriving metropolis it's starting to become.

Find all the above referenced documents here.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Is there some sort of award for rampant abuse of hyperbole? Can I submit that EMMCA report for it?

  • trulee_pist

    Lydia and Alex,

    Are you sure you two aren't yanking things out of context regarding the EMMCA report?

    I'm looking at what you linked to, and it starts out with a long quote from the historian Ruth Ann Overbeck (do you know who that is? Do your homework--she's a good source on Capitol Hill history), confirmed in the EMMCA report by reference to another history of L'Enfant's first visit to DC, both of which are used to explain a simple, narrow little point, which is "Why is 8th Street precisely where it is?"

    Short answer: 8th Street runs in a straight line from the Anacostia River Navy docks through Latrobe gate north all the way to Gallaudet. Not psychoanalysis, but research.

    But why did this EMMCA report feel the need to inflict a history lesson on us? The next couple of paragraphs and the zoning map that follow in EMMCA's report make that pretty clear, if you read it: The residential area and the commercial area meet at 8th and D Street. No more commercial north of Pennsylvania on 8th, no commercial on D Street, but commercial on both sides of Pennsylvania, on both sides of 8th Street south of Pennsylvania, around the south side of the Metro Plaza, up both sides of 7th Street as far as Eastern Market, like that. Lots of space for commercial development around there.

    Residential has to end somewhere. Commercial has to end somewhere. This is where the line was drawn before L'Enfant drew any lines, and that's where the line has held for 220 years since. The L'Enfant part of this is not dispositive. The current zoning map is.

    So what? Now you and the developer want commercial on D Street north of Pennsylvania and up 8th Street. Great! Sounds exciting!

    But after 220 years, I think the burden is on you two and the developers to explain why, in 2011, it's so important to let commercial infiltrate what has been a residential area for a long time and in a historic district. Neither you two nor the developer have made the first effort to prove the value of changing the current pattern to allow commercial on D Street or 8th Street.

    Maybe you are right. Or maybe the area around this Metro station will continue to develop quite nicely without you and the developer getting what they want. Maybe there's plenty of opportunity for developing new retail spaces elsewhere within sight of this Metro stop without putting commercial on D Street and 8th Street north of Pennsylvania. I kinda doubt a couple little shops on D Street and a couple little shops on 8th Street will solve the District's budget woes. But who knows?

    I do know snark and pulling things out of context, as you have done here, won't get us to where you want us to go.

  • trulee_pist

    And BTW, those are two fugly buildings! They're ugly enough to make a freight train take a dirt road.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    Speaking for myself, I find that historic analysis of yours interesting, but unpersuasive as to why development of a certain intensity or use at that corner is inappropriate in the here and now.

    The implication that things shouldn't change because in the past they were different is simply an absurd starting point - and that's more or less what the EMMCA report argues.

    Also, purely from the standpoint of this being a city, I find this statement to woefully miss the point:

    "Residential has to end somewhere. Commercial has to end somewhere."

    No, not really. What makes cities work well are their mixed use nature and their density. The very idea that we should regulate and legislate and micromanage things in this detailed manner is not what makes good cities work.

  • goldfish

    @Trulee -- there are many buildings in the residential part of the neighborhood off of 8th Street that were once businesses. For example, a building a few doors down from my house used to be a tavern (it became a residence long before I got here).

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Yes residential does have to end somewhere and commercial has to start and end somewhere.

    Where commercial develops and is most likely to thrive (see Central Place Theory) is at junctions. 8th St. is a natural junction, not just of the bus lines and two major streets, but also the Metro.

    At such locations, larger buildings are in order.

    And frankly, the L'Enfant Plan's intent was for development to occur at such places. However, we can't rely on prevailing construction technology and practices from 1790 to fully guide us in 2011.

    Although I would quibble with the headline of this story, this isn't 90 feet anywhere on PA Ave. SE, and maybe 90 feet isn't appropriate on every block of PA Ave. SE (although for the most part, it probably is) it's at a major intersection, and a major intersection also served by subway, and presumably at some point in the future it will also be (re)served by streetcars.

  • Thayer-D

    The height wouldn't be such a problem if the buildings were not so but ugly. Especially since it faces an open space and is practically over the metro. But a 3-d massing analysis like google's would help their case if they could weave it into a higher density analysis of the neighborhood that took its historic nature into account.
    The Cairo building might not be the best example, but I think few people walk by it and cringe.

  • tom veil

    90 feet is too SHORT for one of the widest and most important streets in the national capital of a modern country, and it's embarrassing that we're even having this discussion.

  • Eric K

    Thank you for highlighting what a joke EMMCA is. Their motivations are purely selfish because a few individuals who bought row houses right next to a metro station don't what others reuining their precious views.

  • Ktriarch

    @tom veil--Yes, yes, yes.

    The next time I hear somebody complaining about how the Height Act limits the District's ability to build to appropriate urban densities, I'm going to use this as an example of a situation in which the District has chosen to impose zoning that is far below (in this case less than half) of what would be allowed under the Height Act.

  • 8th Street SE

    I live about a block north of the Hine, on 8th Street, and the hyberbole I've seen on neighborhood listservs and blogs is unbelievable. People are complaining that the traffic on our street is constantly gridlocked, with cars double parking and making the intersection at 8th and C Street a death trap for pedestrians. Not only have I NEVER witnessed gridlock on my street, but I'm always able to find a parking space within a block of my house. Sometimes I wonder if these people must be talking about a different 8th Street. Or maybe our neighborhood is just so fantastic that they have to invent things to complain about. I just hope Stanton/Eastbanc doesn't throw up their hands in disgust and walk away from the project.

  • anon

    90 ft isn't a big deal, but the height can be masked with setbacks to provide more sutble massing to the street perspective.

    The DC height limit is irrelevant here. Anything approaching the full height limit would look absurd and out of perspective with everything in the surrounding neighborhood. Let's not confuse appropriate density with maximum density, something everyone involved knows has no chance of flying. PA Ave west of the Capitol may be well suited for max height, but nothing east is suited for such development.

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    Didn't L'Enfant envision Capitol Hill, not the Golden Triangle, to be the main commercial center of the city? After all, he did center the city's grid upon the Capitol, not the White House. Certainly, I wouldn't put a lot of stock into a "L'Enfant said so" argument for separate use zoning, since the idea of strictly regulating uses long postdates him (and the Industrial Revolution). Indeed, the entire idea of separating home and work must have seemed foreign to a nation of subsistence farmers.