Harvard Street in Columbia Heights, between 14th and 15th Streets, looks like a typical DC street, with a combination of classic row house styles. Except, in the middle, a single glass building sticks out, in more ways than one.



Click on an image for larger version. Images from Google Street View.


Since Google Street View took these pictures, the construction was completed, and the modern, glass facade spans the entire front and of the building and most of one side.

Many neighborhoods are struggling with pop-ups, where zoning allows (say) three stories in a block made up of two-story houses, there’s no historic protection, and the occasional homeowner (by right) puts an ugly vinyl-siding third story atop their beautiful old brick row house.

This, on the other hand, pops out in two different ways. First, it projects out closer to the street than the buildings on either side. On many streets, whole rows of houses were originally set back some distance from the property line. Outside of historic districts, though, nothing many blocks lack building restriction lines to stop a property owner from adding on to the front of the house in these cases, even if that breaks up the consistency of the row. DC’s Zoning Update process discussed this issue during the Low and Moderate Density Residential working group. The Office of Planning’s currently proposed new regulations would let some neighborhoods impose building restriction lines, keeping all buildings behind one consistent line, or build-to lines, requiring all buildings to position the front edge at that line.

The design is a more complex issue. To the east (left, facing the building) is a long row of the early 20th Century townhouses with bay windows; to the east, a brick apartment building, an alley, and then a long row of the brick row houses with porches common in this area. (Is there a name for these two types?) Sandwiched between the two is now this glass tower.

Is this appropriate? I’ve previously written about my belief that the motley collection of architectural periods diminishes nice blocks like Burling Street in Chicago. In commercial districts and on blocks lacking a specific architectural feel, there’s nothing wrong with modern, glass buildings. But this street feels less like a set of individual buildings and more like a few large multi-house buildings. A modern glass tower smack in the middle feels like replacing only one of the Treasury Building’s ionic columns with a square marble pillar.

What do you think about this building? Should we allow pop-out additions closer to the street? Does the style of this building detract from the street, or add to it? Is some review appropriate to maintain architectural harmony on blocks like this? And perhaps most importantly, is there a way to get the latter protection without all the baggage and approval requirements of a full historic district?

We've just launched our brand new website and are working out some kinks. Find something that looks like a bug? Please help out by sending us an email with the details!

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.