Photo by JoetheLion on Flickr.

Is it in the federal government’s interest to prevent tall buildings barely visible on the horizon from the monumental core of Washington? Or near a river? Or dictate the widths of sidewalks?

At its November 1, members of the National Capital Planning Commission engaged in this longstanding debate. This time, the subject came up around a new Urban Design Element to the Federal Comprehensive Plan.

The District of Columbia has a Comprehensive Plan which includes two halves: the Federal Elements, covering federal buildings and property and issues that affect the federal government’s interest, and the District Elements, which address local neighborhoods and other issues under DC control.

NCPC is creating a new Urban Design Element, and on November 1 released a draft. They are holding a public open house this evening, 6:30-8 pm at the District Architecture Center, 421 7th Street, NW.

The National Capital Planning Commission took its current form when DC got home rule. Before that, the federal government controlled all planning and zoning functions. Much of that transitioned to the DC Office of Planning and Zoning Commission, but Congress wanted NCPC to look out for the federal government’s needs.

The question which comes up in meeting after meeting, project after project, is what exactly constitutes the “federal interest.” How much of the form of the District should the federal government, and NCPC, dictate? Is everything you can see from any federal building the federal interest, or just policies which actually could impede the working of the federal government in the capital?

Federal facility policies push good design

Clearly, the design of federal buildings is under NCPC’s purview, and here they push federal agencies to do much better than they often have. The proposed Comprehensive Plan chapter calls for the “highest quality” of design and construction,” with sustainable buildings that integrate well into the surrounding urban fabric, sometimes standing out with an iconic design but sometimes just blending in.

NCPC pushes agencies to include ground-floor “retail and/or cultural resources” in their buildings. The General Services Administration plans this for their headquarters modernization, but many agencies are more fearful that it could represent a security risk, or are reluctant to pay for extra design features that protect the building against any kind of explosion in the public areas.

Other policies push for campuses to allow people on foot or bicycle to travel through, rather than walling off large areas, and to connect to surrounding streets. They prioritize public seating and art in the public space, and urge agencies to keep security features or loading docks as unobtrusive as possible.

At the NCPC meeting, Harriet Tregoning, who represents the Mayor on the commission, said, “This is a huge service ... in terms of providing very explicit guidance to federal agencies in terms of what’s being sought and how it integrates with the rest of the city.”

“Character of the Capital” policies reach far outside the federal realm

The other (first) section, entitled “Character of the Capital,” speak more about the degree the city should feel like a city, even in areas far from federal properties. This section talks about maintaining a “horizontal skyline character,” keeping public buildings visible from the waterfront, and maintaining views along major street rights-of-way (read: no pesky wires).

There are also some really important policies here, such as to “promote and maintain Pennsylvania Avenue ... as a multi-modal street bordered by an actively programmed, lively, pedestrian-oriented public realm.” That’s a goal which perhaps needs more of the “promote” and less of the “maintain” as it has a ways to go, especially to be “actively programmed.” Also very important is the policy to re-establish “original L’Enfant Plan rights-of-way wherever possible.”

But one section jumps out as of potential concern, which reads:

8. Maintain the prominence of the topographic bowl formed by lowland and rim features of the L’Enfant City and environs by controlling the urban and natural skylines in the Anacostia, Florida Avenue, and Arlington County portions of the bowl as follows:

a. Preserve as much as possible the green setting of the Anacostia hills and integrate building masses with, and subordinate to, the natural topography.

b. Maintain the Florida Avenue escarpment’s natural definition of the L’Enfant Plan boundaries by retaining developments that are fitted to the landforms and by promoting low-rise development that can be distinguished from the greater height of the L’Enfant City’s core areas.

c. Within the western portion of the bowl, retain a horizontal skyline by relating building heights to the natural slope and rim areas of Arlington Ridge as viewed from the Capitol, the Mall, and other riverside outlooks.

Is it really a fundamental piece of the federal interest to keep from having to look at buildings farther away in the distance? Mayoral appointee Rob Miller asked at the meeting about the fact that Arlington has plenty of quite tall buildings between the “topographic bowl” and the monumental core, and some commissioners noted that they had tried to stop some of that; NCPC even asked the FAA to block the first tall buildings in Rosslyn.

Many people do feel that having low buildings even downtown is a really special part of the District’s character. Others argue that it just fosters a city filled with boxy-looking buildings, and that tall buildings with appropriate setbacks can maintain light and air, and create beauty, even more than the current boxes do while also bringing more economic activity.

When it comes to the federal height limit and the downtown core, whatever you believe about urban design, it’s clear that the federal government has a role to play in this discussion. When it comes to buildings that don’t violate federal law out on the slopes surrounding the L’Enfant City, NCPC planners and commissioners might have opinions, but it’s not clear this is an appropriate realm for federal officials to meddle.

Tregoning said that some of the principles “seem to be a stake in the ground when it comes to dictating how private development occurs in the city, including “things that limit height outside of the L’Enfant City.”

She pointed to a provision that says that buildings near the shoreline should not block views of , suggesting that a policy which could control “building height in proximity to the shoreline in all waters throughout our region ... is a local determination and not the federal interest.”

The issue of the federal interest came to a head when Bradley Provancha, the commissioner representing the Department of Defense, suggested that the on-street parking on M Street in Georgetown prevents wider sidewalks, and perhaps things like sidewalk widths should be part of the urban design element.

Tregoning replied,

This is an example of what we don’t want this urban design element to authorize, for NCPC to be weighing in about how we manage traffic and travel in Georgetown. Part of the difficulty for us [NCPC] is trying to determine what is the federal interest. That’s our charge as the Commission, not what would be nice, or enhancing to the city or helpful to the city. This document is still imperfect in terms of how it divines that line and needs a little work.

Provancha, mostly jokingly, suggested the federal government “put a large federal building in Georgetown, and then we would have an anchor and a legitimate interest in that portion.” On the video, you can hear someone quipping, “Federalize Georgetown!”

This points out exactly the challenge and the problem. Provancha is there to represent the Department of Defense. Sometimes planning choices affect national security and sometimes they affect DoD in particular. But by dint of having this post on NCPC, he wants to comment on sidewalk width, and while he’s right that wider sidewalks are really important, it’s not a federal matter, nor should NCPC be eager to find a way to make it a federal matter.

Our hybrid system of federal and local control will always yield fault lines at the boundaries of the federal interest and the local interest. NCPC’s planners and commissioners need to keep in mind their mission to safeguard the federal interest while also remembering that Congress explicitly chose to give local voters control of most aspects of the government, including planning and a 3/5 majority on the zoning board for non-federal issues. That makes it important to discuss the appropriate boundary of the federal interest and to then respect that line.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.