If a building is taller than 59 feet but you can’t see it, does it make a sound? In Dupont Circle, it makes a big racket in one ongoing development controversy.

Images from CAS Riegler.

The St. Thomas Episcopal Parish, whose main church at the corner of 18th Street and Church Street burned down due to arson in 1970, wants to build a new church. To fund that, they want to use part of their property to build a new condo building.

The proposed church is not particularly controversial, especially now that the parish revised their design to a better one than they had first proposed. But many neighbors are fiercely fighting the adjacent condo building, which will be closer to nearby row houses. (Disclosure: My house is almost directly across the street.)

The building has now gone before the Historic Preservation Review Board three times, and will return for a fourth on Thursday. I’ve been fine with the condo building proposal since fairly early in the process, and the Dupont Circle Conservancy supported the version proposed in March. The HPRB and local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, however, have asked for more changes to further shrink the building.

The ANC reached what members thought was a compromise in March, where they agreed to support the condo building, but only as long as the perceived height for a pedestrian around the building was no more than 59 feet. And, in fact, on the recent versions of the proposal, if you are standing on the sidewalk across from the building, you won’t be able to see any parts that are taller.

While I think it was unnecessary in this case, this can be a smart approach. Small setbacks on the upper floors of a building can do a lot to make a building feel shorter when walking past on the street, without actually taking away much of the opportunity to add housing. You can get a large building that feels small instead of blocking the building and the potential new residents it can hold.

Beware of “height-itis”

Unfortunately, many neighbors focus not on the human experience but the total number of feet at the building’s highest point. Let’s call this “height-itis.” Some of this comes from the fact that developers often talk at early community meetings about the height that zoning allows, and present a “massing diagram” which depicts a large box filling the zoning envelope.

Even if the developers never considered building such a box, some neighbors get caught up in talking about the total number of feet. Later architectural plans also show elevations, where high floors are just as visible as low ones.

Other elements of a building, like materials, windows, landscaping, and street-level detail, ultimately will matter much more than height. Developers generally have some leeway to make design changes, but if forced to lop off whole floors from the building, it severely constrains how much they can “shape” the building lower down and still make the project work economically.

"Height-itis” often makes it harder, not easier, for residents to get changes that will actually affect their property, like setbacks on upper floors to minimize the shadows a building casts. It can also lead to buildings that look boxier and less appealing (just as DC’s height limit does downtown).

The Dupont ANC gets stuck

This is where a tricky detail comes in. The ANC’s resolution says the condo building (not the church building) should look to be no more than 59 feet from anywhere on Church Street, 18th Street, P Street, or the nearby alley. If you go far enough down a street, then set back parts of the building would become visible, but the whole building is also far away and much smaller visually.

That’s why historic preservation standards generally look only at the appearance of a building from right nearby. For example, other neighbors are adding a fourth story to their row house, which I will be able to see from my upstairs windows, but it’s set back so you can’t see it from the sidewalk (and, honestly, I’d be fine with it even if they didn’t have to set it so far back, since the design looks very well done).

But the ANC’s resolution is stricter. And many HPRB members look not at detailed legalistic standards, but the overall tenor of community feedback. Just having the ANC say it doesn’t support the project has held it up significantly.

Further, the HPRB is not immune to “height-itis.” One member, Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox Architects, is in fact one of its most acute sufferers. He consistently suggests that buildings take off a floor and is rarely satisfied with setbacks that simply make it look shorter, as in a contentious case at 13th and U in 2013.

So HPRB has sent the project back for revisions multiple times. Last month, board members had only very minor changes, which the developer made. But Davidson opposed a motion to let the preservation staff handle any further issues, and instead suggested the project return on what’s called the “consent calendar,” where the board can approve it without a hearing and vote.

The ANC, however, passed yet another resolution opposing the project, saying that it doesn’t meet the letter of their March resolution. Opponents are pushing for HPRB to take it off the consent calendar and force yet another hearing because of this.

The ANC says make it shorter, but acknowledges making it shorter is silly

Their resolution is strange. On the one hand, it says the ANC won’t support the project. But on the other, it says,

Whereas the ANC 2B Zoning, Preservation and Development committee acknowledges the current design with its limited visible elements above 59 feet subjectively creates a more textured and attractive building and removing the 7th floor altogether may lead to a subjectively less attractive building design.

In other words, they know lopping off the floor would make the building worse, but hung their hats on 59 feet before, and won’t budge. The resolutions have also been unanimous, even though some members have told me privately that they don’t actually object to the building at this point.

Unfortunately, the effect is for the ANC to force HPRB to eventually disregard their views, perhaps diminishing the ANC’s credibility. It also has delayed this project and forced everyone to attend numerous hearings.

Asking to improve a project is fine, but neighbor requests and ANC resolutions are most effective when they’re well-considered. Succumbing to “height-itis,” and then being stubbornly unwilling to consider more creative ways to deal with concerns, is not a good way to represent neighborhood interests on complex development projects.

Update: HPRB voted Thursday morning to approve the project on the consent calendar. Davidson and fellow board member Nancy Metzger advocated for further delay and hearings, but other board members supported moving the project forward.

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 in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.