Last night, Vancouver planner Larry Beasley praised tall buildings, but also praised Washington’s lack of them. He argued it could benefit DC to allow height in narrowly circumscribed areas outside downtown, but cautioned DC to be very mindful of the consequent risk.
Tall buildings transformed Vancouver into a world-class city, attracting tourists, knowledge workers and financial investment and accommodating many people comfortably on a small peninsula. It’s created a beautiful skyline, with elegantly sculpted towers piercing the sky, but also walkable neighborhoods and active streets.
Vancouver has achieved this through their own breed of tower-building, “Vancouverism.” This involves giving great care to all three parts of a tall building: the base, the tower, and the top. The base must directly address the street, filling space at a modest height compatible with other buildings.
In residential areas, they places townhouses in the base, while in commercial areas maximize the transparency of ground-floor windows. In all areas, they put as much retail into the base as the area can support. As Beasley put it, the base must be “gently giving to the street, rather than harsh, brutal, and awesomely out of scale.”
The tower itself is then set back to limit its impact on pedestrians, to make it “float out of consciousness.” It must slim down as it rises, rather than blindly duplicating each floor plan on successively higher floors. And the top is where some extra artistry comes in, to avoid the bland flatness of many modern buildings while also not becoming “clownish.”
Vancouver also clusters the buildings into “constallations,” in an artistic “composition that makes a statement” and also ensures views of the sky through the cluster. Vancouver’s clusters of towers seem to point into the sky, but not blot it out.
In essence, Vancouver is what the mid-century modernists like Le Corbusier would have built if they had the benefit of decades of experience. They thought widely-spaced towers beautiful and believed they would enhance the quality of life.
Separated by acres of empty land and interconnected by high-speed expressways, they did the opposite, but in Vancouver, this basic aesthetic lives and succeeds because the towers are only a small piece of the puzzle.
Vancouver does not simply permit tall buildings. They extract significant public amenities from them. Developers can only build if they offer these amenities, and a system of bonus densities along with a more discretionary approval process that gives officials leeway to shape projects has helped Vancouver wring nearly every amenity they could think of out of developing their city in recent decades.
In most cities, Beasley teaches how to manage tall buildings because those cities are inevitably going to build tall. However, unlike most cities, Washington, DC has kept a low skyline through the 100-year-old Height Act.
That height limit brings many benefits of its own. For one thing, it makes DC particularly notable and memorable, which Beasley pointed out is increasingly valuable in a world economy where most mid-sized cities are increasingly undifferentiated and unremarkable.
It draws tourism, gives greater prominence to key national symbols, and created a “coherent frame of walls around ceremonial spaces.” It also reduces the economic incentive to tear down historic buildings.
Of course, as we’ve discussed here and one questioner pointed out, the value for tourists and the framing of monuments and civic buildings doesn’t require extending the height limit to the entire District. Few tourists venture beyond the central neighborhoods and few viewsheds extend past the L’Enfant City. Rosslyn has tall buildings and that hasn’t diminished the uniqueness of downtown DC; in some ways, it’s accentuated it.
Beasley argued that should DC allow greater heights, it should create a “no go zone” for certain distances from the monumental core. It should not allow heights in historic areas, or on high points in the city, which should remain either natural or host “important public edifices” like the National Cathedral.
More importantly, Beasley cautioned against any allowance for greater heights in random and scattered locations. He showed some very compelling photographs of Buenos Aires, which has allowed a variety of tall buildings in an otherwise low-rise city. They have created an unpleasant effect of “increasing confusion” in the skyline, he argued.
If DC were to allow greater heights, Beasley’s suggestion would be to do so in a single, small area where there is substantial community support and a desire for specific amenities. Any increases must be tied to those particular amenities. In addition, DC must engage in “thoughtful planning” and a “deliberate urban design analysis” to sculpt any cluster of towers.
For example, if it’s not too close to the core, I could see this making some sense in NoMA where there are already tall buildings and few to no historic structures but a distinct lack of public parkland. Could a constellation of such towers make it economically possible to leave one or more areas completely empty and fund construction and maintenance of parks?
However, any height increase, Beasley argued, will need to be significant. DC could start pushing its envelopes slightly, such as allowing human occupancy space in the mechanical penthouses that current law allows over height limits as long as they are set back from the edges of buildings. It could give small density bonuses here and there in the more numerous areas where zoning, not the height limit, restricts buildings.
However, this would not yield meaningful community amenities. The cost of providing residential use in a commercial building is enough that a developer would probably not add it for only a floor or two of extra height, as Dan suggested.
Residents often oppose tall buildings, both because they can disrupt their “intuitive comfort” with the city and also specifically impact privacy, height, or views. However, in exchange for clear and desirable amenities, along with good design, in his experience many residents can ultimately support these projects.
Still, is it worth the risk? Beasley is not so sure. To him, as a visitor, DC has such unique qualities and such an extraordinary accomplishment in its height limits.
Beasley will be join us to continue the conversation for a live chat at 11:00 this morning. What questions do you have for him?