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As CityCenterDC Nears Completion, Washington Revisits Century-Old Height Restrictions

By Laura Fisher Kaiser
July 31, 2013
Photo courtesy CityCenterDC
CityCenterDC under construction.

Addressing an audience at the National Building Museum composed largely of architectural college students in town for recent American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) conference, architect Shalom Baranes urged the rising generation to consider the benefits of lifting the century-old historic height restriction in Washington, D.C.

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“By overturning the 90-foot height cap [on residential streets], you’d get a lot more interesting architecture with a lot more natural light,” Baranes said, citing CityCenterDC as a prime example. Qualifying for a height bonus greatly enhanced the colossal redevelopment taking shape in the heart of the nation’s capital.

Baranes, whose eponymous firm serves as executive architect, associate architect (masterplan), and design architect (two apartment buildings), was speaking on a panel for the museum’s July 25 “Spotlight on Design” lecture (Architectural Record is the official media partner of the lecture series). His remarks come at a time when federal and city officials are holding community meetings on potential changes to building height restrictions in the nation’s capital.

The federal Height of Buildings Act of 1910 provides uniform restrictions on the height of all buildings within D.C. boundaries. The maximum height is relative to the width of the adjacent street. Typically this limits buildings to about 12 stories, resulting in deep floor-plates and low ceilings as developers try to squeeze in more floors. Even a marginal increase in building heights, proponents argue, would allow for taller ceiling heights and more creative use of open spaces.

Baranes was joined at the museum by Armstrong Yakubu, a partner with London-based Foster + Partners, CityCenterDC’s lead architect, as well as Bill Alsup, senior managing director of Hines, the real estate developer behind the 10-acre, mixed-use urban village scheduled for completion later this year.

One of the largest construction projects on the East Coast, the 2.5-million-square-foot neighborhood is rising up where the old convention center stood until the windowless behemoth spanning seven square blocks was demolished in 2004. The $1 billion CityCenterDC development—between New York Avenue NW and 9th Street NW, and H and 11th streets NW—comprises three pedestrian city blocks and includes two condominium buildings, two rental apartment buildings, two office buildings, a luxury hotel, a park, a plaza, and an underground public parking garage.

Construction began in 2011, but Baranes harked back to 2002 when the city issued an RFP that included a detailed brochure with a watercolor depicting a lively mixed-use development surrounding a public plaza. The image signaled a departure for a city known for bland office buildings and a street-level experience dominated by parking garage driveways and grandiose office building lobbies. “Most important but unsettling to us was the fact that the plan also called for inclusion of 300,000 square feet of retail. At the time, we thought that was nuts, it just wouldn’t survive,” Baranes recalled.

But as they studied the parcel, their skepticism was replaced by an appreciation for “how visionary this document was,” Baranes said. Here was a chance at rebirth, to create a livable and walkable neighborhood that would serve not only the new convention center nearby, but would also connect residents with such up-and-coming arts and shopping districts as Penn Quarter and Chinatown. The challenge was: How to create enough density to make the project work economically and sustainably without casting a shadow over the streets and alleys and maintaining the right amount of open space?

The key to making the design work, says Baranes, was the height bonus granted by the city. “That was the thing that allowed us to stretch and sculpt the buildings,” he said. A special combined lot development allowed for more flexibility in the massing and placement of buildings. By transferring development rights, D.C.’s 6.5 FAR (floor area ratio) and 90-foot height limits for residential buildings could be pushed to a maximum of 9.0 FAR and 110 feet high. The residential density was concentrated among the four buildings on one lot and the commercial density in the office buildings on another. As they tweaked solar shades, balcony depths, and “wafer thin” pedestrian bridges, the designers took into account a solar envelope study to ensure that sunlight penetrated down to tree-lined streets and lush roof gardens.

Alsup said that it took 42 months just to get the building massing correct in the master planning process. “The recession didn’t have anything to do with how long that part took,” he said. (But by 2009, the recession did delay groundbreaking as Hines scrambled to secure financing. The Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company came to the rescue in 2010, investing $650 million to become the project’s principal owner.)

Even with the project nearing completion, it’s too early to draw any lessons from CityCenterDC, says Lucy Kemp, National Capital Planning Commission project manager for the Height Master Plan. In a telephone interview, she added, “A lot of the commentary that we’ve heard from folks is that even though the federal law is broad, it is equitable because it’s very clear, straightforward and predictable.” The commission is due to submit its draft recommendations to Congress in September–just as CityCenterDC’s occupants start moving in.

Disclosure: This story was updated on July 31 to correct Shalom Baranes Associates' role in the project.

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