Division St development’s height and neighborhood “character”
Last week I presented the villainous “density” and “parking”; today, I’m completing this unholy trifecta with “height.” Tall buildings, or really, any buildings perceived — fairly or not — as towering over their neighbors tend to inspire controversy at best, and legal vitriol at worst. Charlie Gardner at Old Urbanist recounts how a tall residential building in America’s largest unzoned city inspired a backlash and an ensuing setback ordinance. Closer to home in Chicago, another new development — while not nearly as tall — reflects similar issues.
Where a defunct single-story Miller Lumber building with a small front surface parking lot now stands, at 1815 W. Division (southeast corner of Division and Honore), Smith Partners is proposing a four-story, glass-paneled mixed-use building. Ground-level retail, presumably with storefronts facing to the street, will support 39 apartments, mostly one-bedrooms with a couple of studios and two-bedrooms sprinkled in. Thirty-five off-street parking spots will be built in a surface lot with egress to the alley.
This project has actually already been cut down from its initial height of five stories (and 42 parking spots), which was initially controversial because it allegedly did not fit in with the character of the neighborhood. On a scale writ large, this is the story of tall buildings in Washington, that city’s height limits and the current effort to loosen those limits. That height limit has been credited with creating an “exceptional” architectural character of the city and a supposed “European” character, although I’d call many of the ensuing ten-story office buildings built to conform exactly to the limits anything but exceptional or European. But I digress.
Miller Lumber’s stretch of Division is marked largely by three- and four-story buildings, residential buildings scattered amidst small commercial shops, restaurants and bars. Perhaps the most significant feature of this particular “pedestrian street” is its uncharacteristically wide sidewalks, which lend themselves to summer al fresco dining and plentiful urban greenery. Here, Smith’s original building would have risen above its lower-rise neighbors; the four-story will still be among the tallest buildings on the block.
But even if the old project had been built at five stories, though, I would have supported it. The lot is only a quarter-mile from rapid transit — the Washington region again offers an example of what we shouldn’t do with lots close to transit — and is located on a major, even chronicled, urban thoroughfare. The sidewalk currently is considerably narrowed for head-in parking spots; it looks in the plans like there will be planters instead, though I hope the planters won’t be as wide.
Maintaining the “character” of the neighborhood doesn’t mean running roughshod over neighbors’ concerns or indiscriminately permitting development. Poorly-designed buildings that don’t fit into the urban fabric, with seas of surface parking or blank street façades, for instance, should be carefully scrutinized. But when buildings are objected to solely on the basis of height, I think it’s important not to have a knee-jerk response of rejection. If a building taps into an urban neighborhood’s benefits (good transit access, wide pedestrian sidewalks and desirable geographical location) it makes a pretty strong case.
Some might argue that this would result in a fundamental change of neighborhood character: over the course of two or three decades, a formerly low-slung city neighborhood might rise vertically. But fundamentally, if there’s a market demand for it, then why is this a bad thing?
After all, to put it bluntly, if we don’t “sprawl” vertically, we’ll sprawl horizontally. A simplification, to be sure — but it’s something to keep in mind overall. Washington’s height limit may have created a beautiful low-slung cityscape, but it isn’t doing anything to keep the city affordable or encourage center-city density.
On a final note, I do find it interesting that the community worked for a taller building at the Ashland/Division site, while agitating for a shorter one here. In both cases, the original zoning is the same (B3-2 Community Shopping District); the former is a Planned Development while the latter is to be upzoned. I do wonder what prompted the difference — the former would have risen in an area surrounded by a number of empty lots, while this one is flanked by existing buildings and relatively less surface parking. Perhaps it’s a question of context, i.e. an eleven-story building at a street corner with lots of empty space around it feels less disruptive than a five-story building amid two- and three-flats?