18 September 2006

Limited Vision?

Much has been made recently about building height in downtown Columbia. The Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning has recently recommended that the downtown building height limit be restricted to 14 stories. A recent question of the week in the Baltimore Sun produced many responses and a variety of viewpoints. In my opinion, limiting downtown building height conscripts this town to a diminished vision of what could be. That being said, the 23-story Plaza condo building, currently being challenged in court, does not make sense.

Let’s first discuss the pros and cons of limiting building height. A smaller building will generate (comparatively) less traffic and allow more natural light to reach the street. I think everyone on earth (including me) is for less traffic and more natural light. But what is the tradeoff? Two articles in the Washington Post (here and here) provide insight into what a height restriction in the Nation’s Capital has cost. In summary, the costs are: mediocre architectural design, increased sprawl in the surrounding suburbs, less affordable housing, lowered vibrancy and diminished retail opportunities within the city.

Some within our community (including a few seeking election to the County Council) have cited Washington D.C., Paris, and London as examples. I believe this argument is false. Let us look beyond the romance and power of these cities and remember that all three are Capitals of their respective nations. In this unique status, large tax funds are utilized to construct parks, monuments, and other public good entities. Without this funding base (and the associated tourist dollars that follow), the monuments would never be constructed, and these cities would certainly succumb to pressures for taller buildings. It is interesting to note that these pressures are already afoot in Paris, France.
Paris is an interesting study with respect to height limitations. With the building height restrictions, gentrification has virtually taken over the city. There is very little affordable housing. In fact much of the workforce jobs in Paris are held by people that live in affordable housing skyscrapers in the suburbs.

Caution: although I have tried to search for a discussion of the large buildings in the Parisian suburbs described only in terms of planning, most information on the subject has been tied to the riots in these areas over the past year. It is not my intention to link the riots to the building height issue, but current literature available lumps the two issues together.
In response to the lack of affordable housing, Paris’ mayor has introduced legislation to increase the height limits in some sections of the city to alleviate this housing imbalance.

Instead of arbitrarily capping building height, I believe building height should be regulated. 12 to 14 stories should be a limit, but not an absolute limit. If a developer wanted to build beyond a 12-story height, there should be increasing qualifications as the height limit increases. One interesting idea that I have been advocating for almost a year comes from Ann Arbor, Michigan (pages 23-24). They too are redeveloping their downtown area, and have proposed that if a building is intended to be greater than 10 stories, all floors above the 4th floor should be set back 20 feet and all floors above the 10th floor should be set back an additional 20 feet. This configuration provides for a slender building profile and increases the amount of light at the street level. In addition, as the building is set back, the effect at the street level is less pronounced; there is not a wall of windows and brick extending to the sky. In addition to the setbacks, there are also additional criteria that must be met on a floor-by-floor level. That is, if the building employs green building technology, an additional floor (above the 10-story threshold) is allotted. If a larger than minimum affordable housing component is included in the building design more floors are made available. What you get in the end is the possibility of a taller building, but if the building is taller, the project must give back to the community (in the form of increased affordable housing, energy saving technology, etc).

Sidebar: It is interesting to note that over the summer a group opposing to the building height scheme in Ann Arbor sought to limit building height to 4-stories. Check out the following link to a list serve discussing the issue. It is probably important to note that both Ann Arbor, Michigan and Boulder, Colorado are approximately the same size as Columbia, Maryland.
Building (no pun intended) on the Ann Arbor height regulation mentioned above, another component could include transportation demand management. This is employed extensively in the city of Victoria, BC, and could be employed here. (and by the way, take a while to explore the link, there is a lot of there, there) Victoria has performed studies and determined that if certain features are incorporated into building design, the traffic impact that the building has on the surrounding area can be reduced. Some of these ideas are grand in scale, such as including a bus station into the building. Some of the ideas are quite small, but have some impact, such as providing lockers and showers for business tenants to increase bicycle ridership. Each idea is assigned a coefficient as to how much it would reduce traffic. This could be incorporated into tall building design in Columbia such that if the building is greater than 12-stories, the building must have design features incorporated such that the traffic impact is mitigated by some percent for each additional floor. In closing, I believe that an arbitrary height restriction in downtown Columbia will result in less traffic than originally proposed and will let more light into downtown, but at a cost of less affordable housing, decreased vibrancy, and more sprawl, it is not a good deal. I believe that regulating height will provide downtown with the ability to evolve over time and will in the end give back to the community. It will prevent structures such as the Plaza from being built and also allow for the growth necessary to make downtown Columbia a destination place for downtown residents, residents of Columbia, and people throughout the region.

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