The Mediocre Mile
Residential Projects Are Rising Rapidly Along Massachusetts Avenue. Design Review Hasn't Kept Pace.

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

Just as tourists wander Georgetown to get a feel for the Washington of two centuries ago, or Capitol Hill to admire the city's Victorian sobriety, or Embassy Row to enjoy the exuberance of its gilded age, perhaps one day they will wander that part of Massachusetts Avenue which is now a massive construction site, and think: This is what it felt like to be in Washington at the new fin de siècle. It was an uneasy age of condos mortgaged to the gills, gentrification, urban tribes of twenty-somethings drinking martinis at $35-a-plate eateries, and the quiet but deeply embedded fear of terrorism, housing bubbles and national implosion.

For decades there was a big patch of bleakness from Union Station to Mount Vernon Square, a mile-long stretch of the District's longest avenue that many people know primarily for maddening traffic jams where Interstate 395 punches into the city. In the early 19th century, this street was known as the border south of which you could not graze pigs. In 1937, when the Federal Writers Project surveyed the area, it noted merely "rows of old, small and shabby buildings" -- adding, with typical condescension, that these were "chiefly occupied by Negroes."

Today, at least a half-dozen huge tower cranes are doing business there on any given afternoon. Several high-rise buildings are already finished. Others, with glamorous names -- the Sonata, the Dumont, City Vista -- are rising on, or just off, the avenue. The astonishing thing is most of these buildings are residential: condominiums and some rental apartments.

So what do these new buildings look like? They're big, and more often than not they're brick, or, rather, clad with a brick facing that gives them a shallow skin of pink or red or dun-colored hues. Many of them take advantage of a D.C. zoning quirk that allows residential buildings to extend bays or other protrusions beyond the property line, and so they mimic, in a tall, distended way, the street-scape of the city's historic neighborhoods. They also push up to the maximum heights allowed by the city, and out to the farthest reach of their allowable space. They're block-fillers and often very drab.

And many of them feel as if they could just as well be in Ballston -- or South Florida. The Web sites advertising these new homes emphasize a television idealization, or a suburban one, of what urban life supposedly means: youth, energy, power, elegance, nights on the town.

"More than just an address, Ten Ten Mass is a way of life," reads one Web site for a project just west of the Washington Convention Center. "It's a place for those who know what they want -- and how to get it." The spiel for the Dumont condos is even more blunt: "Proximity is power."

But with their bland exteriors, and hotel-like interior spaces, their subterranean parking garages and self-contained exercise facilities, they bring a new urban context.

When D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams leaves office in December, the new Massachusetts Avenue will be one of his most visible legacies. He can't claim credit for several of the important forces that led to this boomlet -- old city plans that decreed this a residential district, changes to zoning rules in 1990, and economic good times. But the mayor's focus on the Massachusetts Avenue corridor will link its architecture to memories of his administration.

Politically and economically this is an urban success story. But look at the details of these buildings and they don't seem very urban at all. Yes, many of them have street-level retail -- and the chain stores are moving in. And yes, these buildings will bring thousands of new residents to a once-empty area. But they also have an inexorable thrust upward, to rooftop pools and running tracks and common areas that give their denizens a view of the city from a 100 feet up, rather than an immersion in it.

That doesn't mean the people who move in will choose a hermetic lifestyle, but the people selling or renting these spaces seem to believe that's what's appealing. As an architect who designed Mass Court, the big, dull box that looms over the entrance to I-395, said in a rare design review meeting, these buildings are "like people's houses" but "with the security and so forth."

The structures also very much reflect the economic forces that built them.

Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, credits tax abatements from the city, and zoning changes made in 2001 (which allowed increased density and gave developers more freedom to meet city demands), for the sudden burst of activity in areas that include Massachusetts Avenue.

Williams said he wanted "to make this stuff happen, fast," says Widdicombe. So the mayor created a time-expiring tax break that required building to begin by 2003. That was for residential development south of Massachusetts Avenue. Another tax abatement that required construction before 2005 sparked building north of the avenue. The city put $45 million on the table to encourage a lot of groundbreaking in a short period of time.

The key word here is "fast." When it comes to residential architecture and urban planning, many developers have absorbed the basic wisdom of Jane Jacobs (author of the now half-century-old "The Life and Death of Great American Cities"), who argued that vibrant cities need mixed-use neighborhoods, with street-level retail and residential density. So the District's planning model was based on "critical mass": You need to get it all done -- housing, restaurants, retail, entertainment -- and very quickly. If new residents see an ideal of urban life laid out in full, the city believes, they will bring their taxable incomes into the District. This isn't about urban pioneering in a desolate area. It's a Brigadoon model, the magical appearance of a full-fledged shopping-living-eating-parking city almost all at once.

Fast and Furious

And so building fast has generally trumped building beautiful. Despite the oversight of various public commissions and other groups, there is little emphasis on the avenue as its own architectural and aesthetic entity. Individual architects, such as Eric Colbert (who designed the partially completed Sonata building), say they didn't coordinate plans with other architects working in the area. Architectural oversight has been patchwork and, not surprisingly, too many buildings, such as the Sonata, simply reiterate the cliches of the D.C. vernacular, centered on a big, round corner bay, with a meaningless facade that looks plucked from a generic office park.

One small city-owned parcel was sold to developers, which allowed the city to set some basic design goals and standards: "Massachusetts Avenue, in particular, calls for an urban design and architectural response befitting the monumental Avenues of the L'Enfant Plan." It was an admirable effort on the city's part to establish better urban design standards, but they were often very flexible and only three buildings were affected.

Two other buildings were reviewed by the Commission of Fine Arts, which had jurisdiction due to a 1930 act that allows it some say over private construction near important federal sites. But it couldn't exercise power over the larger look and sweep of the avenue. Nor could the Historic Preservation Review Board, which can comment only on buildings within established historic districts. The D.C. Department of Transportation has a hand in controlling the look of the street-scape outside the buildings -- sidewalks, lampposts, trash cans -- but not architecture.

So in a city that has fetishized the historic avenue-and-grid plan of its first designer, Pierre L'Enfant, no one is really able to look after the integrity of what is arguably the most distinctive feature of the city's design: its long, wide avenues with vistas that connect the symbolic nodal points of the city.

Widdicombe acknowledges that more architectural oversight might have been desirable, but the long decay created a powerful incentive to put aesthetic issues behind economic ones. And there were many forces working against redevelopment, including inertia, the greater profitability of office space and the attraction of the suburbs.

"The city was in a quandary," he says. "They needed to do it in a hurry. But when I go to the Upper East Side in New York City, there are a lot of ugly buildings from the '60s, but it's still pretty vibrant."

So the District plunged ahead, and building after building is going up with minimal or no design review, or coordination with other planned or existing projects. Patricia Zingsheim, associate director of revitalization and design for the city's Office of Planning, acknowledges the patchwork of design that covers the avenue, but she doesn't think speed is the culprit. She points to architectural and streetscape guidelines laid down in something called the Mount Vernon Triangle Action Agenda, which includes the north side of Massachusetts Avenue. But, except in a few cases, those guidelines weren't mandatory. "The private sector felt that would be counterproductive," she says. In the future, says Zingsheim, perhaps design review can be linked to tax abatements.

A Flood of Mediocrity

While developers and the city's planners have absorbed some of the basic insights of Jane Jacobs, they overtly and intentionally flouted one of her darker warnings. Jacobs distinguished between two types of money that contribute to the remaking of cities. There is "gradual money" that helps maintain existing properties and finance small-scale new building and evolution within neighborhoods. And there is "cataclysmic money," which can mean either the devastating removal of dollars (through, for example, the blacklisting of whole neighborhoods for mortgage or equity loans) or the blitz of new capital for urban renovation. In 1961, when she published "The Life and Death of Great American Cities," the cataclysmic influx generally meant government-sponsored slum clearance and housing projects. But her observation about the aesthetic effects of cataclysmic money -- how the sudden flood of capital generally leads to a loss of diversity and a uniformity of urban building -- still holds today, if Massachusetts Avenue is any evidence.

When the new Mass. Ave. corridor is finished, buildings with a mostly uniform roofline of 130 feet will stretch most of its length. Although many of the buildings pay a bare minimal homage to the residential style of old neighborhoods in Washington, their surfaces scream: This brick lacks gravitas. Some of the new structures use stone and windows to define basic levels of the structure, which is meant to minimize the impression of their bulk and height. But you can only hide so much bulk, and none of the buildings has the simple, elegant articulations of the lovely old United Plumbers office building, which stands on the northwest corner of Mount Vernon Square. Large ornamental awnings over the new entryways are intended to suggest a residential character harking back to the elegant apartment houses of a century ago -- though no one would confuse Mass Court with, say, the humane scale and Parisian elegance of the former McCormick Apartments, at 18th and Massachusetts.

So do the economics of speed development, the prevailing ethos of disposable design, and the city's established height limits (which vary according to the width of avenues and streets) conspire to ensure bad architecture?

Philip Esocoff doesn't think so, and argues that there is still room for creativity in large residential buildings. He is responsible for several buildings in the area, including a residential building at 400 Massachusetts Ave. with a fancifully curved face and a very whimsical, almost Mayan-looking structure at 910 M St. NW, the Whitman.

"Gaudi in Barcelona or the architects of Paris weren't limited by height," he says. Instead, Washington architects focus on detailing. Because nothing is very tall, because you can see the top of any building in the District from across the street, the city's architecture must withstand surface scrutiny.

"It's like bespoke clothing," he says. "It has to be beautifully tailored so that it looks good up close and personal."

Esocoff's buildings generally meet that standard. In his eighth-floor office on 17th Street, surrounded by photographs and renderings of the new buildings he and his associates have designed, he focuses on details: the rhythm of brick patterns, how windows and stone articulate facades, and how he defines the roofline with chimney elements, pergolas and railings. When he breaks a solid facade, he tries to give the illusion of thicker walls, so that the masonry doesn't appear so much to be what it really is: a thin veneer, braced by steel over a concrete frame. He describes a technique that he says Washington architects and local builders have become very good at, a process that creates strong and very thin concrete slabs. That's a boon to developers working under height restrictions, and to architects who like to create eccentric edges to their floors. It's also a quick way to put a building up in the sky.

Unfortunately, rapid development can make good buildings, such as Esocoff's, look bad as they are surrounded by bland knock-offs. The larger sense of economic and development urgency also means that unfortunate precedents take root before they can be challenged.

In February 2001, representatives of the Mass Court project, including Sami Kirkdil, the architect, came before the Commission of Fine Arts to talk about his new project. Two basic messages came across: They wanted as many units as possible and they had a lot of political support.

Kirkdil called his project "a social building" and emphasized his effort to "reduce the mass of the building," and subdivide it to "give an illusion that the buildings are done over time."

According to the minutes, the commission, which expressed concerns about the bulk and the 130-foot height of the structure, noted, "It's very important . . . this not be a precedent for height along Mass Avenue."

But it was a precedent. As development has raced up and down Massachusetts Avenue, 130 feet has become the norm for at least a half-dozen buildings. Zingsheim, of the city's Office of Planning, says, "I can't imagine anyone will build less than the full height." And despite Kirkdil's effort to make his project seem as if it had been "done over time," the look of the new Massachusetts Avenue corridor is very much a snapshot of one particular, and not always inspired, moment in Washington architecture. A Hampton Inn hotel, which might be merely innocuous if situated on an airport service road, is now in place and isn't going anywhere soon. The District's longest avenue is filling up with serviceable, mediocre and conservative buildings.

Has anyone learned any lessons from this? If you read the city's plans for the area that includes this stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, it's clear that officials had hoped for more inspiring architecture, and tried to lay down guidelines to encourage it. Almost everyone who isn't a developer, from Zingsheim to Tersh Boasberg, chairman of the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, to community leaders, says the solution (at least in part) is some kind of architectural oversight. But the forces aligned in favor of bad architecture, including what Zingsheim acknowledges is a peculiar reluctance to take architectural chances in the District, are overwhelming. It's as if the city is governed by an iron equation of architectural futility: The economic imperative plus the height restrictions equals big ugly boxes.

Widdicombe suggests the controversial possibility of altering one part of that equation: the height limitation. He says another 25 feet of leeway on most buildings would allow developers to play with setbacks on the top floors, and different rooflines. Of course, another 25 feet could also mean boxes that are 25 feet taller.

But what if the city took its design so seriously that developers would feel some compensating civic pride in exchange for building more beautiful though marginally less profitable projects? Unthinkable?

Perhaps. Boasberg points out an intriguing new development: L'Enfant's plan was itself recently declared a D.C. landmark. But, he says, "no one seems to know exactly what kind of protection that would give to significant features of the plan, such as prominent avenues and squares."

A historically enshrined city plan must inevitably be either a forgotten artifact or something sacred. L'Enfant could lose his relevance to the real life of the city. Or his early vision could suggest a new imperative -- to revere our avenues as more than just frontage on buildable lots.

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