Going Up?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Last month, the Arlington County Board approved construction of two high-rise towers in Rosslyn that would be 76 feet taller than that business district's tallest existing buildings. This is just one example of many recent development proposals -- quite literally on the horizon -- that could have a noticeable impact on the symbolic setting of the nation's capital.

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) was established in 1910 to promote and protect the design and dignity of the nation's capital. For nearly a century, it has provided advice on architecture, landscaping and public art to the federal and District governments. The commission has long recognized that Rosslyn's skyline has a great impact on the setting of the Mall and the major symbols of our nation.

After the last round of Rosslyn's height increases in the 1970s, the CFA and other federal agencies reached an agreement with Arlington County for review of zoning changes and new development within the backdrop of views from the Mall. The agreement calls for protection of "the vista cone," a view from the steps of the Capitol looking westward, to avoid development in Rosslyn having a negative impact on this view.

The commission's staff participated in discussions with Arlington County's government and other agencies about the proposed towers. It is unclear whether this project -- or any others that could be allowed under new development regulations for central Rosslyn -- will be visually intrusive on the Mall. To preserve the distinctive backdrop of green hills for Washington's monumental core, we advised caution and requested further study to assess how visible the towers would be as seen from many locations within the Mall.

Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan for Washington is characterized by an ingenious synthesis of man-made elements, such as streets and monuments, with natural topographic features defined by the Florida Avenue escarpment, the Arlington ridge and the hills of Anacostia. These ridges are punctuated with symbolic landmarks, such as the Custis-Lee Mansion at Arlington National Cemetery, the National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; together with the major civic icons such as the Capitol and the Washington Monument, they have enormous symbolic value and impact on our experience of the city. Large-scale development in these sensitive areas might detract from the symbolic composition of the city's monumental core.

Increasing Rosslyn's building heights is not the only challenge affecting the design of the national capital.

Another is the proposed 4.5 million square feet of development (plus structured parking) on the St. Elizabeths campus as headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security. This prominent National Historic Landmark, with its spectacular views of the monumental city, would be enclosed by high-security barriers that could preclude the site's greatest potential as the location of a major commemorative monument. As part of the St. Elizabeths project, a single building proposed for the Coast Guard would occupy more than 11 acres cascading down the western edge of the Anacostia ridge.

The St. Elizabeths site is highly visible from many points in the city as well as from Reagan National Airport and the approach to Washington on Interstate 395. It has the potential to be a dramatic focus for a vista looking down the Washington Channel -- creating a major commemorative link between the monumental core and Anacostia. Such a precious natural feature should be developed only with the greatest sensitivity.

There are other proposals that could affect Washington's characteristic design, including raising building height limits as established under the 1910 Height Act to allow more downtown development, and the substantial increase in development proposed for the Armed Forces Retirement Home campus on high ground north of the Capitol. As with the Rosslyn project, these proposals' impact on the basic character of the city must be carefully considered.

Our capital is a living city that will always be evolving. The Commission of Fine Arts welcomes change and improvement while seeking to ensure compatibility with the best of our heritage. The natural topographic setting of Washington is an integral part of its image, beauty and symbolism; major changes to the city's skyline and the ridges that define it must be carefully considered for their visual and symbolic impact in the long term.

-- Thomas Luebke


The writer is secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. His e-mail address is tluebke@cfa.gov.

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