Over the past 40 years, the field of behavioral economics has emerged to explain why humans make irrational decisions. We talk with one of the pioneers of the field to find out what’s behind the choices we make, and how we can use this knowledge for good.
From lighted signs to building heights to power lines, one person’s emblem of economic prosperity is another person’s eyesore. Kojo and architect Roger Lewis explore three local design proposals that could alter the cityscape.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Roger Lewis is back. In a convergence of design-related proposals, lawmakers from Capitol Hill to county board members are inviting the public to weigh in on possible changes to the Washington-area cityscape. Would a lighted company logo on a Rosslyn roofline spoil the view from Arlington National Cemetery?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWould taller buildings in some parts of Washington change the city's historic look? Would underground power lines make D.C. neighborhoods more appealing? And responses, of course, are mixed. In Arlington County, one person's sparkling lights of prosperity are another person's eyesore. And in Washington, the century-old height limit that keeps the skyline low creates a classic vista or an economic drag depending on who you ask.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me to explore some of the debates going on locally over proposed design changes is Roger Lewis, architect, columnist with the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Roger, good to have you back.
MR. ROGER LEWISThank you. Nice to be back.
NNAMDIAnd apparently you enjoyed your trip.
NNAMDIAfter a six-hour public hearing, the Arlington County Board voted yesterday to allow new signs high up on the outside of office buildings, rejecting the planning commission's recommendation that they be banned. Who supported these often-lighted signs on office building exteriors?
LEWISWell, I think the...
NNAMDIThe majority of the board, huh?
LEWISYeah. Well, the -- if you mean politically, yeah, evidently, the majority of the board, but I think that the property owners, the people who own the buildings and, more importantly, the tenants who occupy these buildings and make the financing possible and obviously want their names up on the tops of buildings so that the motivation is very understandable from a commercial point of view, from an economic point of view.
LEWISAnd I would argue that there's also -- a part of the discussion has to be the aesthetic ramifications of having signs or not having signs on buildings. And we need to also talk about the difference between the streetscape, the level of signage down near where you're walking and driving versus up 15, 20, 25 stories.
NNAMDIHigh up. Arlington Board Member Chris Zimmerman argued that architecture should be able to speak to a company's prominence. He said the Chrysler Building in New York didn't need a sign saying Chrysler on it.
LEWISWell, that's true, and, of course, the problem -- what happens when Chrysler is no longer in the building? I mean, the notion is very simple that buildings are in fact -- if they're well-designed, can in themselves be logos, can be iconic and memorable. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll know who's in them, what tenancy is there. And so I'm somewhat sympathetic with signage in general.
LEWISBut like everything else, it has to be well-designed, and, unfortunately, it's easy to make things garish, unsightly, out of scale. So what we're talking about here is the need, I think, to allow signs, but -- or what we should be talking about is signs but making sure they're designed in some way that makes sense.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. What do you think about the lighted signs on buildings with company names or logos? Is there a sign you especially like or one that you can't stand? 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com, a tweet, @kojoshow, or our website, kojoshow.org. You can join the conversation there, ask a question or make a comment. Some people argue that the lighted signs are an eyesore, especially from hallowed spots like the Arlington National Cemetery or the George Washington Parkway. What do you think about lighted signs at the rooflines in Rosslyn?
LEWISWell, I don't oppose the idea of having some signs high on buildings. Rosslyn is part of the metropolitan area of Washington. It's part of our cityscape, like it or not, and I think the -- I've never been as concerned as a lot of people in Washington are about having some taller buildings across the river. Unfortunately, I don't know that -- I can't say that all those taller buildings have been well-designed.
LEWISSo my -- I'd like -- I always fault my own profession for not always producing the best architecture. I think some signage is perfectly appropriate and reasonable there, and I think the notion that somehow if you're in that Arlington National Cemetery or you're on the Mall or standing on the steps of the Capitol or wherever and the Washington Monument grounds and you look over toward Rosslyn and you see some signage that that is on tops of buildings, I don't find that offensive or unnatural or spoiling of the experience. I suppose...
NNAMDIIs it possible for a sign to overpower a building's architecture?
LEWISYeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. There's no question.
LEWISThere's no question that one could put signage up on the top of a building that would be really dreadful. And, you know, one of -- I read in the report that one of -- I think one of the board members in Arlington, recognizing that there could be bad signage, I think her comment as well -- since that's the case, let's just ban all of it. Well, that's a cop-out. I mean, I, frankly, think that's really not an appropriate strategy.
LEWISI think an appropriate strategy would be for Arlington or any other jurisdiction to make some design headlines, adopt some good design for signage. I know they have them in Fairfax County because I've been working out there. And, you know, some signage would be appropriate, but it could be also misdesigned or overscaled. I mean, I think if someone went over to Arlington and put an 80-foot-by-35-foot sign up on top of one of those buildings that said -- I don't know what -- eat here or...
LEWISYeah. You can -- or, you know, had all kinds of images. I mean, I don't think we want Times Square up on top of the buildings in Arlington on top of Rosslyn, but I don't think that's the outcome that is inevitable.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, Roger Lewis is back. He joins us to talk about some local design debates. He's the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post. He's an architect and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Are there other cities you think do good job with signs? Call us, 800-433-8850. Or conversely, have they let their signage run amuck?
NNAMDISend us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Roger, how would you describe the Washington region when it comes to signs? How would you characterize it? Are we bold? Are we cautious?
LEWISOh, I think we're fairly cautious. I mean, we've -- we don't have a city full of billboards. I mean, some of us remember growing up and driving around where we live and seeing these huge billboards. I was involved some years ago in Pennsylvania, in a county in Pennsylvania where they did -- they allowed billboards all over the place. There was a lobby. There was a billboard lobby. There was a billboard association.
LEWISYou know, and the argument the billboard advocates make, of course, is, again, you know, this is free speech, and why deprive a property owner on whose sign this sits and the person using the sign for advertising? Why are you depriving them of their right to say what they want to say and advertise commercially? On the other hand, we know there's a great aesthetic objection to lining roads and filling cities with billboards. So we've pretty much eliminated them. I mean, they're -- you -- I'm not sure I can even remember now a large billboard...
LEWIS...flanking a highway or stuck up on a building at least in metropolitan Washington.
LEWISThere's still places I suspect where we will find them.
NNAMDIThe Arlington County Board overhauled its sign ordinance as a whole in part to reflect the growing urban character of parts of the county. How does signage differ in different kinds of communities?
LEWISWell, I think the fact is Arlington is -- Arlington County is a city.
NNAMDINow, it is.
LEWISIt is a city. I mean, there are, I think, as I understand it, economic and political reasons why they continue to be a county in the state of Virginia, but it is -- it's -- living in Arlington is living in the city, and I think that most people that I have talked to, not just architects, believe that in city signage, particularly where you have retail and restaurants and activity, is desirable and that -- especially at night, you know, when it's lighted and can be a quite attractive adjunct to the architecture that's there and the light pouring out of windows.
LEWISI mean, I think that the least interesting streetscape or cityscape is one where you have no signage, no lights where, you know, which to many people indicates the place is dead, not animated. I mean, 7th Street in D.C. is a place that has been totally transformed in part because of the signage and the lighting that's there.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. If you happen to live in Arlington and you'd like to offer your opinion about the increased usage of signage, which the ruling by the board or the vote by the board now indicate is coming to Arlington, we'd be happy to hear from you, 800-433-8850. What role does signage play for businesses, and how big or tall or how eye-catching does a sign need to be to do its job? Does signage of an office building, say, differ from signage for a retail building?
LEWISWell, generally, what most of the big office buildings that want to put signs on the top of the building are just saying we're here, you know, Exxon or Google or whatever. They -- I mean, most of the -- essentially, for example, in Fairfax County, the signage that can be placed on the top of buildings is limited to some very simple ID of the company or the corporation or the business that occupies it doesn't advertise the retail that one finds on the bottom one or two floors.
LEWISI mean, the -- essentially, when you talk about advertising as opposed to just identification signage, advertising signage is pretty much limited to storefronts and the place where you're very close to the destination that's being advertised. So I think -- I mean, that's how I would characterize the difference.
NNAMDIYou mentioned not seeing a lot of billboards or very large signs in this area, but especially not in Washington. Why is that?
LEWISI'm not an expert on this, but I suspect, I think, in D.C., I think, they're actually proscribed. They're not allowed. I think there are limits on what -- on that kind of signage or advertising. There are a lot of jurisdictions in the United States where they just have outlawed the placement of billboards. They're just -- they're not allowed. They're also in many jurisdictions limitations on how big a sign can be.
LEWISThere are also some regulations about lighted signage facing residential neighborhoods or filling light into somebody's living room or bedroom. I mean, that's been a big concern in Arlington, by the way, is the relationship of commercial signage facing not just Arlington Cemetery or monumental corridor of the Capitol but facing into neighborhoods, residential neighborhoods where people don't want to look out their window and see flashing red lights. I mean, I think of all the movies where you see some guy's window, and outside the window is a giant neon sign blinking on and off.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will talk about another local debate on the question of urban design, and that is the height of buildings in Washington, D.C. If you'd like to weigh in on that conversation, 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDILocal design debate is what we are discussing with Roger Lewis. He's an architect who writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. We've been talking about signage and the debate over it in Arlington. Here is Garrett in Alexandria, Va. Garrett, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GARRETTHi. Thanks for having me on. I just wanted to relate an experience that I had the first time going to Geneva, Switzerland, pulling into the city center at night where the lake is, this beautiful, wide lake with great lighting and massive old stone European buildings lining it. And up at the top of each one of those buildings was a massive, massive sign, brilliantly lit with all the watchmakers and insurance companies and banks. And it was like a smack in the face with what Switzerland values were. It was stunning.
NNAMDIIt was stunning, but not in a nice way.
GARRETTWell, I can't say in a nice way or not. It was just a visceral sudden understanding of what Switzerland was all about or at least what Geneva was all about, and that's something that we might want to think about in debating this signage issue in Arlington.
NNAMDIWhat the message is that we'd like to send about who we are, Roger.
LEWISWell, I think, you know, I've been to Geneva. It was a long time ago. I don't remember the -- what it looked like at night. But certainly in Europe and Asia, they don't have -- they don't deal with -- they don't have any problem with this. I mean, they do believe in signage and the use of light as an artistic medium, if you will. But that -- but, again, a lot of it is garish. It's very easy to go over the line and end up with something that's inappropriate or overly garish.
NNAMDIGarrett, thank you for your call. On to Terrence in Washington. Terrence, your turn.
TERRYHello. Roger, this is Terry from Catholic University.
TERRYHi. I just have two comments. First, relating to -- Roger, you mentioned Times Square, but I wish you had the time to go into it a little bit more simply because Times Square has been a conscious urban design effort for some years now. And if you are building there, then you must build the big signs. And -- but then you can't do that any place else in the city, so it becomes a very special note. And it still is one of the major tourist attractions in New York.
TERRYAnd the other comment is about the height of buildings. You know, I'm up here on 16th Street, and if you build a building up here, you're automatically going to be higher than the Capitol. And so it seems to me that we've lost a lot of commercial activity to Rosslyn and other places because of not permitting bigger buildings. And it seems to me that by the time you get into Tenley, you know, you're way above the Capitol and out of sight of it.
TERRYSo it seems to me that we really should be thinking in zoning of something more specific and much like New York has in terms of their special districts. And I think that we could really afford to have more tall buildings and still keep the downtown area.
NNAMDITerry, I'm glad you up brought history -- the issue of height because that's where we're going next. But I don't know if Roger first wanted to comment on the Times Square exception.
LEWISWell, no, I think Terry's observation is very well taken. I think that, again, it shows -- what Terry is illustrating is that cities can say, in this particular place, we want the city to be like this. And over here, we don't want it to necessarily be like that. And I think that this is a good segue into the height issue because, again, one of the -- I completely agree with Terry. Terry and I are on the same page when it comes to the height issue in D.C.
LEWISThe people who are very worried, who are very nervous and opposed to any tweaking or changing of the height limits, their thinking is, well, if you do anything at all, the whole city is going to go high, you know, that we'll have tall buildings everywhere.
NNAMDIAllow me to give some context. Representative -- and thank you for your call, Terry. Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that focuses on the District of Columbia, is exploring whether to loosen federal limits on city building heights. He'd like to give the D.C. government more control under the century-old Height Act. The District of Columbia is subject to the federal Height Act of 1910.
NNAMDIIt sets a formula for maximum building height. Contrary to urban legend, it's not tied to the height of the Washington Monument or to the Capitol dome. Roger, what's currently allowed?
LEWISWell, the -- what the 1910 Height of Buildings Act did is it set maximums. And then the -- and 130 feet, with the exception of Pennsylvania Avenue, where buildings have gone to 160 feet, 130 feet is it for commercial buildings. And the city then has come back over the decades, and it actually has passed zoning regulations applicable to different areas of the city, in different neighborhoods that do not allow you to go that high.
LEWISSo we have caps created by the District of Columbia that are less than what's allowed by the congressional -- the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. The hearing last week, I testified...
NNAMDIYou testified at the hearing at Capitol...
LEWISI--yeah, I was...
NNAMDIYou testified in favor of increased flexibility in setting the height limit. Why do you think it's time for the District to rethink how tall our buildings are?
LEWISWell, I think that there are -- my belief is that there -- while there's an economic argument, there's also an urban design and architectural argument, which, again, I think Terry was eluding to in his comments, that there are places in the city, particularly outside of the center, outside the L'Enfant plan area of the city, which, after all, is much less than 50 percent of the area of the city. There are places outside of the city owing to the topography of the city, owing to a relationship of sites, to open space, to Metro stations, to arterial roads.
LEWISI mean, there are a lot of factors where it would make sense to have taller buildings, where -- for architectural urban design reasons and for economic reasons. So I -- my feeling is that the city and in combination with the federal interest, the National Capital Planning Commission, the Office of Planning of D.C. ought to take a look at the city as a whole and seriously consider where are the places in the city where taller buildings would make sense. And taller doesn't mean 40-story skyscrapers.
LEWISIt doesn't mean turning Washington into Chicago or Dubai or New York, but rather, instead of saying you can only go 130 feet, maybe it's appropriate to allow 150 feet or 180 feet or, even in some places, stories that -- buildings that might go up 15 or 16 stories. And the -- when you get into that level of altitude, you'd be talking about something quite distant, as was pointed out from the area of the city that we think of as the historic center where we like -- I like, and I think almost everybody I know likes the low profile of the city.
LEWISSo I think what we have to do is preserve what we really -- what really needs preserving, which is the low to mid-rise elevation of the central city, what everybody thinks of as Washington preserving the vistas toward the iconic monuments, the Capitol, et cetera.
LEWISBut when you get out to outer New York Avenue, when you get over into some of the areas across the Anacostia River, there's areas up closer to the perimeter of the city, even tweaks like letting -- on commercial zones, like on MacArthur Boulevard where I live, there's a place were you can't go more than two stories with commercial building. They could be four stories, and it wouldn't be of any disadvantage. So I think that what we need is a new strategic plan for Washington, for District of Columbia that allows some height adjustments in various selected areas.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. If the lines are busy, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send email to email@example.com. How do you feel about raising the height limit in the District of Columbia? From a technical standpoint, what Congressman Issa is talking about doing, he says, instead of Congress establishing the blueprint for implementing a new Height Act strictures and imposing it on the city, he's suggesting that Congress amend the Height Act to give local leaders, in consultation with their constituents, the necessary leeway to give exceptions to the law if they choose to do so.
NNAMDIAnd D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton is saying that such a change would simply acknowledge that, here in Washington, local officials would be best able to make the changes if needed. Now, back to the phones. Here is Ahjay (sp?) in Chevy Chase, Md. Ahjay, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AHJAYGood afternoon, Kojo. Thanks so much for having me. I'm very curious as to where the drive is coming from. And what are the goals? I think that often there's no stated goal in this change of planning, and we're seeing that in Chevy Chase Lake, as well up on Connecticut Avenue just inside the Beltway. You know, there has to be an issue of what is it that we're trying to achieve, and then we have some criteria and some metrics to achieve those goals.
AHJAYAnd I think that often the public is sort of given the false option or false choice between, you know, 90 feet or 60 feet as opposed to change or don't change. And I think that, you know, if you ask individual residences in each individual area, you know, whether or not they want to change, whether or not they see a need for change, I think that that kind of input is very important as opposed to developers having a lot of sway with county council people or city council people because they're after, you know, clearly, they're after greater additional square footage for development.
NNAMDIWell, there are two things that Roger mentioned that he may want to re-emphasize. And one is he called for a strategic plan for the city, and two is he talked about different parts of the city. One would assume that a strategic plan would specify what parts of the city that it saw the height limits being relevant or irrelevant.
LEWISWell, I think Ahjay's point is well taken. I mean, the reasons that most people are -- who are advocating revisiting the height limits in D.C., the reason is that are generally cited are economic, another reason that is that the District -- by the way, at the hearing I should mention that our CFO, Washington -- the District CFO...
LEWISNatwar Gandhi was very, very outspoken about the fact that so much of the real estate in D.C. is untaxable. His position is we simply need to allow the creation of more taxable property. And he sees the height limit as one of the constraints on that, which is not to say that there's still not room right now for lots more density and that there's no question. We still haven't built up the city by any means.
LEWISBut I think the long-range view that Gandhi was expressing vis-à-vis economic considerations was that we're -- we need some -- we need to look at these height limits in part to allow the creation of more density. I made the point at the hearing that, also, you can couple the allowing of greater heights and density to the provision of affordable housing.
LEWISIf you make it a bonus incentivization program, you could say to property owners, look, your height limit now is 90 feet, but we'll let you go another 40 feet on the condition that that additional density is used for -- to create below-market rate housing. I mean, that is -- that's been used successfully in other jurisdictions. I think the -- my argument also, though, is not just economic. It's -- I think there are places where it -- where taller buildings were more, you know, more density and taller buildings actually makes more sense than sticking with the low one-, two-, three-story building.
LEWISSo I think there is an architecture and urban design argument. I should make one other point, which I made at the hearing. I was not the only one who made this point. All height limits are ultimately arbitrary. There is no formula. There's no scientific basis. There's reason why they came up with 130 feet. Really, there was no -- it was a number that came out of a number of considerations, but it's an arbitrary number. It could just as well have been 125 feet, 128 feet, 137 feet.
NNAMDIWell, there are people who will say, but what started this all? And you can't have a discussion on height limits in Washington without this coming up. Here is Peter, who is on the U Street Corridor. Peter, your turn.
PETERThanks, Kojo. Love the show. I love it, Roger, every time you're on.
PETERQuick question. I -- fresh out of college, bought my first apartment in the Cairo.
NNAMDIAnd there we have the beginning of it all. But go ahead, please.
PETERIs it really, though? I always like to stump my friends when they come into town because everybody has a different explanation for why we have this height restriction in the first place. I mean, I understand from the folklore of those of us who used to live in the building that, you know, when they put that building up, it was the biggest, most gargantuan thing anyone had ever seen.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to read to you from the Washington City Paper, and then Roger can embellish. "The modern height limit was a response to the 1894 construction of the 160 foot Cairo Hotel at 1615 Q Street Northwest. The Board of Commissioners that ran the District at the time was mightily disturbed by the soaring steel-framed structure. One issue was that the fire hoses of the era couldn't quench a blaze on the upper floors. Another would sound more familiar today. Its overshadowed neighbors were worrying about their property values." Roger.
LEWISYeah. You've -- you summarized it very well. I mean, I think that, Peter, that's the -- that's exactly what happened. The urban myths about -- that Kojo's already cited about, well, you can't go higher than the Capitol or anything else you want, that is total mythology. There is -- one of the criteria, one of the things they said was, look, let's allow -- let's say that the width of street is X.
LEWISWe're not going to allow buildings to line that street that are more than X plus 20 feet. So there is a formula that was invented for D.C., which is height of -- excuse me -- width of street plus 20 feet. Again, it's an arbitrary formula.
NNAMDIPeter, thank you very much for your call. Do you still live in the Cairo?
PETERI don't live there anymore, sir. That apartment would -- I've outgrown that apartment, but it was a wonderful place to live.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. On to Ralph in Washington, D.C. Ralph, your turn.
RALPHHi, Kojo. You know, I'm hearing a lot of false arguments for this height limitation. You know, my biggest concern is we have a mayor who's about to be indicted. We've had council members who are about to be indicted. We have (word?) associated with the lottery, (word?) associated with the tags in the Taxicab Commission and everything else that's going on there. We have one of the most corrupt cities in the nation. I'll tell you what. I've had to pull permits before, and, you know, it reminds me of Chicago.
RALPHYou walk in, and they open up a drawer. And they spill a bunch of money in. And once the capitol member figures you've got enough money, you get your permit. Once you open this thing up and you make it arbitrary, let me tell you, it's going to be developers shoving money in the drawers. And it's going to turn into chaos. You don't have to look any further than the 14th Street Corridor over there by Columbia Road. They build all these big boxes up, but now they want to keep it as a residential neighborhood.
RALPHYou have a single lane of traffic each way on 14th Street and 16th Street. And it's a nightmare around there. It blocks out the sky. You've got these big box monoliths that are horrible. You remember the story (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIOK. And I get...
RALPH... (unintelligible) you know, foster corruption.
NNAMDII get your rage. Allow me to have Roger respond.
LEWISWell, I've heard that before. And I think I would challenge the notion that we are the most corrupt city, and we're amateurs, frankly, compared to some places. Look, the notion -- I think what's going on politically at the moment is irrelevant to, really, the long-term consideration, the planning consideration as to how the city should proceed over the next two or three generations in its development.
LEWISI think the -- I think 99 percent of the people who work for the city, who are employees of the city are, in fact, not corrupt, are honest, are working hard. The Office of Planning is trying to do a job that they probably need twice as many people to do. I think that what is the risk here is that you allude to is that if we don't have a strategic plan, if we continue the way we're going, in fact, we'll die by 1,000 cuts.
LEWISAnd I made this point at the hearing that, without a strategic plan, what happens then is each individual property owner or developer comes along and make -- and petitions the locals to, can I -- I need a few more feet or a few more stories for this reason.
NNAMDIJust make me an exception.
LEWISSo you get what I call piecemealism. In fact, my next Washington Post column this Saturday is about piecemealism and expediency, that we tend to do that too often in the United States without working from an overall plan. So my argument is that if we don't address this, what's going to happen over the next 20, 30 years, in fact, is developers and landowners will come in one at a time with no plan, and you'll get this sort of spot zoning effect or piecemeal approach to raising the height limit, which...
NNAMDIRalph's nightmare would become a reality.
LEWISYeah, exactly. Exactly.
NNAMDIRalph, thank you very much for your call. One proposal is to allow the top-floor penthouses that often hold mechanical equipment to be refitted as living space, thus effectively adding a habitable floor without building any taller. What would that accomplish?
LEWISWell, it would add some additional uses and rooftop enhancements. I mean, I -- to me, it's a tweak. It's a very -- I support the idea of allowing that to happen. I think there are some things that we ought to recognize. Number one, it then means that you still have to deal with the mechanical equipment that goes in these penthouses. And some of those -- some of that equipment does need to be exposed to the outdoor air, the outdoor environment in order to both reject and take in air.
LEWISSo you might end up just, in effect, adding -- changing the height limit by one story and still have the mechanical equipment on the roof. I mean, one of the -- there's a whole question of the aesthetics of the roofscape of the District. And I think that one of the notions is that if we allow that final -- I think it's about 17 feet that you can go beyond the top story of a building with penthouse and mechanical equipment.
LEWISWell, if you allow that to be an occupied floor, you've added a floor which could have health clubs and spas and cafes and so forth, but you still have to deal with the equipment issue. I'm a little worried that, in some cases, building owners might try and just add the floor and still put the equipment up above that. But I think that it's a good idea. I think that we ought to use as much of our roofscapes as we can and -- but I -- but it's not really -- it's kind of a tweak. It's putting off, in my opinion, what is the real issue of the real estate base of the city.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we can take your calls, and you can call while we're gone, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. When we come back, we'll also be talking about putting our electrical lines underground and whether that is a prospect that you would approve of, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing local design debates with Roger Lewis. He's an architect who writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. I'm going to read a couple of the emails we got on what we've been discussing so far. This one we got from Dave, and there were a couple of comments like this.
NNAMDI"One has only to look at the Montgomery Planning Board's proposed changes to the Chevy Chase Lake area to be stunned by the business development that will occur at the expense of the quality of life of the current homeowners and residents. The proposed Purple Line station at the Connecticut Avenue bridge crossing is being used to justify proposed building heights on both sides of Connecticut that will reach 70 to 90 feet or more. Some of these buildings will be adjacent to current single-family homes."
NNAMDIAnd we got this post on our website: "I already hate how corporate Rosslyn is, and this will just make it worse. Most of Rosslyn doesn't feel like a community. It just feels like a lot of tall glass and concrete smashed together. It has no character or neighborhood flavor. Maybe I'll feel differently about the jazz festival.
NNAMDI"But for a native D.C.'er who has enjoyed the small business nature and community feel of H Street and Columbia Heights, I can assure you Arlington is not a city -- just less suburban than the rest of Northern Virginia -- and it has no character." Well, there was a lot said there, Roger. I don't know if you'd care to comment on any or all of it.
LEWISI think it speaks for itself.
NNAMDIIt certainly does. Another hot topic of debate, after last month's powerful storm and massive power outage, is whether to bury power lines. When developers today start from scratch to build a residential neighborhood, do they tend to lay the power lines underground, and if so, why?
LEWISYes, yes. I think in most cases -- certainly in city sites and inner suburban, even outer suburb sites now -- obviously water and sewer are underground. But generally, the electrical lines are buried where you -- because the density -- when the density is high enough, you can amortize the additional cost. It is still nothing cheaper, as far as power lines, than running them overhead. I mean, putting up a pole and stringing the wires, that's a -- that is the least expensive way, generally, to distribute electric power.
LEWISEven in -- even 40 years ago, when I built the houses that -- in which I -- one of which I live in, the neighborhood power distribution is on overhead poles and lines. But when we got to the edge of my -- of the property I was developing, we then dropped the feeder down, and all the houses in the development are fed underground. So there are no overhead lines or wires outside of these houses. You only...
NNAMDIDoes this mean you don't suffer blackouts during storms at all?
LEWISOh, no, no, no. It doesn't mean that at all because we're still connected to the grid.
NNAMDII thought as much.
LEWISWe're still connected to the grid. So the challenge of burying electric power lines is economic, as has been pointed out in a number of articles, that whether it's Pepco or any other utility, burying power lines is very, very expensive. You don't just take the cable that's overhead and dig a trench and drop it in. You have to -- these things have to be deeply buried. They have to be shielded.
LEWISThey're -- you can imagine that retrofitting a city like Washington, the disruption that is going to cause. I think that, in the long term, it would be wonderful. I think it would be a beautification move as well as a move to prevent the kind of disaster we had a few weeks ago after that storm, that derecho that tore up so many of the lines and made a whole lot of people have to live for several days without power.
LEWISThat certainly would be mitigated. That would be greatly reduced. However, my understanding is Pepco would still tell you that it's cheaper to go out there after these storms and re-rig these wires than it is to dig up -- if you had to dig up underground power lines or, for that matter, if you had to install them and then dig them up. So we're -- it's a huge economic challenge, and I think -- I've seen some numbers, billions of dollars they've estimated it would cost to do D.C., get it all underground. There may be places in Washington, D.C...
NNAMDIYeah. Indeed, Councilmember Mary Cheh of Ward 3 has introduced legislation to begin burying existing power lines in the District. She's proposing a commission to identify those areas where the lines could most easily be moved underground and a trust fund to help pay the cost. But the process of burying the existing power lines, as you pointed out, would not only be very expensive, but could be quite disruptive.
LEWISYeah, yeah, it's not easily done. I can imagine a lot of dispute as to what -- where the priority area should be. I mean, I -- you know, who gets their lines buried first, second and third? It would be wonderful to get them all buried, but I do -- it's a massive undertaking.
NNAMDIDo you live in a neighborhood with underground power lines? Was that a factor in your decision to buy a home there? Call us, 800-433-8850. Would you like to see your community bury more power lines for aesthetic reasons? You can also send us email to email@example.com. Here's Matt in Washington, D.C. on the subject of height limits. Hi, Matt.
MATTHi, Kojo. Hi, professor. Having listened to the professor talk about both signs and height limits, I have to say that in my 40 years of experience living in downtown Washington, his abstractions, his talking theory just doesn't meet the road in real life here in D.C. You know, this is a city of townhouses and mostly low-level apartment buildings. It's a city of trees. And, you know, when one buys one's townhouse or, you know, an apartment below the top floor, one has certain expectations that, you know, if they develop the lot across the street, it won't be more than X height.
MATTAnd there's this constant erosion in this town. You know, he talks about his rules, but my experience -- and I've had a lot of experience with this -- is that rules are something that the small apartment building owner and the residents get screwed with, you know, compliance with, but the large developers just always can buy their way around it. You know, I live near the Washington Hilton, which is like living in a company town.
MATTLiterally, the police department, you know, gets all their meals there. They refuse to enforce anything. The city, when they built the hotel, instead of putting it on a wide street with proper clearances for trucks and so forth, they've put their docks in a very narrow residential street...
NNAMDIWhich would be 19th Street, correct?
MATTThat's right. And right next to it was a school, immediately (unintelligible) to a school. And, you know, the city wouldn't let them put a dock at the very end of the block. But, you know, money works, money talks, and they were allowed to install a dock in the middle of a crosswalk next to a school. Then they were allowed to make that dock even bigger…
NNAMDIWell, we don't have a great deal of time, Matt. What you seem to be...
MATTBut you understand my point. My point is these rules -- developers get around these rules with no trouble at all. And so, you know, he can talk about, you know, yet another, you know, erosion of the laws, but, you know, they'll -- the foot's in the door. It'll -- that'll start to erode even more. That'll be changed again, and it just has to stop somewhere. And I think...
NNAMDIRoger, both of our last two callers, there's a high degree of, not even skepticism, cynicism about whether or not the idea of a strategic plan that you proposed is one that can, A, be instituted and, B, be followed by developers. What say you?
LEWISWell, I think -- the fact is there's great exaggeration and, I think, over-villainization of developers. The fact is most developers come into places like Washington or any other place. They -- and they follow the rules. In fact, Washington is -- one of the reasons a lot of developers like to work in Washington is that the rules are clear here. And so, I mean, I understand why Matt feels the way he does, but I don't think it should necessarily govern how we plan the future of this or any other city.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Matt. We move on to Katrina in Central D.C. Katrina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATRINAHi. We live in Central D.C. All of the power lines in our neighborhood are underground.
NNAMDIWhen you say Central D.C., approximately what neighborhood do you live in?
KATRINAWe live in Eckington.
KATRINASo we've lost power, I think, five times in the past 30 days, anywhere from six to 36 hours. We live in a section of the neighborhood that's outage-prone. I would say, over the last 10 years, we've lost power at least once or twice a year, usually for just an hour or two, sometimes for longer. But it takes them a while. They come, and they flip switches. They send crews out. Eventually, if the outages keep happening, they send the crew out, and they replace a short section of underground cables. It takes them a couple of hours.
KATRINABut my partner happens to work for Verizon. He knows what's under the streets. It's a mess. It's been all kinds of lines that have been piled up over the years within an old city.
NNAMDISo you're saying you see no advantage whatsoever to underground lines?
KATRINAI beg your pardon?
NNAMDIYou see no advantage to having lines underground?
KATRINAI see an advantage, and I see a huge advantage to them. But I think there's a tremendous expense in maintaining them. And Pepco isn't really quick to want to do preventive maintenance or to do things in advance. They wait until something breaks and really breaks. And is it really, really broken? Do we have to fix it before they do? And unless we apply pressure to them, to put money into infrastructure, then they're not going to do it. And, so far, D.C. hasn't shown the kind of initiative Maryland has in terms of pressuring Pepco...
NNAMDISo you favor underground lines. You just don't favor Pepco being the one to install them.
KATRINAIt's not that. It's just that putting them underground isn't going to solve the problems.
KATRINABut Pepco's right in saying, once they're underground, it's not like you can just, you know, forget about them and they're going to magically be OK.
KATRINAThey still take a lot of -- and probably, like they say, more expense to maintain. I think it's a good thing, but I think we can't look at it as a magical solution and -- we can't. And we have to keep pressuring Pepco to do what it has to do.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you called because, in D.C., the proposal to bury more power lines will go to a council committee that will hold a public hearing in the fall. And, Roger, I guess people like Katrina should testify.
LEWISWell, Katrina's point is well taken because what everyone needs to remember is that you're plugged into a huge network. And depending on where the failure is or where the break is, it doesn't matter whether lines are underground or overhead. You may be without power because of where you are on this network relative to where the network has been disrupted. So that -- the risk for Pepco, of course, is they could start burying lines underground and still have outages.
LEWISI mean, there still will be events that occur that result in people not having power. It's -- I think it's going to be very tough to change the way they're doing business, frankly, just because the numbers I saw as to what the monthly billing rates would be to finance, what, six or $7 billion it would take to bury the lines. Then I think all of our bills would go up, what, a hundred or 200 bucks a month. And I suspect most people would be quite happy to go ahead and live with the overhead lines as opposed to having a one or $200 bump in the -- in their monthly utility bill.
NNAMDIUnless you try to spread it out over a century or so.
LEWISYeah, yeah. That's what you'd have to do.
NNAMDIKatrina, thank you for you call. We got an email from Keith, who says, "Architects in cities like Austin, Texas and Jacksonville, Fla. have done some really interesting things with neon. Neon is not all bad all the time." What do you say, Roger?
LEWISYeah. Well, neon -- of course, neon is being replaced by LEDs. I mean the state of the art now in lighting is LEDs, light-emitting diodes. And, you know, they can -- they're -- basically, they're pixels. You can't do this with neon, but you can pixelate -- you can take a surface and build incredible signs that do all kinds of things using these light-emitting diodes. Yeah, light and color are media that designers can use to make places look beautiful.
LEWISBut they can be misused to make something look garish and ugly and unsightly. So I -- I mean, I believe that it's great when you see beautifully -- beautiful works of art done with neon or with LEDs or whatever. But, like any other material or medium, it can be misused.
NNAMDIRoger Lewis, he is an architect who writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Roger, good to see you again.
LEWISNice to be here once again. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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