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Building Aesthetics in the DC Area

The government uses zoning ordinances, building height limits, safety codes, and historic preservation laws to influence the design of buildings. But those regulations can’t generally outlaw an eyesore or maintain the character of a neighborhood.

DC has a comprehensive master plan for the whole city. Part of that includes zoning ordinances which specify rules for land use, density, and parking. Plus, building heights in DC are constrained by the 1910 Height of Buildings Act passed by Congress. But often, DC zoning ordinances set height limits even lower. However, the act is currently under consideration by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the DC Office of Planning. After studying the issue, the Office of Planning found that only a small percentage of the city is eligible for height and density increases.

The Commission of Fine Arts reviews the designs for public buildings in DC. But after ensuring the regulations are met, the review of aesthetic merit is subjective. Although, the commission tries to ensure that new designs are in harmony with existing architecture.

Such a review process is not required for private projects in DC. But the City of Alexandria uses a design review board for all projects. Board member Roger Lewis says, “It motivates the owners, the developers of property to raise their sights a little bit when they go out and look for design talent to design something, knowing that it's going to be reviewed. They have to do more than just meet the code and zoning regulations.” Lewis strives to make the process collaborative and non-adversarial.

The Carlyle development in Alexandria does not allow all-glass buildings. Their design rules dictate that no more than 50 percent of a facade can be made of glass. The intention was to avoid the glass boxes that are typical in Dallas in favor of facades that are mostly wall surfaces with punched openings.

Some people are glad to have these review organizations, but others refer to them as the beauty police and believe that design should be left to the free market.

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