by September 14, 2011 at 11:00 am 6,862 3 Comments

Troy Urman, Borderstan, DC row houses

Vermont Avenue and R Street NW: The Borderstan area is full of classic DC row houses.  The vast majority in the city were built between 1890 and 1940. (Troy Urman)

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

You’ve seen it before — a gargantuan spaceship attacks the White House or the Empire State Building with a death ray and the aftershock ripples like a wave through the surrounding city, destroying everything in its path. Lights out. Gas explosions. Chaos in the streets. Then Will Smith or Bruce Willis shows up, punches an alien in the face and saves everyone…

The point is, when we imagine the post-apocalyptic United States, we think of a place without icons of culture or the fundamental mark of civilization: Infrastructure.

Where would we be without it? Our roads, power lines and water and sewer systems are connected in a web of support and necessary services. Pop culture has always had an eye on the post-apocalyptic, from Twilight Zone episodes during the cold war era, earth-shattering asteroid blockbusters and now the zombie craze. We’ve seen a mini-glimpse of this in 2011 — earthquakes and hurricanes knocking out power and flooding our streets. President Obama is again championing public works as a major focus of his jobs program.

Row Houses are Vital to Urban Infrastructure

I could go on about Pepco response times, DC Water pipeline bursts or ‘complications’ in construction permitting, but that’s a separate discussion altogether. I want to talk about a different kind of infrastructure, one that may not immediately come to mind, but is just as important as our interstates and plumbing — urban housing. More specifically, I want to talk about the row houses of DC and how they are an important urban infrastructure.

Find more information about this topic (and anything else imaginable!) online at the Library of Congress website. Find a fantastic overview of ‘Residential Architecture of Washington, D.C., and Its Suburbs’ by Pamela Scott, which references many publicly available resources in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room.

DC has myriad architectural assets — the White House, the Capitol building, historical monuments and museums — but when I first moved here (to the heart of Borderstan), I was blown away by the vast quantity and old vintage of the row houses.

These connected brick and stone buildings stretch through the streets, linking block after block and providing shelter for hundreds of thousands of people — a kind of man-made honeycomb. These are 100-year-old masonry walls and street facades that, with just a bit of upkeep, could last another 100 years. They are an impressive structural framework that adapts and changes over time.

Initially a British building type, row houses (alternatively known by many other names, such as terrace homes or brownstones) were fundamental to the urbanization of many American cities — Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, to name a few. While Washington’s residential architecture varies from ‘urban villa’ to apartment high-rise, the fire-resistant masonry row house has been a staple of our housing stock since Washington’s 1791 decree.

Due to their many benefits and ease of construction, the row home became ubiquitous in Capitol Hill and other parts of DC by the end of the 19th century. The vast majority you see in our city today were constructed between 1890 and 1940, sheltering the working and middle classes during a period of explosive population growth.

A Plethora of Uses

Row houses are ingenious in their unassuming design. Simple in their narrow footprints and plan layouts, they are very structurally efficient — floor joists spanning just 12- to 20-foot widths. The masonry party walls can also create environmental efficiency — gaining and losing less heat through less exposed area. Additionally, only one side of a row house faces the street — making this building type amenable to any style or design and limiting the ‘finished’ faces to a small area (read: cost effective).

A single four-story row house can morph into four separate condos — or an art gallery, bike shop, bar, burlesque club, restaurant, pet boutique, gift shop or stationery shop — or back into a single four-story house. A group of homes might be combined to create overlapping interior spaces behind what were originally separate properties. The interiors of these buildings can vary from eclectic Victorian to white-washed contemporary. The possibilities are endless. All the while, from the sidewalk these solid buildings maintain their interesting, dense, and residential character. They define our streets.

So, take notice next time you walk up 15th or 18th Streets NW, Logan Circle, or any of the countless side streets in our area where row houses define the character of the street. How old do you think they are? What’s your favorite style, color or unexpected occupant? Or, when you’re in a more neglected part of DC, consider those centenarians that might one day shake off their peeling paint and unkempt yards and awaken to a vital, pulsating urban scene. The bones are there, just waiting for their second life.

Although our nation’s capital has its share of monumental architecture, row houses are an important urban infrastructure for DC and they will continue to be so for decades to come.

by September 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm 1,429 0

WMATA, DC METRO, Luis Gomez Photos

Take the Metro reader survey at the WMATA website. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has released a draft of the soon-to-be-updated Metrorail map and is seeking public comment. See the new map and take the survey on the WMATA website.

The new map incorporates hints of the Dulles extension, changes to Blue and Yellow service, as well as myriad graphic changes.

This is only a draft for the map, which will surely see changes in coming months. It sill looks like the 35-year-old original, but updated. I think the shortened station names, smaller icons and geographical corrections are vast improvements.

The Washington Post has a story about the map and their version of the map includes some explanation of the changes.

What do you think?

by August 24, 2011 at 8:00 am 2,049 3 Comments

Logan Circle, Church Street NW, 14th Street NW, Luis Gomez Photos

1400 Block of Church Street NW. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Borderstan welcomes Troy Urman who is writing about architecture and urban planning in the Dupont-Logan-U Street area. His new column, Borderopolis, runs every two weeks.

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

I think there is a dirty word hiding behind arguments over plans for new construction in our neighborhood. It’s not necessarily building heights, parking counts and aesthetics that riled residents are concerned about. It’s the ‘D word’ — Density.

To clear the air, I think we all need to ask ourselves: Is density my enemy?

Like many in my generation, I was a child of the American suburbs and an era of cheap gasoline. I came of age believing I would one day find happiness in a single-family home on a half-acre in a quiet suburban development. I would surely have plenty of room to park my SUV and a lawn large enough to host an impromptu helicopter landing.

Like many, I erroneously interpreted the American Dream to mean lots of space between me and my neighbors — low density. I have changed my mind.

It was not overnight and I won’t claim it was pain free, but over time I’ve traded the sprawling suburbs for the city. Not only are there innumerable benefits to living in a city (culture, diversity and employment to name a few), there is ample evidence of the serious environmental, economic, health and social costs of the car dependent lifestyle that suburbs require.

Now I live in a condo building, I commute on foot and I only worry about my car on street-cleaning days. I can get to the gym, shop and meet my friends without even getting in my car or searching for a place to park. It’s liberating! How is this all possible?  Density.

Walkability is one important factor in how desirable a place can be to live, work and play. I’m happy to point out that D.C. was just ranked one of the most walkable U.S. cities by Walkscore. Their methodology, while not perfect, relies on calculating the number of groceries, shopping, banks, and other amenities within a walking area.

Simply put, the more stuff within walking distance (read: dense), the better.

In my opinion, two excellent local examples of well-executed high-density residential development within walking distance of lots of amenities are between 14th Street NW and 15th Street NW. The 1400 block of Church Street NW is a quiet one-way street lined with condo buildings in a modern industrial style.

The 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW is a string of more traditional looking buildings, well-screened by a leafy canopy of mature trees. Despite appearances, each of these blocks is very dense. These surprisingly tall buildings — up to nine stories — contain hundreds of neighbors, customers, and tax-payers within a stone’s throw of employment, shopping and entertainment. All adding to the vitality of the city in a tight footprint.

As the natural growth of our fantastic city continues, we simply cannot sustain outward sprawl into endless suburbs. We must become more dense. Major corridors like 14th Street will continue to develop due to their economic and social capital.

While context, character and aesthetics are essential considerations, we will unquestionably experience growing pains — allowing higher buildings and more new neighbors than initially seem comfortable. Especially the area of Dupont, Logan and U Street — ripe with open land and so close to the city center. See recent changes of heart regarding development at Wallach and 14th Streets NW on BeyondDC. It is better to look ahead and consider the long-term vision of a street than make begrudging progress, one block at a time.

Keep this in mind while we watch the empty lots and storefronts now being excavated in Borderopolis, many vacant for four decades or more. Because when the dust clears, our new neighbors move in, and the many new shops, restaurants and a YMCA all open for business, we will all benefit.

Yes, parking might be more scarce and some new residents may have to read up on Urban Etiquette for a pointer or two, but it’s a small price to pay to live in a vibrant city.  This is why density is not your enemy.

by May 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm 1,354 0

Borderstan, Redesign DC, Borderstan, Luis Gomez Photos

Clockwise from top left: Corbin Levi, Daniel Gruen and Peter Corbett were part of the Redesign DC forum Monday night at Cobalt. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Jana Petersen

What happens when you create a forum for people to discuss urban development in our D.C. neighborhood? Well, you’d expect an eclectic group of varying backgrounds – from entrepreneurs, invested community members, professors and bicycle fanatics to farmers’ market junkies, graphic designers and avid Greater Greater Washington readers.

Parley, a creative collaborative and “loose” group of designers, artists, thinkers and activists who share an interest in making the District “more awesome,” hosted Redesign_DC with the goal of bringing people together to discuss D.C.’s challenges and how we as community-members can address these challenges. None of us is as strong as all of us, especially when it comes to creative thinking and idea-sharing …

With that in mind, mission accomplished. In the dimly lit third-floor space of Cobalt (17th and R NW), a group of about 30 people gathered Monday night at 8 pm — listeners and speakers alike — who were just as eager to share their passions and careers in this space as they were to hear what others are doing. Parley was careful to give each speaker 10 minutes only to blitz the audience with graphics, video, or a PowerPoint presentation of one design challenge or one facet of urban development.

The Takeaways

Though I did not leave with a panacea for D.C.’s development woes — nor a final verdict around the Metro redesign, sad to report – I did leave with some intriguing insights and ideas.


by February 20, 2009 at 6:29 pm 1,665 0

From Greater Greater Washington (a favorite of mine) today:


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