Howard County Blog

A Blog on what is going on in Howard County

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Mythical Image of City Building Heights

So I went up to NYC last weekend to see a stand up comedy show that a friend of mine was producing at Town Hall. I had a blast and I highly recommend you check out the group when they come to DC (likely sometime this spring). Anyway the reason I bring this up is that while in NYC I was following the sickness that I picked up since the redevelopment of downtown Columbia started where I count the number of floors buildings have while I walk through cities.

I have thought for a while that most people have a hard time picturing how high a building is when you give some numbers of floors or even worse numbers of feet tall a building is. I think these things need to be put into context. For example the highest floor heights I have been able to find in DC are 14 stories (in the area around K Street) and these 14 story buildings have the top two floors staggered away from the street so that the buildings street face is only 12 stories. In fact, I think if a survey of building heights around DC metro stations were done people would be very surprised that many buildings near metro stations have lower heights than they imagine or that people claim are needed to bring metro the Howard County.

OK, back to NYC. I have gotten the impression that the mythical image in most peoples mind of building heights in NYC is of exclusively very tall buildings. In reality building heights are very eclectic with a number of 6 story buildings just blocks from Time Square and even a couple shorter buildings. (Oh, for those of you who don’t know NYC: Town Hall is on 43rd Street a block from Time Square.) I was all over the region around Time Square grabbing dinner before the show and hitting the after-party and the after-after-party. I was also on the Upper West Side where the friend whose couch I crashed on lives and the building heights in that area were mainly in the 6-12 story range with a couple shorter buildings and not many above 12 stories. Similarly while having brunch in the mid-20s (which as this non-New Yorkers understands it means Midtown in 20th Street to 29th Street area) I spotted quite a number of buildings in the 8-12 story range and some others that are shorter than that.

The point to all of this is that I think people’s mythical image of building heights is off the mark. Yes, NYC city has some really tall buildings, but large stretches of the city (including some of its most vibrant neighborhoods) are a lot shorter than what is being proposed for downtown Columbia. Similarly all of DC is shorter than the original proposed plan and in fact is closer to 14 stories that community groups like the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown have been proposing. I have also traveled extensively through Europe and lived in London and in all of the most vibrant cities the building heights in the vibrant urban cores have been 14 stories or less, with most in the more 6-8 story range. Initially I had no caring about the building heights component of the plan (and still I think building heights are by far NOT the biggest problem with the plan (to see the problems in the plan check this recap of past blog posts on this subject)), but the more I have counted building heights in other cities and reflected on this I think 14 stories is more suited for downtown Columbia.

I know my counting of building heights is a sickness, but I strong encourage others to do the same and really start to create a context to compare what is being proposed in downtown Columbia with what is in other cities.

It is also important to remember that one of the biggest constraining factors that prevents taller buildings is infrastructure. After looking at the traffic study it is clear that even 14 story buildings cannot be achieved without building a mass transit option that relieves local roads. The only plan that I have seen that might be able to achieve this is the Metro extension that I have proposed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's other constraints to building structures higher than six stories, a few being fire engine rescue ladders typically being incapable of reaching higher stories and very few people want to be solely reliant on elevators in taller buildings.

How about a follow up to your Metro post that shows the full costs of building and operating the system your images detail, along with a map that, instead of emulating the iconic Metro maps, shows the actual track alignments cutting through neighborhoods?

12:03 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

My Metro plan is underground in neighborhoods. This has the long term benefit that property values near stations go up while property values near exposed track go down. Add this to the issue that the big transit problem in eastern Howard County is lack of available land to increase the capacity of the transit system, particularly where it is most needed, which is why widening roads, deadicated bus lanes, light rail, and PRT are all non starters.

7:44 AM  
Blogger B. Santos said...


Could you please answer the question? How much would it cost to put in the miles of underground track that you propose? What are the costs of building the stations?

8:43 AM  
Blogger wordbones said...


In Tysons Corner they recently determined that the cost to put a 4.2 mile stretch of the Metro extension (silver Line) underground would add a quarter billion dollars to the price tag, rasing the projected cost from $2.25 billion to $2.5 billion.

At those numbers it would cost at least $8 billion dollars to extend the Metro from Silver Spring to Columbia above ground.

That's alot of jingle.


10:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wb's $8B number only covers the aboveground leg to get to Columbia, costing about $80K for every person in Columbia.

Also, that figure does not include operating costs and does not include the costs for all the point-to-point legs around Columbia.

I doubt a family of four will want to kick in way above $320,000 each just to get this built and then have to pay to maintain and ride it, too.

Do you have better numbers?

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You cite lack of available land in eastern Howard County as being a non-starter for PRT. Why? It can fit in existing rights-of-way without having to widen them.

Metro, even if underground, still will require land for parking lots since their station distribution cannot be as dense as PRT's, requiring many to still drive to them.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Just Sayin' said...

I personally am not in disagreement over the height- would love to see downtown be more of a downtown, and 20 plus stories while high, doesn't seem astronomical to me. Also strikes me as efficient land use- housing near businesses and services, and maximizing density, while I suspect using less public services (fewer school children tend to live in a structure like that i would imagine and incomes would generally be high)(though I do support a MIHU componnent.

11:50 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

I am looking into the cost. Do you have the costs of road improvements needed to handle the traffic created by the likely increases in county populations? Doing nothing is not an option if county population increases. Let us look at the cost of each option, the increase capacity each will create, how this capacity matches the needs of population growth, the available land, etc. We cannot build unless we come up with solutions to handle the transit needs created by this development and since I very much want to see the redevelopment of downtown Columbia I am looking for solutions.

1:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've not looked into costs of road improvements to support increased populations because of the following reasons.

I'm not promoting increasing Columbia's population beyond its current two residences per acre. Doing so costs greenspace. Previous and current County General Plans say we need to improve our greenspace situation in the eastern part of the County. I don't believe the 30-year plan meets current or previous General Plan requests/goals for improving the environment in the eastern part of the County.

I believe we have to reduce auto use by rapidly pursuing more energy efficient, less greenhouse gas emitting means of transportation to avoid the very near term effects of global warming. 2007 is predicted to be the hottest year in recorded weather history. Advanced longer range models predict the artic ice cap disappearing by the summer of 2040. Time for action?

I believe we need to pursue an economy that is more energy efficient to reduce our trade deficit to maintain our standard of living. Continuing to drive around in 2500 pound cars isn't the answer.

I believe we need to pursue an economy that is more energy efficient and can better use domestic energy sources to reduce our foreign policy needs that require putting lives on the line to secure foreign energy sources.

So, even without increasing Columbia's population, I see the need for mass transit that is more energy efficient than cars. But to get it built and used at high rates will require it to be as or more convenient than cars, and inexpensive to build, operate and use. Neither light rail nor Metro meet those criteria.

4:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your NYC example is even more reason against building ht limits.

An occasional tall (22 story) building will probably be surrounded by mostly shorter (12-14 story) buildings.

One tall building does not ruin Columbia just like one tall building does not ruin NYC.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it does not fit the traffic study and AFPO, it shouldn't be there. If it does, it shouldn't be stopped because we don't like it.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Au contraire, Anon 6:48,

Even Léon Krier, one of the major influencers in New Urbanism, has cautionary words about building heights. Quoting from his "Architecture: Choice or Fate":

"If authorities allow developers to exceed the critical point of five floors, the value of building plots rises astronomically, which in turn creates more pressure for higher and higher densities. It is a vicious circle which, in the long term, leads to an insidious "Manhattanism" and represents the financial overexploitation of the land of the city whose unavoidable structural bankruptcy must in the end be paid for by public funds. Conservation areas are, by definition, those areas that have achieved optimum density both in form and appearance. It is complete nonsense to increase plot-ratios in these sectors. Such decisions ensure that the real estate value of a listed building becomes indefensible in face of the potential added value of denser redevelopment. Consequently, increases in plot-ratios regularly defeat even the staunchest conservation policies"

Increased density begets increased density.

1:04 AM  
Blogger Tom Berkhouse said...

Evan - If the cities cited are vibrant with many of the buildings being 6-8 stories tall, then why does Columbia need to have 14 story buildings?

You seem to have contradicted your conclusion with your own evidence.

8:57 PM  

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