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What's missing from the city's draft of proposed updates to Capitol Hill's Design Guidel

It's been a while since we've posted to the blog, but being on the heels of the city's second open house this evening for its effort to update the Capitol Hill design guidelines, I've decided to take a moment to come out of the woodwork (or perhaps masonry work would be more apt here) to address what's missing from their draft document and suggest improvements. First, many thanks to the city--particularly Patrice Carrol and Christina Ghan for reaching out to us and appearing at a couple of our meetings to keep us in the loop and for inviting members of CHHS to participate in the community working group involved in this undertaking. And also many thanks to my fellow CHHS board members and the community at large for participating in the process. That said, while the new guidelines document starts off well by citing historic character as a "priority design issue" the remainder of the document lacks the clarity and details necessary to fulfill this priority. Secondly, it also contradicts the clear community support for it demonstrated in both the city's online survey and the last open-house back in November.

First, below are the proposed priority design issues. Historic character appears in the first bullet point and incorporating or acknowledging the best features of existing early to mid-century buildings in new development follows further down. This is a good start, but as stated above, the remainder of the document does not yet meet this goal.

Historic Character Overall

The first issue arises in the section titled CS2. Urban Pattern & Form. Pictured below is a page from the existing design guidelines on the left next to what the city is proposing on the right. The original guidelines on historic height, bulk and scale reemphasize the priority to preserve neighborhood historic character. On the equivalent page in the new document is 4b, a brief statement instructing that only when a new building is built next to a character building should it reflect that specific character building rather than a broader historic character. By omitting this broader historic character, this statement permits any new building not adjacent to a character structure not to reinforce the neighborhood's historic character and thereby to further erode it. If reinforcing neighborhood historic character is a design priority, it needs to apply to new buildings constructed throughout the neighborhood.

Now one might think this priority simply shifted down to the following section (pictured on the left), but closer examination reveals it is diminished or at best unclear.

1a simply states"existing structures." This phrase is too vague and broad, it can just as much refer to something built two days ago as it can to something built 100 years ago. If historic character is a priority, then it needs to be clearly stated here. I suggest something along the lines of "historic character structures."

Next, 1b is unclear. It is either suggesting that only Broadway, 12th Ave, and 15th Ave have "clear historical character"or that only the unspecified parts of them that do should be referenced in new designs and in those areas only. Now anyone who lives in or visits this neighborhood knows the former isn't true. "Clear historical character" is present everywhere in the neighborhood though be it in varied degree and form (residential vs commercial and multi-family vs single family). And with regard to degree, while 12th Ave does have some historic character structures, its character isn't as clear as Broadway or 15th and therefore shouldn't be compared here. I suggest rewording this to "new contemporary buildings should reference the historic scale, proportion, fenestration pattern, massing and/or material of the neighborhood and more specifically the historic character structures nearest to them--especially on widely recognized thoroughfares like Broadway and 15th."

Finally, 1c and 1d simply contradict with the existing priority to reinforce historic character. And I would concede that there might be some justification to include these as is, but only if they were actually what the community wants--except they aren't. The images below come out of the city's community survey here. As you can see, the majority selected for the reinforcement of historic character (particularly with early 20th century designs) not a broad and unspecified variety. So if 1c and 1d are to be included here, a proviso should be added along the lines of "provided they don't conflict with the community's existing priority to reinforce neighborhood historic character."

Adapative Reuse

On the next page, within this same section, comes the following captured in the image below. 3a could use some strengthening. Adaptive reuse of existing historic character structures is one of the hallmarks of historic preservation and these guidelines should express that more emphatically. Furthermore, we should not take for granted that a new structure is needed in the first place. Therefore, we suggest saying something like "Reuse of historic character structures should be the norm. Otherwise, preserve and incorporate character structures and historical elements into project designs wherever possible."

Finishing Materials

Moving on to the last and perhaps the most striking change of all is finishing materials. On the left below are the existing guidelines that clearly state a strong preference for masonry in its many forms: brick, terracotta, stone, etc which are arguably the most distinctive features of our neighborhood's historic character. The proposed guidelines on the right reduce this once very clear and direct description down to a single word "traditional" and make it a simple either/or statement. It then goes on to overshadow that with what sort of "panelized exterior cladding" should be used. If the reinforcement of neighborhood historic character is a priority, then masonry of the brick, terracotta, stone varieties should a.) continue to feature prominently and b.) be urged as a primary finishing material. Meanwhile, the use of "panelized exterior cladding"of the metal and hardiboard variety should be discouraged as a primary material and suggested only as a secondary material. Otherwise, new designs will be predominantly of the panelized variety, which as it turns out, isn't what the majority of the community wants.

Pictured below on the left is a photo I took from the open house in November. On the right is a screencap from the city's online survey. In both, the use of brick comes out as the clear winner. Therefore, it should continue to figure prominently in the new design guidelines.

To recap, the guidelines draft starts well by listing historic character as its first priority and even going on describe in some additional detail what that character consists of. However, the remainder of the document lacks the necessary clarity and detail to fulfill it.

  • It must emphasize the importance of reinforcing historic character in scale, proportion, fenestration pattern, massing and/or material throughout the neighborhood not just in isolated areas or when building next to a historic character structure.

  • It must also better emphasize the importance of adaptive reuse as well as incorporating existing historic character structures and/or its historical elements in new buildings.

  • Lastly, masonry should figure prominently as the desired primary finishing material and alternatives such as metal and hardiboard reduced to secondary status.

During periods of rapid growth and development like we are experiencing today, history and historic character are at an enormous risk of being lost and forgotten. To ensure this doesn't happen, we need to preserve and carry it forward in new development in very clear, explicit, and strong terms. Therefore, I urge the working group to incorporate the above feedback and for the history-loving community at large to submit similar feedback to and, to express it in person at the open house this evening and/or to respond to the city's online survey. Otherwise, if any of my own feedback is unclear or misses the intent or meaning of the content reviewed above, do not hesitate to let me know at And once again, I wish to thank everyone involved for their hard work on putting this together. With a little more hard work, this document will get to where it needs to be.

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