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East End News

On the disappearing top floor

Don O’Keefe at Architecture Richmond takes on a particular urban architectural feature of our era:

In recent developments around town, a new design trend has emerged. Architects of residential buildings of modest heights, as little as three or four stories, are opting to change the facade material of the uppermost floor, and sometimes create a slight setback. The effect is often to cheapen the structure, exposing the main facade for what it so often is: a veneer.

[…]

… we are curiously uninterested in progress in the urban realm. New buildings must conform to the image of past, an image we all admit was created by a deeply flawed society. Today, a developer trying to build a four story structure in an ordinary townhouse neighborhood is flattened into a caricature of capitalist greed. But would anyone hate a four story building from 1910 simply because of its height? Of course not. It would be celebrated as the landmark of the neighborhood.

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34 comments

The U.....nion Hill 01/10/2017 at 8:27 AM

Dan just nominated himself for most condescending progressive of the new year. Other nominees include Meryl Streep and Melinda Byerley.

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ralph on 22nd 01/10/2017 at 8:59 AM

I’ll second the nomination……

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Jason S. 01/10/2017 at 9:18 AM

hmm. Strong in irony, that comment is. Blinded by the dark side you have become.

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Lee 01/10/2017 at 9:22 AM

I think the “vanishing top floor” tends to look a bit silly, but primarily because it shows up on buildings which are designed as “abstract references” to the surrounding historic structures rather than being built in true historicist styles. This phenomenon is the invention of architects, designed to appease the architectural review commission and/or to fit into a preservation agenda gone awry. Architects only need to look in the mirror to figure out who to blame for this sort of nonsense.

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Urbanist 01/10/2017 at 9:28 AM

“time is on our side. Many of our fellow citizens may look to the past for answers to today’s problems, but in historical terms, forward is the only direction there has ever been.” – from the full article

I think Don makes a good point. Lighten up, embrace some change or we’ll be stuck in mediocrity (and no, it wont hurt your property values)

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crd 01/10/2017 at 10:53 AM

Why isn’t anyone linking this to the new Citadel of Hope buildings? Those plans have this same issue. Would like to hear from folks about this, thanks.

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ray 01/10/2017 at 11:04 AM

I have no idea what this “caricature of capitalist greed” is which Mr. O’Keefe refers, but I think the upper floor setbacks look good.

And I’m a forward looking traditionalist who embraces progressivism in the context libertarian socialism.

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The U.....nion Hill 01/10/2017 at 11:15 AM

Rather than fully understand his opposition’s concerns he makes broad assertions on their lack of intellectual sophistication. So that all opposition is based on irrational fear and ignorance of basic economics.

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Jason Sewell 01/10/2017 at 11:44 AM

The top floor setback appears to be part of the same design language that has brought us the plague of “whimsical” juxtaposed façades that are all the rage. See the condos near the Whole Foods Market in Shortpump for an example. They will not age well.

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Dave Seibert 01/10/2017 at 12:10 PM

This is a cool conversation. I love that we have this neighborhood of builders and idea people that like to discuss these type of things! I don’t currently have an opinion on this topic but am enjoying hearing from those that do.

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WarGibFA 01/10/2017 at 1:16 PM

We had a concrete-sided top floor slapped on a very respectable brick building across from ours, down on 21st and Main. When you chance to look at one of those things on a daily basis, it’s an absolute eye-sore.

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David 01/10/2017 at 2:45 PM

My issue with the architecture of these large developments coming into historical neighborhoods is that they are generic – they look just like the other contemporary multifamily dwellings that are going up around the country. I think a developer could get away with structures that lack character if they are consistent with the size and massing of the neighborhood. Likewise, they could get away with a larger building if it has the quality and interest to be a “landmark of the neighborhood” (in the words of Mr. O’Keefe). But a development that is both inconsistent with the neighborhood’s scale and looks like something from an office park is a bridge too far. The disappearing top floor seems to be, like Lee said, a compromise designed to appease architectural review boards that ends up pleasing no one.

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urbngrilla 01/10/2017 at 2:45 PM

The “vanishing 4th floor” is part of the developer’s response to exceeding the 28-ft maximum building height for new structures in the UB Zoning classification.

This building as drawn requires a Special Use Permit. UB Zoning tops out at 28feet which would allow for only 2 and one-half stories (above grade). Alternatively, the half story could be enclosed space for mechanical systems, or a rooftop garden, etc.

The optimal structure, in this UB case (without a SUP) would be English basement with windows above grade, topped with 2 above grade full stories.

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Bill Hartsock 01/10/2017 at 2:54 PM

#10. – Dave, you’ve never expressed an opinion on anything.

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Pay Attention 01/10/2017 at 3:07 PM

While I agree the plans are devoid of character and have no reference to the archictural character of the neighborhood, I’m glad something is actually being built. That said, I think you’d be hard pressed to make a convincing arguement that this is an ‘abstract reference ‘ as Lee suggested above. It won’t ruin the neighborhood to build it, I just wish they would practice better awareness in their design planning and maybe pick a better architect.

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Amazed Observer 01/10/2017 at 4:16 PM

What an amazing collection of architects and builders have assembled in this comments section! Truly this is an incredible brain-trust of gifted doers leaving their valuable opinions here. The only thing shocking is that you’re able to take a break from all the incredible architectural marvels you must be building to come bless us regular folk with your insights!

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mary 01/10/2017 at 6:25 PM

According to Architecture Richmond’s web site, Don O’Keefe currently lives in Tokyo and enjoys walking and spending time with his family. I don’t know if he’s using the royal “we” when he claims our curious lack of interest in “..progress in the urban realm.” Again, is this the royal we or is he gathering the rest of us into his world view when he states that the image of the past is “…an image we all admit was created by a deeply flawed society.” His brief bio on Architecture Richmond also claims “He has worked in and out of Richmond in architecture, urban planning, industrial design, criticism, and journalism.” He’s got the criticism down pat if nothing else.

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Richardr 01/10/2017 at 7:48 PM

Just read the full piece and it is much less pompous than the out of context quotes. It is amazingly easy to get riled up about words out of context, and less easy to read the words of others carefully and find common ground. Some good comments here though, density should come in great packages, not disguised as something else. The author does suggest that we are all to blame in this.

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Frank p 01/10/2017 at 11:25 PM

It’s not wrong for a building to change character as it meets the sky. It softens the edge and makes the building seems more human-scaled to me. It also creates a transitional space between inside and outside both visually from the street and practically for the buildings users. You all are nuts.

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Eric S. Huffstutler 01/11/2017 at 11:16 AM

?The illustration above is one of the better looking mashups.
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Are they supposed to be retrofuturism? If so, they fail. These cheap, industrial looking, cookie cutter buildings going up all around us with checkerboard panel siding and popup top floors, as others have mentioned, will not age well. Think of it as the similar trend in the late 1950s and early 1960s with “Jet Age” or the correct term, “Populuxe” styling, which not only looks dated and out of place today, but are often quickly torn down. If you buy a house that has a 1970s designed kitchen, do you embrace it or tear it out?
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At one time, there was a mixed use corner store project to have gone up at 425 N 25th, the empty lot across from the East End Theater building. What happened with it? The proposed design had the same problem mentioned here. The first 2-stories would have fit in with all the other 19th Century design brick corner stores but, it too had a popup on top which looked like someone pitched a tent on the roof. I know there was opposition about the design but it seems to have been dropped with no further consideration? Does anyone know why?
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https://chpn.net/2015/02/12/car-to-consider-9-new-houses-mixed-use-for-25th-street/
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https://chpn.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Screen-Shot-2015-03-31-at-8.03.46-AM-460×340.png
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Keep in mind, for example, Church Hill is a protected Historic District. North of Broad is about 85 acres and South of Broad 118 acres. This equates to 0.5% of the total land mass of Richmond. One half of one percent so, why is it so hard for people to try and protect it and adhere to historic guidelines? If you want to build modern flair structures, as you see, there is plenty of other space to do so outside a historic area.
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Pay Attention 01/11/2017 at 11:48 AM

RE: #16 – Amazed Observer:

I don’t think anyone here is claiming to be an architect or builder. We just happen to care what our neighborhood looks like. Rather than trying to belittle and discredit the people sharing their voices, try contributing something worthwhile.

Now back to my legos, I mean, mastery of architecture as a relational art form.

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Bryan Brodie 01/11/2017 at 12:19 PM

“New buildings must conform to the image of past, an image we all admit was created by a deeply flawed society.”

if you’re going to ‘throw stones’ at flawed ‘glass houses’ of the past, remember to extrapolate to the present day’s ‘deeply flawed society’…

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Ugh 01/11/2017 at 1:36 PM

Whatever your opinion on 4th floor setbacks, I would hope the progressives among us could get behind some good healthy criticism of slow-moving, often progress-halting neighborhood associations who seek to just sit in a circle and try to keep people out more than anything. Not an architect, but all I read in the news is how these associations want to stop building this and keep people from doing that.

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Lara 01/11/2017 at 1:47 PM

To #19, Frank P, I totally agree. Does it make everyone feel special to read way more into this trend than necessary? In the original article, the example photos show the top floors as having social areas/penthouse apartments (possibly pools in the rear?)… and the setback is to accommodate this outdoor space, given the small footprint the building occupies. The facade being different at the top… who really cares!?

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Eric S. Huffstutler 01/11/2017 at 2:02 PM

@4 Lee “This phenomenon is the invention of architects, designed to appease the architectural review commission and/or to fit into a preservation agenda gone awry.”
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First, let me say something I missed before. I am sure that the architects designing these buildings most likely live in one of the West End cookie cutter Levittown-esque communities so have no real appreciation for history.
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The C.A.R. seems to be only a ghost of their former self. 5-10 years ago, they kept a high profile and were vocal about designs submitted. Where are they today? Probably because some of those questionable architects have been on the board. But, the rule book is laid out on the National level, not local, and those neighborhoods falling within their designated O&H (Old & Historic) areas, are to follow them.
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Now, if you are building a new infill between two Italianate Victorian houses, should it also be the same exact layout? No. But, there are many architectural styles in our neighborhood that were built basically between 1800-1900, which include: Federal, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Colonial Revival, and several others, which could be built in that spot and still at least cohere to the overall historical architectural fabric. I do not see Socialist era housing designs built in 19th Century Richmond. (Guidelines do state that the new structure, small or large, should represent architecture around it.)
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Eric S. Huffstutler 01/11/2017 at 2:27 PM

@24 Laura, I think a couple of things are happening here.
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First, the look. Most are contrasting rather than complementing or matching so stick out like a sore thumb. I get what people are saying about just matching the floor with what is below rather than recess them. You could simply create a hollow wall surrounding common rooftop areas so that all of the façade matches.
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Second, the C.A.R. guidelines have a height maximum for structure profile to match the surrounding structures. The “recess” is just cheating so, where else where they cheat?
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KK 01/11/2017 at 2:29 PM

Personally, I like the design and the tapered look of the top floor. Overall I think this property will be positive for the neighborhood and I hope it’ll continue to spur Church Hill’s resurgence.

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Lee 01/11/2017 at 4:38 PM

@Eric – There are four schools of thought, more or less, regarding appropriate infill in historic neighborhoods and additions to new buildings. Direct imitation, Innovation/Invention within an existing style, Abstract Reference, and Direct opposition. They are pretty much what they sound like.

Imitation: Buildings that adhere exactly to an existing style or copy an existing building. Invention within a style: Copying existing style/strictures, but adding atypical elements (The College of William and Mary and Market Square shops in Williamsburg are good examples of this, as they incorporate Italianate details into Colonial designs).

Abstract reference refers to buildings that have similar massing ajd materials, but intentionally avoid looking top similar to existing structures. The National Park Service prefers abstract reference when doing additions to an existing building, infill, or replacing a historic feature which is missing and cannot be properly documented. The concern is that imitation/replication or invention within a style result in buildings which confuse the public and create a sense of faux historicism. The problem is, these are exactly the kinds of buildings the public seems to actually want! CAR appears to follow these guidelines as well, based on the buildings they have approved. Basically, if we want better design, CAR needs to reconsider their guidelines and rethink the NPS guidelines

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BAF 01/12/2017 at 1:21 PM

I think the building being proposed looks a lot better than what is there now…

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