Going to extremes


UNTIL THIS week, discussions about a revised urban renewal plan for historic Mount Vernon, developed by City Planning Director Otis Rolley III, had led the public to believe that any new construction wouldn't exceed 180 feet, more than preservationists wanted and less than developers did. But the plan as now presented makes it possible for a 230-foot building to be constructed in the midtown neighborhood. That exceeds the stature of Mount Vernon's signature Belvedere Hotel and historic Washington Monument (although a building of that height would be prohibited within close proximity to the square).

The Charles Street Development Corp., whose members include some high-profile personalities in town, had insisted that a minimum of 200 feet was essential to build an economically viable, architecturally pleasing project that would create the buzz and pedestrian traffic the neighborhood could surely use.

Homeowners, preservationists and some businesses argued that more buildings taller than 100 feet would mar the character and charm of the neighborhood's 19th-century townhouses.

The debate all along has focused on height: How tall is too tall? While preserving the integrity of Mount Vernon Square, the proposal calls for graduated heights north along Charles Street, which, with bonuses, would not exceed 180 feet, a plan that we characterized as reasonable.

But the variance provision, which would require a two-step approval process, allows for an additional 50 feet for projects that "add to the character and historic fabric of Mount Vernon through significant architecture and urban design," according to a report by The Sun's Jill Rosen. The authority to grant a variance would rest with the Planning Commission and the city's architectural and preservation panel if the City Council approves the urban renewal plan as proposed by Mr. Rolley.

Certainly the neighborhood's unique character should be enhanced, but that should not be mutually exclusive of a compromise on height.

The proposed variance may be Mr. Rolley's way of refocusing the debate on aesthetics and not height; he's not opposed to tall buildings or increasing residential density in parts of the city, notably downtown and midtown. Or it may be his idea of how to best promote design and control for quality without outlawing innovation and the potential to have it all.

But whatever the reason, it's a bad idea. That 230-foot variance proposal must be stripped out of the plan before it is finally approved -- in order to best serve the interests of Mount Vernon and the city.

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