Arthur C. Comey
Landscape Architecture 3 (October 1912):19-24
Arthur Coleman Comey (1886-1954) graduated cum laude from Harvard University at the age of twentyone in 1907 with a degree in landscape architecture. His teacher, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. helped place Comey in his first two positions as a park planner in Dixon, Illinois and as Superintendent of Parks in Utica, New York. In 1911 Comey returned to Cambridge where he began his practice as "Consultant on City Planning." In 1912 the City of Houston, Texas, retained him to prepare a city planning report, and he wrote this article that October proposing a system of regulating building height and bulk and the minimum size of lots.The limitation of the height of buildings is an important issue in civic development, for it affects land values, the character of improvements, and the entire outward appearance of the central districts of the larger cities. Insufficient regulation permits a property-holder to usurp his neighbor's " ancient lights," as it is still termed in England, and tends to produce a haphazard saw-tooth sky-line, with very unequal distribution of tall buildings, and usually a distinct loss to the community in land values taken as a whole. Too severe regulation, on the other hand, temporarily hampers the city's commercial growth, and is apt to cause a general depression in values; though it may have the desirable effect of creating uniform development over a relatively large area, which should be one of the primary aims of all such regulations. The type of buildings most affected by general height limitations will normally be the tallest skyscrapers--the strictly fire-proof commercial buildings, and it is with this class alone that the present discussion is concerned. Many complex factors enter into the matter of height in other types of structures, such as safety, architectural value of spires and towers, commercial need of stacks, etc., which confuse the principles involved.
In 1911 he decided to enter the international competition for the design of the Australian Federal Capital. Although he did not win a prize, his design was the second choice of the minority judge. Comey's career as a city planner had only begun. He entered and won second prize in 1913 in a competition sponsored by the Chicago City Club for the design of a typical 160acre tract in that city. In 1914 he won first prize of $5,000 in a competition with 146 participants for the design of a 350acre harbor, industrial, business, and residential complex at Richmond, California.
In 1914 he also began work on a study of suburban planning for the City Plan and Improvement Commission of Detroit. He also designed the garden suburb of Billerica, Massachusetts, a state-sponsored project. By 1917 Comey had served at least nine towns and cities, including Beverly, Brookline, Cambridge, Fitchburg, and Lawrence, all in the state of Massachusetts, and Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
He also was a Town Planner for the U. S. Housing Corporation in 1918 and 1919. Doubtless he drew on this experience during his twelveyear teaching career that began in 1928 when he was appointed a lecturer in the School of Landscape Architecture. He became an Assistant Professor in Harvard's School of City Planning and an Associate Professor in the Department of Regional Planning. During the 1930's and early 1940s he was also consultant to the U.S. National Resources Planning Board. With Max S. Wehrly Comey prepared a major study of American planned communities.
Comey was at one time an associate editor of the National Municipal Review and edited for publication in the Harvard City Planning Series a collection of the papers of Alfred Bettman. His own study for that series, Transition Zoning, published in 1933, reflects his interest in the legal and regulatory aspect of planning that he saw as necessary as ability in design. Among his other publications are Regional Planning Theory and Integration of the New England Regional Plan.
Comey helped found and became secretary and later vice chairman of the Massachusetts Federation of Planning Boards. He was a founding member of the American City Planning Institute in 1917 and was a member of its Board of Governors. He was a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Institute of Consulting Engineers, and the American Planning and Civic Association. He was also president of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects.
His most elaborate contribution to Landscape Architecture was his "Regional Planning Theory: A Reply to the British Challenge," published in 1923. Illustrated with several line drawings and color plates, this advocated a policy of multidirectional city growth along radial transportation lines laid out on hexagonal patterns.
In determining the maximum desirable height of the fire-proof skyscraper of today from the point of view of the general public, three underlying factors only are of controlling importance: congestion, light and air, and architectural effect. Congestion in the streets near the building will result if too great a number of people are employed in or served by it; that is, in general, from too great a total volume or cubage of the building. Insufficient light and air in the street and in the building will result from too great height of the front elevation of the building on the street line. Loss of architectural effect will result when the building has such a great height that it cannot be viewed at a proper angle. The limit of profitable height from the standpoint of the individual building-owner, however, at present appears to be well beyond that which would usually be imposed by these three factors; for height evidently effects several economies, such as that gained by dealing in large units, making the utmost use of the land, and saving in time due to the proximity of many offices and the relative ease of vertical travel over horizontal. Some limitation is therefore necessary for the protection of the general public.
In determining a reasonable regulation of height, it will be noticed at the outset that the factors of congestion and light and air and, to a large extent, also the architectural effect, vary in nearly a direct ratio as the width of the street upon which the building faces. The use of the street by through traffic will affect this relation somewhat, especially if the sidewalks must be narrowed; but, in general, if the width of the street is doubled, about twice the number of people can pass to and fro without congesting it; about double the height of buildings will permit the same relative amount of light and air to penetrate its depths; and this increased height will be embraced in the same angle of view from the opposite side of the street as before. Width of street would, therefore, seem to be an essential element in the regulation of building heights, though it is frequently ignored in regulations now in force. The methods in vogue in American cities vary much in their formula and in the type of buildings permitted, and many cities have no building restrictions at all; as may be noted in the following incomplete list of regulations covering strictly fire-proof buildings, which has been compiled from the 4th report of the Hartford Commission on the City Plan, and from other sources. For comparison, five continental cities have been added, to indicate the universally low limitations of building heights abroad.
Among the larger cities having no regulations affecting the height of fire-proof buildings are: Albany, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dayton, Louisville, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Nashville, Newark, New York, Paterson, Philadelphia, Reading, Richmond, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Spokane, Syracuse, Tacoma, Toledo, and Trenton. Of the cities having regulations, the height is limited in
Baltimore, to 175 feet, except towers, spires, etc.
Boston, business district, 125 feet; residence district, 80 feet, with certain exceptions up to 100 feet.
Buffalo, not exceeding four times the building's least horizontal dimension.
Chicago, 200 feet.
Cleveland, 200 feet and not exceeding two and one-half times width of street, except towers, spires, etc.
Denver, not exceeding twelve stories.
Los Angeles, 150 feet, allowing 30 feet for mansard roof.
Portland, 160 feet, or twelve stories.
Providence, 120 feet plus 20 feet for structures built upon the roof, but no limit if "strictly fire-proof."
Rochester, indirect regulation by structural requirements.
St. Louis, office buildings facing three streets and occupying one-half block, 250 feet; other buildings 150 feet and not exceeding two and one-half times width of street.
San Diego, 150 feet.
San Francisco, 102 feet.
London, not exceeding width of street, nor usually 80 feet.
Berlin, not exceeding width of street, nor usually 72 feet.
Frankfort, inner city, 66 feet, and usually not exceeding width of street; outer city, 59 feet, and usually not exceeding width of street.
Paris, 66 feet on streets 66 feet wide; 59 feet on streets 32-66 feet wide; 49 feet on streets 26-32 feet wide; and 39 feet on streets under 26 feet wide.
Zurich, public squares, etc., 39 feet; elsewhere 51 feet and not exceeding width of street.
These regulations, and others proposed, may be classified in six main groups, as follows: (1) The flat limit; (2) the limit proportioned to width of street; (3) the limit governed by a sloping line; (4) the limit governed by cross-sections; (5) the limit by cubage; (6) the limit by cubage proportioned to width of street. (1) The flat limit to height is in effect in Boston, Chicago, etc., but adopted at different heights. If placed low enough, it has the merit which no other regulations have of giving a relatively uniform sky-line throughout the city; but it does not permit the modern tower building, which has both architectural and practical value, and it does not take into account the relative width of the street in its effect upon congestion, light, etc., though it bears some relation to congestion over large areas. (2) The limit to height proportioned to width of street is in effect in Cleveland, St. Louis, and in Europe generally, using different proportions, however. It covers the factor of light and air precisely, but does not permit tower buildings, though it does encourage architectural uniformity along the street. It bears but an imperfect relation to congestion, because it neglects the factor of depth of lot. (3) Height controlled by a sloping line from the opposite side of the street takes into account light and air only. It permits additional height back from the street, as is now being advocated in Toronto, which may increase congestion; and it is not adapted in most situations to effective architectural treatment. (4) Height controlled by area of cross sections or elevations may meet the factor of congestion in part, but is confusing in its application and is not usually adapted to architectural treatment, though the Buffalo regulation seems based principally on architectural effect and safety. (5) The limit by cubage (i. e., total volume) has been proposed for New York. It is concerned with the factor of congestion, as the volume may not exceed a certain number of times the area of the lot; but does not cover the requirements of light and air, for the entire building may be built as a great wall on the street line. Like the flat limit, it does not take into account congestion, except over large areas. (6) The limit by cubage proportioned to width of street covers the factor of congestion precisely and permits effective architectural treatment, but is open to the same objection as the simple cubage method in the matter of light and air.
To formulate a regulation more closely conforming to all the requirements, a combination of (2) and (6) will evidently be most effective. In such a regulation, cubage (and therefore the factor of congestion) and the average height of the front elevation (and therefore the factor of light and air) will vary directly as the width of the street, and the tower building will be encouraged without the abuse of its unrestricted adoption. Furthermore, the regulation should be simple in its provisions and clear in its application. In the following regulation, it has been attempted to approximate closely these conditions:
HEIGHT REGULATION FOR STRICTLY FIRE-PROOF COMMERCIAL BUILDINGS
A building may occupy its entire lot to a height not exceeding the width of the principal street upon which it faces, and not exceeding in any case 100 feet. Above this height, the cubage of the building shall not exceed one-fourth of such height multiplied by the area of the lot.
The method of measuring height, restrictions as to rear and interior courts, the use of cornices, towers, etc., should also be defined, but have not been included here, as they are common to all forms of regulations. The accompanying sketches show a few types of buildings permitted under this regulation. The actual proportions given have been worked out for Houston, Texas, a city of intermediate size with rather uniformly broad streets, and represent quite ideal conditions. With narrower streets, greater population, or unusual topographical conditions, such as exist in New York, for example, the "solid height" permitted might need to be more than equal to the width of the street, or 100 feet; or the tower buildings might be further encouraged by increasing the relative ratio of the remaining cubage, but the principle would remain the same. .
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org