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Increasing heights is not a simple proposition in Ward 7

Ward 7 is one part of Washington where the federal Height Act is not the main limit on the ability to add density to the urban fabric. More relevant constraints are the community's desire to preserve their neighborhoods' qualities and the lack of land suitable for high-density development.

Photo by Carl_C on Flickr.

The Height Act bases maximum heights on the widths of adjacent streets, to a maximum of 110 feet at the largest streets except for 130 on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown. (It has nothing to do with the height of the Capitol Dome, contrary to popular belief).

Earlier this month, Housing Complex reported that Mayor Vince Gray wants to relax the height limits East of the River and discussed the legislative challenges to implementation.

But the Height Act isn't the main driver of building height. In most parts of DC, zoning limits building heights far more than any federal law. Currently, the Marbury Plaza Complex is the only building in the Ward that even peers above the tree line, let alone approaches the federal limit.

Many long-time residents have expressed a desire to limit the height to 4-6 stories to preserve some of the best views in the city and the overall neighborhood harmony. ANC 7B, which includes the Hillcrest, Fort Davis, Penn-Branch, and Fairlawn neighborhoods, went as far as to pass a resolution to limit height at the Penn-Branch Shopping Center.

Putting the community concerns aside, there are other hurdles to denser development in the Ward. Although Ward 7 is one of the geographically larger wards, there are only a handful of areas that are even candidates for development into a higher density. Most of the land use in the ward is either single family homes, medium-density condos, neighborhood-scale commercial, or parkland owned by the National Park Service.

None of these areas are completely untouchable into the future. However, given the long time-frame to amass property from multiple owners or navigate the federal process to convert parkland into development, it is a safe bet that these areas will not become more intensively used within the next 20-30 years.

The next issue is that some of the larger low-density commercial areas ripe for redevelopment already have shovel-ready projects with maximum heights of 4-5 stories. For example, Mayor Gray's proposal would not affect Skyland Shopping Center or the Minnesota-Benning project located next to the new 5-story Department of Employment Services building. It also probably wouldn't affect the potential Walmart location in Capitol View located across the street from the Capitol Heights Metro Station.

After excluding all the previously mentioned areas as candidates for redevelopment into higher density, the only areas left are around the ward's three Metro stations. Even transit-oriented development around them is a challenge.

The obscure location of the Deanwood Metro Station and odd shape of the potential development parcels around it, limit higher-density development. If the newly built Deanwood Recreation Center & Library and middle school are excluded, the only non-residential land left is a small sliver on the east side the metro station and an odd shaped industrial parcel on the west side of station. Even if the city made significant improvements to the road network to improve access, there is still the challenge of trying to put high density on small parcels.

Deanwood Metro. Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive map.

Similar to Deanwood, Benning Road Metro Station abuts single family homes and is surrounded by oddly-shaped parcels. While Clarendon is an example of higher buildings next to low-density residential, the parcels around the that metro station aren't as narrow as at Benning Road. There is potential for redevelopment into a higher density. The question for this metro station is whether the existing height limit is adequate given the size of the lots.

Benning Road Metro. Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive map.

Of all three Metro stations, the Minnesota Avenue seems like it is the only one that would even be a potential candidate for additional height over the Height Act limit. While the development projects there are already built or shovel-ready, the strip-mall commercial areas across Minnesota Ave SE and Benning Rd SE could be more densely built.

This commercial area sits in a valley with only a handful of single-family homes along Benning Road in this area. They would lose their panoramic views, but they would maintain some views of the city. The rest of the land in that area is Fort Mahan Park. One concern would be the buildings dwarfing the homes along Clay Place NE on both side of Minnesota Ave. Putting higher buildings closer to Benning Road and stepping down the height closer to the homes could resolve this issue.

The Minnesota Ave Metro Station is wedged between I-295 and Minnesota Ave. On the other side of I-295 is the PEPCO Plant. According to PEPCO, it will decommission the plant in the near future. There are a significant number of environmental issues associated with that property that need to be considered, but there are not insurmountable.

Minnesota Avenue Metro. Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive map.

Regardless of the potential for additional height, the community has expressed that it doesn't want development at heights allowed under the Height Act. If Mayor Gray decides to move forward with this proposal, he will have to work very hard to move this through the legislative process while garnering the support of the community.

Veronica O. Davis, PE, has experience in planning transportation, urban areas, civil infrastructure, and communities. She co-owns Nspiregreen, LLC, an environmental consulting company in DC. She is also the co-founder of Black Women Bike DC, which strives to increase the number of Black women and girls biking for fun, health, wellness, and transportation. 


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How about Pennsylvania Ave? There already is some new building there. Not all development has to be on top of the Metro; consider Connecticut Ave NW near Chevy Chase Circle.

by goldfish on May 18, 2011 2:08 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this, Veronica. I think when people endorse relaxing the height limit east of the river, it seems like they believe that there are vast tracks of land ready for development.

The Ballston-Rossyln Corridor in Arlington had always been a commercial area along the old streetcar lines. Redevelopment with the coming of Metro was therefore easier there because they didn't have to displace as many homes; just old department stores surrounded by acres of parking lots. That's just not the case in much of the area in Wards 7 and 8.

by Adam L on May 18, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

@Goldfish... you could get some height there, but not sure that you would need more than you could get under existing height act. Another area where you have homes sitting right on top of commercial, which leads to narrow parcels.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on May 18, 2011 2:20 pm • linkreport

It goes without saying (unless it's already been said here and I missed it) that the biggest deterrent to higher buildings popping up in Ward 7 is the market, not the availability of land. To oversimplify, If the market wants 200' buildings in Deanwood and the Height Act allows it, the market will find ways to put 200' buildings there. (Of course, the market probably wants 200' buildings in Tenleytown, but that hasn't happened yet.)

That said, I agree that Minnesota Avenue probably makes the most sense for higher-density development in Ward 7, not just because of the Metro and larger building parcels, but because you have the Anacostia Freeway (for access, but also because big companies can slap their name on the side of a building facing it and all the drivers can see it.)

Also, a spelling question from a recovering English major: What is "East of the River"? I think that if we're using "East of the River" as the specific name of a place, then it should be capitalized, but if we're using it as a descriptor, like "neighborhoods east of the river," then it definitely shouldn't be. Additionally, "ward" shouldn't be capitalized, unless you're referring to a specific ward, like Ward 7 (or the Lower Ninth Ward, etc.)

by dan reed! on May 18, 2011 2:30 pm • linkreport

While I appreciate the detailed analysis of Ward 7, the most obvious location for large increases in height EotR is at Poplar Point. It is much more proximate to the existing Center City area, it will be positioned between the Center City and St Elizabeths, and it already has some of the groundwork for development underway.

by Alex B. on May 18, 2011 2:35 pm • linkreport

i wish people to stop tryna to protect views that are likly to change at some point in a person lifetime

by Jerome on May 18, 2011 2:43 pm • linkreport

@Adam L... Thanks. That's part of the reason I added the maps. There really isn't much land around the metro stations.

@Dan Reed.... Great point about taller buildings next to the freeway. When I was with the City of Alexandria that was part of our justification to put taller Class A office buildings closer to I-395 for the Landmark/Van Dorn plan.

@Alex B... I agree that Poplar Point is the obvious location, but this is also an opportunity to for explore development challenges in other areas East of the River, namely Ward 7.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on May 18, 2011 2:53 pm • linkreport

I know property owners in Kalorama ("beautiful view" in Greek)had excellent views of the White House until downtown office buildings blocked them.

I infer you've a priori excluded the use of eminent domain to amass larger lots near transit? I know I'd hate being displaced from my home if I lived there, but there is a serious lack of affordable housing in DC.

by Steve S. on May 18, 2011 3:32 pm • linkreport

The PEPCO site should have the most potential for high-rises. Not only is it relatively close to Minnesota Ave Metro, but it also will be near the Benning Road streetcar and the Anacostia Freeway. Because of the possible environmental conditions, office buildings and commercial development should be considered as opposed to entirely residential.

It could very well be the "New Rosslyn"...

by John M on May 18, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

How do you get people across the freeway to the metro at the Pepco site? And if you figure that out, what about the vacant land along Kenilworth Terrace?

And shouldn't we consider the kiss and ride lot at the MN Ave metro?

What about moving the stop to Benning at MN and connecting it directly to the street car line?

by Alex on May 18, 2011 4:14 pm • linkreport

Just a sidenote. Readers are impatient. If your article can not answer the "what is this and why do I care?" question in the first 10 or so lines then something is wrong. Don't make them read half the article just to figure out what in the world you are talking about. Not everyone has the ward map or the common names of neighborhoods committed to memory.

by movement on May 18, 2011 4:41 pm • linkreport

@Steve S... Eminent domain is an option, but given the decade long legal battles with Skyland it's not a quick solution.

@John M... The PEPCO site is a large chunk of land. However, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns of environmental issues with that property. Who would even want to take on that liability of building on that site? There would need to be major incentives.

@Alex... Possible tunnel under or bridge over I-295. The vacant land along Kenilworth Terr is Federal land. I could be wrong. The kiss and ride could be included, but it's a small narrow parcel. Where would you move it to? The feasible option is probably Minn-Benning where the purple box is located, but that is already a shovel ready project.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on May 18, 2011 4:41 pm • linkreport

If Washington ever had the imagination to do a La Defense, it wouldn't be at Popular Point. There's the same overflight height limits there as Crystal City. Popular Point will be another Crystal City.

When you rezone an area for planned-zone ultra high rises the market comes if there's a market (and there is).

Personally I liked the concept of a Parisian type multi-bridge residential development in place of the Anacostia Freeway along the river. Those elevated freeways have got to go and it's in the Comprehensive Plan that hey go. Skyscrapers are suited to a Metro location a little further out in DC.

by Tom Coumaris on May 18, 2011 5:40 pm • linkreport

Hadn't realized that the PEPCO site was an option; that could be a development on the scale of Atlantic Station in Atlanta (another brownfield that required a new bridge for access). Plus, given that it's oil-fired, its retirement should improve air quality and health locally, and of course on the District's carbon footprint. Great news all around.

When combined with the stadium/Hill East development across the river and the streetcar, the city has an opportunity to create a major TOD corridor that literally bridges the river, and balances out the Orange Line's lopsided load.

by Payton on May 18, 2011 6:21 pm • linkreport

@Payton: Presumably you would want something better designed and more appropriate than Atlantic Station. Much of the housing is on well traveled streets with only narrow sidewalks between the street and the front door. the mall is generically suburban but in a location that is neither downtown nor suburb. The big draw is a carbound IKEA. It's about the most unattractive attempt at new urbanism I've ever seen. It also ran out of gas when the housing bubble busted. Atlanta didn't have the kind of run up in prices that DC has (although homeowners have managed to lose about 25-30% of their value in the past few years; which had been 7 or 8 years growth). Instead there was rampant speculation for the purposes of accumulating real estate. First the exurbs cratered and then eventually the city. The cheaply built townhouses and condos and the crappy mall (now getting re-tenanted from what I understand) were the result.

The height limit seems to be the current panacea. It wouldn't suddenly make Minnesota Avenue or Poplar Point popular. The value of Minnesota Avenue is that it still has good buildings and a livable scale. Gentrification was beginning in the mid-00s and needed less overbuilding citywide to have moved forward. better surface transit connections and amenities like the riverwalk are things that would help there. Big buildings have turned up in places like Rosslyn, Bethesda, and the Dulles corridor that have excellent fundamentals and in places like Silver Spring whose recent successes show obvious potential despite decades of dumb ideas. That should suggest where a change in the limit would have its greatest impact.

by Rich on May 18, 2011 6:43 pm • linkreport

Adding: it appears that the PEPCO plant covers 77.5 acres, considerably larger than the Yards at 44 acres, the Wharf at 47, or Hill East at 60. It's smaller than Atlantic Station's 138 acres, though Hill East+PEPCO rivals it.

The other "soft sites" that Veronica identifies appear to be about half as large (~40 acres), but one could also add in the low-density commercial along the south side of Benning as well as air rights over Metro's facilities, the railroad, 295, and even perhaps the schools. In short, there's quite a lot of land to work with there.

by Payton on May 18, 2011 6:51 pm • linkreport

The Atlantic Station comparison was one of program and scope -- in particular, a large and highly contaminated site separated from transit by a freeway -- not of design, and certainly not related to Atlanta's oversupplied housing market. I think that we've (re)learned a lot about urban design since the mid-1990s.

Indeed, the PEPCO site has superior transit access: its nearest corner is only 1000' from the Metro entrance, and the entire site is within 1/4 mile of the future Benning Road streetcar. Indeed, it looks to be more accessible than Poplar Point, and not subject to DCA flight path restrictions. Of course, it will need retail and office anchors in order to overcome its outside-favored-quarter location, but I wouldn't write it off just yet.

by Payton on May 18, 2011 7:26 pm • linkreport

I think that we are seeing plenty of great ideas on sites. however, Deanwood in my estimate would be the best place to begin the experiment. Deanwood given it's accessibility to mass transit and I295, also plans that are already in effect such as the Marvin Gaye park project and Lincoln heights, Richardson Dwellings proposal would I believe attract even more retail developement to the area with relaxed height restrictions.Also this location has a large amount of undeveloped lots.

by Barry on May 18, 2011 10:18 pm • linkreport

I was just talking with a coworker about how Deanwood is discounted. I don't think the District has any serious plans as they should for the area and if there are any, they are disjointed. What this area needs desperately is a sense of place and purpose. What needs to happen is for the District to initiate a comprehensive long-term study of the Minnesota Ave and Benning Rd corridors. When you include the Pepco site, I think you have something special.

by Randall M. on May 19, 2011 8:16 am • linkreport

Section 5 of the 1910 Height Act generally limits the height of a building to the width of the street on which it is located, plus 20 feet, and on major streets and avenues with a width of 90 feet, that means 110 feet.
But some streets are wider than 90 feet and thus the Act provides that buildings on a "business street" are limited to a maximum height of130 feet, except the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, between First and Fifteenth streets northwest, buildings are permitted an extreme height of 160 feet.


by Monte on May 19, 2011 8:41 am • linkreport

Payton... The PEPCO site is a gold mine.

Barry & Randall... Deanwood doesn't get the attention it needs. The road network to the metro station really needs to be improved. The City was supposed to do a study to look at making Minnesota a continuous road to the metro station. The other issue with Deanwood is there are these tiny shotgun homes (like you'd see on the Bayou) on large lots of land.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on May 19, 2011 10:22 am • linkreport

@VD -- if I was in the real estate business I would be buying property around Deanwood because those houses are selling for like $120k. Sooner or later people are going to wake up to what that Metro station plus rec center provides. That neighborhood looks highly gentrifiable.

by goldfish on May 19, 2011 12:30 pm • linkreport

@VD&goldfish, You're both absolutely right but as we know, everything is subject to change once the ball starts rolling. As to the Minnesota ave. project, it fell through because of some land ownership issues and the CSX railroad situation, but that's nothing that couldn't get worked out with a little pressure from the right places, now is the time for Ward 7 to recognize it's newly found juice and finally get it's due. Four years isn't a long time, activist need to get active, organization is key.

by Barry on May 19, 2011 8:43 pm • linkreport

proposals to increase the height limit in other parts of the city besides downtown are completely divorced from consideration of how the real estate market actually works.

People want to be in the popular areas. That's why the land is more expensive, and more expensive land justifies intensification. It's a mutually reinforcing circle.

Just because you can build higher elsewhere doesn't mean people will if there is no market demand for the space. It's like an enterprise zone. In return for locating in a less desirable area, you provide tax incentives. But tax incentives don't drive the majority of location choice decisions, and therefore, most enterprise zones have not had anywhere near the impact that was predicted.

Who's going to want to build a 20 story apartment building in W7 if you can't get it rented at rates high enough to pay off the building? The only way to drive office development in less desirable places is to get prelease to govt. tenants like the city or the Federal govt. The city would probably do something that dumb, as they have already destroyed most of the agglomeration benefits of having city agencies located in and around downtown, and instead are putting agencies in SW and other less transit- and business district-connected places. I can't see the federal govt. doing this. Hell, people at the EEOC didn't want to locate in NoMA because they were afraid of the crime there... And Noma is a couple blocks from Union Station.

by Richard Layman on May 21, 2011 11:39 am • linkreport

@RL, Excuse me but I thought Homeland Security,DOES,and the other agency marked for Minnesota ave were government facilities. As to what's desirable and what's not I can remember a short while ago when it was unheard of for the H street corridor to take the shape that it has. People make neighborhoods desirable not vice versa, I think that if the city takes steps towards investment then other fall in step.

by Barry on May 21, 2011 10:36 pm • linkreport

Mayor Gray would do well to listen to the residents of Ward 7 -- also his home. We just sent a Mayor packing who thought he knew more than than his constituents. Gray appeared to listen during his campaign and one of the things he heard over and over was residents don't want over development -- in any ward. There has been the perception tha in Wards 7 and 8 where development is needed, the city can stick it to the residents because they don't have a clue about what's happening. Beware Mayor Gray -- residents are very aware of what is being proposed and they are unhappy with what they hear from you about extra height and density! We don't want the gentrification that comes with the kind of development you are proposing.

by Karl on May 22, 2011 2:03 pm • linkreport


I think folks who hold the line that "we don't want *that* kind of development" have an obligation to specify what sort of development they *do* want. At least then we can evaluate whether your alternative has any viability.

by oboe on May 23, 2011 9:27 am • linkreport

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