Greater Greater Washington

Architecture


Should the height limit change?

Darrell Issa and Eleanor Holmes Norton just announced that they've asked for a study on revising the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, also known as DC's height limit. Should it change?


Photo by mrlaugh on Flickr.

The law restricts buildings to 20 feet taller than the adjacent street, up to a maximum of 90 feet on residential streets, 130 feet on commercial streets, and 160 feet on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown. In most neighborhoods, local zoning is more restrictive.

Completely repealing the height limit is almost surely not on the table, but should it have some limited exceptions? Here are some of the major arguments for and against the limit.

Arguments for changes

Supply is too low, making the rent too damn high. Downtown DC has the lowest office vacancies in the nation and very high rents. This means that some high-revenue businesses, like law firms, take up a lot of space while technology startups might have a very hard time finding offices.

It's arbitrary. Someone (maybe Matt Yglesias) made a good point on Twitter recently: If the height limit had been 200 feet, would many people insist that 200 is the perfect height for DC? It's a myth that the limit has anything to do with the height of the Capitol dome or any other structure.

It impedes good design. Most attractive buildings have some variation in their shape. The base might come all the way to the street, but then farther up, the building is set farther back, and has interesting cut-outs and curves. With a height limit, it creates an enormous economic incentive to build a box filling the lot.

It impedes other amenities. NoMA has no parks. Why? Because all of the landowners say that they can't afford not to fill their whole lots. If DC could give a couple of buildings permission to build taller if they give up some of their land for a park, it could make the neighborhood much more livable.


Photo by Glyn Lowe Photoworks on Flickr.
Rosslyn has tall buildings. What about outside downtown? Mayor Gray has suggested taller buildings east of the river. There are tall buildings right across the Potomac in Rosslyn. Why not across the Anacostia too?

Arguments for the limit

It encourages more infill. Go to a lot of midsize US cities and the downtowns have a few big towers with lots of empty space for parking in between. Those empty spaces create walking dead zones. The District has almost no empty lots downtown, and even space on top of freeways like the Center Leg I-395, or the Union Station railyards, will be covered over. That's because land is so valuable (thanks to the height limit) that it's economical to build decks for buildings.

It pushes growth to other neighborhoods. Near Southeast and NoMA are booming because downtown had to spread somewhere. Without a height limit, there might never have been an incentive to transform them. Anacostia, Saint Elizabeths, Minnesota-Benning, and Rhode Island Avenue could see new growth as well. The companies that can't afford to locate downtown can go to these neighborhoods and bring new residents, amenities, and jobs.

However, the growth in other neighborhoods is a double-edged sword. NoMA's growth is bringing more gentrification to Bloomingdale and Eckington, and potentially pushing out the Florida Market wholesale food market. With limited supply, more neighborhoods become unaffordable.

It can also make neighborhoods more office-heavy and less residential. Foggy Bottom has changed enormously from a generation ago. Dupont Circle was moving aggressively in that direction before some strict zoning and historic preservation limits halted the trend. Reduce the pressure to develop outside the core, and fewer legal restrictions would be necessary or desirable.

Rosslyn is damn ugly at ground level. The flip side of the Rosslyn argument is that as an urban place, Rosslyn is not the most exemplary. Most of this is actually a consequence of its buildings dating to an era when towers set far back from the street, with large concrete plazas, was in vogue, so it suffers not from too-tall buildings but from bad urban design. Still, there's less incentive to fill in those plazas than there would be in downtown DC with the height limit.

It gives the monuments more emphasis. This is the main argument from the National Capital Planning Commission. DC should focus on the monuments, and a lower, more horizontal skyline means that the Washington Monument, Capitol, and National Cathedral and National Shrine dominate the skyline instead of a striking private sector tower of some kind.

How can it change?

Are there ways to change the height limit that don't spoil its positive effects? Here are a few that have come up in previous debates:


Vancouver. Photo by lorea2006 on Flickr.
Allow limited taller areas like Poplar Point (the Gray plan). Poplar Point would be an ideal spot for a La Défense of Washington. The buildings would have a great view of the L'Enfant City and, if designed well, would be a beautiful sight from the L'Enfant City. A dense cluster at Poplar Point would complement Rosslyn and Crystal City but more attractively. Vancouver's clusters of towers are beautiful, for instance, thanks to some careful design.

The federal government transferred the land to the District, with the proviso that most of the site stay parkland. That means there's no reason to want the economic incentive to spread out the development; instead, it's better to have an incentive to focus it.

More growth there would house a lot of residents and jobs, bring people across the river, create a customer base for businesses in Historic Anacostia where the buildings won't get tall, and ease demand elsewhere.

Grant a few exceptions for exceptional design and amenities (the Malouff plan). Let some buildings go just a little bit higher, but not by right. Instead, they could do it if that allows a really interesting, attractive architectural design, and if the building provides some amenities, like parks or daycares or libraries or something that won't otherwise be economically viable in the tight downtown market.

Auction off height waivers (the Avent plan). Define a set of zones where a few taller buildings might be okay and a few where they're not, like key viewsheds. Auction off a limited number of permits per year for building up to a somewhat higher limit. This would prevent a stampede to tear down perfectly good buildings just to add a few floors, but would also create a more varied skyline with a few taller buildings, which would be much more aesthetically interesting.

What do you think?

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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My plan (the Edmondson Plan?) is a limit of 160 feet city-wide and leaving it there. It takes the tallest normal buildings in the District, namely the Cairo and those along Pennsylvania Avenue, and sets those as the standard. None of this street width or residential limitation nonsense, just, easy. 160 feet.

by David Edmondson on Nov 8, 2012 12:20 pm • linkreport

Excellent article.

Under partial changes, I might add allowing the Federal Government to build to any desired height. Doing so would allow the government to create building as monuments. Think of a building commemorating the afgan war with a noteworthy crown and street-level details.

The change would relieve agencies of their crunch for space and it would reduce the deficit by not forcing the government to rent additional buildings.

by MW on Nov 8, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

Glad to see Daryl Issa is back doing some real work after chasing the Beghazi ghosts for the past several months. Or maybe it is becuse Rogers is having some real hearing.

Having Norton and Issa as your congressional champions is truly a worthy triumph for the anti-height limiters.

by charlie on Nov 8, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

Much better than the usual cheerleading for this. Some additional thoughts. Rosslyn is not only ugly, it's also pretty lifeless. And it's not alone. High rises haven't enlivened Silver Spring and the high rises stretches of Bethesda's downtown are deadzones even where there is ground floor retail. The new development in North Berthesda is very devoid of life, even with a destination grocer.

The downside of high rise office and residential structures is that they discourage people from using the surroundings as a "living room" or third place. Often these places are sold as self-contained environments with amenities that people otherwise would leave the premises to use (e.g., gyms, small businesses, party rooms). People often chose them because they are total environments and relatively anonymous. In other cities there are lively high rise areas often next door to dead ones (Chicago's N Michigan corridor and nearby Streeterville). Fortress-like highrises are likely to be the developer response to locating in East of the River areas. They have no problems building like this in supposedly safe suburbs and would happily roll over relatively unorganized neighborhoods to do it in SE.

The problem of parks NoMa is one of planning and not necessarily developers (although the political pull of developers in DC,a s well as surrounding jurisdictions is a major impediment to good development in this region, esp. where there is yet no neighborhood like this). DC should have carved out park land. The area also is very dependent on chain retail which is another minus of high rises and other large scale approaches to development---you get the same retailers, restaurants, etc. DC's liveliest corridors are places that evolved gradually over long periods of time and small business played enormous roles as renters as well as landlords.

by Rich on Nov 8, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

I figured that we're better off without a height limit at all. The economic arguments for it don't really apply anymore and I fail how to see how the presence of tall buildings make the monuments seem less important or make it seem like private interests trump the civic one. It's not as if regulating building height has an impact on the activities of lobbyists. It's the same whether they're in DC or out in Va.

Philadelphia has a mall and special monuments, it also has very tall buildings. The two complement each other in that city and it would be the same here. I work 5 blocks from the white house and can't see it. I still know its there.

by drumz on Nov 8, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

And it's not the height of Rosslyn that makes it dead. It's the modernist street design paired with the need to move cars around between the GW Parkway/66 and the bridges.

by drumz on Nov 8, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

Sorry to keep piggy backing, but its not as if downtown DC has a great legacy of being a happening place outside of work hours either. It's changing but so is Rosslyn but Downtown DC also has the Verizon Center and access to the mall/museums.

If you want to compare other neighborhoods you could move uphill to Clarendon, which despite it's derision as being cookie cutter is pretty tall (compared to DC) and is always busy, as busy as any of the celebrated neighborhoods in DC.

by drumz on Nov 8, 2012 12:37 pm • linkreport

I have to disagree re: Vancouver. Those bulky condo towers along the water are awful. They might be better if they were in "clusters" but they're not -- just an unimaginative row of vaguely similar towers that distracts from the downtown skyline. I would hope DC could come up with something a lot better than that if it were to ease the height limit.

by jimble on Nov 8, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

I'm with drumz--get rid of the height limit completely. Barring that, I'd support the Avent plan the most--makes sense to get some money out of the deal if it's going to happen in a limited way.

by Dan Miller on Nov 8, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised no one brought up more height around Metro stations as a possible solution (maybe with an exception for stations close to the Mall).

by Steven Yates on Nov 8, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

1. Rosslyn is dead because its historically single use - almost all office, some badly designed residential on the edge, most of the office without street level retail. Its getting better now, and should be far better in a few years (and this is one reason the subsidies to artisphere make sense).

2. BUT - the problem with Rosslyn and Crystal City as centers of density, and this would apply to Poplar Point as well, is transit. Rosslyn has two (soon three) metro lines and no commuter or intercity rail. CC has 2 metrolines plus VRE. Poplar Point would have only the Green line. You want the DENSEST office development to be where the transit is best - and thats downtown DC, with its 5 (soon to be 6) metro lines, and its full commuter and intercity rail. Otherwise I would be all for the Gray plan.

3. Given that, I like either the Malouf or Avent plans better. The ideological division between them is apparent (markets! Prices! Optimization! Coase! vs "public benefits" determined by govt) but they actually have similar advantages and disadvantages (sellable as limited with giveback from developers, but folks opposed will be skeptical how limited it will remain, and how much giveback there will really be)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 8, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

Keep your eyes on Rep. Darrell Issa real motives. He has never cared for the people or dealings of Washington DC residents. Check who donated to his most re-election campaign and then compare it to local real estate companies who would benefit with raising the height limit.

by 13streetFan on Nov 8, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

Mostly agree. Well said.

DC's problem is EOTR is horribly underdeveloped while everyone of course wants to go higher in already successful areas in the l'Enfant City, many of which have strained infrastructure already.

Destroying the historic old city with ticky tacky cubes that all look the same is short-sighted too. As Jacobs and Florida explain, the creative class isn't drawn to neighborhoods of nothing but concrete vertical cul-de-sacs and human file cabinets. DC needs to do much more to preserve what we have left.

Business and wealthy people will pay premiums for signature towers with views. Unfortunately a lot of the view from Popular Point will be of a Capitol dome with an elevated freeway in front of it and a slew of ugly cubes around the ball park. Many other prime view points around DC are also disappearing. Very poor or no planning.

And that's why I'm against this continually raising of the height limit in the l'Enfant City. It's always "just one more story". Just say "no" as a stick and give higher limits and other perks the city has a slew of to build where we desperately need development.

Popular Point may not be right for a la Defense if it has height limits governed by DCA. But there are dozens of good sites that are.

We can neither allow vibrant successful neighborhoods to be turned into more Crystal Cities or allow neighborhoods we've invested in infrastructure for to lay fallow.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 8, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

Except the best metro stations for justifying tall buildings are the ones closest to the mall. You can get a 1 seat ride to my building on three different lines. That's impossible to do except downtown.

by drumz on Nov 8, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

I don't know that any of the arguments for the height limit in this piece stand up to reason.

It does not encourage infill - strong demand does. New York doesn't have a lot of parking lots either, as it is a strong market.

It spreads development out somewhat, but not entirely - development in NoMa and Cap Riverfront is again reflective of demand.

Rosslyn is ugly: but so is L'Enfant Plaza. Ergo, the ugliness is due to the urban design and architecture of that era, not height.

Space for monuments: No one will build a skyscraper on the National Mall. Likewise, if we desire a flat skyline, then we can regulate a flat skyline - just one that is taller and denser than our present one.

by Alex B. on Nov 8, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris:
DC's problem is EOTR is horribly underdeveloped while everyone of course wants to go higher in already successful areas in the l'Enfant City, many of which have strained infrastructure already.
I don't think that's DC's biggest problem. Sure, developers don't want to build much EOTR. But don't you see high rents caused by restricted supply in the most centralized and transit-accessible parts of DC as a problem as well? Just telling developers to go build EOTR doesn't really solve that.

by Gray on Nov 8, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised at the lack of any mention in the original post to transportation. Transportation and land use need to be planned in unison. For example, could increased height limits along specific corridors promote, justify and pay for new Metrorail lines through the core? I'm glad two people brought up Metro in the comments so far...

by MDE on Nov 8, 2012 1:30 pm • linkreport

re Poplar Point - the thing thats great about that idea, is that its a response to "we should spread more development EOTR instead" since it DOES but development EOTR. But I can't see it working without a transit plan that significantly expands transit access and connections - at least a link from the Green line across to Alexandria, at a minimum.

"human file cabinets. "

In my house I have some short file cabinets. A 30 story building is not necessarily more of a file cabinet than a 10 story building - which is not necessarily more of one than a two story rowhouse for that matter. but its a great rhetorical meme.

And many of the new buildings near the ballpark are quite attractive, IMO.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 8, 2012 1:37 pm • linkreport

@Adam B.

Not quite true. Take the Theater District, which has extremely high rents and quite tall buildings. Yet, just behind the low-rise I was in was a rather large empty lot. Beyond that was a parking garage. There are probably plans for that lot, but it was a good fraction of a block just sitting there, grassy.

Another example is Hudson Yards, an open, undecked rail yard using up a block of Manhattan. Only recently was it earmarked for decking and development.

by David Edmondson on Nov 8, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

The best way to preserve the town house neighborhoods is to let the buildings be built taller downtown anyway.

by drumz on Nov 8, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

"The best way to preserve the town house neighborhoods is to let the buildings be built taller downtown anyway."

No, the best way to preserve town house neighborhoods is through zoning overlays and, where warranted, historic districts.

by Bob on Nov 8, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

Whatever happens, please do not let it be some solution that is not simply and straightforward. Just lift the limit to ten feet below the Capitol Dome from street level for all of DC. There is plenty of space in DC to build.

by Jasper on Nov 8, 2012 1:57 pm • linkreport

And we have those. Now we can allow for taller buildings so then even minor proposals and changes don't become acrimonious and necessitate protracted negotiations over a floor or two.

Again, let's look at philadelphia. Despite being a very tall city there are plenty of smaller buildings in center city. Some protected through HP some not.

by drumz on Nov 8, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

How about we keep the statutory height limit, but make it city-wide? Right now, there are huge chunks of Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Shaw where the Zoning Code limits building height to a ridiculously short 3 stories.

by Tom Veil on Nov 8, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

Tenley has 400 foot radio towers and yet, the District seems to function just fine, tourists continue to come to our city, and the views of the Capitol and Washington monument are not impacted one bit.

The buildings on the DC side of Friendship Heights or Silver Spring should be able to be as tall as those directly across the street in Maryland. Allowing this change will bring the District more jobs, more tax revenue, and will let more people live in walkable communities next to our metro stations that we've invested billions of dollars in.

by Reform the Height Act on Nov 8, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

@MDE

Come to think of it, a separated Blue Line under M could be paid for in part with development rights near its core stations.

re: the creative class

I think the kind of activity Florida links to "creatives" is brought about when people view the city, not just their apartment, as home. Living room is any cafe, dining room is any restaurant, den is any bar, back yard is any park, etc. That also gets the Jacobsian ideal of active street life, too, as people go from one place to the other and enjoy the great hallways of the city.

It's not the height of the building that keeps people from doing that; it's in-building amenities and well-designed streets, as others have pointed out.

by David Edmondson on Nov 8, 2012 2:09 pm • linkreport

I would favor the "Edmondson Plan" as well. The height limit already allow for 160-foot buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of the city's ceremonial core. That would be easier politically.

by Adam L on Nov 8, 2012 2:26 pm • linkreport

1. I'm not sure that an occasional less developed lots on 11th avenue makes manhattan an urbanist failure - those areas are where some more or less essential things happen (I mean manhattan can probably survive with no auto repair shops but it will be a pain) and they typically lack rail transit nearby. but DC isnt NYC. The real comparison for DC is cities of comparable size AND market strength.

2. in near SE old industrial buildings are being preserved and converted to residential. Quite frankly I dont know where in DC either townhouses, or worthwhile older industrial buildings, are being torn down for hirises. But as Drumz says, such pressure as there is, can be lessened by allowing more to be built elsewhere.

3. I am not convinced that residents of high amenity buildings dont participate in street life. even a building with lots of stuff still doesnt have bars, restaurants, yogurt shops etc. I mean how much is walking to a fitness center central to DC street life. Sure a place with a lounge/business center may generate less trips to coffee shops - but thats only one element.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 8, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

Having areas of taller buildings around the downtown metro stations sounds great, until we realize there are almost no vacant lots left downtown, and unless we really let the heights soar, it will not be cost effective to tear down a 11 story glass box to replace it with a 22 story glass kinda-box. Lifting the height should be applied to these areas but expect not much will change for quite a while. The idea of making additional TOD communities in the non-downtown part of the city warrants some discussion, but that will not likely take much pressure off the need downtown, as the edge city neighborhoods should be limited in scale to not destroy the character of the surrounding neighborhoods.

That being said, the plan for allowing the added height for public benefit seems to make the most sense. It's similar to how Montgomery Co handles things. The "standard" method of development is often just a 3 or 4 story, 2 FAR development, but the "optional" method can go upwards of 200 and 300 feet depending on the metro station proximity and can have a FAR as high as 8. The catch is a stricter design review and providing more public amenities (on-site public use space, street improvements, moderately price dwellings). At 300 feet, a FAR at 8 leaves a lot of space for ground level plazas, or for a stepping back of facade with height.

I also worry that increasing the availability of office space downtown by much more is just asking for continued congestion on the roads and rail as people have to commute from residential dominated suburbs to employment dominated downtown. Maybe only allow the additional height for residential buildings downtown? Let natural supply and demand push more office uses to the closer in suburbs to improve their housing to employment ratios?

by Gull on Nov 8, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

I don't think it's a good idea to raise the height limit in a simplistic way. I agree that the zoning code does need to be more approachable and straightforward, but oversimplifying the diverse and varied landscape that is Washington to one number is the wrong way to do it.

As was stated, the height limit has ensured that other areas of L'Enfant Washington besides its center be developed. Until the development of far more of Washington takes place, I think raising the height limit should be postponed.

I also think that when it is raised, there should be a credit for retrofitting existing buildings instead of tearing them down. New construction is needlessly expensive and wasteful, both economically and environmentally. As such, developers should be rewarded for adding to existing buildings, in place of starting over from scratch.

by SilverSpringUrbanist on Nov 8, 2012 3:00 pm • linkreport

First, I'd examine would be raising zoning FAR limits; many peripheral areas are zoned for 6 FAR while the core is zoned for 10 FAR. A method of maintaining the current "plateau" effect while adding height would be to equalize the heights for wider and narrower streets, or using a limit tied to sea level -- thus advantaging lower-lying areas like Navy Yard, while still maintaining the absolute height supremacy of the Capitol and obelisk. It's also important to recognize Avent's point that a blanket rise in limits would suddenly make thousands of buildings obsolete and ripe for teardown, which is anything but sustainable. (Adding floors to existing buildings is only possible in pretty rare instances, where foundations were over-engineered to begin with.)

DCA height restrictions: per CFR Title 14 Part 77.9: "you must file notice with the FAA of... Any construction or alteration that is more than 200 ft. AGL at its site... a horizontal distance of 20,000 ft. from the nearest point of the nearest runway of each airport." That distance covers everything from Georgetown to National Harbor, Shirlington to Hill East. However, it's not a blanket restriction so much as just another layer of review.

Rosslyn: another factor in its immediate disfavor as a retail location is its limited size as a node. Much of the land within its 1-mile radius is either park, river, cemetery, or an even better retail market (Georgetown and Clarendon), so it's difficult to get anything beyond convenience retail to thrive there.

by Payton on Nov 8, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport

Think of a building commemorating the afghan war

A Colossus of Bush!
https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQxe7SD6gz_iy9m1UWYtTgTmD5x8JVAJiOUGp0e59hq3str030VWw

by Vicente Bush on Nov 8, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

13streetFan wrote "Keep your eyes on Rep. Darrell Issa real motives. He has never cared for the people or dealings of Washington DC residents. Check who donated to his most re-election campaign and then compare it to local real estate companies who would benefit with raising the height limit."

That may well be true. But even if someone is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, they're still doing the right thing.

by Rob on Nov 8, 2012 3:08 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised nobody has brought up the idea of a "view plane" building height restriction, similar to what Denver has; this seems a good compromise as it balances the need for additional space and lower rents with preserving the monument views.

As an example, imagine that the current restrictions remain the same for buildings within the original City of Washington (inside Florida Avenue), are slightly relaxed for 15 blocks or so beyond that perimeter, and increasingly lessened the further the lot is from from the Mall. This would create a "bowl" shape that maintains the low building heights close to the Mall, and not only allows for better use of space further away, but actually IMPROVES the views in places like Anacostia and Petworth (because the buildings are up higher).

by CM on Nov 8, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

With a few exceptions, a moderate increase in building height in the core of 20 or 30 percent is reasonable. This modest increase in density will not alter the city's character and charm to any substantial extent, but will allow for a significant increase in needed bulk, both commercial and residential.

As for exceptions, the current limits should stay in effect on Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Avenues, as well as around monumental squares and circles (Farragut Park, Washington Circle, etc.). And of course, zoning near the White House, Capitol and National Mall, and other sensitive areas should remain as is. What should rise and what shall not needs to done almost on a block by block basis.

DC is rapidly approaching totally buildout in the downtown core, as well as in near Southeast and NoMa. If the height limit is not moderately adjusted soon, development that would normally stay in DC will pointedly shift outward, deeper into the suburbs and ex-urbs.

by Sage on Nov 8, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport

Bob wrote "No, the best way to preserve town house neighborhoods is through zoning overlays and, where warranted, historic districts."

That preserves the exteriors, but it means that the houses aren't houses anymore; instead they become condos and offices. My wife and I are planning to start a family soon and are trying to buy a townhouse in DC. But we find ourselves losing out to developers who want to cut up townhouses into condos or (less frequently) to companies that want to use them as offices -- and both of those groups can pay a lot more than we can.

If it were easier to build condo and office buildings (and to build them taller), then the townhouses would get used as houses -- and people like us would actually be able to afford them (which would mean more families in DC).

by Rob on Nov 8, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport

This is simple. Protect the viewsheds and create a bowl where the lowest height restrictions would be in the center and the highest would be at the border of the city. Plus add a height bonus percentage for TOD and multi-use development near metro stations. with those restrictions in play, let the market take care of the rest.

by cmc on Nov 8, 2012 5:22 pm • linkreport

Protect the viewsheds and create a bowl where the lowest height restrictions would be in the center and the highest would be at the border of the city.

So, the exact opposite of how the city is built now? (and how most cities are built?) Where the tallest buildings are in the center and the shorter ones are near the borders?

by Alex B. on Nov 8, 2012 5:41 pm • linkreport

I don't trust Issa - this will not serve DC but rather some well connected developers.
Any increase in height should be coupled with provisions that the increased tax revenue goes to improved mass transit. How are we going to get more people around?
We need a separated blue line, an additional tunnel under the potomac for blue/orange/silver, a brown line, and street cars. If the heigh it raised without a comprehensive plan for increased traffic then we will all realize what a boondoggle this is. I say sell the additional height, increase the property tax for tall properties and funnel that money into transit for the distric so metro works not only to come into/out of the city but also to move AROUND the city.

by andy2 on Nov 8, 2012 5:57 pm • linkreport

@alex,
Unlike most cities, visitors come from around the world to see a very particular 4 mile loop in the center of the city. We should protect such a high value asset. I'm not against development on or around the Mall, but as "America's Front Lawn," any change will come with plenty of consideration and study.

As a resident of the DC, I see no issue of creating and developing multiple high density nodes around the city, with multi-modal transportation links among them. The maximum height limit will be in the corners of city, but I can't imagine the current residents of Spring Valley would want a "skyscraper" of 30 stories in the middle of their neighborhood. At least not yet.

by cmc on Nov 8, 2012 5:59 pm • linkreport

Yeah, cmc basically said the same exact thing as me.

by CM on Nov 8, 2012 6:09 pm • linkreport

Alex B.: So, the exact opposite of how the city is built now? (and how most cities are built?) Where the tallest buildings are in the center and the shorter ones are near the borders?

We already have that, it's just they're not within the boundaries. But Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rosslyn, and Ballston are all taller, and if it wasn't for the state lines those areas would all likely have been annexed by Washington a long time ago. By significantly increasing limits around the borders, we can make DC more competitive in the office market while avoiding the issue of raising the limits downtown, where it then gets into the viewshed issues. And although I know you don't care about those issues, a lot of people do, and a lot of people see them as outweighing the urbanist arguments against the act (see, e.g., Grosso's comments about not wanting to touch the Height Act after being burned by the issue).

Besides, without the New Blue line, would raising the limit downtown even be viable? Transit infrastructure in the core seems to be close to maxed out as it is.

by JW on Nov 8, 2012 6:13 pm • linkreport

Personally, I appreciate the low heights. It brings in more sunlight and makes the city feel accessible and warm. Once you cut height limits, you're at the mercy of the developer- there's absolutely no guarantee that new and taller buildings will be pleasant or anything other than a rectangle. I would suggest watching how Paris develops over the next several years before making a move.

by Randolpho on Nov 8, 2012 6:40 pm • linkreport

I was being a bit snarky in my comment, but I will explain:

I don't see the purpose of adding height for the sake of adding height; rather, we should add height to increase density. Density is what makes cities work. Dense clusters of people are what cities essentially are.

And those clusters tend to cluster themselves, they organize around a center. Even with multiple poles in a metropolis, we have this movement towards the center. Our transit infrastructure reflects this, too.

Thus, the place we want to add more density is in the center (broadly defined). Height and density are not the same thing, of course, but in the core of DC, they are - it's more or less impossible to add more density without more height. While on the edge of the city, it is very possible to add more density without breaking the current height limit.

Taller buildings downtown don't have to detract from the Mall or the Capitol or the Washington Monument.

by Alex B. on Nov 8, 2012 6:41 pm • linkreport

@AlexB: Paris , one of the most loved and acclaimed cities, is amazingly dense and, until recently, had height limits of 102 center, 121 periphery, and 164 for periphery housing. They managed to do that with height limits lower than DC's 130/160.

by Randolpho on Nov 8, 2012 7:03 pm • linkreport

I like Edmondson's idea of using a height exemption along M St to fund a new Metro line. But with M St already built up, how many developers would be willing to invest in adding a few more stories?

And it also makes sense to let Friendship Heights grow as tall as Chevy Chase, though frankly I don't understand why anyone would ever want to shop/dine/live/work there to begin with.

by M.V. Jantzen on Nov 8, 2012 7:33 pm • linkreport

Randolpho is right- Paris and Washington are similar and Paris is moving to build high rises in closer-in suburbs than now. But certainly not in the center core. US cities and Asian cities usually have high rise cores but the European model is more to protect the fabric of historic cores. The typical Parisan would consider the way we cannibalize our historic core to be barbaric.

Keeping only facades is a pitiful fig leaf for the destruction we do to our community fabric. Like most I just don't understand people who would build cookie cutter high rises in places like the l'Enfant City, Georgetown, the French Quarter of New Orleans, Charleston's battery, Paris, London, etc. Just incredibly short-sighted to destroy a magnetic vibrant central area to make it look like most everyplace else.

And density has more to do with square footage of living quarters than anything else. Places like Paris and London had huge square footage city houses. They were divided into multiple living units. In DC we've combined what were often multiple units in a house in the 1950's into often 3000 sq ft townhouses in historic neighborhoods now. That's dumb and wasteful. These big houses were never meant for single people or couples and that's why our density sank.

We don't need to reinvent the wheel on either of these issues.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 8, 2012 7:41 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.

But there are still a ton of transit-oriented infill opportunities in this city. You still see abandoned factories and cheap used car lots between RI Ave. and Brookland/CUA on the Red Line. There is plenty of room along the H St. corridor, near RFK, the waterfront, etc.

I agree that adding density is important, but I don't think lifting the cap in the L'Enfant City is necessary to accomplish that.

by JW on Nov 8, 2012 7:58 pm • linkreport

A. No one is proposing to build on the mall. Again, Philly has a mall and I'd be shocked if someone said that tall buildings in Philly detracted from someone seeing independence hall and the liberty bell.

B. Paris is lowrise sure but if DC has Paris' level of density DC would have a million people easily. But the height limit would still apply and there'd be pressure to still build up. Because that's the case in Paris too.

by Drumz on Nov 8, 2012 8:16 pm • linkreport

I agree with Tom Coumaris, Randolpho, and Gull. Our skyline is one of the nicest things about the city and shouldn't be sold out becasue our rents are high, that's true of many a city world wide. I think further developing public transit through smart planning would suit us for another 100 years. Layout the streetcars and add metro lines in concert with up-zoned areas in and around DC to handle future growth.

We keep hearing about density creating vibrancy, which is obviously true, but what's the composition of that density? If it's only office space, then you'll get dead zones after hours. So if you need a blend of uses, wouldn't keeping the height limit as is push development out to the designated nodes linked by reliable transit? We have that already with Bethesda, Reston, Tysons, SIlver Spring, etc. Why not beef that phenomena with-in DC?

As for the core, just look below the mall as SW. There's so much density available thanks to those urban renewal projects. Many of those government offices and facilities could be spread out or relocated more efficiently as the need dictates. As for the Vancouver model, if that photo is what we can expect, no thanks. Necessity is the mother of invention, let's not let developers off the hook so easily by letting them tear down our 50 year old downtown for a couple more stories. That's wastefull and shortsighted becasue they'll be bellyaching in another 20 years for more. Let them streach out on the back of smart transit investments and planning. If there's a dollar to be made, they'll find a way to make it, especially if we streamline the by-right zoning and permitting process. I would look at biology and see if there are natural limits to growth, and how they are dealt with. It's still everyone's city, not just the "job creators". I

by Thayer-D on Nov 8, 2012 8:35 pm • linkreport

I just think we can achieve all those things and allow taller buildings.

by Drumz on Nov 8, 2012 8:53 pm • linkreport

@Thayer-D:
We keep hearing about density creating vibrancy, which is obviously true, but what's the composition of that density? If it's only office space, then you'll get dead zones after hours. So if you need a blend of uses, wouldn't keeping the height limit as is push development out to the designated nodes linked by reliable transit? We have that already with Bethesda, Reston, Tysons, SIlver Spring, etc. Why not beef that phenomena with-in DC?
I don't follow at all. Are you saying that mixed-use development as found in Bethesda and Silver Spring is best left there? Or are you saying that we should relax height limits in DC so that that would be possible in DC?

Though you seem to be arguing that when height limits are relaxed, all you get are offices. Since . . . that's exclusively what you find in Bethesda, Silver Spring, and all of those other cities without such limits, right?

I don't believe anyone here is arguing that relaxing height limits will necessarily create vibrant neighborhoods. What I am arguing is that relaxing height limits makes greater density possible, which in turn makes it possible to have more vibrant and sustainable neighborhoods. That doesn't mean that it wouldn't require work, but at least it would be possible where it isn't now.

by Gray on Nov 8, 2012 9:05 pm • linkreport

oh yes, replacing all those buildings in Georgetown with 8 or 12 story concrete clones would make Georgetown so much more vibrant.

Thanks goodness Georgetown is under the Fine Arts Commission which doesn't coddle the destruction we have in the l'Enfant City.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 8, 2012 9:22 pm • linkreport

Why is there an issue of height limits to begin with. I travel throughout DC on a daily basis and witness many areas of DC that are underdeveloped and near WMATA stations

1 Most of the city is no where near close to the limit.

2 Most stations outside of downtown have no highrises near WMATA stations (except for Van Ness)

3 Why not encourage developers and anyone else to look at other areas in DC; many areas of DC east of Rock Creek from Silver Spring to Eastover (outside of downtown) have plenty of empty space or cheap space to purchase.

4 If someone really wanted land somewhere they could buyout a block or two and build a highrise and the end the 10-30 million spent on the block will dwarf the price of a highrise

by kk on Nov 8, 2012 11:09 pm • linkreport

This issue comes up again and again because some people cannot leave well enough alone. Despite the assertions to the contrary, only a few downtown blocks are truly maxed out; there are probably thousands of sites between the west end and Union Station, from D St SW to U St NW, that are far below the height limit and could be developed further. Notwithstanding that, there are tens of thousands of sites that boarder on this downtown core that could be developed. The idea that downtown is maxed out is fiction.

by goldfish on Nov 8, 2012 11:26 pm • linkreport

Gray,
What I was trying to say is what kk and Goldfish said much more susinctly. I was trying to say there's no need to relax height limits until many areas around existing and future rail transit stops are built-up. Also, there are certain limits of height and density after which one ought to know when to say "enough here". I don't know exactly where those limits are, and we may be shy of them, but I wouldn't fix something that's not broken. There are many more areas in DC that could be build-up before we tear down and re-build the downtown area with 15-20 story buildings.

The Idea that it must all happen in one place is a fallacy since there are many examples of multiple business nodes. Just look at Manhattan, (bad example becasue of skyscrapers) it has it's Downtown and mid-town, to say nothing of the other smaller nodes all around it.

I wouldn't even dream of touching Georgetown, Dupont or the like becasue of the shear beauty they posess, and it's importance to our quality of life. As Tom pointed out, they don't need anymore density to be vibrant, allthough I wouldn't be against sensitive infill to add some density.

by Thayer-D on Nov 9, 2012 6:02 am • linkreport

There are plenty of places that can go higher still in DC, no one is disputing that. But while its still possible to get higher downtown, its not much.

Meanwhile the place where metro/transit is most effective is downtown. Downtown needs to be higher even if you could max out the rest of the city at its current level. In that sense its not just about the height but being able to leverage the most effiency when it comes to getting people to those buildings.

And complaining about converting all of Dupont/Georgetown/any historic area is a strawman. If it were in the cards people would be suggesting it under the current limits.

by drumz on Nov 9, 2012 9:21 am • linkreport

"Like most I just don't understand people who would build cookie cutter high rises in places like the l'Enfant City, Georgetown, the French Quarter of New Orleans, Charleston's battery, Paris, London, etc."

Who is proposing hirises in Georgetown? You mention the "l'enfant city" well how about L'enfant Plaza? What are we preserving with height limts there? There are places within the L'enfant city that are NOT tree shaded blocks of townhomes, and are not even built out 130 ft office buildings. As for the French quarter, Im not sure why thats relevant to a discussion of DC. Arent there hirise nearby in the "american" downtown of NO? Certainly NYC has 100 story buildings - yet it also still has Washington Mews, the cast iron buildings of SoHo, and tree lined streets in the West Village and across North brooklyn.

As for the issue of transit infrastructure at the core being maxed out - I think a very worthwhile discussion for GGW, deserving a thread of its own, would be a detailed look at core transit capacity. Line by line and station by station. Simply to identify current and near future constraints. That is the background to a lot of what we discuss - not just metro ops and expansion, but density policy, and also DDOT's attempts to supplement metro rail for short inner city trips with streetcars, circulator buses, and cycling.

I think a tie between the seperated blue line and revenues from height waivers sounds increasingly logical. Though I would add that improving commuter rail service, esp MARC to L'enfant plaza, and other improvements are also significant.

I still think density makes sense at the CENTER. And yes, adding residential to that, both for vibrancy, and to lessen the burden on the transport system, makes sense as well.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 9:36 am • linkreport

thayer - re NYC 1. NYC has MUCH more office space than DC area in total. I suspect downtown and midtown EACH far exceed the District overall - and probably the district plus close in arlington, in terms of employees, office space, etc 2. the transport situation is radically different. Midtown is the transport center, with the most subway lines, the commuter rail stations, etc. Downtown is there mostly for historic reasons (Wall street is where it is because it was the early 19th c shipping center).BUT the financial district still has more rail transit access than ANY part of DC.

Where, pray tell, is there a place in the region outside of the L'enfant city with really good transit access - more than two metro lines? The best I can think of is Crystal City, and thats already being built up, all over again.

Also most of the likely candidates are being eyed (if not already built up) as residential areas with at most small amounts of office space - which is more logical for places on only one (or sometimes two) metro lines. As an example - supposed you targeted the Pepco plant at benning road for office space - that would take the place of residential development (i know we envision mixed use - the question is what is the mix) Does it make sense to place offices there, and put more residential further out, or to allow higher office development in the center and allow residential at places like benning road?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 9:45 am • linkreport

"only a few downtown blocks are truly maxed out; there are probably thousands of sites between the west end and Union Station, from D St SW to U St NW, that are far below the height limit and could be developed further. "

Well. yeah. Take, for example all those blocks of rowhouses between U and N street, between 14th and 9th. Not one is built out to the current statute height limit, right? But almost all are effectively built out - they are townhouse blocks, where we want nothing more than townhouses right? Thats the fallacy of the Paris comparison (One of the fallacies, anyway) Paris, AFAIK, does not have blocks and blocks of 2 and 3 story townhouses. You can get high density with a 6 story height limit, if you build 6 stories EVERYWHERE. But thats not DC, or really any American city (not even NYC - certainly not the best loved parts of NYC) and I don't think anyone seriously wants that least of all the folks who most often mention Paris in this context.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

Paris is great - but if you want Parisian density in DC, that would mean tearing down and redeveloping the entirety of DC's rowhouse-type densities and replacing it with 6-8 story construction.

I'm all for that scale of infill in those areas, don't get me wrong. But I don't think we'd want a wholesale change there, either. We can have density. We can have historic preservation. But in some cases, those two will be at odds with one another and tradeoffs will need to be made.

Likewise, even Paris has an adjacent, dense, very tall skyscraper district in La Defense.

Cities grow. This needs to be allowed to happen. The consequence of not allowing growth (whether via the height act or zoning or whatever) is that prices will continue to escalate in the face of strong demand.

The cost of the status quo is not zero, in other words.

If DC's height limit had been set at 175 feet, would anyone really notice? What about 200? Very few people notice that the buildings along Pennsylvania Ave are 160 feet.

by Alex B. on Nov 9, 2012 10:18 am • linkreport

To echo AWalker a bit, fine we can keep the current height limit as long as no one protests or otherwise impedes anyone who wishes to built up to that limit. So that hotel porposed for U st, it can go back to its orginal plans.

by nathaniel on Nov 9, 2012 10:21 am • linkreport

Of course we want our city to grow, it's only whether we're willing to give up a skyline and the quality of life that goes along with it. The incrimental approach would stimulate a lot of wastefull rebuilding becasue many of the existing downtown buildings couldn't just be added to without major retrofitting. And no one is willing to answer the question of what will happen in 50 years after the whole of downtown is built-out to the new 15-20 story limit. Are we going to go through the whole re-building process for the next 5-10 story increase? At what point do you say enough height? Another question not answered is what about SW all the way down to Ft. McNair or through out Foggy Bottom or the Navy Yard or across the river to the west of 295 or Brentwood, and those are just the central ones.

Yet another question not answered is how the planning of the streetcar lines and more metro lines could be done in concert with major upzoning to areas further out like Fort Totten, Frendship Heights, and others?

There's so much fallow land immediatly around the downtown core to say nothing of those areas in the inner beltway that going on a demolition/rebuilding orgee is completely irrational at this point. When the Paris example is brought up, what's meant more than a nice 6-8 story skyline is the idea that the density is more evenly spread out. Yes, keep the rowhouse neighborhoods, (no straw man here) becasue they are our tourist/beautiful centro historico's , but areas like Tennleytown and others are already feeling the 6-8 story condo pressure where historic fabric isn't being sacraficed. It can all be done in a nuanced way, but taking out the belt a couple of notches in downtown is only a temporary measure, while we could be spreading our the wealth to other areas.

by Thayer-D on Nov 9, 2012 10:54 am • linkreport

It can all be done in a nuanced way, but taking out the belt a couple of notches in downtown is only a temporary measure, while we could be spreading our the wealth to other areas.

Here's the thing, I think this is a false dichotomy.

It can be done in a nuanced way. And the development will spread to other areas in addition to allowing more density in the core.

The shape and type of that development might be different - maybe more office concentration in the core (but still mixed use) and more high density residential in those downtown-adjacent areas, rather than the kind of 'office sprawl' within the city we might see otherwise.

My larger point is this: we absolutely can build taller buildings in the core of DC without sacrificing the qualities that make it great.

by Alex B. on Nov 9, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

At what point do you say enough height?

Thought that question was answered in 1910, which is based on street geometry. What has changed to make this answer invalid? And no, citing high rents, strong demand, and other economic pressures is not a good enough reason.

by goldfish on Nov 9, 2012 11:05 am • linkreport

Why did they do it back then?

Again, it seems fairly arbitrary and that there isn't much difference between a 12 or 20 story building. People talk about light and air and the urban canyon effect except those are all present in downtown DC today.

by drumz on Nov 9, 2012 11:15 am • linkreport

And no, citing high rents, strong demand, and other economic pressures is not a good enough reason.

Why not?

by drumz on Nov 9, 2012 11:21 am • linkreport

@drumz: the builing that precipitated the 1910 law was The Cairo.

The reason why economic pressures are not good enough is that the geometric reasoning behind the law -- basically, to allow access to sunlight -- is timeless. As is all geometry.

by goldfish on Nov 9, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

The typical Parisan would consider the way we cannibalize our historic core to be barbaric.

You do know how Paris's current "historic core" was built, right?

Much like Southwest in the 1960s, they bulldozed half the city, and built new structures according to the popular architecture of the period.

A lot of buildings needed to be cleared (and residents displaced) to build Central Park in NYC.

Even the mall as we know it today is a fairly recent invention, thanks to the McMillan Plan (circa 1900), and the City Beautiful movement of that same era.

The "historic" and "this is the way that things have always been" arguments are incredibly short-sighted.

Let's move Washington into the next century, but let's do it carefully. Slightly taller buildings are probably OK, and we should fix the code so that it doesn't encourage rows of buildings with identical heights (a la K St). However, let's also not pretend that high-rise development doesn't have its drawbacks. I think that there really is an upper limit for how dense we should build.

by andrew on Nov 9, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

I know about the Cairo but I still say that it's probably a good idea to revisit 100 year old laws that were created in specific response to a building.

Again, as for the light question. That already happens with our 10-12 story buildings. The sun is in a different position everyday. I don't see how you can argue either way without descending into absurdity. Especially when you consider that DC is notable (for better or worse) for its lack of tall buildings rather than its presence. Clearly other cities have made the choice for impenetrable darkness that is so feared to rule over DC if we bump up the height limit.

All of that to say, I don't think its the height limit that is the key to Washington's livability. So it's not hands off.

by drumz on Nov 9, 2012 11:37 am • linkreport

"Another question not answered is what about SW all the way down to Ft. McNair or through out Foggy Bottom or the Navy Yard or across the river to the west of 295 or Brentwood, and those are just the central ones. "

whats the question? Near SE is well on its way to build out, under the current height limit. I think a good case could be made for more density there. Ditto for the parts of SW close to the waterfront metro. The areas further down towards Ft mcnair have serious issues with metro access.

the areas just EOTR have been discussed above - note the grey plan for Poplar Point, and my mention of the Pepco site. As for Brentwood, that seems on its way to densification as mostly residential under the current limits. Are you suggesting it should get more office uses? Or that it should get higher densities and heights than is currently allowed?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 11:53 am • linkreport

@drumz: yes the limits are arbitrary. But like many arbitrary things in our lives -- e.g., the 3/5 vote to end debate in the Senate, 21 year-old drinking laws, 120 V AC line voltage, driving on the right side of the street, changing the year on January 1, shaking a persons right hand as a greeting, etc. etc. -- changing a well established rule and custom that works well should be done only for very good reasons.

Yes the sun changes position by day of year and time of day. But to change the height limits to something taller is to reduce the amount of sun that falls on the street, for every day of the year. People that live in cities with tall buildings on narrow streets envy what we have here in DC. Indeed it is a major part of this city's appeal. To sacrifice this for the sake of a providing a better profits and more tax revenue would be killing the goose that laid the golden egg, clearly a very short sighted move.

So again, economic arguments are NOT enough.

by goldfish on Nov 9, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

"The reason why economic pressures are not good enough is that the geometric reasoning behind the law -- basically, to allow access to sunlight -- is timeless. As is all geometry."

so in a location alongside, say, the Anacostia River, where that would not be an issue, higher buildings would be okay?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

"But like many arbitrary things in our lives -- e.g., the 3/5 vote to end debate in the Senate, 21 year-old drinking laws, 120 V AC line voltage, driving on the right side of the street, changing the year on January 1"

most of those are things that have to be changed throughout an entire society and cannot be changed on a lot by lot basis, as a height limit can be. As for the drinking age, that was 18 for some time in lots of states, before a well organized group changed federal law. Currently it makes common behavior on college campuses illegal, leading to disrespect for law, IMO. It certainly makes sense to reexamine it periodically. And the filibuster rules in the Senate have changed as well and should also be reexamined.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

To sacrifice this for the sake of a providing a better profits and more tax revenue...

It's not about either of those things. It's about supply and demand. Cap supply in the face of strong demand, and the result will be very high prices. The land owners will still get their profits, it's just the middle class that will get hit with the high costs.

by Alex B. on Nov 9, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

Alex B: you get the quibble award.

by goldfish on Nov 9, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

re "is there a place in the region outside of the L'enfant city with really good transit access" ... I'm guessing Ft Totten is hopeless? The fact that two lines intersect is probably just an accident of planning, I'm guessing. I've never stepped outside the Metro station.

by M.V. Jantzen on Nov 9, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

I'm guessing Ft Totten is hopeless

Well they are building apts (condos?) next to the station, but the area is highly residential. Office development would be easier to do at Brookland.

by JW on Nov 9, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

So we decided on a limit 100 years ago so it worthless to discus it again. Especially since we can't even discuss the economic impacts.

by Drumz on Nov 9, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

Ah Fort Totten. 3 metro lines, no commuter rail. Yup, matches Rosslyn (though Rosslyn has the advantage of being walking distance to Georgetown).

But as JW points out, the new development there is residential, and is already taking place.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 1:00 pm • linkreport

@Drumz: (why is your name sometimes capitalized, sometimes not?): To re-open this issue settled long ago you need something more compelling -- somewhat akin to making a constitutional amendment. OTOH, a review of the reasoning behind the height limit is always welcome.

by goldfish on Nov 9, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

"To re-open this issue settled long ago you need something more compelling -- somewhat akin to making a constitutional amendment."

You can't be seriouis. A constitutional amendment?

As for the reasoning, the entire world is different from when it was enacted. architecture, building technology, transportation, the size and shape of metro DC, the amount of highway congestion, the economic role of the district within the metro area, the presence of home rule, the levels of residential and office rents, oh, and this little thing called global warming.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 1:12 pm • linkreport

I don't have a strong position one way or the other, but I think it's a fool's game to advocate a change on the basis of it will reduce rents. You can't honestly think an apt. in a 20 story highrise that now may have a view of the capitol and Washington monument is going to be any cheaper than rents right now. Not to mention the fact that just the building costs of such a highrise will be a lot more than all these frame midrises. I was looking at some apts. in Alexandria in some of those highrises, and they flat out told me that the same floorplans are more expensive on higher floors for no other reason than it's on a higher floor.

I think we all have to be honest here and just face the facts that this is an expensive town, and really nothing is going to change that. Except if this fiscal cliff thing happens, then half the people around here will be out of work. On an unrelated note, I was in Clarendon last night, and man what a difference from DC. I've never seen so many white people all in one place. There's really that big of a divide between there and east of the Potomac. +1,000 to Trader Joes. We need those things saturating DC. Not just the one near the rich college kids of GU and GW.

by Nickyp on Nov 9, 2012 1:18 pm • linkreport

You can't honestly think an apt. in a 20 story highrise that now may have a view of the capitol and Washington monument is going to be any cheaper than rents right now.

Of course not! But we're not talking about the supply of newly constructed units, we're talking about all units, and how housing units 'filter up' and 'filter down' in different submarkets.

http://www.austincontrarian.com/austincontrarian/2008/06/filtering.html

by Alex B. on Nov 9, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

I was on my phone for at least one comment and haven't noticed. It's the same person.

Anyway, as AWITC said: we should definitely be considering the reasoning. I personally think the economic argument (not just rent, but strain on the transportation network, efficiency of how we use resources) stack up pretty high compared to the sunlight issue or specific aesthetic issues.

Maybe I should narrow my focus because I think the height limit definitely needs to be raised (or rescinded) in Downtown. Because
A. the arguments about historic districts typically aren't in downtown areas so then we don't need to wring our hands about those areas.
B. Its the place where public transportation is most efficient. Because that's where its already focused.
C. Its where the demand is highest already
D. Less people live there so the sunlight issues that the building of the CAIRO brought up don't necessarily apply. And in the case of future residents, they know what they're getting into. If you don't want to live near tall buildings you don't move to where buildings are already tall.

Moreover, its just that the objections to raising the height limit either are strawmen (OMG they're going to tear down georgetown!) made sense in the past but don't apply today (we've got to fill in the empty lots) or again arbitrary (which you're right that everything is arbitrary in a sense but that just means that this should be easy to change rather than hard)

by drumz on Nov 9, 2012 1:30 pm • linkreport

Why just base the decision on where the transportation is the best now, when we've already agreed that we need to expant metro and add street cars? Also, SW isn't nearly builtout if you set that height limit to the 120' allowed in downtown, to say nothing about the other areas mentioned. But going from 10 to 12 stories again is a lot of energy and money wasted for such little return when we can spread out the downtown.

If there really is an upper limit we or most of us can agree on, let's stick to it for reasons that won't change everytime some developer whines about costs. For my money, the limit we have now is it, but only becasue it's dumb to tear everything down for another 2-3 stories. I definatley agree with goldfish that street sections vis-a-vis sunlight are a big part of what should constitute the limit, and beyond that build your non-habitable sculprutal hood ornament. It's just not realistic to say downtown is built out and there's no other place to go. We're not an island and there's plenty of land adjacent to downtown.

DC's incredibly expensive becasue it's the nations capital and people want to live in cities and so many money decisions get made here and it's a beautiful town etc. It's like Andres Duany said about parking problems, they only mean somthing's working right about a business climate. Let the pressure improve other parts of the city rather than kill one of the geese that layed this golden egg.

by Thayer-D on Nov 9, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

I'm all for developing other areas of the city (especially since a lot of SW is part of downtown already). I just think we don't need to depend on the height limit to do that.

by drumz on Nov 9, 2012 2:08 pm • linkreport

For my money, the limit we have now is it, but only becasue it's dumb to tear everything down for another 2-3 stories.

If we're only adding 2-3 stories, I doubt that would require a ton of teardowns.

I definatley agree with goldfish that street sections vis-a-vis sunlight are a big part of what should constitute the limit,

Sunlight is great - how is an absolute height limit a good regulator of that? The current height limit already puts places in shadows. We can easily add setbacks to additional height. Not a problem.

It's just not realistic to say downtown is built out and there's no other place to go.

We are getting pretty darn close. All those parking lots you see will be sprouting buildings sooner rather than later. Plus, the other places to go all involve serious trade-offs.

DC's incredibly expensive becasue it's the nations capital and people want to live in cities and so many money decisions get made here and it's a beautiful town etc.

All good indicators of the demand to live here. The supply needs to increase to match.

Moreover, this is not a fait accompli. These things do not require that DC be expensive.

http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv25n3/v25n3-7.pdf

by Alex B. on Nov 9, 2012 2:09 pm • linkreport

"Why just base the decision on where the transportation is the best now, when we've already agreed that we need to expant metro and add street cars? "

Im generally sympathetic to street cars, buyt they will not add the kind of capacity metrorail does. As for metro rail, the most likely expansion, a seperated blue line, won't add significantly to areas where office buildings can be built (though it may add to their value and hence revenue)

With respect to Poplar Point, I am eager to see proposed metro rail ideas that would make it more of a central place. Ditto for any other suggested additions to downtown. But $$ for new metro lines is necessarily limited, and youd need a whole bunch to make most of the places where development could expand into the equivalent of downtown.

as for teardowns for a couple of stories - if you auctioned/charged for a limited number of waivers, you could easily make it prohibitively expensive to tear down existing buildings built to the current limit and ensure that its only the buildings built on the current parking lots that take advantage of it.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 2:25 pm • linkreport

the most likely place where new transit could give us a place with high transit access is Crystal City. Through running frequent MARC trains, frequent VRE trains, and Columbia Pike street cars are things already in the works that would significant transit access. Add in a possible future heavy rail line to the southwest (more or less paralleling I395) which is one of the more realistic of the pie in the sky projects, and youve got something.

but thats not in the District, and I dont know if all you guys think directing development to Arlington is a good idea.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

and let me add the CCPY transitway

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 9, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

And fwiw, I think the height limit (if we must have one) should be a lot more than 2-3 stories.

by drumz on Nov 9, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

Just do defend rosslin: It is getting better. Some of the new buildings are pretty cool

by beatboxd on Nov 9, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

The height limit should not change. Access to sunlight is a basic right just as much as access to fresh air is a basic right. In addition, the generation of roof mounted solar power would be severely compromised by the building of tall buildings which block the sun.

If we want to generate a useful amount of power from roof based solar power then the city must be designed to protect access to the sun, which necessitates a height limit of 6-8 stories. I believe that roof mounted solar must play a significant role in a renewable-based energy system, which is something we must eventually move to.

Even if solar power generation is not a concern, access to sunlight is a basic right which trumps a property owner's right to build as tall as they want.

Finally, tall buildings do not result in a higher density when access to sunlight is protected. The taller you build, the more space is required between buildings so that they don't case shadows on each other. The result is a lower density than shorter, more closely spaced buildings.

I won't go into the aesthetic arguments against tall buildings, but I believe one could argue against taller buildings on the principle that they violate the human scale.

For all these reasons, the height limit of D.C. should not be increased.

by Patrick on Nov 9, 2012 4:29 pm • linkreport

No one said Georgetown was going to be torn down. I said it alone can't because it's the only historic district, under control of the Fine Arts Commission. And it's much better for that protection.

But the other historic districts are being torn down (facades preserved) to become more Crystal Cities. K Street doesn't matter because it's already completely destroyed (except for that one remaining mansion behind the big sign at 10th & K). And we're worse off for losing the historic buildings on K by not planning for a new financial district in another location in the 1950's.

The way Georgetown was protected as compared to what we are doing to similar l'Enfant City neighborhoods is a fair comparison to consider when deciding what we want our historic neighborhoods to become.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 9, 2012 6:09 pm • linkreport

As an architect who loves cities for their aesthetic beauty, I couldn't agree more with what Patrick said about excessive height violating human scale, and the impact that can have on both quality of life and real estate values. Like the argument for slower road designs there are worthwhile benifits to society by sacrificing some "efficiency" in density. But as it pertains more practical issues Alex, I'll try to respone to some of your points...

"If we're only adding 2-3 stories, I doubt that would require a ton of teardowns." Not sure I'd agree, at leat for the recent crop of buildings value engineered to with-in an inch of their life, but if structural engineers would sign off, it would be a viable compromise, but it still dosen't answer the eventual need for more space.

"Sunlight is great, but..." It's more about street section, which is partly to do with sunlight but more to do with geometry and how it affectts the qality of a space much like in a building's rooms.

"We can easily add setbacks to additional height. Not a problem." That sounds doable, but it kind of undercuts your argument that we "need" the extra height to relieve the pressure on prices.

"We are getting pretty darn close (to full build-out)."
-That dosen't address the points about adjacent areas, expanded metro service, and neighboring centers.

At WITC,
"But $$ for new metro lines is necessarily limited, and youd need a whole bunch to make most of the places where development could expand into the equivalent of downtown"
-How would you explain the local developers contributing to the silver line?

Quality of life issues need to be balanced with financial realities as the two are much more interconected as commonly understood.

by Thayer-D on Nov 9, 2012 9:49 pm • linkreport

Serious question, is it just too late for sunlight in tall downtowns? What if they're not even that tall like in a European city with a midieval grid. It gets pretty shadowy in those areas. Do we jut write all those places off? Or is there a way to apply that in DC where again, there are already shadows.

Is it really that impossible to just figure out how to deal with them?

by Drumz on Nov 9, 2012 10:20 pm • linkreport

This is a well-balanced article and the commenters give great reasons for and against the height limit. Personally, I don't know where I stand.

In this kind of situation, a wise idea is often to do a limited test pilot of the concept. Relaxing limits EOTR would be one way to pilot it (although I don't see huge towers going up EOTR right away even if the limit is relaxed). Another way to pilot is to allow a few modestly taller towers in a developing part of downtown. Maybe allow a few extra stories in a few blocks of NOMA or in a few blocks of the Navy Yard.

Start small and see what happens. Maybe rules set hundreds of years ago are still optimal today. But, I'd figure there's some way to tweak them to improve them and make them better for today.

by Falls Church on Nov 9, 2012 11:15 pm • linkreport

One point which I wish got more consideration is the idea that increasing downtown heights "takes the pressure off" and "creates greater affordability". Cities like San Francisco, New York and Boston have very tall downtowns clustered around multiple transit lines, but those cities are still extremely expensive. More affordable cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have tall downtowns clustered around multiple transit lines and also have expensive low-rise neighborhoods and affordable (often because extremely distressed) low-rise neighborhoods. Seattle has a very tall downtown and is generally affordable and in generally good shape, Detroit has a very tall downtown and is generally affordable and in generally rough shape. For folks concerned about fostering start-up businesses or increasing the supply of middle-income housing, I'd really appreciate some links to studies that quantify how increases in central-city hight limits foster those outcomes, absent additional regulatory controls and incentives.

by Wayne on Nov 10, 2012 11:31 am • linkreport

"At WITC,
"But $$ for new metro lines is necessarily limited, and youd need a whole bunch to make most of the places where development could expand into the equivalent of downtown"
-How would you explain the local developers contributing to the silver line?"

Im not sure what your question means. The local developers in Tysons are contributing, in exchange for density increases of considerable value. However they are NOT paying the entire non-federal share of the silver line - which is being partly paid by the Commonwealth, partly by the counties, and partly by the Dulles Road tolls. If you are going try something similar at say Poplar Point, where there is no toll road to contribute, you would have to have a very substantial district share. Secondly, the Silver line does NOT make Tysons the equivalent of downtown DC in transit access. It will be far from nearly as well served, and the lower density it will have on planned build out, and higher single occupant vehicle mode share, reflects that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 10, 2012 2:24 pm • linkreport

"But the other historic districts are being torn down (facades preserved) to become more Crystal Cities."

I'm curious to know which historic districts in DC are being torn down. (btw, if you think K street looks like crystal city, I suspect you don't know Crystal City all that well)

Even if there are some, thats happening under the current height limit, showing that it fails to protect historic areas. Raising the height limit selectively (and charging developers considerable $$,to go towards metrorail expansion) could relieve pressure on historic buildings.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 10, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

wayne - as far as I can tell few cities in the USA have height limits as constraints, most density limits (floor area ratios) that as constraints. I don't know that you will find any clean before and after experiments. Obviously demand matters as well as supply. One might expect cities that have increased allowable density to be precisely those that have experienced increased demand, which would confuse the causality.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 10, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

@falls church

while I generally like your idea of select spots as an experiment, and think in many ways the Navy Yard area is an ideal location to try, I am still concerned about increasing densities in places where relatively limited transit access (compared to downtown) means higher SOV mode share.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 10, 2012 2:33 pm • linkreport

JW wrote that "Transit infrastructure in the core seems to be close to maxed out as it is." Actually, Metrorail was built to handle 1M+ daily passengers -- Inauguration Day-scale crowds every single day. The problem is that growth did not end up being very balanced, so the western half of the system is overloaded while the eastern half has extra capacity.

by Payton on Nov 10, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

"However they are NOT paying the entire non-federal share of the silver line" That's why I said "local developers contributing to the silver line". The issue is there's a precedent for private money persuing public transit to increase density. And intelligent planning of yet more lines would build the kind of transit density that one finds in many areas of larger cities like London, Paris, and New york, and by most estimates, our growth rate is one of the best in the country. Let's start planning for future greatness, not by the size of our buildings, but by the intelligence of our planning.

by Thayer-D on Nov 10, 2012 8:43 pm • linkreport

thayer - my point is that even assuming DC gets developer contributions, the limits on public dollars are still constraining.

As for NYC, Paris and London - well let me speak to NYC which I know better. The total population of NYC is about 8 million (and has been for generations) which is higher than the entire metro area of greater washington. Most of its transit system was built at a time when autos were technically much less advanced and less competitive for travel (not to mention when the ratio of average income to the price of a vehicle was much lower).

The fact is its unreasonable to expect 5-6 metro lines within walking distance, in the next generation, at any of the proposed alternatives to the L'enfant city - either EOTR or brookland or Crystal City or wherever.

We are either going to see higher density in the L'enfant city, or we are going to see a shift in development to places with a higher SOV mode share than downtown Washington now has, or both. Fantasies about building multiple metro lines to Poplar Point, as if this were NYC in 1920, are not going to change that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 11, 2012 2:27 pm • linkreport

Walker- ? There are Metro stations at Brookland, at Crystal City,and at Anacostia close to Popular Point. EOTR there are stations at Deanwood, Minnesota Ave., Benning Road, Capitol Heights, and out in Congress Heights. All of those are pitifully underused while stations in the western part of the city are at or above capacity.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 11, 2012 10:46 pm • linkreport

A metro station with one line, or at most two, is not going to achieve the same level of transit share for an employment center as downtown DC. I've tried to make this distinction clear in my above posts.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 12, 2012 7:14 am • linkreport

Walker,
If you're talking about waiting a generation (20) years, you're right, but that's where SW, Foggy Bottom, the Navy Yard, come in handy. It's just not right to assume these areas can't take the next 20 years of development while we plan for the future. Also, isn't NYC building a subway line as we speak? It isn't just about the 1920's lines, it's something that every forward looking city is planning on now.

by Thayer-D on Nov 12, 2012 8:36 am • linkreport

by generation I am thinking more like 30 years, or even 40. Its quite possible all those areas will be built out well before then.

Yes, NYC is building the second avenue subway. Thats one line, in the last 25 years (the 63rd street queens line was the last before that - for a grand total of two since the 1950s, I think) Thats not enough to create new downtowns in DC outside the L'enfant city.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 12, 2012 10:02 am • linkreport

The Metro stations and trains through the center are swamped every morning. We've passed capacity on several of them. But people want to strain the infrastructure more by building new growth even higher in the same spots? While stations EOTR lay fallow?

Let's force/entice new development into the areas around our underused stations.

And I don't see why it takes multiple lines to makes a station viable for development. Anyplace on the Metro is easily accessible (with the possible exception of the saturated center stations).

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 12, 2012 11:31 am • linkreport

Metro capacity is not maxed out - there are huge capacity increases in more frequent trains and all 8-car operation that can be implemented before you have to build a new tunnel through the city.

You don't have to have multiple lines just to make a station viable but the stations at the center of the system served by multiple lines (and the areas served by multiple stations with several lines like Farragut N/W) are far more accessible than the outer stations and therefore will have a higher transit mode share.

by MLD on Nov 12, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

Turns out that in a transportation system focused on getting people downtown, the best place to use transit is downtown.

Moreover, DC's tallest buildings are already downtown and the prohibition on tall buildings was because one building overshadowed the rest a hundred years ago and people freaked out. Now most of the buildings are the same height and the area is overwhelmingly office anyway.

I think we'll be fine without the height limit.

by drumz on Nov 12, 2012 5:30 pm • linkreport

“It can also make neighborhoods more office-heavy and less residential. Foggy Bottom has changed enormously from a generation ago. Dupont Circle was moving aggressively in that direction before some strict zoning and historic preservation limits halted the trend.”

Does this article, and this whole debate, impliedly assume that getting Congress to amend the Height of Buildings Act would be politically easier than having the DC City Council raise neighborhoods like Dupont and Capitol Hill to the existing limit? Is that why the remedy for the "problem" is sought in increasing the height of those areas already the tallest rather than continuing a horizontal expansion out along the metro lines, which would make good use of existing infrastructure and require no changes to the Act? Or is it believed that increasing height in the center is preferable to continued horizontal growth, and so efforts should be concentrated there?

by RTA on Nov 12, 2012 11:29 pm • linkreport

Or is it believed that increasing height in the center is preferable to continued horizontal growth, and so efforts should be concentrated there?

It's this. Increasing density in the center is preferential because the transit access is better.

Also, almost nobody wants to tear down Dupont and Capitol Hill and replace them wholesale with max-height buildings.

by MLD on Nov 13, 2012 8:33 am • linkreport

what MLD said on Nov 12

There are office buildings near the Vienna and Dunn Loring metro stations, and have been for several years. However most employees there drive to them, AFAICT.

Do you want metro access to justify zoning for office buildings? Or do you want it to actually achieve high transit mode share?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2012 9:06 am • linkreport

“There are office buildings near the Vienna and Dunn Loring metro stations, and have been for several years. However most employees there drive to them, AFAICT.”

You’d expect that, though, given that these are primarily park-and-ride stops at the end of the line? Even the immediately surrounding area is not hospitable to walking or biking. My reference was to steady densification outwards from the core, moving north along the red line, south along the green, and east along the blue and orange lines. From a regional standpoint, these stops are all so close together that it really shouldn’t affect the choice of mode. Yet in terms of the space provided for new construction, it is immense.

by RTA on Nov 13, 2012 12:15 pm • linkreport

Gotta love our wasteful legislature...spending millions on a "study" to see whether or not to allow developers to build taller buildings. Only in America.

I see EH Norton has so much time on her hands beyond advocating for DC's voting rights...

by Brule on Nov 13, 2012 4:54 pm • linkreport

RTA

I'm willing to make a bet that the transit mode share is lower for offices near Navy Yard, near say Braddock Road metro, etc than for downtown DC. One rail line means more transfers, lower frequencies, and longer and less convenient transit commutes for lots of travelers. Office development is different from residential in that respect. A commuter to Navy Yard from Petworth or Suitland is not much inconvenienced by having one metro line - a commuter from Silver Spring, Alexandria, or Burke, is more likely to take their car.

I would also note that some of the best transit stops for office development, are probably also the best for residential redevelopment. Given 1/4 mile or so pedsheds around transit stations, given legacy buildings that cannot be torn down near many of them, pushing more office use to them may simply mean less residential. Im not saying there will be no office development at the EOTR metro station as part of mixed use - but that to try to use them as substitutes for building up downtown is going to represent lots of tradeoffs, in both transit share and residential potential.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2012 5:15 pm • linkreport

Like in all things design and urban, beauty is the key. Another glass box, however low, further decimates Washington's character; a well-designed, beautiful building in an appropriate style will feel organic at six stories in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Why is simple common sense not on the table?

Because common sense is not so common; especially among designers and urbanists who, like me, were made to unquestioningly drink the Kool-Aid.

Open your heart, not your [modern] portfolio; ask your (non-architect) spouse or lover. They'll set you right.

by Nir Buras on Dec 3, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

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