Greater Greater Washington

Height limit questions, answers, and more questions

The question over whether or not to raise DC's height limit has come up periodically for several years, but gained new traction earlier this month when some members of Congress asked for a study about modifying the height limit legislation. With the possibility of actual change looming, more and more people are weighing in.


Arlington's Orange Line corridor. Home to tall buildings, good for the region. Photo by the author.

Most height limit opponents have so far based their position on the argument that taller buildings downtown would be more economically efficient, and that allowing some offices to be located outside downtown is costing DC a lot of money.

The latest to do so is David Schleicher at The Atlantic Cities, who opposes the height limit and poses a series of questions to supporters.

Having long advocated for raising the limit strategically, both downtown and in surrounding areas, I cannot be characterized as a height limit supporter. But I also think that the economic arguments put forth by the loudest height limit opponents, including Schleicher, are too narrow and miss important considerations.

That in mind, Schleicher's questions are worth discussing.

Supply and demand

Schleicher argues that DC's height limit is restricting the supply of available buildings, which is making it impossible to meet the demand for office space in the city. He says,

But if Height Act proponents think limits on supply do not increase prices, why not? Is it some distinction between housing and offices and other markets? If so, what is your model of how office and housing markets work?
Obviously there is a connection between supply and demand. But is the height limit really limiting DC's supply?

There is currently around 100 million square feet of office space in downtown DC, which makes it the 3rd largest downtown in America after New York and Chicago. Despite no skyscrapers, downtown DC currently has a greater supply of office space than downtown San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles.

More importantly, DC's supply of potential building space is not anywhere close to being maxed out under current regulations. The height limit is not currently restricting supply in the vast majority of DC. It is only restricting supply within the area roughly bounded by Massachusetts Avenue and the National Mall.

It's true that DC's historic rowhouse neighborhoods are largely off-limits to significant densification, but large sections of central DC are nonetheless available. Even with the height limit, there is room for at least double downtown's current square footage in underbuilt areas of NoMa, Southwest, and along the Anacostia and Potomac waterfronts. Without touching DC's height limit or its historic rowhouse neighborhoods, there is room for decades of additional growth within a radius of 2 miles of the Capitol.

There would be even more room available for infill if the decision were ever made to redevelop Roosevelt Island, Bolling Air Force Base, or National Airport. Doing so would surely be controversial, but should at least be discussed in an honest assessment of options.

So it is simply not true that the height limit is restricting building supply in DC overall.

It is, however, true that the supply of buildable space is being limited in that geographically small downtown area. This brings up Schleicher's next questions.

Where and how to grow

Schleicher asks a few questions:

Why do you think development should be spread out? What effect do you think limiting heights has on agglomeration, including the depth of local markets and information spillovers? Do you believe in a single optimal city form? And why do you think DC captures it? Or are height limitations somehow a particularly good fit for a national capital?
Opponents of the height limit like to ask why DC's existing limit is so special. If the height limit happened to be 20 stories instead of what it is, would supporters still claim it's the perfect regulation?

Opponents need to answer the opposite question.

"Downtown DC" used to only mean a few blocks near Pennsylvania Avenue. Now it means a larger area, spanning from New Hampshire Avenue on the west to Union Station on the east. Since downtown is the only area being functionally limited by the height act, what about the current extents of downtown DC make it the perfect geography?


Bird's eye view of Washington by Charles Parsons, 1880. Image via PrintCollection.

Downtown grew from that area around Pennsylvania Avenue to its current extents because of the height limit. Since that growth happened, buildings at 19th and Eye Streets are not generally considered to be much more poorly located than buildings at 12th and G. In the future, if the height limit is kept, downtown will again grow to encompass NoMa, Southwest, and the waterfronts, and they will not be considered any more out of the way than the West End is considered today.

If it was OK for downtown to expand to include the West End, why isn't further expansion OK too? What's so magical about today's definition of downtown, which is different from the definition a few decades ago and will surely be different again in the future?

Theoretically it would be possible to cluster all the office space in downtown DC in no more than a dozen super-tall skyscrapers covering only a couple of blocks. And some day in the future we might even be able to fit all of it in one single thousand-story building, covering only a single square block. Would that be ideal?

If maximum agglomeration were desirable, it follows that we'd want a much smaller downtown than we have today.

Granted, that thousand-story example is reductio ad absurdum, but the point is simply that there's nothing magical about the current definition of downtown DC, so any argument that's based on solving the problem of restricted supply within that current definition is necessarily flawed.

So the question is not "how can we fit more office space in the area currently defined as downtown?" Rather, it's "where do we want future office space?"

If we want to have more space specifically at, say, Farragut Square, then we can raise the height limit around Farragut Square without eliminating it completely for all of downtown. I'm OK with that.

But we also have to recognize that there are many benefits to spreading development around a little bit. We don't want sprawl, of course, but the region is better off for having vital mixed-use neighborhood uptowns like Bethesda and Clarendon spread near the core.

If all the office space is clustered in a small office ghetto downtown, that deprives the surrounding neighborhoods of key mixed use elements. Not only daytime office workers, but also office-reliant retail and support services that are necessary for any successful mixed-use district.

The desirability of mixed use neighborhoods is one of the most basic premises of contemporary urbanism, and it's why many people who care about good cities want to spread some office space around outside of downtown districts. Unless we're prepared to force everyone to live within walking distance of downtown, we need healthy neighborhood uptowns that are mixed-use.

Economists seem to have a difficult time grasping this point. It's probably true that it's economically more efficient to cluster offices more than we're currently doing (though surely not to that single thousand-story building extent). But the economic models being employed so far in this debate don't take into account livability or good urbanism. The benefits of spreading some office development to uptown districts aren't captured if all you're thinking about is property values at 12th and G.

And it's not just the uptowns that reap the livability benefits of the height limit. Downtown DC does too.

With the exception of New York, no large city in the US has fewer surface parking lots in its downtown than Washington.


Surface parking (red), above-ground garages (yellow) and park space (green) in 4 US cities in 2011. Left to right, top to bottom: Houston, Milwaukee, Little Rock, Washington. Images from Old Urbanist.

Because of the height limit, it is less economical here to let properties lay fallow than in any of our peer cities. This means there are no gaps in the urban fabric, which improves downtown's walkability.

But again, the near-certain likelihood that gaps in the urban fabric would develop without a height limit is not something that's captured in the economic models.

Questions for opponents

Schleicher's questions deserved discussion, but height limit opponents need to answer some questions themselves. The economists who seem to be largely driving the movement to repeal have so far focused on a narrow set of arguments, and ignored or attempted to marginalize any broader issues. That's not a recipe that will result in buy-in from anybody who doesn't already agree.

Some questions that height limit opponents more fervent than myself need to answer:

  1. What about the current extents of downtown DC make you think it is the perfect geography in which to cluster office development?
  2. Do you accept that there are reasons some people like the height limit which cannot be captured in traditional cost-benefit models?
  3. Instead of repealing the height limit, would you accept modifying it to permit taller buildings only at specific and limited locations? If so, how might you go about determining those locations?
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

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Glad to see some intelligent discusion on this issue. Finally.

We have something really unique and beautiful in DC. But fuck it, let's throw it away and let the market decide. It is always right.

In terms of commerical rents, the biggest problem is this thing called the federal govement, followed by the WB/IMF/IADB, followed by embassies. I'd guess they account for more than 50% of all workers downtown. (feds, about 80K, WB probably another 20K, embassies around 20K).

by charlie on Nov 28, 2012 10:40 am • linkreport

The economists who seem to be largely driving the movement to repeal have so far focused on a narrow set of arguments, and ignored or attempted to marginalize any broader issues.

I don't think that is a fair critique. What the economists are doing is making people explicitly evaluate the trade-offs.

What about the current extents of downtown DC make you think it is the perfect geography in which to cluster office development?

In a word: demand. Rents show tremendous demand for more space in the core.

Limiting density also prevents the formation of deep markets (which is Schleicher's best point, IMO). The traditional office functions of downtown spreading out means that those downtown-adjacent areas are also the high-rent districts, rather than the different kinds of clusters and agglomerations we might otherwise see.

Do you accept that there are reasons some people like the height limit which cannot be captured in traditional cost-benefit models?

Sure, but that is not an excuse to punt on the question of trade-offs.

Instead of repealing the height limit, would you accept modifying it to permit taller buildings only at specific and limited locations? If so, how might you go about determining those locations?

Maybe - why not do both?

Again, it's all a discussion of the trade-offs. It's rather hard to talk about those trade-offs honestly when some things are sacred cows from the get-go.

by Alex B. on Nov 28, 2012 10:49 am • linkreport

"What about the current extents of downtown DC make you think it is the perfect geography in which to cluster office development? "

I don't think anyone says it is. Folks like Schleicher want the market to set the extent rather than have the height limit force it. Cities without height limits have seen development spread - NYC with 100 story buildings, still has office development in Jersey City, in Brooklyn, and in Queens. Costs of very tall construction will push those uses that least benefit from agglomeration economies (and from maximal transit availability) out. Can we do better than the market in determining the optimal pace of that? And if we can, is the current height limit driving an optimal pace? Would a slighly modified one do so? A highly modified one?

".Do you accept that there are reasons some people like the height limit which cannot be captured in traditional cost-benefit models? "

Yes. But. A. Some of those can be captured in a modified cost benefit model (EG - The cost is 1 billion dollars, you get x many hours of additional sunlight hitting Y people is one of person sunlight really worth z dollars?) B. Some of the non traditional benefits are offset by non traditional costs (A less gappy NoMa, is also a NoMa where office development is competing with residential development, pushing more residential development to formerly working class african american neighborhoods, and creating issues of affordability and intergroup tension)

"Instead of repealing the height limit, would you accept modifying it to permit taller buildings only at specific and limited locations? If so, how might you go about determining those locations? "

Yes, BUT. How limited? How would I go about it? Well I would try to do it in such a way as to focus on lots that are not built out at the current limit, rather than those that are. Tearing down an old building to add a few stories is a rather ungreen thing to do, because of the carbon embodied in the existing building. If we force NEWw buildings on currently underbuilt lots to be built to the current limit, we add to the dilemma for future generations. That is why there is a time pressure.

And I am curious for the source of the

"Even with the height limit, there is room for at least double downtown's current square footage in underbuilt areas of NoMa, Southwest, and along the Anacostia and Potomac waterfronts. Without touching DC's height limit or its historic rowhouse neighborhoods, there is room for decades of additional growth within a radius of 2 miles of the Capitol"

Does this reflect currently UC and planned development? There is a considerable delay due to real estate planning, govt approvals, financing, design, and of course construction itself. Any change in the height limit done tomorrow will impact developments starting maybe in 2014, more like 2015. And of course it won't be changed tomorrow. Even Issa-Norton expect about a year of study and I could easily see that taking longer - and after that would come a couple of years of debate and compromise. So we are talking about a change in the law in say 2015, impacting buildings coming to market in 2018.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 28, 2012 10:51 am • linkreport

also

of that room - do you assume that every sq foot of available space in NoMa, SW etc becomes office space? Because if so that seems to contradict your concern for mixed use - it means less residential in those places. Indeed you could structure changes to the height limit in downtown to encourage more mixed use - give additional height only for mixed use buildings, for example.

I also wonder how much of that space is in places that have easy access to only one heavy rail metro line - like the land east of (but along) the Anacostia for example. What is the impact of moving more office space to such locations on transit mode share?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 28, 2012 10:57 am • linkreport

Downtown and DC should keep the heighth limitations as it is what makes this city beautiful. If you create tall buildings for renting someone makes money on the deal but the light and air blocked out cannot be replaced. Streets then have a dark canyon feel and no blue sky can be seen. We don't want to be another New York, there should only be one NY.

by Sally on Nov 28, 2012 11:06 am • linkreport

What about the current extents of downtown DC make you think it is the perfect geography in which to cluster office development?

A. Transit access. This is where the metro lines all converge and you're never more than a few blocks from each metro line.

B. There should be a more specific definition of downtown of course. I thinks its reasonable to come to one for planning purposes. Otherwise we'll end up playing semantics games.

Do you accept that there are reasons some people like the height limit which cannot be captured in traditional cost-benefit models?

Of course. But the counter is that these preferences have a cost themselves and is it worth said cost? Moreover there are ways to mitigate these costs anyway so why discuss the mitigation techniques. Surely when so many other cities have dealt with this question. People complain that economic models don't account for livability but yet the same detractors don't try to come up with a way to quantify livability in order to factor it into a CBA.

Instead of repealing the height limit, would you accept modifying it to permit taller buildings only at specific and limited locations? If so, how might you go about determining those locations?

Well, duh. That's the likely outcome if anything is to change. You figure out the locations by all the stuff we've talked about previous such as demand, transit access, impact on livability and what not.

by drumz on Nov 28, 2012 11:15 am • linkreport

Good post. To add a bit of data to the discussion, I offer two maps that show the height restrictions in DC. (To be more precise, they show my interpretation of the zoning laws, which may not be entirely correct.) On the maps, orange and dark orange represent 90-foot and 110-foot limits, and aqua represents a 40-foot limit.

by PeakVT on Nov 28, 2012 11:15 am • linkreport

I actually wrote "my" response and sent the article to a friend of mine yesterday arguing the six questions raised. I've pasted the body of that text below, with very slight modification to clarify some points.

1. Sure, limiting supply does drive up cost, but I fail to see how easing a height restriction would actually increase supply. This gets back to the idea of zoning, where the zone sets a whole host of guidelines that include density along with height. I may limit your density to a floor area ratio of 8 – that is you can build over 100% of your lot the equivalent of 8 floors tall, or easier to understand, a building where the total square footage is 8x that of the lot’s square footage. That could take the form of 1 boxy lot covering 8 story (~90’) tall building, a semi-boxy building that is 10 story (~120’) tall, common in DC with a small courtyard and wide sidewalk, a 14 story (~170’) tall building with a nice public space for a fountain and a tree plus the large sidewalk, similar to downtown Bethesda, or a 18 story (~220’) tall building one may find in Arlington that also has wide sidewalks, courtyards, or even in Tysons, a parking lot. Each building has the same leasable area, but in this scenario DC has the lowest building height limit and Arlington the highest. Did lifting the height limit change density? No, it probably just made for a better street-scape, which is nice but may actually make prices go higher, not lower! Raising height limits only makes a difference if there is no density limitation in the Zoning code.

2. Maybe development shouldn't be spread out, but if it were not, I can assure you Navy Yard, Waterfront, U Street, Columbia Heights, NOMA, all would likely still be less desirable and underdeveloped areas, Arlington may have still urbanized but Tysons and Reston probably would not be as dense, and Bethesda may have grown, but Rockville would just be a Walmart and some townhouses. I suppose a planner could argue DC’s height limit has led to some sprawl, but it’s also led to a better regional distribution of wealth and jobs, and it’s driven a lot of urban form growth outside the city In many ways its greatly improved the mixed use communities in the area, generating the articles about 'walk-ups' and been a haven for urbanites. The author admits this but acts like it’s a terrible deal for land owners financially to regulate density this way, I’m sure land owners in Fairfax would disagree!

3. I guess I’m clearly in the new urbanists tribe. Honestly I’d not care if there were a few really tall buildings mixed in with mid-rise ones, but I do believe in limiting urban density to a dense but not too dense level. At some point infrastructure can’t keep up with the higher density, Manhattan possibly being the only semi-local example where an entire cultural shift has occurred to keep the island functioning with taxi's, four track subways and a totally walkable grid. DC has a lot of this going for it, but the growing pains to turn DC into a Manhattan would be enormous, and the level of new density needed to justify/fund the public improvements would be large.

4. Clearly DC IS growing without growing up. I suppose that brings back the point from an earlier article in The Baltimore Brew that DC’s outward growth is greatly cutting it’s crime through gentrification, and from some suburban jurisdictions like PG county it may be a negative, but I’m sure DC officials are very happy with the results. And really, to quote that only Brooklyn has lots of row houses and short apartment buildings? Has this guy never been to Baltimore or Philadelphia? Sure it’s still a rare city form in America, although it’s one that is slowly becoming more standard across the country, as most new infill development is townhomes and garden apartments, not single family detached houses.

5. Of course DC would not be as tall as NY, unless the city started to allow 3x the current density downtown, and a building happened to have its main tenant ending its lease, no one would tear down their 95% leased building tomorrow to build a new taller one. It would take 40 years for the city to really change, you’d likely just have a handful of tall buildings sticking over the flat skyline for quite a while, especially if we raised the height limit only in the downtown neighborhoods that make the most "economic" sense.

6. I’d say the aesthetic is worth a lot more than this author is giving it credit for. Using the shadow tax argument has little merit with me again because a much denser downtown would likely have been at the expense of many of the city’s outer neighborhoods, which would therefore not be contributing to the city taxes like they do today.

I think Dan hit a lot of these same points in his blog above. I also don't want to say i'm completely against raising the height limits, but there should be a lot of study involved to determine why it's being raised, and how much/where it should be raised to achieve the wanted results.

by Gull on Nov 28, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

Excellent post. I can't see there being any good arguments for raising the height limit beyond "developers could make more money". Downtown has shifted over the years and will continue to as the city grows dismantles the argument that demand in one arbitrarily confined area is the metric for deciding to increase the height limit there.

"Limiting density also prevents the formation of deep markets (which is Schleicher's best point, IMO). The traditional office functions of downtown spreading out means that those downtown-adjacent areas are also the high-rent districts, rather than the different kinds of clusters and agglomerations we might otherwise see."

This makes no sense when you think of New Yorks two office districts of Downtown and Midtown. Is the area in between those two office districts berift of "different kinds of clusters and agglomerations"? Of course not. The idea that high rents are a problem is an alternate universe where economic vitality is seen as a problem. Reminds me of the traffic engineers who saw gridlock in downtowns so they tore out chunks of it to accomodate big highways to move cars. It's the Robert Moses approach to urban plannng, linear and dumb. Imagine the "demand" argument for residential space in Georgetown or Dupont. That's what reinvigorated Logan Circle, U street etc. Dupont's high costs don't harm Logan circle's prices any more than developing SW as an office district would harm today's downtown. If anything, it would allow for more of a mix uf uses that would ensure that both areas wouldn't be dead zones after dark. I thought these lessons where well ingrained by now.

by Thayer-D on Nov 28, 2012 11:28 am • linkreport

"Arlington may have still urbanized but Tysons and Reston probably would not be as dense,"

What do you suppose the transit mode share, the SOV mode share, or the walk/bike mode share is for Reston Town Center, or for Tysons now, or for Tysons as its planned to be, compare to downtown Washington? Higher densities at RTC and Tysons are good things if the alternative is more development sprawled around the region - in Loudoun, Chantilly, PWC, etc, etc. If its vs more development in downtown DC, it means higher green house gas emissions.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 28, 2012 11:29 am • linkreport

@thayer - rent is relative. NYC rents are high because its one of the economic capitals of the world. If Midtown and downtown had say, 20 story height limits, would the area between have its specialized centers? I doubt it - the overflow from midtown and downtown would pushed them out.

Once again - equilibrium price comes where supply and demand intersect. An increase in demand (usually) a result of economic vitality. A constraint on supply is something different.

I am also confused how having more office development in SW will make it less of a dead zone after dark - wouldnt more residential and entertainment use do that?

Did pushing lots of office use to Rosslyn make it a lively area?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 28, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

"People complain that economic models don't account for livability but yet the same detractors don't try to come up with a way to quantify livability in order to factor it into a CBA."

So if people can't come up with a way to quantify livability the issue is off the table? At the meeting in Silver Spring on Green Spaces that Dan Reed wrote about, the Moco planner did an economic analysis to show how having good green space actually increases the value of the surrounding areas. In other words, there are ways to quantify quality of life, it's just that there are so many other aspects that can't be quantified.

by Thayer-D on Nov 28, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

Very nice piece and comments.

The reason that I favor puncturing the height limit somewhat is that the current system has two very significant negative effects: (1) it prices out all but the most expensive building uses, which focus around serving the federal government (law, trade associations, contractors, lobbyists) and this has deleterious impact on supporting innovation (cf. the Jane Jacobs argument about a large stock of old buildings being necessary to support innovation); (2) the central business district continues to expand outward "reproducing" space (to use the urban sociologist argot) to office buildings, although now added housing.

THis just doesn't impact downtown. It ends up repricing and reproducing all commercial property, including outside of the core (witness the price for crappy properties in neighborhood commercial districts) and for industrial land (nonindustrial uses price out industrial uses, which can only afford to pay what is economically justifiable based on their business model).

Gulf makes many good points, arguing that places like NoMA or Navy Yard are still secondary sites compared to the prime sites downtown.

That is true and why I think that allowing the height limit to be punctured outside of the core isn't likely to have much positive impact. Businesses don't want to locate in Friendship Heights or Deanwood in taller buildings at a lesser price per square foot, they want to be downtown, or as close to it as possible.

It is possible that changing the height limit for Poplar Point would result in a significant "space reproduction" and expansion of "downtown" to there. It would compete against Rosslyn, although Rosslyn has some advantages--better transit service, and proximity to Georgetown--but who knows, it would be very interesting to watch.

The other reason that I think the cost of space in DC really matters is how much NoVA developers work to cherry pick leases for organizations currently located in DC. Go to any real estate conference sponsored by NoVA jurisdictions, talks by Stephen Fuller, Bisnow or WBJ conferences and pay very close attention to the presentations and the marketing materials of the building owners.

Partly the issue is that more people are living in NoVA, agglomeration benefits for being outside of the city (e.g., the likely move by Intelsat is only one example), but it is also about larger buildings offering more contiguous space and cheaper rents.

However, and I have written about this issue a lot, I think that changing the height limit now will take decades to begin having the kinds of positive impacts that I think it would have on the cost of space.

While the impacts on viewsheds could be very significant and negative. It's definitely a conundrum.

by Richard Layman on Nov 28, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

Thayer,
The idea that high rents are a problem is an alternate universe where economic vitality is seen as a problem.

Except that the economic vitality is only part of the reason why the rents are higher. There is also the contstraint on new supply because of the zoning. You're right that demand in Dupont shifted eventually to U Street and so forth but there are limits to this and the same applies to an ever increasing definition of downtown.

Gull,
Arlington may have still urbanized but Tysons and Reston probably would not be as dense, and Bethesda may have grown...and it’s driven a lot of urban form growth outside the city

Density is not the same as design.

by drumz on Nov 28, 2012 11:39 am • linkreport

"In a word: demand. Rents show tremendous demand for more space in the core."

Walking around the west end, I see a lot of floors vacant. Also in Georgetown, although that isn't the "core". Ditto for K st.

I'll grant you there is a demand for private office space downtown. However, to the extent you're unhappy about high DC commerical rents, it more of a market failure than a market success. As I said, the nature of DC jobs market is highly skewed.

by charlie on Nov 28, 2012 11:40 am • linkreport

"DC has a lot of this going for it, but the growing pains to turn DC into a Manhattan would be enormous, and the level of new density needed to justify/fund the public improvements would be large."

Why not tie increased heights to transit proffers? Fund a seperated blue with it. How much dollars could you get with an intermediate increase in height, what would that fund in transit improvements - and what would rail congestion look like when those are done? Those are questions that need to be studied, IMO.

And what is the impact on transportation congestion - both rail and road - of build out to the current height limits in SW, NoMa, along the waterfronts, etc?

Has anyone here tried to board a green line train at Navy Yard station when theres a baseball game? What do you imagine it will be like at build out? If you pursue a strategy of keeping the height limits but continuing to grow at the current pace, you will STILL need major infrastructure improvements.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 28, 2012 11:41 am • linkreport

As someone who is in favor of taller buildings in DC, I found this article's arguments for maintaining the Height Act reasonable and compelling. Beyond the economic arguments for or against repeal, I view this debate primarily from an architectural perspective. Height and density are not the same thing.

Height is but one parameter determining the bulk of buildings. F.A.R., lot occupancy and setbacks are other important factors. Current zoning restrictions in downtown areas force development into predictable boxy structures, all built to the extents of the allowable envelope.

If the building height restriction were relaxed, but the allowable density was maintained or increased by a smaller proportion relative to the height increase, a greater flexibility in building massing could be achieved. This would allow developers to hit the maximum density in a variety of ways (taller and narrower vs. shorter and wider) and avoid the architectural sameness so evident in areas like K Street.

by David B on Nov 28, 2012 11:41 am • linkreport

Thayer-D, Regarding the quantification of livability,

And if you can quantify the effects on green space on housing prices then surely you can do the same for sunlight and what not.

What happens instead is people say "you're only thinking in dollars and cents but some things are more important that that!" without showing why. So its not off the table its that you need something more compelling than repeating its more important that something else.

by drumz on Nov 28, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

@WITC
"If Midtown and downtown had say, 20 story height limits, would the area between have its specialized centers? I doubt it - the overflow from midtown and downtown would pushed them out."

So you're saying that the only reason they didn't flatten Grenwich Village is becasue it made more sense to tear down the Singer Building, a 47 story 1908 skyscraper in Wall Street for a 75 story glass box rather than take out some 4 story Greek Revival rowhouses? Which still begs the question of why they jumped that area for midtown. Any suggestions?

Also, was it high rents that drove the construction of the Empire State Building and World Trade Center towers? No, they where all constructed in and around recession/depressions, and wheren't filled up for years following their construction. They where ego trips. Mind you, if you could guarantee that we'd get a crop of buildings more like the Empire State building rather than some grotesque starchitect creations we might be having a conversation. Just kidding, I like the height limit.

by Thayer-D on Nov 28, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

The elephant in the room here is taxes.

by charlie on Nov 28, 2012 11:45 am • linkreport

thayer

1. Im not suggesting the built form of those areas would have been different - IIUC geology was a constraint, as well as later historic preservation. Im saying that the uses would have been different. Investment banks would have outbid, say, fashion oriented uses in the fashion districts as an example. Preserving buildings does not preserve uses. And of course I am thinking of commercial uses - not residential areas - arent those the kinds of specialized areas we are discussing?

2. 100 story buildings are generally uneconomical and are built for reasons of prestige. I dont think a 100 story height limit would have any economic value that a 40 story height limit would not have.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 28, 2012 11:49 am • linkreport

"It is possible that changing the height limit for Poplar Point would result in a significant "space reproduction" and expansion of "downtown" to there. It would compete against Rosslyn, although Rosslyn has some advantages--better transit service, and proximity to Georgetown--but who knows, it would be very interesting to watch."

Thank you. I continue to be befuddle at the lack of discussion of transit in this debate. The change proponents drag out Econ 101 models and dont talk much about reality on the ground - perhaps because some of them dont live in the region? And the proponents of keeping the height limit, or making modest changes (and focusing those on places like Poplar Point) go on about the Parisian style walkability of downtown DC, without looking at the actual impact of the height limit on transportation mode share in the region - focusing on aesthetics only.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 28, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

Despite no skyscrapers, downtown DC currently has a greater supply of office space than downtown San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles...It's true that DC's historic rowhouse neighborhoods are largely off-limits to significant densification, but large sections of central DC are nonetheless available.

DC occupies significantly more land area than the downtowns of those other cities (3-4x the size of downtown Boston, about 2x the size of downtown SF -- and it is difficult to characterize downtown LA since a lot of Class A office space is now being leased in Bunker Hill), I agree that large sections are still ripe for development.

But you have to be careful of "office building creep" in a city whose bounds are ultimately restricted and whose downtown consists, like most downtowns in America, of businesses that cater to the 9-5 M-F office crowd. If there is an argument to be made for expanding downtown then we need to start to look at how to make the area a lot more vibrant for the people who live in and around the area.

by Scoot on Nov 28, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

AWITC,

I too think we need to focus more on the transportation side. Though part of that is selfishness for me because I shudder at the thought of one day having to make multiple transfers on metro just because I need to get to Poplar Point or up to Friendship Heights to get to work.

If we're going to have taller buildings in DC they need to be downtown because that's literally why and how we built metro.

by drumz on Nov 28, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

Thayer-D:

The Empire State Building and Chrysler Building opened during the great depression, but were planned and construction started during the 1920s boom.

by Thaddeus Bell on Nov 28, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

Which still begs the question of why they jumped that area for midtown. Any suggestions?

The substrata in that part of Manhattan is not the bedrock that exists in midtown, so it wasn't technically feasible to build tall buildings there. Not so true now with modern construction techniques.

by Juanita de Talmas on Nov 28, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

Ok, I finally realized something. The height law is a purely arbitrary thing. Why do people think you can have a rational discussion about it?

You can have rational discussion about changes (and the effects thereof) to the law. That is what this article does well. However, that does not change the fact that the height law in itself is arbitrary.

That means that whether you like the height law remains a discussion on the level whether you like red more than yellow. It is not on the level of it being right or wrong.

That said, there is plenty of space in DC to build. Hence, supply nor demand are a reason to change the height law.

@ drumz:What about the current extents of downtown DC make you think it is the perfect geography in which to cluster office development?

A. Transit access. This is where the metro lines all converge and you're never more than a few blocks from each metro line.

Then why not build more metro? DC's metro system is abysmally small compared to similar cities, especially in the downtown area. DC could use the extra tax income from higher buildings on the edge of downtown to finance more metro.

I was in Düsseldorf last week, and that city is actually very comparable to DC in area, population, wealth - it's even a capital. The transit network seemed way better than here, mostly because of the omnipresent streetcars. Also, they're digging a new metro tunnel. It's hard to make a direct comparison because they have so many elements to their network.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%BCsseldorf#Transport

by Jasper on Nov 28, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

Honestly, it's pretty exhausting to revisit this topic so often, but I pretty much agree with just about anything Alex B. says with respect to this issue. Acknowledging trade-offs is something people on both sides of the issue must acknowledge.

My biggest disagreements with the logic of some height limit supporters are the assumptions that they sometimes make about what might have happened had we allowed tall buildings in the CBD, and their support of relaxing the height limit in places like RFK, Poplar Point, etc.

Depending on how tall the buildings would be w/o a height limit, it's highly likely that we'd see plenty of spillover growth into areas that were not traditionally a part of "Downtown". We don't even have to know exactly what the net gain/loss of office space and residents would be with more supply to keep up with demand to make this assumption.

And one of the reasons I support relaxing the Height Limit, especially in the CBD, is because I don't see this outward growth going on forever. I also don't see a way for us to efficiently expand infrastructure away from the core enough to accommodate the growth outside of the CBD that's assumed to offset growth otherwise present in the CBD.

And it's in these areas outside of the core where my aesthetic concerns lie, not in the CBD. Redeveloping Mt. Vernon Square, NoMa, and other places on the cusp of the CBD is great. But, farther out, I'd prefer to see what charm exists to be preserved and low/mid-rise mixed-use developments, "neighborhoody", development in places farther out from the CBD, not downtown-style commercial development.

With the viewshed aspect, I personally love the views that can be realized with a mix of heights and architectural styles, colors, materials, etc. And with the wide, diagonal streets we have and height limits still present in a number of areas, I don't think the viewshed would be ruined, although I can understand that many people tend to be very resistant to change.

by Vik on Nov 28, 2012 12:41 pm • linkreport

Slightly off topic, but that map of Houston's parking/parking garages/parks is absolutely appalling. If this map is accurate, they have open parking lots spanning seven city blocks in a row, with a least two thirds of all property devoted to lots/garages (!!). How could any city ever be proud of that?

DC may have its issues, but thank the Lord I'm here and not there.

by Adam on Nov 28, 2012 12:43 pm • linkreport

I've said this before but there are several 300-400 foot radio towers in Tenley and that hasn't impacted the views of the Capitol, White House, and Washington Monument one bit and tourists still seem to come to our city.

Nobody is advocating for Dubai-style skyscrapers but buildings on the DC side of Friendship Heights and Silver Spring should be able to be as tall as those directly across the street in Maryland. There has been tens of billions of dollars invested in metro-rail. We should be able to have more development around the outlying stations in DC, helping to maximize this investment.

by Reform the Height Act on Nov 28, 2012 12:49 pm • linkreport

Jasper,

I'm all for expanding metro and making it easier to commute via transit. But unless we're talking about several lines at once being built somewhere else then place where Metro is most efficient is downtown. So yeah, let's capture the value of taller buildings and dedicate towards a separated blue line.

by drumz on Nov 28, 2012 1:44 pm • linkreport

WRT AWITHC, Jasper, and drumz points, YES, allowing a height increase should only occur with a plan to build the separated blue line and other transit capacity enhancements (streetcars/light rail too).

... including Dave Murphy's ideas for a separated yellow line (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/2720/imagine-a-separate-yellow-line/), MVJantzen's idea for a brown line. The separated yellow line isn't incorporated into this map that David Alpert kindly did for me years ago, but could be...

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/2281813917/

In this map the separated blue line (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/499504849/) instead becomes an extended silver line. The brown line, in upper DC, provides some of the redundancy that Dave Murphy called for in his concept.

Again, the reason I have come around to the idea of puncturing the height limit (besides wanting to strengthen DC's centrality within the region, limit sprawl, etc.) is to provide more supply of commercial property to support nonfederal uses, from arts to new business development (cf. what happens with such space in PGH, Philadelphia, Baltimore, parts of Brooklyn, Minneapolis, etc.) Instead, in DC these types of uses are priced out. Same with retail.

by Richard Layman on Nov 28, 2012 1:47 pm • linkreport

@ Drumz and the "Density is not the same as design" comment

I agree with you 100%, but the point I have been trying to make is all that really is likely to change with increased height is design, not density. It's not to say that downtown DC is not in need of new design, because it is, but it's rather to counter all the economic arguments made for raising the height limit that revolve around density. That's the point in saying downtown DC and Silver Spring/Bethesda have similar density, but the buildings are taller in MD. If there were any increase in height, it would surely need to some with a way to quantify an allowed increase in density also, otherwise the cost of building taller may not make it economically viable.

The problem is already apparent in the suburbs now, developers often build shorter more lot covering buildings rather than taller nicer buildings to save on cost. There is also the white elephant that most of 'downtown' is built out. The images of the city's four parking lots make that point. No one is going to tear down an existing building without a major incentive of increased density. This makes raising the height limit by something smaller, say to 180 or 200 ft (which I imagine is what a lot of people would say is a good start)worthless.

by Gull on Nov 28, 2012 2:00 pm • linkreport

I wonder if this talk of modifying the height limit will kill any current short-term development and/or construction.

After all, why would you build a building today if there was the prospect of being able to construct a more profitable facility 3-4 years down the line?

This would be a very tragic outcome of these discussions, no matter which side of the fence you happen to sit on. Let's hope that a decision is made carefully, but also quickly. I'm a big fan of careful/responsible planning, but our current multi-year touchy-feely planning process is just awful for almost everybody involved.

by andrew on Nov 28, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

@Gull - even if downtown is built out (but a change impacting four lots still seems like a good idea to me, and its not like every lot with a structure on it is built out - though I don't have a list of lots with 2 or 3 story but not historic buildings in downtown in my head) there is still NoMa, where it MIGHT make sense to make a marginal increase in the height limit.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 28, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

Gull,
I feel you. Though I'd rather the suburban jurisdictions emulate the successes* of Arlington or Reston town center via zoning rather than as an ancillary effect of a DC height limit.

*Success, being more than tall buildings but also mixed used, TOD, and what not.

by drumz on Nov 28, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

Why is an airport in Virginia mentioned in this article?

by selxic on Nov 28, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

Why not try to get development to spread throughout the city?

Why should we rise the height limit when it will just create larger buildings between Union Station and Rock Creek Park versus expanding development throughout the city to cover areas which have few if any development besides 1 story buildings, detached houses or semi detached houses.

We have 69 square miles to work with why only deal with a small portion of that.

by kk on Nov 28, 2012 3:50 pm • linkreport

DC's metro system is abysmally small compared to similar cities, especially in the downtown area.

Which cities are we referring to, exactly? By most accounts, DC has a very large system, as measured by track miles, # of stations and ridership for the size and influence of the metropolitan area it serves.

Globally the DC Metro is the 15th largest heavy rail system serving the the 74th largest metropolitan region.

by Scoot on Nov 28, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

I have a question, if the height limit is not raised will that prevent groups from protesting denser development in the non-build out areas? I doubt it. This is is why the argument about building out the rest of the city falls apart. I'd love to see development everywhere, but when you try to build hotels on U St, or apartments on Wallach, or 901 Monroe, or Giant in Glover Park, or any other number of examples the NIMBYs still push back.

Paris is not a good comparison to DC because most of Paris is filled with 6 story buildings that go right to the property line. If I could get that in DC I probably wouldn't be for raising the height limit.

by nathaniel on Nov 28, 2012 4:01 pm • linkreport

Why should we rise the height limit when it will just create larger buildings between Union Station and Rock Creek Park

Because that's where people want to build taller buildings. People are moving into DC regardless because they like living in the city so the areas gentrifying will continue to do so.

by drumz on Nov 28, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

@ drumz & Richard Layman: I was not advocating for increasing the height limit. I was saying DC could capture the increased taxes from height increases (under the current limit) along new metro lines. For instance, there is plenty of extra height to be captured along M St, which only has high rises between Rock Creek and Mass Ave - and even those might not be all the way up to the limit. Same thing for that separated Yellow Line.

by Jasper on Nov 28, 2012 4:27 pm • linkreport

You will only gain the standard property taxes for as of right development. Proffers for additional density/height would provide that much more $$.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 28, 2012 4:34 pm • linkreport

There may be some properties worth developing left at the fringe of the new 'downtown', but part of the argument that seems to be made is the taller buildings (and more density) should be focused on the core of downtown where the transit lines cross and the economy of scale can be appreciated. If we limit our search to the core of downtown (south of Mass, East of New Hampshire, West of the capital and north of the freeway, i'd imagine the number of lots that are ripe for redevelopment either due to their current substantial underdevelopment, or vacant status is greatly reduced. At least that's my perspective every time I walk around the Golden Triangle or Metro Center areas. Really, i'm arguing for why the height limits should be eased, it wouldn't really make much of a difference at this point!

by Gull on Nov 28, 2012 5:20 pm • linkreport

"Opponents of the height limit like to ask why DC's existing limit is so special."

The answer is very simple - resistance to change.

Supporters of the height limits want to city to look like the "Bird's eye view of Washington" that Charles Parson painted in 1880 (shown by the poster) FOREVER.

It's a lovely picture. But 1880 was 132 years ago.

by ceefer66 on Nov 28, 2012 5:56 pm • linkreport

@Gull: If we limit our search to the core of downtown (south of Mass, East of New Hampshire, West of the capital and north of the freeway, i'd imagine the number of lots that are ripe for redevelopment either due to their current substantial underdevelopment, or vacant status is greatly reduced.

This area contains the mall and all of the federal buildings around the capital, WH, state department, FBI, plus the quasi-government world bank. These buildings account for more than half of this very-arbitrary "downtown". These official areas should be excluded from this discussion because as Congress can do what it wants when it decides to build something in DC, the height limit is strictly applies only to commercial buildings.

If you exclude the official buildings, what is left in this definition of downtown is K Street and the GWU campus. Given the existing building boom in NoMa I'd say that is an extremely narrow way of looking at it.

by goldfish on Nov 28, 2012 6:44 pm • linkreport

Good point ceefer. When some urbanists talk about DC's height limits they sound eerily like the NIMBYs they so decry.

by Shane on Nov 28, 2012 8:11 pm • linkreport

"If we're going to have taller buildings in DC they need to be downtown because that's literally why and how we built metro."

Then why was downtown's growth north into Dupont Circle halted? Not becasue of a lack of multiple metro lines but becasue of preservationists. While we're at it the renovated old downtown centered between North Capitol and 14th street was being abandoned for Foggy Bottom, Dupont, and the burbs at the time. How do you explain all those clusters of Office like Tyson's Corner, Crystal City, Bethesda? They where all developed when the car was dominant, but DC's metro planners where still visionary and enlightened enough to see there would be a limit to a car dominated city. So while the metro planners anticipated a return to the city, it wasn't proximity to eachother that drove office developers to locate at these new centers. Not every industry needs immediate adjacency as cities like New York amply demonstrate. The downtown as presently prescribed is certainly close to being built-out, but as was just pointed out, downtown was much smaller 40 years ago and as Dan Malouff states, Downtown could easily expand south of the Mall, just as it wanted to organically grow into metro startved Dupont Circle. Now imagine a plan for Downtown's growth being coordinated with the proposed new streetcar lines. How many metro lines do larger lowscale cities like London or Paris have? Many more than DC. And how many blocks are in DC's downtown core as shown in this article versus New-York? DC's is much smaller. What I'd like to hear from proponents of raising the height limit is, what's the limit they'd propose and why? If as someone else suggested previously, we don't want 100 story buildings but rather 40 stories or so, I'd ask, what's the criteria for that absolute maximum? And why wouldn't all the arguments you present for allowing more height in today's downtown not be valid at a 40 story (or so) final limit? If we agree there's a limit, let's talk about what criteria define that number.

@Thadius Bell:
"The Empire State Building and Chrysler Building opened during the great depression, but were planned and construction started during the 1920s boom." But if you knew their histories, you'd knnow it wasn't demand that brought them to those heights, it was ego. See Ken Burn's NYC Documentaries, if just for the love of cities.

by Thayer-D on Nov 28, 2012 9:23 pm • linkreport

In regards to the height limit as related to residential units, there is the common notion that the limit restricts supply, which pushes rents up, demand is outpacing supply, etc. etc. But I tend to agree with those who have pointed to Manhattan and San Francisco as examples of places with very tall buildings, yet the rents are still very high. In those cities, I think it would be safe to say the demand is whatever close to infinite as you can get, and probably always will be, so no matter how high and dense it gets, rents will be high.

I don't know if the demand to live in the actual district is at that point yet, but it certainly seems like it is moving that way. And no matter the height or density, the rents won't really change. Forget about NY and SF, just look at places in VA and MD. There's no height restriction (or if there is, it's not like D.C.'s) but the rents in some of those brand new high rises in Silver Spring are as much as the hot places in D.C. Clarendon same deal.

Imagine if a brand new 250 ft highrise is built somewhere in NE DC, and now in a unit in that highrise you can see the Capitol or Washington monument. You can't tell me the rent would actually decrease now just because there's a taller building, even if it is more dense. A sliver of a view will prop up the rent.

Another thing that may not be considered much in regards to residential rent, which doesn't have to do with the height limit, but I haven't really seen brought up, is the amount of really expensive colleges in such a small area. Off the top of my head I can think of GW, Georgetown, American University, and Catholic University. Not all cases, but I would be willing to bet a very good number of these kids are coming from wealthy or well off families. So you have all these kids that can fill up $2,300 a month studios because it's on the parent's dime. And to the other extreme you get a bunch of these kids living in one place, so instead of a normal family shelling out $3,000 a month for a two bedroom, you get 5 college kids splitting it individually.

by Nickyp on Nov 28, 2012 10:54 pm • linkreport

@T-D: "Which still begs the question of why they jumped that area for midtown."
Commuter rail stations.

by PCC on Nov 29, 2012 2:28 am • linkreport

The virtually undeveloped eastern 2/3 of the city and the guardians of DCs landmark character the CFA and NCPC must be part of the solution. Simply permitting the highest rent area to become even denser will enforce the farcical social failures of the city and create sunlight starved areas in a pointless “market driven” race create views and block neighbor’s views. These buildings will be with us for centuries so don’t ruin the city for our children and their children.

by Andrew on Nov 29, 2012 6:30 am • linkreport

@ PCC,
I think you're saying that the Grand Central and Penn Station being in Midtown led to the jump there. That seems more plausable than the geology argment where by rock under the island swells closer to the surface at downtown and midtown, making building the foundations of skyscrapers cheaper there than in the Village. With the spread footings required to build high that Chicago developed at the dawn of early skyscrapers (ironically at the current height limit of DC) in 1880-1900, you'd think that they'd have found a way around NYC's geology. I'm going with the increased transit at the new location argument.

Given that argument, then it's all the more plausable that if they built up the metro system in SW, the transit argument would justify an up-zoning to downtown's current limit. When you look at the metro map, the density of metro lines in SW looks similar to that of the current downtown north of the mall, but with-out as many stops. In fact, L'Enfant Plaza has more lines going through it than any stop in the current downtown, four to be exact and the yellow, blue, and green lines around L'Enfant could all have more stops on it. The point being, all the rules of aglomeration (which I agree with) aren't inviolate when looking at Midtown's office district's growth, and still don't explain how Roslyn has grown rather than Foggy Bottom being built-out.

In the end though, I hope the height study spends some time figuring out what's an ideal height after which even the skyscraper croud would acknowledge a street just dosen't feel comfertable. As an architect, I'm aware of what reaction certain spaces and material combinations might elicit in a client, but there's always a percentage who defy the norm. It seems we'll always argue about an ideal height like some like flat roofs and glass walls over brick walls with gable'd roofs, but I think it still warrents a public outing, if only to get the public more engaged in their built environment.

by Thayer-D on Nov 29, 2012 7:50 am • linkreport

I'm baffled that there are so many people that don't accept the fact that, all else being equal, building up will reduce prices.

The #1 variable in the price of real estate is the price of land. There's nothing really special about building up as opposed to building out, but building up is a way to get more out of the land. The important thing in regards to lowering prices is having more spots available to build. Yes, developments in NoMa and the Navy Yard help lower prices. Developing in Brentwood or Fort Totten would help lower rents. If someone desires a downtown address, then any location that they'd consider to be a reasonable alternative, considering the price, is a location that will increase the market supply and help lower prices.

So, yes, all of that potential land that people and businesses and governments would consider as an alternative to downtown is a place that will affect prices across the entire area. And, yes, building up in any of these areas will also help reduce prices.

It's an economic fact. However, that's not to say that demand can't outpace supply. If that happens, then prices won't drop. But, the proper conclusion isn't to say that the increase in supply caused the increase in prices. The proper conclusion is simply to say that, despite the increase in supply, demand continues to exceed supply, causing an increase in prices.

by jh on Nov 29, 2012 7:59 am • linkreport

The "all else being equal" is very important. DC, San Francisco, and New York all have very strict regulations on development in the core because of preservationists, and beyond that wide swaths of single family housing protected by strict exclusionist zoning. That needs to change as well.

by Shane on Nov 29, 2012 8:49 am • linkreport

I happen to think that the low scale, open site lines and day-lit streets are part what makes Washington special and even unique. To all those who pine for it to more like New York/Houston/Dubai or generic downtown USA, there's nuthin' stopping you from yielding to your heart's desire and moving closer to the real thing.

by Alf on Nov 29, 2012 8:56 am • linkreport

@Shane

Agreed that "all else being equal" is very important. And I think that's the main part that people miss when they make a claim like, "Well, if height led to lower prices then Manhattan would be cheaper!"

You have to ask, "Cheaper than what?" The answer is, "Cheaper than Manhattan would be without it's current height." The answer is not, "Cheaper than DC."

by jh on Nov 29, 2012 9:19 am • linkreport

Agreed that "all else being equal" is very important. And I think that's the main part that people miss when they make a claim like, "Well, if height led to lower prices then Manhattan would be cheaper!"

Also, this is not really a discussion about heights. It is a discussion about constraints on supply. In DC, the height limit is an obvious constraint (though not the only constraint).

New York also has numerous constraints on supply, even with tall buildings. Historic landmarks, zoning codes, etc.

by Alex B. on Nov 29, 2012 3:08 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.

Definitely. DC has many other obvious constraints. The National Mall is a constraint. The Potomac River is a constraint. The historic neighborhoods are a constraint. Little-used federal land is a constraint.

Some constraints should change. Some shouldn't.

by jh on Nov 29, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

What the economists are doing is making people explicitly evaluate the trade-offs.

THIS is the trade-off: by allowing the building heights to increase by XX ft, people on the street would loose YY amount of sunlight and gain ZZ tax dollars. However, nobody is doing that.

No, what the economists are doing is an exercise in question-begging. And, consciously or not, they are providing cover to degrade public resources for developers profits, with no consideration of the cost that is basically intangible.

by goldfish on Nov 29, 2012 4:20 pm • linkreport

@goldfish - The guy from GMU who posted on Atlantic Cities, may not have done the sunligh vs tax dollar analysis (and its more than tax dollars - there are other benefits as well)

And the public resources vs developer dollars contrast makes defense of the height limit sound all green and crunchy - though in fact maintaining the height limit probably WILL mean more jobs in suburbia (and NOT just in close in urbanist suburbia) - more taking of paradise and putting in a parking lot.

As for the profits, I think most of us would like to capture as much of them as possible for public purposes, like a new metro line.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 29, 2012 4:27 pm • linkreport

The National Mall is perhaps the most ridiculously boring and underutilized place in DC. But if we developed there where would the young adults go to play ultimate frisbee?

by Shane on Nov 29, 2012 8:36 pm • linkreport

@Alf,

"I happen to think that the low scale, open site lines and day-lit streets are part what makes Washington special and even unique. To all those who pine for it to more like New York/Houston/Dubai or generic downtown USA, there's nuthin' stopping you from yielding to your heart's desire and moving closer to the real thing."
----
The more I hear about "low scale" and "what makes Washington special and unique", the more ridiculous it's beginning to sound.

Thanks to the height limits, DC suffers from a uniquely boring and monotonous expanse of boxy, low-rise buildings that all look alike, regardless of architectural style.

The natural course of a city's development is to grow denser and more diverse. And that means taller buildings. The only alternative is to continue making DC an exclusive enclave for the affluent while the region as a whole continues to sprawl outward. DC's growth potential is being stifled by a self-centered NIMBY contingent (call them "preservationists" if you want) who stand for "preserving" nothing but their "views" and inflating their own property values, while masquerading their snobbish selfishness with nonsense about "preserving what's special and unique about DC".

And their knee-jerk hysterical response to the slightest change in the status quo ("They want to turn DC into New York, or Houston, or Dubai!") is just plain silly. No one is talking about building skyscrapers in DC. And even if that should happen, everyone would still be able to have "day-lit streets" and "see the sky".

The so-called preservationists have a vested interest in keeping DC artificially small with height limits and their ridiculous obsession with never deviating from some 200-year-old imitation of long-gone 18-century European cities has left DC with a terribly boring and expensive cityscape which will take more than just an act of Congress to fix.

by ceefer66 on Nov 29, 2012 10:37 pm • linkreport

@ ceefer66,
"The natural course of a city's development is to grow denser and more diverse" I'm with you on the density point, but during the dark ages of cities(1950's to 1980's) it was the opposite. It's the Smart Growth crowd that you seem to mistrust that promoted the density we are seeing now. As for diversity, I think that's a product of societal changes and not how many high priced condo towers you can stuff in a downtown.

"No one is talking about building skyscrapers in DC" If you're also against skyscrapers in DC, what do you think the final limit of DC should be? 20 stories?

"and their ridiculous obsession with never deviating from some 200-year-old imitation of long-gone 18-century European cities " There you go again. I'm not sure the "Bird's eye view of Washington" that Charles Parson painted in 1880" bears much resemblance to our 10-12 story glassy downtown, to say nothing of an 18th century city.

There's a lot more nuance to this discussion than you seem to be willing to acknowledge.

by Thayer-D on Nov 30, 2012 4:51 am • linkreport

"There's a lot more nuance to this discussion than you seem to be willing to acknowledge."

Such as...?

by ceefer66 on Nov 30, 2012 3:43 pm • linkreport

@ceefer66

"some 200-year-old imitation of long-gone 18-century European cities"

Last I checked, Paris and London were still doing pretty well.

by MetroDerp on Nov 30, 2012 5:42 pm • linkreport

But the main point here really is transit. It's the lack of Metro redundancy outside of that core that's killing the city.

As has been said, there is so much room in NE for expansion. SO MUCH. And without the natural barrier of Rock Creek Park. Even in DC it seems like all too often the Metro stops get treated like commuter rail station, and we need to fix that. We need an actual density of transit stops, and I'm not talking about buses or mixed-traffic streetcars.

Because it's pretty clear based on development patterns that if you separated the Blue/Orange and Green/Yellow lines, and built another two lines, you'd open up so much of this city to development that was previously thought impossible. And while we're at it, once we've done that and thereby upgraded core capacity, we can start extending these lines further out (maybe. I'd still prefer MARC and VRE extensions).

But by god, if you had more Metro in this city - actual, walkable, underground Metro rather than the Red Line travesties - development around those stations would skyrocket.

So build me that and then let's talk height limit.

by MetroDerp on Nov 30, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

This discussion got me to question how much additional downtown office space density the current transportation infrastructure could support, so I did a little research on the subway capacity (I am assuming that the auto traffic is already at capacity.) A 2008 METRO capacity analysis found that the Farragut North station at that time already exceeded designed capacity at peek times and the other downtown stations were close to designed capacity. Hence I conclude that to increase downtown office space density, which is the real goal of increasing the height limit, would require additional transportation capacity. This could be done by adding more surface capacity through bus or light rail, widening METRO station platforms and increasing the number of exits, or increasing the number of subway lines and stations downtown. Practically speaking you would probably need all three.

To me it seems that in the medium term it is far less expensive to add new downtown office space by expanding out to existing METRO stations as specified by this article.

In the longer term, splitting the blue and orange lines need to be split, and some of the downtown stations need to be expanded, and this could open up the practicality of increasing the the height limit.

by DaveR on Nov 30, 2012 9:33 pm • linkreport

@ Metro Derp and DaveR,
I think you guys nailed it. Plan and build the next level of transit, and then talk about breaking a height limit. Just look at cities with no height limit like Houston. A 50 story skyscraper right next to a 2 story commercial building. If they'd a had a height cap maybe those 1-2 story commercial sites would have been bought up and assembled into a larger development that built more of a strong street wall and creating optimal pedestrian environments in the process (to say nothing about the parkning lots in need of infilling. It's the lazy way to do urbanism with out those pesky regulations keeping the next Michelangelo from truly expressing himself in yet the next glass curtain wall tower.

by Thayer-D on Dec 1, 2012 8:51 pm • linkreport

@MetroDerp

"Last I checked, Paris and London were still doing pretty well."
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They certainly are. As evidenced by all the new and creative skyscrapers. London's skyline, with its creatively designed REAL towers (as opposed to the 10-12 story stumps we call "towers" here) is absolutely fascinating. And somehow, London has managed to respect its older buildings. The same can be said for Paris. La Defense in no way "spoils" views of the Eiffel Tower.

If you want to act as an apologist for the height limit in DC, have at it. But using London and Paris as reasons for keeping the status quo is the very LAST path you want to follow.

by ceefer66 on Dec 4, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

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