Greater Greater Washington

Government


The DC Council tells Congress: "We don't want to make our own choices"

On Tuesday, the DC Council sent a message to Congress on the subject of self-determination. That message: "Congress, please don't give us more control over our city. We need you to tell us what's good for us. We don't want to make our own choices."


Photo by Nathan Jones on Flickr.

The issue was the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which limits how high buildings can rise throughout the District. ... Most of the debate about the height limit has indeed revolved around whether one appreciates or reviles tall buildings. It would be understandable to think that DC leaders were debating this week whether to loosen the rules that made the city's skyline look the way it does.

They were not. The issue was not whether to increase building heights. It was whether DC residents and leaders should get a say on the issue.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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. 

Comments

Add a comment »

"There’s general consensus that little should change in the downtown area"

Really?

by jimble on Nov 23, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

This was such a lame exercise. Gray and Barry had it right, this was a Home Rule issue. If we want to debate if and where the height limits should change, that was for another day. This day was about self-determination. Phil Mendelson and the rest of the so-called District residents who contorted themselves against this should be ashamed. Not that the Committee of 100 ever spoke for me, but at this point, they should be truly embarrassed.

by William on Nov 23, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

jimble: I probably could have phrased that more precisely, but I meant consensus between OP, NCPC, the Council, etc. In other words, no governmental entity was proposing much of a change in the downtown area.

by David Alpert on Nov 23, 2013 3:10 pm • linkreport

David: I thought that's what you probably meant but yes, you should have been more precise.

by jimble on Nov 23, 2013 3:29 pm • linkreport

Thank you David for bringing this to everyone's attention.

It is so disappointing (and makes me angry) to see autonomy for DC rejected in any form, or step, by our own elected DC leaders. It prevents and rejects paths to strong and popular support for efficient smart growth, determined by local priorities, which could helpfully (but not necessarily) increase the tempo of smart growth investment in DC for the betterment of all DC citizens and regional citizens. What angers me about DC politicians dropping the ball, as you (David Alpert) described, is that smart growth process improvements, and the logical smart growth from that process, such as skyscrapers at rail hubs to build highest quality downtown expert labor markets unifying the region, and maximizing economic opportunity in DC, does the most profound lifelong good to all of DC citizens, and sharply expands DC tax base, without changing tax rates. That expanded tax base can improve all manner of infrastructure, such as new Metro lines, DC public school facilities, and the woefully inadequate UDC infrastructure.

For this city to prosper long term, we must secure our economic best with smart growth, help unify the region's markets with efficient transit to assure exponentially more valuable opportunity density, determined first and foremost by maximizing useful urban density at workday offices (for both employees and employers) with extremely efficient (time and energy) rail and walking commutes, and secondarily by scale of regions population, but work best in strong combination.

That said, I am not surprised that the city's locally elected leaders rejected involvement. Many leaders of DC, such as US Delegate Holmes-Norton, have opposed noticeable changes to DC, beyond what is permitted by current law. The two major historical populations (by many measures) of DC, I will crassly summarize as 1) educated / affluent whites, and 2) less educated / less affluent blacks, both of which arrived in or stayed in DC proper, (as a great many educated and affluent middle class DC people moved out since World War II to the neighboring suburbs in text book "white flight" and "black flight"), the remaining DC population is a remarkable conservative population in many regards, fighting substantial changes to their neighborhoods.

Educated and affluent white DC citizens have archetypically been profoundly skeptical of projects that change traffic in their neighborhoods, consuming many parking spaces or loosing parking places, and changing skylines. The "giant Giant" opposition of increased density in the Cathedral/Cleveland Park area, opposition to the service lane removal at Cleveland Park Metro, the down-scaling of an apartment building project on the south of the block with Wilson High School, and the dubiously permitted radio tower (half built and since removed) in Tenleytown, are four powerful recent examples of organized "white" opposition to change in DC.

Black populations remain archetypically opposed to "gentrification" they suspect is to, at a minimum, rewrite their local neighborhood social contract, such as replace struggling "mom and pop" local services and their community involved owners, with new extremely high priced chain coffee shops and many anonymous low paid workers from across the city or region. At worst gentrification is perceived as a systematic effort of the educated and affluent to push poorer black populations out of DC, targeting a population many of which only recently fled racist Jim Crow laws and denial of educational opportunity since World War II, to become DC citizens. The rising price of homes in downtown because of the massive time savings of shorter commutes compared with every growing car traffic delays region wide, will likely continue "gentrification", while increasingly affluent black populations will also create a similar changes, along the generational gap lines based on sharply different educational opportunities and increasing return of black suburban affluence, such as long standing Howard Alum families that fled DC to Prince Georges County returning to DC in part, and similar population movements.

There are also many other relevant factors in street level changes in DC's demographic population profile, such as a significantly larger Hispanic population since World War II, (as defined by the US Census), also creating changes to local communities inside DC.

For DC's (all to scarce) elected leaders, I can see profound disinterest in grabbing the most controversial and political reigns of DC longest term policies, typically a series of the most polarizing local political issues, urban planning.

(For an unhelpfully simplistic summary) The only possibly good news here, is that politicians and people are extremely fickle, grand standing on specific projects in radical support or opposition, exhibited by the (unelected) US Congress on national law making stage here in DC, while urban planning is much more like the Federal Reserve, where smart and sensible professionals (liberal like the Preamble of the US Constitution) manage the value of the US Dollar by controlling the US money supply to best keep the US Dollar value as close to constant to minimize inflation to prevent the proven disasters of hyper inflation or deflation, to maximize everyone's long term economic opportunity, is in my opinion extremely similar to similarly controlling the future of DC with smart urban planning, create stable rates of positive change for the ever growing region. This desire for stable rates of change toward increasing opportunity and useful density, is historically opposed by DC citizens (I crassly summarized above) too used to sharp declines in DC total population (36% in 54 years 1946-2000) and consequences of removal of streetcar mass transit in DC since World War II, and massive increases in car traffic in DC as regional populations almost quadrupled in the same time span, and car commutes to downtown DC get ever more congested.

Unfortunately the resistance of (scarce) DC elected leaders to strongly and officially speak for the city's citizens that we all need focused smart growth such as tallest (safe) height skyscrapers at our downtown DC rail hubs, maximizing regional economic opportunity and DC tax base (without changing tax rates but rather adding extremely valuable and efficient smart growth square footage) and efficient rail use, while minimizing car traffic per citizens in the city and region, may likely be a disaster for DC citizens.

If politicians get overly involved in the details of each project, we risk derailing professional data driven research, and focusing our citizens on petty squabbles, rather than uniforming supporting the major ones such as DC statehood to restore full voting rights here, and smart growth to maximize our economic opportunity and tax base.

Creating the best balance between thoughtful professional planning supporting long term best smart growth, and having our own elected politicians support our best smart growth strategies, is so essential for our future this entire issue requires.

by Nathaniel Pendleton on Nov 23, 2013 9:24 pm • linkreport

Seemed like a real decision to me. A choice to make this not the issue that brings more local autonomy. It's not worth it.

A vote to change the city skyline could draw national attention to the city's politics. Does anyone really want such a vote while we are waiting to find out if our sitting mayor is going to be charged by the feds?

It's not as if current building owners are clamoring for this change. Those wanting new buildings or more density, sure they are but generally people don't care about it.

This isn't the issue politicians are going to get people in the city and around the country all excited about bringing liberty and freedom to people living in the nation's capital.

by CapHillResident on Nov 23, 2013 10:26 pm • linkreport

Of course current commercial building owners don't want competition (or rather want office space supply constricted), because it makes their existing buildings more valuable from charging higher rents, without people easily noticing, but everyone paying more per transaction, and making our city and region less efficient and less competitive with other cities world wide.

Employers who rent offices, and employees, and customers, benefit from more density at convenient places, such as tall buildings, such as skyscrapers at rail hubs, because it increases commute efficiency, expert labor market efficiency (making that market exponentially more valuable), and so forth. Much like free trade, lower costs and maximizing opportunity, is essential for everyone.

Unfortunately the massive money involved is highly diluted across millions of people, making it extremely difficult for most people directly benefit from potential policy improvements to care enough, when a handful of politicians control and over value deep pocketed building owners, who could loose from a policy change, and provide large campaign checks to prevent change.

Why should we ever listen to the classic disenfranchiser argument, that "its not the correct time" excuse for ending further economic sanctions and disenfranchisement in DC against DC and regional citizens?

Correct and popular are wildly different questions. Lynch mobs were popular with themselves, but were they correct? Of course not. If DC elected government had adjusted the balance, between planning experts and local elected politicians, by increasing political voice slightly, we could have moved thoughtfully toward both popular and correct, drastically increasing tempo and scale of smart growth investment, but not necessarily.

Economic opportunity, and tax base to pay for better facilities for Morrill Land Grant College delayed 104 years until 1966 in DC for a 4 year public liberal arts university, by an unelected single party rules strangely called a Congress, paid for from expanded tax base without changing tax rates but rather letting markets add taller commercial building and economic capacity, is precisely the issues central to DC's Statehood movement.

Supporting continued systematically disenfranchising people (in DC or anywhere) and deliberately undercutting and constraining economic opportunity and civil rights, is not merely throwing cold water on a potential political misstep by DC citizens, the criticism of the DC citizens "timing" style or any other "form" over (or complete and utter disregard of) "substance" criticism, is a flatly malicious and calculated effort, designed to delay "fair and speedy" remedy of these injustices in DC, and against DC and region citizens, especially if the critic doesn't propose a better strategy to resolve these exact same issues.

by Nathaniel Pendleton on Nov 23, 2013 11:08 pm • linkreport

The council did right. I usually agree with most of the younger crowds' wants and goals, but not this one. DC is a city of trees and views and should remain so.

by NE John on Nov 24, 2013 9:57 am • linkreport

Remember that DC was able to accommodate almost 900k people around wartime in the 40's. And we have more buildings now and lots of space yet to develop upwards to the current limits.

by NE John on Nov 24, 2013 10:01 am • linkreport

@ jimble

There's general consensus among the GGW writers and NCPC, but not among Washingtonians.

@CapHillResident

"Does anyone really want such a vote while we are waiting to find out if our sitting mayor is going to be charged by the feds"

Yes. DC can govern its own affairs just like every other state with corrupt politicians can and does. And since our "sitting" mayor has not been charged, I don't see how you can draw any conclusions. Even if he were charged, in America there's something called due process.

If you don't like due process, autonomy and representation, then why not move to an authoritarian country instead of doubting Washingtonians' ability to govern themselves.

by Burd on Nov 24, 2013 11:20 am • linkreport

The Council's resolution was short-sighted and disappointing. Perhaps they are more focused on maximizing donations from developers and building owners than they are in preparing for the continued and longer-term growth of DC's population and the pressure that puts on property costs.
I also felt this issue was too easily misrepresented as bringing skyscrapers to DC. As David points out, this is a question about DC gaining self-determination over issues that affect us more than they do Congress. Not to mention that the Gray administration was not even proposing skyscrapers downtown.
Hopefully people will continue to gain a better understanding of the (economic and environmental) benefits of having a populous, efficient city that enjoys both trees and greater residential density.

by Brett on Nov 24, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

@NE John, others:

It seems we're getting away from the point of the op-ed: No matter how you feel about the height limit, shouldn't such local decisions be made by the DC local government? This was not a vote for/against raising the height limit - this was a resolution providing support for keeping that decision in the hands of the federal government.

I imagine that if the federal government unilaterally decided that they wanted to raise the height limit throughout the city, opponents would feel (justifiably!) irate that a federal body was dictating land use in our city. But this resolution supports that outcome just as much as it supports the outcome of leaving the height limits alone. In fact, since the DC Council appears very anti-changing the height limit, why not ask for it to be put under their purview? I support examining the limit - but if it was kept the same due to the local political process, I'd accept that - but instead, we're leaving it as yet another decision that District residents aren't allowed to make.

by Matt on Nov 24, 2013 4:43 pm • linkreport

Matt, I understand the issue. It is something that I believe, as an important characteristic of the city, i.e., the center of US government, should be in the hands of that government.

Plus, I have little regard for the "DC Council" folk, and would not like their grubby hands on this one. Look at what the likes of Harry Thomas Jr. gave us: six WalMarts! I think that subconsciously they made this decision because they cannot handle it.

by NE John on Nov 24, 2013 5:48 pm • linkreport

And I should add that I am a big statehood proponent. But, we must cede certain things. This is one of them, and it has little to do with the big picture of representation before Congress and budget autonomy.

by NE John on Nov 24, 2013 5:54 pm • linkreport

NE John,

Fair enough. But shouldn't DC citizens be allowed to vote for at least an actual vote for a representative in the body that controls them?

by Drumz on Nov 24, 2013 5:58 pm • linkreport

Drumz, not sure I understand. Put another way, are you asking whether DC citizens be allowed to vote on whether the height act apply outside the city center? in a referendum? Or whether a DC citizen should be allowed to vote for a representative, such as a DC councilperson (those in control here)?

I believe the entirety of DC is just fine the way it is, although more trees would be welcome. The characteristic of city skyline is in some respects owned by Congress by the nature of our unique situation. This does not mean we cannot get representation where it (theoretically) matters most.

by NE John on Nov 24, 2013 6:18 pm • linkreport

DC can't simply hand US Congress all economic and political rights, and expect our future to be as rosey as a free city, such as ones that copied our brilliantly efficient street grid, New York City. The absence of DC Statehood is massive multigenerational disaster on any metric one can measure, such as CO2 foot print per regional citizen per dollar of GDP. The biggest impact of preventing smart growth such as skyscraper zones with maximum possible height buildings at rail hubs is preventing investment in all infrastructure, such as transit (e.g. new Metro Rail lines), and upgrading all DC public Schools, such as UDC, to compete with places with similar population sizes but drastically smaller economies and tax base, such as UVM and UWyoming. Smart growth is central to rebuilding the city, and restoring population to 900,000 people like World War II, and attaining statehood, restoring full voting rights in DC.

by Nathaniel Pendleton on Nov 24, 2013 6:28 pm • linkreport

And I should add that I am a big statehood proponent. But, we must cede certain things.

This logic does not hold up to modest scruitiny.

Again, if you think the bulding heights should remain as they are, that's fine. But if DC were a state, then DC would have control over the height act.

If you grant Statehood to DC, then no, you cannot just cede certain things - you are proposing something less than statehood, which is what we have now.

The fact remains that the height act is a local law (it applies nowhere else but DC) imposed by the Federal government. The entire point of statehood is to remove these impositions and make these decisions indepedently.

by Alex B. on Nov 24, 2013 6:57 pm • linkreport

I'm just saying that if DC is truly not fit for statehood and it is best that congress control local conditions then DC residents should at least get to vote on at least one of those representatives. To my understanding that's the situation in other countries (Mexico, Austria, Austrailia) that have special capital districts. They aren't states/provinces per se but their citizens have the same level if representation as the other jurisdictions.

by Drumz on Nov 24, 2013 7:56 pm • linkreport

@NE John: Your argument (which is similar to what Mendo was saying) strikes me as not really coherent. If the height limit is a minor matter but DC residents and their representatives can't handle it then a fortiori they can't handle larger issues like budget autonomy or representation in congress.

by Steve S. on Nov 24, 2013 8:28 pm • linkreport

It's called: picking your fights.

There is not enough energy for every issue to be fought. Sometimes, you just gotta let it hang.

by Jasper on Nov 24, 2013 9:08 pm • linkreport

I've been here for fifteen years and I understand the height limit. This is the federal city. This city is unique among all American cities. And I like the short height and I think they should keep it that way. It is oversimplifying things by saying anyone wants to remove autonomy. This is one thing that shouldn't ever be changed. No matter who lives here. At least it will be safe a few more years.

by Maxwell on Nov 24, 2013 10:50 pm • linkreport

Alex, it is obvious that DC's situation is unique: it is the capital of the USA, the seat of its government, a touring point etc. Given its existence as a federal district is defined in the Constitution, the fact that all three branches of or government are based here, its historical significance etc. you can understand why most are hesitant to ease restrictions on height (the recent graphics were scary looking). Further, in view of these inherent city-government ties, some control between the government and the DC will always exist in some form or another even if it were to become a state (and would likely be spelled out in any charter drawn up).

Jasper it right about picking your fights. While I consider the height limits important to this city holistically, it is an insignificant issue compared with individual citizens gaining voting representation in Congress. However, it could become a problem if people insist on tying it as a condition of statehood. It seems to me this is something that is best settled with the US from the beginning, based on the DC-US government relationship mentioned above. Moreover, lived here for 57 years and having paid a lot of cash to the city and the US government for most of those years without any real representation, I am ready to make this deal and move on.

And yes, I am against relieving the height restrictions. If tomorrow DC were to become a state with full power to regulate its building heights, the buffer the outer city provides between the borders and the federal district would be erased and over time and "skyscrapers" would work to diminish the original character of the city. If this issue were placed on a referendum, I believe it would overwhelmingly be rejected by the voters, myself included.

by NE John on Nov 24, 2013 10:55 pm • linkreport

NE John, your first paragraph above looks like a non-sequitur, DC's constitutional status doesn't affect how tall the buildings can be.

This is really a matter of people, aloof from the reality of housing prices in the city, ignoring the real consequences of their aesthetic preferences on real people.

by Steve S. on Nov 24, 2013 11:34 pm • linkreport

Alex, it is obvious that DC's situation is unique: it is the capital of the USA, the seat of its government, a touring point etc. Given its existence as a federal district is defined in the Constitution, the fact that all three branches of or government are based here, its historical significance etc. you can understand why most are hesitant to ease restrictions on height (the recent graphics were scary looking).

First, I don't think any of the graphics were scary-looking at all.

Second, I can absolutely understand the role of a federal control on a federal district. What I cannot understand is how you (and others) square that with a desire for statehood; as statehood is at odds with direct federal control of local matters.

Further, in view of these inherent city-government ties, some control between the government and the DC will always exist in some form or another even if it were to become a state (and would likely be spelled out in any charter drawn up).

In other words, you're not in favor of full statehood. Is that correct?

by Alex B. on Nov 24, 2013 11:52 pm • linkreport

God forbid this clique of hacks, in this rabid city council and the mayor, get any more power..Please congress keep federal control of a district government which is structurally corrupt and a good number already in prison. We must form our own Assembly Neighborhood Congress, a truly democratic legislature. That is when we deserve autonomy. We must, dissolve the structurally corrupt , self-empowered city council. The mayor and the City Council could not be more discredited. Gray knew about the money from Thomson and so much as admitted it, read DeBonis Metro section Washington Post Nov. 18, 2012. The federal investigation is smelling as fishy as the mayor's campaign. It's the delusional acceptance of this powerful clique , by people , yuppies, who think it benefits them, shows how corrupt they are, how they don't care about anybody else,, this is the other crime.

by Daniel Wolkoff on Nov 25, 2013 1:43 am • linkreport

@Daniel Wolkoff, Please identify by name all US politicians in the History of the nation, who were not corrupt, or somehow not drastically tardy in applying equal rights to all US citizens, such as voting rights, or equal rights, such as Same Sex Marriage?

How many lauded US politicians from 1776 to 1865 owned (for selfish gain) or permitted legal ownership of slaves, for reasons of national "political expedience"?

How many politicians in the History of the US have been investigated by government prosecutors, or arrested, or convicted, (especially US Congressmen e.g. the recent cocaine arrest)? Unless you can list all the corrupt politicians in US History, to provide sufficient context, holding DC locally elected politicians to an unreasonable standard, seems more than unrealistic, it suggests you oppose DC Statehood and oppose restoring full voting rights permanently in DC for some reason, such as continuing an unearned ongoing political subsidy for US conservatives in the US Congress.

by Nathaniel Pendleton on Nov 25, 2013 2:00 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Jazzy on Nov 25, 2013 5:08 am • linkreport

The District dosen't need a "moral claim to self-government" in a democracy, it's our birth right, and the small government types who seem most against it are hypocrites for standing in the way of full representation. For better or worse, should the city council vote for raising the height limit, that should be the law of the city, but that being said, some of the claims you make regarding the height limit don't seem to hold up very well.

"You might think that the District’s flat skyline is a fundamental part of its character,"...and you'd be right, minus the towers and monuments that punctuate the skyline.

"or that the buildings along K Street are needlessly boxy"...again, I'd agree with that also, but not for the reasons you seem to think, namely the height restriction law. I've never heard Paris being called the city of boxy buildings, yet it and many other cities suffer under a height limit.

"or that a few taller buildings are a better way to meet demand for housing than adding density everywhere in the city." Here's where you loose me. Why miss the opportunity to explain what smart growth would really mean to all it's citizens, like adding density along existing and future transit lines instead of just concentrating it downtown? What about Washington's characteristic skyline? The reason too often given is it's politically expedient becasue it avoids the NIMBY battles. And while I understand the need to be pragmatic, avoiding legitimate discussions about density dosen't seem like democracy in action. Political expediency isn't exactly the stirring call to arms that full representation deserves.

"Most of the debate about the height limit has indeed revolved around whether one appreciates or reviles tall buildings."

Assuming our 12 story downtown isn't considered "tall", most of the debates I've followed on this site tend to focus on the economic argument. How growth is either suffering or will stop if we don't allow for tall buildings in the downtown core. While hardly perfect, zoning regulations are meant to protect the public realm, which in a democracy means that some people won't get exactly what they'd like, but that the larger population will benefit. In the case of how our city should grow, we seem to be avoiding that discussion. Washington's built environment should not be dictated by political expediency but rather what's in the best interests of all it's citizens.

by Thayer-D on Nov 25, 2013 6:42 am • linkreport

@jimble, If you read the recommendations in the Nov 20 DCOP Report, it is clear that OP’s recommendation for the downtown area is quite different from what the NCPC recommends. There is no consensus between OP, NCPC and the Council on the downtown area, and OP is the outlier.

In addition, if you understand how the Comp Plan amendment process actually works, it is clear that OP’s recommendation for outside the downtown area doesn’t provide residents with much of a say in where development beyond the current Height Act limits would be allowed. As proposed by OP, that would be largely up to OP, and they will not be required to do any studies or planning before choosing the targeted exceptions. Some changes can be made with little public notice and little or no opportunity for public input.

This isn’t a self-government issue. Many DC residents want voting representation in Congress and control over how local tax revenues are spent, and aren’t willing to trade those important elements of home rule for increasing the Height Act limits downtown and granting OP the ability to eliminate Height Act limits in targeted areas.

by OtherMike on Nov 25, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

Is there a flow chart or org chart anywhere, (or could one be created?), explaining how the many planning organizations with legal "authority" over DC planning and zoning, and the only actual and final law makers for DC, the disenfranchising US Congress, control planning issues such as the DC height limit?

Creating a second diagram explaining the proposed changes to that flow chart, or org chart, in pictures would help focus the debate here on what DC's local elected government did or did not do here.

Several related by different charts would be needed to explain the status quo. 1) chart(s) that explain how zoning laws are created and controlled in DC. 2) How changes to the zoning law, become new law. 3) The process of how variances to zoning are legally granted.

Given how regulated and bureaucratic the US Congress has made zoning and smart growth in DC during the past 100+ years, a "privilege" of DC disenfranchisement, a clearer picture of the current processes and official bodies with actual legal "authority", would be extremely helpful. Diagramming the proposed and rejected changes would make it clearer how our locally elected leaders misstepped here.

by Nathaniel Pendleton on Nov 25, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

Congratulations to David Alpert for getting his relevant and timely Op-Ed into the Washington Post, likely sparking conversations more important than what we do here, because of the number of people who read the Washington Post and therefore the potential for large numbers of small scale conversations among DC citizens and stakeholders who don't also read GGW, and the ability of Washington Post to reach decision makers, and journalists, helping influence further coverage of such serious but technical smart growth subjects as the very authority and process that controls the tempo and scale of smart growth. Given how difficult it is to make news, or get published, it speaks volumes about David's efforts, time commitment, quality of work, and successes, with GGW, and his involvement in person with many good governance processes in DC, such as his input to a recent zoning meeting I watched online this month.

by Nathaniel Pendleton on Nov 25, 2013 1:52 pm • linkreport

Thanks, Nathaniel!

by David Alpert on Nov 25, 2013 2:19 pm • linkreport

It's a shame that on a very smart site about urbanism , you should promote the idea that the height restriction should cause buildings to be boxy when it's clear that it's a matter of design. You can be for or against tall buildings, but the argument should be based on facts. There are any number of non boxy buildings and streetscapes that don't come close to the height limit. This is an observable fact however much one wishes the contrary. People shouldn't be misled on such an important discussion about our city's future shape and character. Sorry.

by Thayer-D on Nov 28, 2013 4:32 pm • linkreport

People shouldn't be misled on such an important discussion about our city's future shape and character. Sorry.

How is it misleading?

The arguments against the height limit are primarily economic arguments. In Downtown DC, you have certain legal constraints on both allowable height and density, and you also have strong demand and high land values/rents. That we end up with boxes shouldn't be a surprise, given those facts.

Three parameters there: strong demand, height limit, and density limits that encourage filling the entire box.

Thus, if you want to make them less boxy, you must change one of those parameters. Reducing demand isn't smart (read: tank the local economy); reducing allowed density isn't a good policy either (since we're talking about how to absorb growth pressures. So, that leaves height.

Could you make buildings less boxy without changing those parameters? Maybe. Can you do it without futher constraining development, but rather by making the regulations more permissive?

Now, I don't buy the argument that the height limit produces bad design, but it quite clearly strongly favors the maximum use of allowed space under the federal law and zoning controls; and those limits produce a lot of boxes. I think you can do a lot of designing within those parameters, but they clearly exist.

Take the recently-sold HQ of the Washington Post. It's likely going to be demolished. The existing zoning allows for 100% lot coverage, a max height of 130 feet, and 10.0 FAR. I don't think it's too hard to think of what the general shape of a new building there might be (rhymes with 'foxy').

by Alex B. on Nov 28, 2013 10:40 pm • linkreport

"It's likely going to be demolished. "

Some say its wasteful to tear down and rebuild. Is it more wasteful to build that lot to 160 ft than to 130 ft? I don't think so. Is a 160ft building built in 2014/2015 going to be torn down and rebuilt in 15 years in the event the height limit is changed again, to say 180 ft? I don't think so.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 29, 2013 8:14 am • linkreport

Some say its wasteful to tear down and rebuild. Is it more wasteful to build that lot to 160 ft than to 130 ft?

Not sure how that is relevant to my point about the boxiness of buildings - the current building is a boring box as well; it, too, is a product of the same set of rules that apply the same design constraints.

by Alex B. on Nov 29, 2013 10:15 am • linkreport

"strong demand, height limit, and density limits that encourage filling the entire box."

Except filling the "entire box" doesn't necessarily make for boxy buildings, which is what David Alpert is asserting. That somehow our downtown's streestscapes will become less "boxy" and therefore better by simply making our buildings taller. This overlooks all the examples of low streetscapes with uniform cornice height where the facades have been articulated to accentuate the vertical and not the horizontal. Take art deco vs. classicism. One style tends to favor the vertical while the other seems to prefer the horizontal. Would this affect the way these buildings are interpreted regardless of their style? Yes, this is what's called the "art" of architecture. In the case of our downtown, while there's a healthy smattering of traditional buildings with their various styles, a lot of it is the product of the post war years where both ribbon windows and a lack of details was the norm. As with clothes, just the direction of stripes will do a lot for the character of a building. The fact that most urban buildings are boxes or a collection of different size boxes doesn't in it self make them "boxy" and has more to do with efficient construction techniques regardless of the ultimate building height.

"Take the recently-sold HQ of the Washington Post... The existing zoning allows for 100% lot coverage, a max height of 130 feet, and 10.0 FAR. I don't think it's too hard to think of what the general shape of a new building there might be (rhymes with 'foxy')."

Do you know the lot width? Do you know the width of the street it's on? Are you sure they won't choose to make the skin emphasize verticality or break the facade up in constituent parts?

I don't expect you to understand all the spatial and detail elements that go into a building's character any more than I'd expect you to "read" the box behind the one or two visible facades from a sidewalk, but pushing a meme that is easily disprovable isn't helping your case for raising the height limit. Sorry.

by Thayer-D on Nov 30, 2013 9:01 am • linkreport

Except filling the "entire box" doesn't necessarily make for boxy buildings, which is what David Alpert is asserting.

Aha! So, for you, boxiness is not a spatial term, but an aesthetic one?

Don't get me wrong, I completely understand your point of view on this. However, to me, a nicely ornamented classical box is still a box. The economics and tbe basic building regulations are going to drive the shape of that box.

but pushing a meme that is easily disprovable isn't helping your case for raising the height limit. Sorry.

I hear you - and I don't usually focus my height limit critiques on design.

However, I completely disagree that you've 'disproven' anything here. You've expressed a certain taste, a certain aesthetic; but that doesn't rise to the level of proof.

by Alex B. on Nov 30, 2013 9:26 am • linkreport

"Not sure how that is relevant to my point about the boxiness of buildings - the current building is a boring box as well; it, too, is a product of the same set of rules that apply the same design constraints."

It's not aimed at the question of boxiness. One assertion made by some commenters here is that periodic revisions to the limit will encourage periodic redevelopment of parcels, as the envelope changes, and that this is opposed to principles of sustainability.

I am pointing out that this is as an example where a building will be torn down and rebuilt anyway. Adding to its height will not therefore violate those sustainability principles, even before we address the transportation benefits of density.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 30, 2013 9:45 am • linkreport

Aha! So, for you, boxiness is not a spatial term, but an aesthetic one?

Got me! I think of "boxiness" is an adjective while "box" is a noun. And while I don't expect you to fully appreciate the complexities of designing buildings, I think we should be able to agree on language. Much like the confusion between the term "modern" and "modernist", one being a point in time while the other is a historical style, it's not a matter of taste, but a matter of language.

by Thayer-D on Nov 30, 2013 10:11 am • linkreport

IE

not all boxes are boxy, but most boxes are boxy. Forcing more boxes will mostly mean more boxy buildings, but will allow some non-boxy buildings. The kinds of non-boxy buildings that are boxes are much preferred by a certain school of design to the kind of buildings that are flamboyantly not boxes. Keeping the flamboyant non-boxes away is worth a certain number of boxy buildings, if it gets us some non-boxy boxes.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 30, 2013 10:25 am • linkreport

"not all boxes are boxy, but most boxes are boxy. Forcing more boxes will mostly mean more boxy buildings, but will allow some non-boxy buildings."

-Let's unpack this for a second. You say the height regulation forces boxes from developers because the profit margin is so thin that they are forced to take maximum advantage of the buildable envelope, thus they build a box, which is usually boxy, but not always. The reason you acknowledge they aren't always "boxy" is the reason David Alpert's assertion is false, so you understand the art of architecture enough to concede that. Yet, you want it both ways (because there can't be ambiguity?), so you contradict yourself by saying that the choices that make a box look boxy are forced on developers.

Leaving that logical fallacy aside, wouldn't it be fairer to say that the desire for maximum profit leads to maxing out the building envelope, regardless of the building height restriction? Afterall, all building types are subject to height restrictions yet we still see all sort's of architectural gyrations. Maybe office construction is the only building sector living close to the razor's edge of profitability?

"The kinds of non-boxy buildings that are boxes are much preferred by a certain school of design to the kind of buildings that are flamboyantly not boxes. Keeping the flamboyant non-boxes away is worth a certain number of boxy buildings, if it gets us some non-boxy boxes."

Besides being an awesome tongue twister, it's also a logic twister, like the first sentence. Please feel free to identify the "schools of design" that would somehow over-ride a developer's need to maximize his profits with "flamboyant non-boxes, especially in an urban context mid-block. Maybe we should give it a special name.

Look, I understand why economically it would make sense to build taller where the demand is greatest...no one will question that. And while I've offered many examples of cities overcoming similar physical limitations and still prosper, let's just assume that growth will indeed end should the height restriction not be lifted. It will still be the developers perogative to decide how to cloth their 12 or 15 story building, regardless of what "school of design" is popular at the time. They will still need to decide whether to set themselves apart in the market place of office space with a modicum of architecture vs. an absolute taught veneer of ribbon glass requiring three details to assemble. It won't be a strict numerical equation but a give and take of where best to spend the money in a quest to make the money. To top it all off, (no pun intended) they will still have the option to embellish the crown with a non-habitable penthouse as some have already done. If everyone has a simple box with architects who can't design the building to stand out from the next, then your view of my profession and our market place is a very different one than I have. Maybe I should have taken your "deal" to concede all architecture points to me if I conceded all economic points to you. I guess I have an issue with logical fallacies in general.

by Thayer-D on Dec 1, 2013 7:48 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or

Support Us