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Would a residential height bonus improve downtown?

Downtown DC could use more residential units, but the strong demand for downtown office space crowds out most residential development. Could a selective bonus above Washington's height limit for downtown residential units allow for new residents while avoiding a land rush?

Photo by Mr. T in DC.

The height limit generates perennial debate. I've opposed raising the height limit in downtown Washington, but supported much taller buildings in secondary nodes like Rosslyn.

Concentrating yet more office space downtown with taller buildings isn't in the region's best interest. More mixed-use neighborhoods are better than an office ghetto surrounded by bedroom communities.

There's also so much available land near downtown in places like Southwest and NoMa that the central office district could easily expand without taller buildings. Also, eliminating the height limit downtown could result in a push to tear down and redevelop too many historic buildings that are culturally valuable.

However, raising the height limit could make Downtown Washington a better neighborhood. It may be the most intensely built part of the region, but it is almost completely commercial. There are so few residential units that vast swaths of downtown are almost completely devoid of people outside the hours of 9-5.

If we want Washington to be a city of mixed-use neighborhoods, then downtown is failing. Even the downtown BID thinks this is a problem.

Getting more residents downtown is hard, however. The parts of downtown most in need of residential development are already built out with office buildings. Also, commercial square footage generally rents at a higher rate than residential square footage, so any developer would choose office over residential if zoning allows. Even if we change the zoning to require new buildings be residential, developers won't be likely to tear down older office buildings and replace them with lower-renting residential ones.

A solution would be to increase the allowable height for residential projects, but not commercial ones.

But by how much? We need to allow some redevelopment of existing buildings, but not too much. We could simply allow residential skyscrapers at unlimited height, but that would defeat the aesthetic reasons for having any height limit at all, and it might lead to the sort of land rush that would wipe out valuable historic structures.

What about a smaller rise? The height limit is currently defined as the width of the street plus 20 feet (for "business streets"). It would be possible to rewrite the regulation to provide a height bonus in exchange for incorporating residential square footage, say 20 additional feet of height in exchange for three floors of residential.

For example, say you own a piece of land on a 90-foot-wide street. You could currently build a 110-foot building with 10 floors of office space. With this suggested bonus, you could instead build a 130-foot building with nine floors of office and three floors of residential.

That would be enough of a windfall for most developers of new buildings to take advantage, but it wouldn't be so much as to encourage redeveloping existing builldings unless the owner was going to redevelop anyway. We wouldn't see wholesale demolition of historic properties, but we would see a substantial residential component in any new buildings.

There's still no reason to allow skyscrapers downtown, or to raise the limit for more offices, but a modest height bonus for residential development along these lines would add people to downtown's streets without significantly altering the city's mid-rise character. It would incrementally improve downtown as a neighborhood, while allowing it to retain its role as regional commercial center.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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I like the idea tremendously, but instead of raising the height limit further, I'd advocate just downzoning the by-right height limit for the entire CBD by 3.0 FAR or the like.

(I'm not sure how the zoning works in downtown DC -- if it's just a height limit and not FAR, you could accomplish something similar with just height restrictions, I suppose.)

Then, by adding residential uses to a commercial building, new buildings would be able to add .5 FAR of commercial space for every 1.0 FAR of residential space, up to the total cap.

There's no reason to go taller if we can just change the status quo. Of course this won't encourage quick wholesale change, because existing (grandfathered) office buildings will be preserved for as long as possible. But that may not be a bad thing either. But any empty lots or older three-storey buildings that get redeveloped would almost surely include some amount of residential space.

by Joey on Apr 28, 2010 12:47 pm • linkreport

This is a good idea, but I'd much, much rather just increase the density caps on the residential neighborhoods adjacent to downtown. There's no good reason why the portions of Dupont, Southwest, and Capitol Hill that are near Metro stations should be dominated by such low-density structures. (Especially Southwest, which has the worst of both worlds: low-density skyscrapers.)

by tom veil on Apr 28, 2010 12:52 pm • linkreport

Tom, That addresses a different problem. You're addressing the question of how much density the city can support. I'm addressing the question of how to make downtown itself better.

If nobody lives downtown, it will always be sterile no matter how many people live in Dupont.

by BeyondDC on Apr 28, 2010 12:54 pm • linkreport

Joey - I don't know what FAR means, so let me see if I get your point. We should lower the height limit for office buildings, and add a residential bonus that would create mix-use buildings at the current height?

I like that idea better than what this post suggests. I'm wary of setting the precedent of increasing building heights (through residential bonuses or whatever else) whenever there's a housing shortage. Moreover, it would allow a modest amount of new housing in downtown and spur the redevelopment of other areas (SW??).

by D on Apr 28, 2010 1:28 pm • linkreport

That comment about buying your daughter a downtown condo is a gem to be sure. There needs to be a focus on *affordable* housing.

Somewhat bizarrely, most of the new highrise developments cost more than a rowhouse.

by schmod on Apr 28, 2010 2:16 pm • linkreport

Perhaps a compromise could include a slight setback as part of the bonus.

I'd also like to see more commercial buildings outside of downtown. Zoning either does not permit, or makes commercial development less cost-effective outside of downtown.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 28, 2010 2:16 pm • linkreport

I live in San Francisco. In spite of all the huge condo towers going up in SoMa and a few existing buildings turning condo in the Financial District, the streets are empty after 5pm and on weekends. Even the limited retail centers in the area, like the Embarcadero Center, are void of people. If you want to shop, people go to Union Square.

I lived in DC for many years prior to moving west. I walked the desolate downtown streets on weekends. Building up isn't the answer (as seen in SF). People enjoy retreating to their respective neighborhoods after work to eat, play and relax. In order to work, downtown areas need to create vibrant neighborhoods to attract residents and create a 24/7 living environment. They need to be destinations at a human scale. 30-story buildings that cover entire city blocks are not inviting (look at Rosslyn).

by Mark on Apr 28, 2010 2:52 pm • linkreport


I don't know what FAR means...

FAR is a nice, wonky term used a lot in zoning codes. It stands for Floor Area Ratio. It's a measure of density on a site, but not necessarily of form. A site with 1.0 FAR could have a lot of different forms - it could be a 1-story structure that covers 100% of the site, or it could be a 4-story structure with a building footprint that only covers 25% of the site.

There's a nice description of the idea here:

by Alex B. on Apr 28, 2010 2:57 pm • linkreport

Like the idea. All for a slight increase in downtown height limits if it is for residential. I like DC's low skyline but 3 extra stories (or even 5) isn't much of a sacrifice by true urban skyline standards. It's gotta happen sooner or later anyway. It's the most metro accessible area in the city after all. Might as well negotiate with developers to achieve sound growth along the way.

by John C on Apr 28, 2010 2:58 pm • linkreport

Well good idea, but maybe we also need to stop building swanky condo's and instead build what Europeans would call apartment blocks with an average size of 328 squared feet.

The main benefit would be more density in these buildings together with some affordable housing. Many people live in the suburbs because they are priced out of the market!

by Vincent on Apr 28, 2010 3:23 pm • linkreport


Yeah, generally. FAR means "Floor-Area Ratio". It indicates how much density (in usable space, excluding wasted space inside walls, etc.) can be built on a particular property.

1.0 FAR means that you can build as much usable square footage as your property area is. If you have 20,000 SqFt of property, you can build 20,000 SqFt of leasable space. In practice, this probably means a 2-storey building, because (a) the building won't take up the entire property (some area will be used for loading docks, driveways, sidewalks, etc.), and (b) the space between walls, and sometimes common corridors, elevators, etc. aren't counted.

Similarly, 2.0 FAR means you get twice the area of the property in usable density, and 1.5 means you get 1.5x the area of the property in usable density.

by Joey on Apr 28, 2010 3:27 pm • linkreport

Vincent, many people shy from small apartments because 328sf is TINY. The suburbs also offer generally larger spaces, and certainly a lower cost per square foot. Until there is a serious cultural shift, you're not going to get developers building non-studio apartments that small.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 28, 2010 3:33 pm • linkreport

Who wants to live where there are no grocery stores?

by GM Crop on Apr 28, 2010 3:49 pm • linkreport

@GM Crop:
Who wants to live in the middle of nowhere without transit access and with an hour commute to work?

Different strokes for different folks.

Besides, there are several grocery stores on the edge of downtown that are a short Zipcar, bike, or transit trip away. (Dupont Circle, Waterfront SW, Logan Circle, Potomac Avenue, Columbia Heights, and Adams Morgan, to name a few.

by Matt Johnson on Apr 28, 2010 4:00 pm • linkreport

"Who wants to live where there are no grocery stores?"

"Who wants to live in the middle of nowhere without transit access and with an hour commute to work?"

This isn't an either/or choice, as many neighbothoods in the metro area demonstrate.

by Vicente Fox on Apr 28, 2010 4:37 pm • linkreport

@ Neil,

As people grow older, they need more space, good schools, and a nicer environment. These people will therefore move out of the city regardless of size.

It is young people that actually usually live in cities. Those are the people that downtown need to attract. Now all these spacious condo's obviously attract young people, but only a selected few that make very good money. That is why downsizing the size of appartments is key and should not be an issue. Also no need for fancy gyms, rooftop swimming pools...

Also the property developer will probably still make the same return. The only comparison I can find for this is youth hostels: they may only charge $20 a night, but if they pack 8 people in a room, they actually make more money than a hotel that charges $150 a night. This together that they don't have such big overheads compared to hotels (less staff, less fancy features) make it a win win situation for everyone! same can be applied to property development here in DC!

by Vincent on Apr 28, 2010 4:39 pm • linkreport

I would say it is more of a bell-curve. Plenty of empty nesters look to move back into the city to downsize their way of life. I think many more families would happily live in the city if the schools were better, but I feel like that is finally being addressed.

by NikolasM on Apr 28, 2010 4:43 pm • linkreport

I'd be happy to live downtown and walk to work and commute via Metro for groceries and farmers markets on the weekend.

But we have a corrupt Mayor and incompetent City Council who would rather line their pockets then make DC livable. Keep fantasizing.

by Redline SOS on Apr 28, 2010 4:53 pm • linkreport

I don't believe buildings can get taller in Rosslyn. The latest ones were capped at their existing height per the FAA. If they get much taller, they possibly interfere with the take off and landing flight path to Reagan.

by Tony L on Apr 28, 2010 4:58 pm • linkreport

We do not need to be building downtown 1BRs targeted towards price points within reach of entry level GSA employees. These recent college grads can do what I did last decade and what many before me - rent a dumpy house or midscale apartment and live with roommates for a few years.

Sorry kids, you've got to work your way up the ladder if you want to live sans roommates in the best locations in the city.

by Jason on Apr 28, 2010 4:59 pm • linkreport

Sorry Jason but the city should be for everyone, not just for the lucky few that managed to get an amazing job in of the international organisations that "litter" the city.

Now I'm not saying that everyone should have a right to live in a 1br appartment in downtown DC! Still it is the "kids" the make the city live. So mix and match 1,2,3 br appartments to be used by people that are keen to lvie there (young, people with low income in the city that can ill afford to pay $160 if not more in metro fares every month), and you get a nice mix of people that could make DC a 24 hour city

by Vincent on Apr 28, 2010 5:09 pm • linkreport

Buildings are expensive for a number of reasons. The actual cost to build them is not the only one. Scarcity of land and desirability of More importantly, new buildings are more expensive than older ones. DC has been rebuilding its housing stock downtown, so you should expect high prices in newer areas. Likewise, if there is going to be a housing bonus downtown, the apartments are going to be expensive luxury units.

On the other hand, I agree that a variety of housing types is best for a city, but that also includes housing for families and retirees. It's not just the kids that make a city work. It might make the best bars, but there's more to a functioning community than a good selection of beer.

Doesn't it strike you as odd that only young people are moving into the city now? That hasn't always been the case. In older buildings, you'll find apartments that are quite large, meant for 4-5 person families. Often these have been subdivided over the years into SROs and cheaper, crappier apartments, generally for low-income families.

Finally, I'm not really able to talk about the bottom line of a developer. I suspect that if they could make a killing from developing small apartments, they would.

If you go up to Columbia Heights or out east of Capitol Hill, you can find plenty of affordable housing for a single college graduate. The buildings are older and cheaper, but the neighborhoods are pretty damn livable.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 28, 2010 5:33 pm • linkreport


"Scarcity of land and desirability of the location also contribute to DC's high price tags "

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 28, 2010 5:34 pm • linkreport

It is not necessary to increase the height limit to increase residents living downtown. Increase the height limit and you kill what makes Washington so livable. Don't do it.

People do not want to live on the 15th floor, or the 10th for that matter. Not here.

by Jazzy on Apr 28, 2010 7:31 pm • linkreport

Isn't the Height Act set in federal statute? Amending it wouldn't be simple.

Especially since the Committee of 100 and all the other preservationist groups would go ape-poop over such a major change.

I'm much more of a fan of getting downtown commercial areas to spread to new areas like Waterfront, Captiol Riverfront, NoMa, Anacostia, etc.

by Fritz on Apr 28, 2010 8:45 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure this would work. First of all, since the Committee of 100 Clowns can't see around streetcar wires, for sure they think the world will end when buildings get higher.

Secondly, I honestly can't come up with a place that I know where office and living space is combined in a single building. Perhaps the Hancock tower. Can someone enlighten me?

Third, at least there would also have to be a requirement for ground floor something. Retail, food, museum, whatever. The streets are not only empty because nobody lives, there, but also because there is nothing to do.

Fourth, why not implement this requirement on all office buildings within the current height limits? There are plenty of offices being torn down and refurbished. Just required apartment inclusion when rebuilding or refurbishing. Sure, land owners would balk, but after five years, they'll start rebuilding and refurbishing. Fine.

Fifth, why so modest? Why not 50/50?

Sixth, there is a true danger that all these places would be high end. The city is currently in most redevelopments upping the price of the units, thereby pushing poor folks out of town. This will become an issue. At some point, it will not be cost effective anymore for minimum wage folks to commute in and out.

by Jasper on Apr 28, 2010 9:22 pm • linkreport


Secondly, I honestly can't come up with a place that I know where office and living space is combined in a single building. Perhaps the Hancock tower. Can someone enlighten me?

We've got tons of examples right here in DC. Gallery Place is one:

The Spy Museum has both offices and residential above the museum:

How about hotel and office?

by Alex B. on Apr 28, 2010 10:10 pm • linkreport

Have you ever been to the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, MD? They have single family homes, town homes, apartments, piggy backs and .... wait for it... live-work properties. Its pretty cool. The reto modern community is walkable to most things and family friendly.

by shapib on Apr 28, 2010 10:43 pm • linkreport

As poorly as the downtown Washington rates as a "neighborhood," most American downtowns would kill to have that as their worst problem. I tend to believe the height limitation has had a number of highly beneficial unintended consequences for DC as a whole, not the least of which is that its very strictness and unchangeability to some degree discourages speculation by developers. The rules of the game are set in stone and there is nothing to be gained by sitting on a vacant lot in hopes that increased demand or changed zoning in the future will allow for a 50-story condo tower.

While a three-story increase does seem modest, my fear is that by tinkering around the edges with the existing limits it is established that the limits *can* be changed downtown, which introduces uncertainty and unpredictability where there was none before. Once the precedent is set that the city is willing to selectively adjust the limits in the service of policy goals, the door is flung open to changes for almost any other policy reason. And any attempt to undo the change would surely be closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. It's an option, just one that I think might have bigger long-term consequences than you suggest.

by Roger on Apr 28, 2010 11:41 pm • linkreport

Don't mess with the height restrictions. There's still sooo much land available to develope around downtown. And the skyline is one of the distinctive things about DC.

by Thayer-D on Apr 29, 2010 7:46 am • linkreport

Roger and Thayer-D,

It's a slip, slip, slippery slope down the road to 50 story condo towers, governmental mind control, and marrying our pets. ;)

No, but seriously, a small incremental change to slowly encourage modest gains in residential construction will most likely not undo the distinctive shape and character of downtown. However, a dearth of retail, consistent foot traffic, services and unbalanced development WILL slow down and inhibit the potential for downtown to become the major economic and social driver for the city and region. I guess I consider the latter a more significant threat.

by Mike on Apr 29, 2010 8:11 am • linkreport

What makes Washington so livable is the limits put on height of buildings! Please don't change that! Washington is a very enjoyable city, one of the reasons is that it is "human" unlike New-York, Atlanta or Miami.

Now I have lived in London and Paris: Inner London actually does not have much population, but that is compensated by the fact that it has a lot of retail space & historic areas (Covent garden & Oxford street to name a few areas) Paris is even better: has shops, historic monuments and a lot of people living in the city.

Now as a European I really don't want to give some lessons, but I suppose we can all agree that America could learn a few things! Washington has done a great job already, and should be proud of its achievements!

by Vincent on Apr 29, 2010 9:13 am • linkreport

This 15 year resident says "no way." I am surprised that so many of the comments favor this approach.

I hope it's the non-starter that it has been for years. The biggest advocate of this kind of expansion was a Brookings Fellow whom they neglected to mention was the head of one of the largest commercial real estate firms in the country.

Also, why give up Virginia politically? The Southern portion of the state cannot compete with the expansion of NoVa, which means growth for the Dems in the state.

I wrote about this a number of years ago at Huffington. There I exposed the Brookings guy.
Huffington Post: Build a Wall, Keep Them in Virginia.

It is a federal law and Nancy Pelosi made it clear that she would not support changing the law.

by Mike Rogers on Apr 29, 2010 9:15 am • linkreport

No way. Please move on from the whole high limit thing. There are plenty of areas around DC to develop. Please leave the concrete canyons to every other generic city in the US.

by wd on Apr 29, 2010 9:53 am • linkreport

Why not maintain the height restrictions within the L'Enfant plan (or larger area), but raise them along, say, New York Avenue? Such areas are as distant from the historic area as is Rosslyn and Crystal City.

by Tom on Apr 29, 2010 11:28 am • linkreport

@Tom Such areas are as distant from the historic area as is Rosslyn and Crystal City.

And it's been a constant battle keeping the buildings in Rosslyn from marring the monumental views of the capital. Yeah, if you're in Rosslyn it's great being able to look over at Washington and appreciate the beauty of our low-lying city interspersed with tall monuments (at least until they put in a taller building next door to you and you lose 'your' view), but the experience from the Washington side of the river gets diminished the more that that tall buildings peek over the river from Rosslyn. I.e., we have enough of a problem with what's going on in Virginia, let's not spread that problem to DC.

by Lance on Apr 30, 2010 9:30 am • linkreport

I think this is a good point, but I don't think 3 stories is enough of a bonus to make much difference. Whether or not one wants to excoriate Leinberger (in the thread), he has a great article on the 19 typical product types in real estate development.

For this level of "mixed use" typical developers aren't interested in doing projects radically different from what they are accustomed and comfortable.

If you ever talk to a developer, you become attuned to how important this is as an issue.

This is no different from the typical discussion about the incentives necessary (density, land, funding) to create affordable housing.

And I think this idea was proposed in the Downtown Housing promotion paper in the late 1990s anyway. I don't remember now specifically. That paper isn't online.

by Richard Layman on Apr 30, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

I am sure that Leinberger is an expert on many of these topics. He should just be more forthright regarding his billion-dollar companies. No where in his Need For Alternative Places report does he say he is a huge commercial real estate developer.

When someone hides something they are, we hiding something. A little transparency is not a bad thing.

by Mike Rogers on Apr 30, 2010 7:29 pm • linkreport

Leinberger has never hidden his developer connections. And, really, what does that have to do with anything here.

by Neil Flanagan on May 1, 2010 2:54 am • linkreport

I've been an advocate of raising the height liimit in certain parts (clusters) of the city for some time. One of the major drawbacks of the height limit is the resulting BORING streetscape of boxy office buildings for countless blocks downtown without any relief! If developers are willing to creating some interesting architectural diversions at key locations, I would recommend allowing an extra 5-10 floors (which is still shorter than buildings in most US cities!) Consider the office building on K St. facing Frankline Square with it two pointed towers facing the park which gives a little of New Yorkish look to that block and it looks great from the park all lit up at night. It's one of the best buildings downtown in many ways. How about more of these. Even London and Paris permit tall buildings in specific areas of the city so the whole urban landscape doesn't turn into a bunch of monotonous endless blocks of boxy 12 storey buildings for hundreds of square blocks. We need variety to enhance our urban landscape and fabric.

by Len on Oct 17, 2011 5:42 pm • linkreport

I have lived in Dupont Circle for 48 years, and am restoring a 3-unit 1872 house in Mt. Vernon triangle, so can see different needs regarding residential density. I don't have much problem with increasing residential density in areas that are zoned commercial or have already been wiped out. But areas with substantial rehabitatable rowhousing should remain the Victorian heart of DC. Some increase in office building height could fairly be considered along the broader dilapidated commercial avenues. NY, Georgia, MLKing Avenues come to mind,, but need to be approached with respect for the older, viable residential housing behind them.

by Susan Meehan on Apr 25, 2012 7:42 am • linkreport

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