Greater Greater Washington

Development


Vancouver's Larry Beasley talks DC's Height Act in forum Tuesday, live chat Wednesday

One of the perennial topics for debate in Washington, DC is the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which limited tall buildings and created the current "low-rise" skyline. Now, the Act is 100 years old. Has it served DC well or poorly?


Vancouver's Yaletown.

Tomorrow, former Vancouver Planning Director Larry Beasley will talk about the Height Act at an NCPC forum, 6:30 pm at the Navy Memorial. Then, Mr. Beasley will come online to join us for a chat at 11 am Wednesday.

Vancouver has achieved tremendous success specifically through building high-rises. This has allowed the area to grow and prosper without massive suburban sprawl, and Vancouver neighborhoods have become livable, walkable, and lively.

Supporters of DC's height limit, on the other hand, argue that the limit forces development of areas adjacent to downtown, like NoMA and the Capitol Riverfront for office districts, instead of concentrating jobs in downtown with dead areas and parking lots adjacent.

Who is right? Does the height limit make DC a more livable city or keep it from achieving its potential? Maybe DC should raise the limit in key areas outside downtown? After all, Rosslyn has tall buildings, and it's closer to the Mall than Anacostia or Fort Totten. Or is spreading out office space inefficient?

Sometimes, tall buildings turn into mere "towers in the park", gaining a lot of height but not much density. On the other hand, the limit makes developers mainly build giant boxes, to take maximum advantage of the limited building envelope.

Is it worthwhile to maintain a certain aesthetic of lower buildings? Vancouver's towers don't create "canyon effects" or dark streets, but do form soaring, glass slivers reaching into the sky. Some like that, some don't. How worthwhile is maintaining the look if it increase sprawl? Does it, or do people just want single-family houses even if they're two hours from downtown?

To attend the talk, RSVP at NCPC's page. They anticipate the event filling up, meaning walk-ins might not be able to get in. To attend the live chat, just come online here at 11 am on Wednesday.

In the meantime, please submit questions you'd like to ask Mr. Beasley. We'll also formulate some questions based on the topics that arise at the forum.

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

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I'm not sure Vancouver's urbanism is something to be aspired to. "Towers in the Park" is more a function of modernism where the street was a afterthought and the buildings devoid of any decoration. Looking at "old" Wall street or lower Broadway with the older sky skrapers, it might not be that bad.

Either way, you do need some kind of limit, so I wouldn't want it to creep up as developers saw fit when perfectly good models such as Paris etc. hold there own in the market of cities. Also, long term, 50 story towers mey not be the way to go in terns of re-use and general sustainable maintenance. But I don't think it's an either or proposition where by you get 2-hour commutes from McMansions vs. Silver Towers.

by Thayer-D on May 17, 2010 3:19 pm • linkreport

Vancouver's zoning doesn't seem to encourage the Modernist Tower-in-the-Park; a lot of building have pedestal structures that fill out the streetwall, particularly the ones built in the past decade.

I don't know enough about it, so I'd like to hear a little more about the regulations and incentives used to create the buildings' form.

by Neil Flanagan on May 17, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

Remove the restrictions! At least in Anacostia...we need lower priced housing for federal workers. $400K for a two bedroom condo is not affordable for median income workers.

by Redline SOS on May 17, 2010 3:46 pm • linkreport

The more you seek to "encourage" or "discourage" particular behaviors, the more expensive it becomes for the rest of us to live.

by aaa on May 17, 2010 3:52 pm • linkreport

Just as a caveat, development isn't just about the regulations being put in place. In some respects, it's unfair to compare DC (with a metro area exceeding 5 million) with Vancouver's metro area being less than half that. Plus, the entire north side of Vancouver has a hefty topographical barrier (Canadian Rockies?), and the whole west side has a body of water. Not to mention a relatively close southern border with the U.S.

Those situational differences influence development. What is a legislative driver versus organic encouragement might be difficult to decipher.

captcha: grumbling scout

by SDJ on May 17, 2010 3:55 pm • linkreport

"Either way, you do need some kind of limit, so I wouldn't want it to creep up as developers saw fit when perfectly good models such as Paris etc. hold there own in the market of cities."

Paris is often looked at as the model for small-scale urban density; however, Paris has thousands of buildings in the city proper (i.e. excluding La Defense and the surrounding municipalities) that exceed D.C.'s stringent height restrictions. While our buildings rarely exceed 12 stories, building is Paris proper routinely reach over 30 stories tall, especially some of the residential properties along the Seine.

The other issue is that thanks to France's largely centralized and uniform tax system, people and businesses that locate outside of Paris proper don't directly bleed the city of its revenue base. On the other hand, when rents get so high in D.C. that people and business hop to Virginia or Maryland, D.C. directly loses out. Who knows how much more affordable space could be gained by raising the height limit to allow for just a few extra stories. Those few extra feet could add potentially millions of square feet of additional office and residential space and ease our skyrocketing rents.

by Adam L on May 17, 2010 3:57 pm • linkreport

How on Earth could anyone not like Vancouver's skyline?

by xtr657 on May 17, 2010 3:58 pm • linkreport

Having lived in Vancouver for almost 5 years in the late 90s, I saw much of the explosive growth first-hand. The thing to remember is that the growth is mostly concentrated in the downtown core and some "urban villages", to use an Arlington term, that straddle Skytrain stations, such as Metrowtown in neighbo(u)ring Burnaby. People are still able to have single family homes with yards, townhomes, and low-rise apartment buildings while living within Vancouver city limits as well, such as near the Fraserview Golf Course where I lived or the upscale area near the University of British Columbia.

Transit plays a big role in Vancouver, as it's also the only major city in North America without a highway/freeway running through it (the Trans Canada highway briefly dips into city limits in the extreme north-east of the city).

I think the combination of urban/suburban development within Vancouver proper along with the relative inconvenience of driving in from the suburbs versus taking transit has really spurred the explosive growth Vancouver has seen. I wonder if Larry Beasley would agree with that.

Personally, I think DC would look much more different if there were no highways within the beltway (66, 395, etc). Obviously, I don't think we should have sky scrappers lining the mall, as the historic core of the city should be preserved, but there are definitely opportunities for growth within DC proper that wouldn't impede view-sheds and allow for better neighborhood growth. Think of Paris and the La Defense district. Another thing to note is that most of Vancouver's residential towers are very thin, with only a few apartments per floor, unlike the massive apartment buildings that we have in DC.

by Teo on May 17, 2010 4:01 pm • linkreport

The Height Law is not the only restriction on the heights of buildings. Zoning imposes very severe restrictions that are much more hostile to urbanism than a cap on buildings.

by Neil Flanagan on May 17, 2010 4:10 pm • linkreport

I fell in love with Vancouver during a trip in 2009 and I would consider it the most livable city I've ever visited. No freeways downtown. Skytrain is entirely automated keeping labors costs low and allowing 6-8 minute headways even at 11pm at night. They've emphasized downtown housing since the early 1980's. Granville Island and Stanley Park are really unrivaled.

As for the height of buildings, as Neil suggested they follow the tower and podium style. The base of the podium is 2-4 stories and features retail. The towers are rather tall but much skinnier than the podium. This increases density while preserving vistas. It also doesn't have the negatives of the towers in the park which break up the streetwall by allocating valuable urban real estate to a lawn no one uses or surface parking. Additionally I think the spacing on the towers produce other livability benefits. The street feels like less of a canyon. The windows from residence aren't immediately across the street from another residence. If I'm going to live in a small 700sf space I don't want to have to keep my blinds closed because my neighbor can easily see me from his kitchen. The spacing limits that issue.

One odd thing in Vancouver are the overhead wires. Yaletown which is otherwise gorgeous disappointingly has overhead power lines along each street much like you find in our suburbs. The downtown area restricts overhead wires to the alleyway but they are serious monstrosities.

by Paul on May 17, 2010 4:16 pm • linkreport

"No freeways downtown. Skytrain is entirely automated keeping labors costs low and allowing 6-8 minute headways even at 11pm at night."

*Swoon*

by Adam L on May 17, 2010 4:27 pm • linkreport

Let's just invade Canada and take Vancouver for the nation's capital.

Or we could just start doing the right thing here.

by Redline SOS on May 17, 2010 4:40 pm • linkreport

I see the height limit being adjusted eventually, so I wish it would just happen already.

by Vik on May 17, 2010 4:57 pm • linkreport

For two median-income federal employees, $400k for a 2 bedroom condo is about right. As for the prices of housing in DC, they have very little to do with the height limit. If you increased the maximum height, or got rid of the limit altogether, the new buildings will be office space and very high end condominiums (a la the towers in Rosslyn). You won't be able to enter the lobby for $400k.

My biggest concern is that by adding office space, you tie DC into the boom and bust markets of commercial real estate. Look at the new buildings by the Nats stadium. Much of that office space is empty, a victim of the recession. I would prefer a slight shortage of space, which ensures higher prices and better tennants (ie long term lessees like law firms, etc, over fly by nights like internet companies) and keeps the market stable.

I worked in "Silicon Alley" at its peak. When every group of 3 guys with a website were filling up office space around the Flatiron Building. Then I watched as the moving vans took it all away and left empty shells on many blocks. DC has always been pretty much immune to this, and that is a good thing.

by urbaner on May 17, 2010 5:08 pm • linkreport

@urbaner

"For two median-income federal employees, $400k for a 2 bedroom condo is about right. As for the prices of housing in DC, they have very little to do with the height limit. If you increased the maximum height, or got rid of the limit altogether, the new buildings will be office space and very high end condominiums (a la the towers in Rosslyn). You won't be able to enter the lobby for $400k. "

Perhaps, but I'm a believer in supply and demand. If there is more residential housing stock available, prices should go down or at least stabilize as availability meets demand. In urban areas, we don't have the luxury to expand out, so you build up. At the very least, more people means more property and income tax revenue for the District as opposed to letting it just slip away to the suburbs.

by Adam L on May 17, 2010 5:16 pm • linkreport

@Adam L - I'm not any authority of knowledge in this matter. But I think that's only partly right. New hi-rise construction is expensive. Materials and labor costs have gone up faster than inflation over time. There needs to be a worthwhile ROI for a developer to invest 100-200 million into a project. I wouldn't expect downtown new construction to offer great value (low cost) on condos/apts that SOS expects. But it may ease the conversion of older housing stock built 30+ years ago into luxury rentals/condos allowing some of that inventory to remain affordable.

by Paul on May 17, 2010 5:24 pm • linkreport

@AdamL At the very least, more people means more property and income tax revenue for the District as opposed to letting it just slip away to the suburbs.

First off, we have lots of space in the District itself that isn't living up to its potential. For example, it was that very long ago that H St NE was still very boarded up. Now it is developing. If developers could have knocked down 4 and 5 story houses and buildings in Dupont and Georgetown and put up 10 or 20 story buildings instead, then places like H St NE and even 14th St NW and U St, would not be being built 'back' to their full potential.

Secondly, you have to look at both sides of the equation as far as tax revenue goes. It's not a given that more people equals more net revenue. The District needs to provide services for these people. Schools are expensive as are transportation elements such as the proposed new streetcars. It's really very possible that you end up spending more to get these new people in than you get from them in taxes. I know I've heard that the vast bulk of our tax dollars in DC come from businesses and their high property taxes ... That if they left, we couldn't manage our budget. I also know at one point the policy was to bring in single professionals and dinks ... i.e., the kind of folks that would add to the tax revenue without significantly impacting the budget.

by Lance on May 17, 2010 5:29 pm • linkreport

@Lance

The funny things that I never hear about how Montgomery Fairfax counties totally deteriorated due to the influx of ever more people over the last 50 years. yes, more people means more services, but more people adds tremendously to economic growth more.than people consume in municipal services.

In addition, while the city is growing, its growing as a result of new condos and people converting their row houses into multi-unit dwellings. the people who are moving into areas like you mentioned are not really adding population as much as replacing people. yes, there are areas that are underdeveloped and could be developed but after they're done... what then? for areas like Columbia heights that just built brand new apt buildings on top of preexisting services like Metro, a few extra stories would be, in my opinion, a smart move.

by Adam L on May 17, 2010 5:58 pm • linkreport

Adam L.

It all depends on WHO moves in. White collar professionals and families making combined incomes of over $300k are not going to use many services. Recent immigrants to the US on the other hand... (that's both ends of the spectrum).

In fact, the immigration situation has hit areas of both Montgomery and Fairfax hard. However, when you look at countywide data, it is swallowed up by the mega earners in Great Falls and Potomac. But, Great Falls isn't Falls Church and Potomac isn't Langley Park.

More high rise condos would likely bring in high earners. For reasons stated before, the cost of building these units generally prices out the middle class. That would be good for the city, but, would not address the problem of how a middle-class family can find decent affordable housing in the city.

by urbaner on May 17, 2010 6:21 pm • linkreport

@urbaner

I totally get what you're saying. My point is more that if we can get more high-income earners to live in more of those condos, doesn't that relieve housing price pressure elsewhere? Lance's point is that if height restrictions weren't in place, then only a few select areas would have undergone revitalization as people expanded into nearby areas. True enough. However, there has to be something in the center of these two extremes of luxury high-rise condos and dilapidated areas in poor neighborhoods.

In any event, it's zoning and land use policy that should dictate all of these kinds of actions. A century-old, one-size-fits-all height restriction is, in my mind, just ridiculous.

by Adam L on May 17, 2010 6:28 pm • linkreport

If the height restriction is repealed all it will do is just create highrise in downtown while the rest of the city is the same.

If you keep the height restrictions development spreads throughout all areas in the city in due time.

How about restricting building permits Downtown but get increased benefits if the locate outside of downtown. Then as the other areas build up you repeal the height restrictions so that builders all wont flock to one area.

by kk on May 17, 2010 6:43 pm • linkreport

I agree with those who argue for greater supply and, to some extent loosening some zoning restictions.

Still, is it just me, or is the elephant in the room the vast amount of housing and potential housing in high crime parts of the district? Doesn't this limit housing options for people as well?

by ed on May 17, 2010 7:41 pm • linkreport

I have to wonder what percentage of Vancouverians (?) actually live above the 10th story of any particular building. I suspect, when the greater metro area is included, that it is a fairly small fraction. Google maps, at least, shows a city that is 90-95% single family homes and low rise apartments, most of it the same or lower density than Washington's rowhouse neighborhoods. So this idea that high rise residential limits sprawl simply does not seem that convincing.

As for other merits of tall buildings -- I do like Vancouver's skyline, but I like Washington's too. I'm inclined to think I place more value on there being a diversity of urban forms (among, not simply within, cities), even were someone to "prove," statistically or otherwise, that one model of development or the other was invariably superior.

by Roger on May 17, 2010 8:40 pm • linkreport

David - how many hands do you have?

by David C on May 17, 2010 9:42 pm • linkreport

The choice of Vancouver as a counterpart is bizarre. It has much less poverty, the downtown is hemmed in by topography as is the northward direction of the city's development, and it's much smaller in population and role than DC. It's also probably the only major city in North America where you can be in the woods within a very short distance of downtown. The Potomac defines DC as a city, but isn't a real barrier to development patterns, ditto the Anacostia. There isn't a perfect match for DC, but Atlanta and Houston share some similarities, including population size, although they don't have huge rivers running through them. Houston has no zoning and Atlanta often seems not to--it was among the last major cities to have a building code. Both cities have relatively forgettable high rise downtowns and high rise satellite districts (Atlanta and the Gakkeria area). DC is older but has expanded more like a sunbelt city than its Northeastern peers.

High rise areas at least have the promise of concentrating property tax bases. OTOH, there's no guarantee that they will get filled. The northward expansion of downtown Atlanta northward into Midtown had a brief life in the 70s but only recently has been restarted (only to lose steam in the condo glut). Downtown Atlanta also has had fits and starts, all of these despite fairly constant economic growth in the region. Both cities have forgettable high rise architecture, esp. Atlanta. And one need only look toward bethesda or Rosslyn to see how unimaginative high rise development can be in our own region. Lifting the height limit would require a rapid expansion in the demand for office space, which doesn't seem to be coming. High rise expansion in the 80s gave NoVA a huge glut for much of the 90s. One would have to think about where high rise construction could and should go and its impact on the rest of DC's business districts. The West End would have been a candidate for decline 10 years ago (and consequently a candidate for high rises) but it has drawn new and renovated buildings. The foundation/trade association/labor union corridors around DuPont Circle are unlikely to relocate to high rise space, although high rise s elsewhere might lessen the pressure for rents to rise there. The old downtown area is finally showing signs of life on its own and other than the old convention center, there aren't natural places for new high rises without disturbing the areas of new vitality, although the blocks E of 7th street could use some new life.

by Rich on May 17, 2010 10:00 pm • linkreport

1. It would be easier for me to support the height limit if it had some valid reason for the heights chosen. But they seem arbitrary, and as such a higher or lower limit could be just as valid.

2. The fact that there is a desire for taller buildings in the area is clearly shown by the presence of Rosslyn and Crystal City. Why should we let all of that money go to VA? Beyond DC's plan makes so much sense to me. Why allow tall buildings 2 miles from the White House in Rosslyn, but not 2 miles away in Anacostia? Allow builders to go above current limits and charge them a fee that would allow DC to decouple the blue and orange lines so that transit keeps up with the density.

3. The US was so close to owning Vancouver. Basically the US/Canada border was to follow a set of lakes and rivers to the NW-most point of the Lake of the Woods and west of that point. Problem was, no one knew where that point was. People began to settle the area west of there and they didn't know if they were in Canada or the US. So they decided that the border would go to the NW-most point and then either north or south to the 49th parallel. It turned out later that was south. So we just handed the Canadians a strip of land 20 miles high and 1500 miles long. A strip that includes Vancouver. About the size of South Carolina. Stupid Albert Gallatin.

by David C on May 17, 2010 10:07 pm • linkreport

If the US had Vancouver, it would've looked like Seattle, with a nice, thick freeway down the middle.

But I better watch what I say. Don't want to get quoted out of context in the Post again...

by Teo on May 17, 2010 10:11 pm • linkreport

@David C: Fifty four forty or fight.

by Michael Perkins on May 18, 2010 6:12 am • linkreport

The Paris analogy holds up quite well when you consider La Defence is way out of the historic core, much like Arlington. I guess that's a bit like shoving the trash off to one's neighbors though, if it's good enough for Arlington, why not DC?
Because tall buildings aren't as sustainable as medium height (5-10 stories). Because tall buildings make one feel like an ant. Because there's sooo much fallow land that could be developed first, and because I wouldn't want DC to look like every other medium size city in the world.

It's nice to know they eliminated the tower in the park syndrome, but if they go that route, I think 6-8 story bases would produce a more pleasant urban streetscape due to the width of our roads. And please decorate them!!!

by Thayer-D on May 18, 2010 6:45 am • linkreport

I like the height limit because is potentially encourages development in other parts of the city, if used properly. As other have said, it's the zoning regulations and perception of (and actual) crime that drive the lack of development. The District has a lot of underdeveloped areas that should be considered first. The New York Avenue corridor could be so much more if we focused on integrating it within the city.

Paris, as others have said, is a great example of a height restricted city but it works. Like DC, Paris has retail and residential spaces throughout but the differences are that Paris has an expansive and redundant public transportation system and the support of its federal government.

by Randall M on May 18, 2010 7:42 am • linkreport

@Urbaner - You're insane. What federal employee can afford a $400K condo? I'm seven year in with the feds (Hill and Agency post law school) and I make $75K. Last year, making $62, I netted $38K. With $90K in student loans I can barely afford the one bedroom rental I have...much less save for a down payment on a $400K condo. And most of my coworkers are in the same boat.

We desperately need affordable housing in this city.

by Redline SOS on May 18, 2010 7:55 am • linkreport

@Redline SOS - you're very self absorbed about your situation. Everyday you bring it back up multiple times. No one owes a government laywer a 2BR condo for $300K in a vibrant DC neighborhood. Purchase a studio, buy a 2BR and rent out the extra BR or buy in a transitioning neighborhood and shut up already.

by Jason on May 18, 2010 8:31 am • linkreport

Micahel, those Fifty four forty people are crazy ideologues. I'd compromise for Fifty four twenty.

Jason, I think Redline SOS's point is that few people in this town under 30 own a condo unless they got help from their parents. I seem to remember reading an article about that, and that was during the boom when financing was easy. I'm not sure that's a bad thing (far too many people own homes as it is), but his point that housing is expensive in DC is accurate.

by David C on May 18, 2010 9:18 am • linkreport

@Jason - Self absorbed? My point is that removing the height restrictions will push housing prices lower so that your public servants can live closer to work, reducing strain on public transit, and creating a happier denser city.

Housing prices are affordable and in the long term, unsustainable.

I'm familiar with my my situation because I live it. I'm not familiar with yours so can't (and wouldn't) make assumptions about it.

by Redline SOS on May 18, 2010 9:27 am • linkreport

@Redline SOS:

@Jason - Self absorbed? My point is that removing the height restrictions will push housing prices lower so that your public servants can live closer to work, reducing strain on public transit, and creating a happier denser city.

Get married or shack up with someone? Want to stay single? Get a roommate. Want to live alone? Do what every other underpaid young federal employee who wanted to live in the District has done for the last two decades and buy in an up-and-coming neigborhood:

http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/1603-Isherwood-St-NE-Washington-DC-20002/2132201434_zpid/

Not sure what you're expecting to happen to prices in the most desirable parts of town if height restrictions are lifted.

by oboe on May 18, 2010 9:51 am • linkreport

@redline

First off, a two bedroom condo, which is what the original post mentioned, is designed for two people. Two earners. So while you can't afford to live in one at $75k per year, you and another person could at $150k per year.

Student loans are your choice. There are many federal employees at higher grades who went to more affordable colleges and graduated with minimal debt. You had to know when you signed the papers that you were making an investment in your education that you would be paying off for the next 20 to 30 years, and that while paying off the loans, there would be things you would have to go without.

There is affordable housing in the city, but it might not be where you want to live. You can even get a federal employee discount on a new home at Henson Ridge in SE.

You have no more right to live where you want in DC than I have to live on Park Avenue or in Beverly Hills (or where I want in DC). The reality is that there are many, many people in this city who simply are in better financial shape than you. They can afford to live where they want and you (and I) can't. Welcome to the real world. Now, if you really want to own a place, call a realtor and look at places outside of your comfort zone.

by urbaner on May 18, 2010 10:49 am • linkreport

@urbaner:

That link I posted is a good start. About three blocks from the heart of the nightclub district on H Street. If I were single and looking to buy, I'd get something in Rosedale in a heartbeat.

by oboe on May 18, 2010 10:56 am • linkreport

@Redline SOS, My point is that removing the height restrictions will push housing prices lower so that your public servants can live closer to work, reducing strain on public transit, and creating a happier denser city.

What makes you think I'd be happier having a denser city? As it stands, I have everything within my walking reach that I need. (My location gets a 98% Walk Score). Why would I be 'happier' if I was competing with 10 or 100 times as many people for the limited sidewalk space ... and sidewalk cafes?

I think there's a lot to be said for a low-rise 'small town' atmosphere right in the center of the 'capital of the free world". We've got plenty of neighborhoods and cities in this area that could benefit from more residents. We don't need to have all the new residents coming to already established 'desirable' neighborhoods.

And by the way, lots of us are here in these 'desirable' neighborhoods ... because they we 'less than desirable' when we moved here.

And there are still lots of such neighborhoods where you can get in 'for cheap' now and then eventually get to reap the rewards of living in a similar 'desirable' neighborhood that you've had a hand in making .. and getting rewarded for making.

If what you advocated happened, not only would I not be happy ... but neither would you. Transforming a place like Dupont, or Georgetown, or Logan, into a place of 10 story buildings means making them into place that aren't Dupont, or Georgetown, or Logan. Try Ballston or NoMa ... that's what they're building there.

by Lance on May 18, 2010 9:19 pm • linkreport

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