Greater Greater Washington

GGW debates: the Height Act

The 1910 Height Act, while it has made Washington's skyline distinctive, is not without controversy or drawback. While it's unlikely that there will be any changes to the height restriction anytime soon, the issue came up for discussion earlier this month after a New York Times piece marked the act's hundredth anniversary.


Photo by JamesCalder on Flickr.

In the spirit of friendly debate, we posed an open-ended question to GGW contributors on what they thought about the city's height limit. The opinions exposed a diversity of opinion on how the height limit factors into the District's appearance, urban experience and development patterns.

Here are thoughts from four GGW contributors.

Jaime Fearer:

While I understand the arguments on both sides, we have vacant and underutilized land across the city that is ripe for infill and economic development, could be built reasonably high with zoning code adjustments, and would contribute to a tighter, denser fabric across all quadrants.

On the other hand, folks using the Height Act as a preservation measure are misinformed. It is certainly nice that it preserves viewsheds, but that was not the original intent. It isn't written as a preservation law, much like overhead wires, at their core, aren't necessarily a preservation issue. I tried writing about both for the historic preservation class I'm taking this semester, and was unable for that very reason. After looking into it some more, I agree. In fact, perhaps one day when I'm not writing a paper on DC's actual historic preservation law, I could write something up about how the Height Act and overhead wire limits are erroneously trotted out under the guise of preservation.

I understand the height limit is overly restrictive, but we've still got a lot of opportunity focusing on our underutilized areas and working to update zoning regulation. The development taking place in NoMa is a great example of this.

Also, I find bogus the argument that mid-rise architecture is inherently boringit's a shame Leinberger fell for that in the Times piece. We humans are quite capable of building gorgeous, usable, and not-so-tall buildings if we stop being lazy and start thinking outside the K Street box. Thankfully some of those buildings still exist as examples.

Stephen Miller:

We like to think of the Height Act's impact on our skyline as special, and we think of the congressional process needed to change the Height Act as unique. However, there are parallels to be drawn here with policies in other cities.

For example, Mayor Bloomberg had to get Albany's approval for congestion pricing, another seemingly radical idea. The proposal failed because Bloomberg forged ahead without consensus from stakeholders within the city, most important among them, Sheldon Silver. In that analogy, Albany was the city's Congress-like overlord, but in our circumstance no Bloomberg figure has emerged to become the champion of amending the Height Act.

In the end, New York moved forward with a different model of congestion management by reallocating road space to pedestrians, cyclists and transit. When it comes to increasing density in the city, DC should heed New York's lesson and forgo a drastic policy change outside its control. Instead, we must continue to use the tools at our disposal by developing dense nodes in transit-accessible areas while still operating with the Height Act.

While that solution operates within the political reality, it should be noted that the blanket restriction on tall buildings is absurd outside the L'Enfant City and historic vistas. The highrises of Rosslyn, for example, have a more significant impact on historic viewsheds than taller buildings on the DC side of Friendship Heights ever could.

Eric Fidler:

The highrises of Rosslyn are visible from the Mall, diluting the effectiveness of the Height Act, which only applies to the District. The Height Act looks quaint when it restricts buildings in neighborhoods far and occluded from the monumental core.

I can see both sides of the height argument, but we have plenty of underdeveloped land in this city. Look at NoMa and the Navy Yard. Unlike many other building and zoning codes, modification of the Height Act will require an act of Congress. The public, preservationists, urbanists and statehood activists should expend their political energies on more important matters. The height limit is very far down on my list of things worth fighting over.

Alex Block:

Something's going to have to give. While it may seem that DC has lots of land left, it really doesn't. All those empty lots in the Navy Yard and NoMa are spoken for and have development plans. There are maybe a few other areas to be developedPoplar Point, RFK Stadium/Hill Eastbut that's about it. What happens when we hit that limit?

The city will run head-long into an economic conundrum. It could keep the height limit, but at the risk of becoming an unaffordable wealthy enclave. It could upzone historic areas that are currently below the maximum height, but risk losing that charm and design. Or it could modify the height limit to let the naturaland beneficialurban economic pattern of density and agglomeration unfold.

Some think the low-rise nature of the city is appropriate for a capital, but at what cost to the local economy? Ryan Avent notes that the height limit means property owners must squeeze every bit of value out of their developments, thus encouraging the kind of pressure that eliminates cheap office space for innovative start-ups, art galleries or similar enterprises. There are real economic costs to the limit. If we're going to preserve DC as a low-rise city, that's one choicebut what about the city's finances? Would people accept, say, regional tax base sharing in exchange for DC's height limit remaining in place?

What will need to happen is some sort of broad planning process and consensus, not unlike the McMillan Plan. I'm talking about more than the Comprehensive Plan, and something with more buy-in and a broader scope than NCPC's previous efforts. It will require the involvement of Congress. It will probably have to address the question of what DC's role really is as a capitaland will undoubtedly touch on home rule, self-determination and representation in Congress.

My preferred solution would be to modify the height limit to allow modestly taller buildings across the board, but with setback requirements and other design codes that would continue to preserve DC's aesthetic. A study from the Tony Williams administration found huge benefits for a modest increase in the maximum height. Vancouver's Larry Beasley laid out several principles (MP3) to add height while maintaining character, including building setbacks, creating targeted areas for increased height and use of urban design. I think you can keep the city's aesthetic while still allowing greater density via code.

I'd also designate some development areas for high rise development, but these areas would be limited and must be transit oriented. Three areas that come to mind would be the area near Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station, RFK Stadium/Hill East and Poplar Point. These three would present terminal vistas for what's left of Delaware Avenue, New Jersey Avenue, and East Capitol Street. All have relatively underutilized Metro stations right now.

Whether the act is changed or not, there is a need to discuss this in the near future. The status quo of the Height Act will clash even more with economic reality.

Stephen Miller lived in the District from 2008 to 2011 and is now a student at Pratt Institute's city and regional planning masters program. 

Comments

Add a comment »

If nothing else, the Building Height Act prevented us from constructed Corbusier-inspired tower blocks surrounded by huge parking lots within the district itself.

Alexandria and MoCo both got their fare share of this sort of development, which actually seem to have had the overall effect of *lowering* density (not to mention the stark ugliness and often-shoddy construction methods used to build these properties). Personally, I'm quite glad that we had the height restriction, because it seems to have prevented a lot of really bad development from happening. I'll gladly side with the C100's conservative stance on this issue.

(But not entirely -- a few more floors downtown won't hurt anybody, especially if we could enact a zoning code that would require additional setbacks and layered facades. The shortcomings of the height act are painfully obvious along K St NW. I'm not sure that the buildings out by Stadium/RFK would need to be any bigger than those in NoMA or Near SE. I very much like how the current development pattern seems to be creating numerous "mini-downtowns" around Metro stations, and providing focal points for our neighborhoods.)

In short, keep the code, but feel free to tinker with it to allow a few more floors, in exchange for requiring other features that improve the building's overall function and aesthetic.

by andrew on Nov 23, 2010 10:19 am • linkreport

The economic argument for lifting the height limit says that the artificial cap on the supply of commercial (and residential) space raises prices on those spaces.

If that is so, then why were rents so much cheaper 50 and 60 years ago in the District--so that there were hardware stores, diners, and other "Mom & Pop" shops everywhere?when there was even less commercial space? Remember, all those hideous 1970s 12-story office buildings on K Street used to be 4-story mansions--and most of Chinatown was row houses, like Capitol Hill.

I think the answer is that supply creates demand: As the supply has expanded as buildings have grown taller downtown, employers have arrived, bringing potential consumers--which in turn increases the desirability of commercial property, raising its price.

Thus adding more retail space by lifting the height cap would not lower commercial rents.

And come on: Which is more pleasant to walk around in: Rosslyn or Georgetown? Manhattan or Brooklyn? It's subjective, but I'd bet that most people would prefer to live and work where the trees are taller than the buildings.

by JB on Nov 23, 2010 10:20 am • linkreport

It artificially inflates housing prices and restricts development. It's anathema to a vibrant city and needs to be removed outside of the federal and monument areas.

by Redline SOS on Nov 23, 2010 10:34 am • linkreport

My view is to just leave it alone. Raising it a few stories to increase rentable s.f. will cause builders to add floors to max out to that level, and when that's gone as far as it can, developers and property owners will be wanting to raise it again, for the same reasons.

by Bob See on Nov 23, 2010 10:37 am • linkreport

Does anyone know if The Cairo, or the Post Apartments on Mass Ave, is the tallest building in the District?

by Tim on Nov 23, 2010 10:41 am • linkreport

Great summary of opinions. IMHO the Height act is antiquated. Navy Yards would have been a great place to build up.

by beatbox on Nov 23, 2010 10:43 am • linkreport

Those who argue there are plenty of development spaces already are, in my opinion, mistaken. It's true only if the undeveloped spaces are close substitutes to the existing buildings. But an extra floor on Connecticut at L St. probably is more valuable than an extra floor in an undeveloped/"underdeveloped" space. In other words, there's a reason why those plots don't have development--because they're less desirable than other plots.

It seems to me like the best policy would be a modest roll-back. Perhaps uncap height in certain blocks or areas. Or raise the cap 50%. Or something. See what happens and move on from there in 10 or 15 years.

by WRD on Nov 23, 2010 10:45 am • linkreport

For me, it is all about street level retail and foot traffic. Increase per block density and you will increase retail. Increase foot traffic and you will increase safety.

by blogo on Nov 23, 2010 10:47 am • linkreport

While I understand the idea of having higher density (higher in height) buildings near metro stops, I do think it's worth mentioning that building heights do affect walkability - wind tunnels. Who wants to walk around tall buildings in the winter? Not fun. And since someone brought up Rosslyn, I think most people find the Clarendon area more attractive than either Rosslyn or Ballston in Arlington. Something to consider when it comes to the Height Act. I appreciate the Height Act - it's kept the city much more livable on a human scale than what it possibly could have been without it over the past 100 years.

by Janel on Nov 23, 2010 10:48 am • linkreport

Most zoning height limits in DC are lower than what would be allowed under the 1910 Heights Act anyway. If District residents want taller buildings, we need to focus on zoning regulations first, not the Heights Act.

by merarch on Nov 23, 2010 10:49 am • linkreport

There is actually a lot more empty land than is spoken of in this article if you have actually driven through areas within DC.

From Mt Rhode Island Ave to Olivet Cemetery to South Dakota Ave in NE you can find many pieces of lots with nothing on them.

NE DC across the Anacostia has many spaces where things could be built.

Just because you have a few buildings somewhere does not mean you can not buy out the residents, bulldoze everything and turn it into something different.

by kk on Nov 23, 2010 11:26 am • linkreport

@Janel,

DC is not Wall Street. There are no narrow streets to create the level of wind tunnel effect you talk about. A much bigger problem in DC is walking on sun-baked streets in 90+ weather.

by beatbox on Nov 23, 2010 11:33 am • linkreport

Agree with Janel - why do we want to turn every city into Manhattan? Most European cities are mid-rise (except at the far outer suburbs, which are the least desirable parts anyway). They are plenty walkable and dense without resorting to skyscrapers. Most financial districts (Baltimore, Philly, San Francisco) are frankly barren - few trees, howling winds, perpetual shade. It's a poor way to increase density. Instead, let's focus on increased mid-rise housing near transit centers, and (especially) financial incentives to put housing in the DC financial/law district.

by Jeff on Nov 23, 2010 11:34 am • linkreport

I'm not sure Paris or any number of international cities suffer economically from height restrictions. The argument that land is tight in DC is ludicrous. It's not just empty lots that abound outside of the CBD. Think about the incredibly abundant ill designed road intersections (North Capitol), fallow green space (Kennedy Center), and underdeveloped grey fields (Fort Totten). This can only promote a better and more intelligently designed city.

To think we are destined to have K street all over is to misunderstand the role of good architecture in cities. K street is chock-a-block with sterile modernist boxes, and if you believe those who tell you that's the kind of buildings you must have, then I see the point. But who believes them?

by Thayer-D on Nov 23, 2010 11:49 am • linkreport

Our height limits are twice that of central Paris, which is significantly more dense. If the entire city were built out to its height limits, we'd have around 8 million residents, although I don't think the folks in Foxhall would appreciate that much.

by OctaviusIII on Nov 23, 2010 12:03 pm • linkreport

@Thayer-D

Remember the rules of real estate - location, location, location.

In short, those fallow areas you cite are not and never will be as valuable as downtown real estate. Pushing downtown uses on them distorts the urban real estate market.

For urbanists, it also adds pressure to develop areas that would never otherwise develop in that way.

If you think of cities as relying on the 3 D's of density, diversity (of people, of uses, of price points) and design, the height act severely limits 2 of those (I'll not touch on design - a little subjective).

So, yes, the height act can push those areas to develop - but that development comes at a cost. That's what's missing from the discussion - a real understanding of the costs and the tradeoffs we're accepting with the height act.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport

My first point is that I am not arguing for or against an increase in allowable building height in DC. I'm simply responding to act as the devil's advocate for a couple of very faulty arguments made here in the comments section.

1. Using Rosslyn's still-developing walkability as an argument against height is faulty, given that it is a redeveloping area and will theoretically be an actually pleasant place to be (other than the hilliness) and walk around given a decade more or so of development. Remember that it has only been about 20 years since Rosslyn's buildings began to grow taller than those in downtown DC. One valid argument in which to use Rosslyn is that from the Mall, Rosslyn rises behind the Washington Monument more visibly than any other part of the area. That is, other than if you turn 180 degrees to stare at the Capitol dome. Given this fact, it seems slightly ignorant to argue for height limits on a purely visual basis. Another argument in which to use Rosslyn is that the density currently being poured into the area, which will be adding to its walkability and livability in short order, is also density that is NOT being added to our suburbs and exurbs. The more density we can fit in a smaller geographic area with public transit, the less vehicular traffic we have filtering through the area as a whole.

2. @andrew, the first commenter:

Arguing against height limits using Corbusier as the butt WAS a good reason to have a height limit--in the past. However, you fail to mention that this is definitely not how things are done around here now. I think you will, and should, readily admit that raising the height limit in this day and age would not lead to Corbusier-like towers in the park such as exist in very limited portions mainly in the Grosvenor area of Montgomery County, and much more commonly in Alexandria and the Alexandria area of Fairfax County (among many other locations).

3. @Tim

The tallest occupied building in the District is the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. If you're looking for the building with the highest occupied floor, it's probably One Franklin Square or 700 11th Street NW. The apartment buildings on Massachusetts Avenue are all around the same height, and may seem taller than the office buildings downtown only because they contain more floors. It is purely an optical illusion.

4. @Janel Re: wind tunnels

The District already has minor wind tunnels downtown. Raising the height won't greatly affect wind tunnels on the ground anymore than the heights do now. This is especially true given the most likely increase in allowable heights would come with setback requirements, maintaining the currently allowable heights where the buildings meet the street. Additionally, streets in the District are, on average, wider than those in NYC and Chicago, which would limit the acceleration of wind between buildings. That said, I don't hear many people complaining about insane winds in NYC or Chicago very often, and I don't think we would here, either.

by Eric on Nov 23, 2010 12:34 pm • linkreport

This is crazy... Nothing in the City of Washington, D.C. is higher than the Washingtom Monument! It's a Federal City. Learn about the history of Washington D.C. before anyone starts comparing D.C. to NYC or Arlington Virginia across the Potomac river. The Height Act was for a reason in history of this city.

by Carroll on Nov 23, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

@ Carrol:

Your argument is as ignorant as it is delusional. The Height Act has nothing to do with the Washington Monument, nor does it have anything to do with A PART (very small part) of this city being "Federal". This is a living, breathing city, not unlike NYC or Arlington County, across the Potomac. The Height Act was enacted, like in many other cities such as Chicago, in response to the construction of a tall building. The only difference in Washington, DC, my dear, is that Congress was in control of our destiny, while we had no say in it. In Chicago and NYC, height limits gave way because it was simply easier to get it done.

by Eric on Nov 23, 2010 12:48 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B,
You're absolutley right about location being the most important aspect or real eatate. But there's a reason the Dakota building in the upper west side got it's name. I'm not positing that Fort Totten become the new downtown, simply that we should let the market push downtown to where it will go, like up the train tracks, or down South Capitol. Just look at the southern part of the mall for all the reasons I identified.

If you use the argument of the three D's for measuring a cities vitality, you would have to agree that there are natural limits to how much one can push them. Look at Manhattan, the most vital city in the USA (IMHO) The most desirable places people want to live aren't the densist or the most diverse, ie: midtown and downtown. One also has to consider the mixed use quality of a downtown if we're talking about vitality and livability. Downtown Singapore might be exciting, like a rave on ecstacy, but is it healthy to be at that frequency all of the time.

I certainly wouldn't back away from the subjective aspects of design either. We can surely agree that there's room for everyone's prefered styles, typologies, what not. But again, either through direct survey or through the market, the public's general design preferences are clear.

Maybe one day we should loosen the belt buckle to accomodate growth, but keeping it tight forces us to look for better solutions.

by Thayer-D on Nov 23, 2010 12:53 pm • linkreport

I agree with Alex and Ryan Avent on this issue.

We do have room in DC to develop, but how much of that land warrants development that could infringe on the height limit? In that sense, it's a bit of a false choice that people are posing. We absolutely should develop places like Walter Reed, NY Ave. NE, McMillan, RFK, Brentwood, Benning Road, etc., but the realistic plan for those areas would result in more modest, midrise, tod-like development. If view-sheds and antiquity matters that much that these areas are the only kind that should see anything taller and denser than what's currently allowed, than you'd need to upgrade every kind of infrastructure to accommodate. Over time, even w/ more modest, TOD-like, mid-rise development in these areas, you could still organically grow into something bigger over time, a long time most likely after infrastructure improvements and population change/demographic shifts take place.

An alternative would be that we allow taller buildings in the areas where the market demand warrants more density right now and where infrastructure is better prepared, which is downtown. Exemptions could be made for places like the Mall and Georgetown, but I don't see why Chinatown and K St. can't be taller and denser for all the reasons Alex and Ryan mention.

Lastly, taller/denser development downtown can have beneficial residual effects on the rest of the city. So areas in SE and NE can still realize development, albeit of a different kind than what some advocate. I'd be in favor of more permanent transit links between those nodes and downtown and peripheral pseudo-downtown areas.

I also agree that we should improve zoning. We can do more with what we already have, but that's almost kicking the can down the road, IMO. I don't think it's feasible to develop upper NW and places like Petworth and Catholic U into Parisian-style low-rise density. I think we'd see a lot of development fleeing to the 'burbs and other places before that happening.

by Vik on Nov 23, 2010 12:54 pm • linkreport

Thayer,

If you use the argument of the three D's for measuring a cities vitality, you would have to agree that there are natural limits to how much one can push them. Look at Manhattan, the most vital city in the USA (IMHO) The most desirable places people want to live aren't the densist or the most diverse, ie: midtown and downtown. One also has to consider the mixed use quality of a downtown if we're talking about vitality and livability. Downtown Singapore might be exciting, like a rave on ecstacy, but is it healthy to be at that frequency all of the time.

True, there are physical limits to how dense you can realistically go. But I'd also note that artificially constraining those limits as DC does tends to favor the monoculture areas. So, you can mitigate that with bonuses for residential and retail to create a better place, but again - those requirements are not cost-free. The inefficiency of the market needs to at least be acknowledged.

The most problematic outcome to me is that we'll have no real spectrum of affordable prices/rents. There will be the high end (justified by the land prices, required to make the numbers work) and that which is subsidized for affordability.

The other problem is that this missing middle then spreads to other areas that would otherwise be affordable - just as the development spreads to new areas (which isn't bad, exactly), so too does the pricing conundrum.

I don't mean to suggest there's an easy solution, because other cities face the same issue on a smaller scale. Still, I think we need an open and honest discussion about the economic impacts of the limit without a knee-jerk rejection of any changes to it right off the bat.

I certainly wouldn't back away from the subjective aspects of design either. We can surely agree that there's room for everyone's prefered styles, typologies, what not. But again, either through direct survey or through the market, the public's general design preferences are clear.

I should be clear - design, in this context, is very broad. I think there are some clear, objective things we can discern about walkable, urban design - short block length, numerous storefronts, etc. These principles don't necessarily need to get into a more subjective discussion of aesthetics, though aesthetics certainly matter.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2010 1:20 pm • linkreport

I'm with the camp that says we should think hard about this sooner rather than later, precisely because it will be such a long process to make any changes. The best strategy, I think, is to push for Congress to grant broader home rule over the matter: either giving control entirely to DC or carving out the monumental core as Congress' domain. Remember that any changes DC makes could still be vetoed by Congress, since Congress reviews all District legislation. Remember also that NCPC et al. would still monitor any changes, too. So devolving authority to amend the Height Act isn't as radical as it might first seem.

After DC has the authority to amend the Height Act, then begins the conversation about whether and how to change it. Given the realities of growth, some changes are likely warranted -- probably along the lines of modest increases in several areas and larger increases in a few targeted, transit-oriented areas.

by Gavin on Nov 23, 2010 1:27 pm • linkreport

When people are talking about places that are not very nice to walk around, I think they are confusing building height with other features. Roslyn is not nice to walk around not because it has tall buildings, but becuase the buildings it does have don't interact with the street well. To me this is where the focus should be, requiring ground level retail, trying to limit some of those big lobbies that take up the first floor but don't contribute to anything.

One thing that I think is very under appreciated, and to me has a very negative effect, is that every building in DC has its own underground parking, and thus a portion of the street frontage is taking up by its entrance. I don't know what you can do about this, but eliminating some of these garages I think would be good.

by nathaniel on Nov 23, 2010 1:50 pm • linkreport

Can we take an honest look at what would be most likely to actually happen if the height limit were lifted? In the most expensive areas where zoning doens't ban them, skyscrapers would go up, replacing the mid-rise office buildings and many of the old apartment buildings and mansions (e.g., in DuPont) that are without historic protections.

While it may be that the influx of new office space would drive rents for office space down, does anyone seriously think that the *ground-level retail* spaces in such skyscrapers would be less costly to lease than what is there now? When the trend has been for increased aerial density to mean higher prices for ground-level space?

I don't see any example in the DC region or elsewhere in which adding people to an area (either residents or workers) has not meant a rise in rents for retail spaces--e.g., Clarendon, Bethesda, the Convention Center area, U Street, Mazza Gallerie, etc.

That means all you get is more Cheesecake Factories and other corporate branches, because no one else can afford it.

by JB on Nov 23, 2010 1:58 pm • linkreport

Zoning and urban planning enhancements are things we should do regardless of whether we legalize tall buildings or not.

by Vik on Nov 23, 2010 2:00 pm • linkreport

@JB

One thing I'd note is that I highly doubt any change to the height act would involve completely scrapping it. Instead, there would be modifications.

For example, the article in my section of the post cities a study in the Washington Post, where the proposal was to allow heights up to 160' (instead of the current effective cap of ~130'). Similarly, Larry Beasley's speech for the NCPC event (the MP3 file) noted ways to tweak the act rather than change it wholesale.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2010 2:08 pm • linkreport

We like our DC as it is thank you. If you'd like to live in a high rise, we have some very nice cities around the country that can accommodate you. Outside of NYC transplants and large developers, I don't see anyone clamoring for high rise living. In fact, most of our existing high rises have been financial and social disasters. For the majority of Americans high rise living is an outward demonstration of personal poverty --only the landowners and property management firms become enriched.

Another lame attempt at a manufactured controversy in a city full of manufactured controversy. The people have already spoken.

by JimBob on Nov 23, 2010 2:19 pm • linkreport

@Jimbob,

Look at the rows of kleenex boxes around the navy yards and tell me how awesome the height limits are.

by Backdc on Nov 23, 2010 2:34 pm • linkreport

"The best strategy, I think, is to push for Congress to grant broader home rule over the matter: either giving control entirely to DC or carving out the monumental core as Congress' domain."

It'll take several years before that will happen. And we would have to show Congress that it's in their own best interest to change it, most members care little about what is in the best interests of the District itself.

In addition, if we ask Congress to lift the height restriction outside of the "monumental core", most people define that to mean the "L'Enfant City", which would leave the height restriction in place in most of the areas where higher building heights would be desirable.

Finally, if taller buildings are desired because we want increased density, nobody has really discussed whether D.C. should have more density. In reality, some areas of DC are really quite densely populated already. For example, the 20009 zip code in DC, which encompasses much of the Dupont Circle-U Street-Adams Morgan area, has 37,000 people per square mile. Our wonderful, oft-cited model for higher building heights, Clarendon (zip code 22201) only has 15,000 people per square mile. Beautifully built-up Silver Spring (20910)? 8,500. The Pentagon-Crystal City area (22202)? 7,300.

Without the higher building heights, areas of D.C. are already pushing densities which match Brooklyn but without the much greater infrastructure. Before we start talking about how great it would be to increase building height and densities in the District, we should first decide how much density we want, how much density our infrastructure can handle, and whether we can achieve those desired goals without waiting for Congress to act on the behalf of its subjects.

by Adam L on Nov 23, 2010 2:56 pm • linkreport

As merarch points out, zoning -- not the Height Act -- really restricts density in DC. Rosslyn and Downtown DC have equal density limits: 10 FAR. Yet even central areas like L'enfant Plaza, Navy Yard, the 395 cap, Mount Vernon Square, and Noma are zoned for 6.5 FAR, about half the maximum 12 FAR permitted by DC zoning (along just a tiny stretch of Pennsylvania Ave). That upper density limit doesn't just make Pennsylvania one of the country's grandest avenues; it also very nearly matches Vancouver's tallest skyscraper, which achieves a mere 13.4 FAR.

Zoning is entirely within DC's purview. Instead of chasing the paper tiger of getting Congress to amend the Height Act, let's focus energy on upzoning the existing growth areas.

by Payton on Nov 23, 2010 3:01 pm • linkreport

@Adam L

Zip Codes aren't the greatest geography to use for measuring density. Claredon's zip code encompasses a huge swath of single family homes, for example. 20009 in DC might have higher density, but that speaks to the higher natural density of the urban rowhouse fabric, not necessarily the increase that mid-rise development offers.

@Payton,

You're right that zoning matters a great deal. However, I'd note that the max zoning corresponds to building height a great deal, as well. That little portion of 12 FAR along Pennsylvania Avenue corresponds with the fact that building heights of up to 160 feet are permitted along that stretch of PA Ave only. There are also density bonuses that bridge the 'gap' between the height limit and the max zoning.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2010 3:19 pm • linkreport

Alex,
I understand the price argument you make, I think, but I tend to agree with JB's point. As for still having the height limit, it could be seen as subjectivly as aesthetics in that one man's canyon is another's cathedral. The issue with increasing the limit 20', 30', or 50' is you will inevitably have the same issues that we have at our current height limit. Sooner or later people (developers) will clamor for taller buildings, and I'm not sure there's an empirical method to figure out the maximum height limit, ultimatley. That's why delving into the subjective shouldn't be avoided, as long as everyone is respectful of eachother's differing opinions.

Ultimatley, I think the Raymond Unwin model of the Garden City is the one to pursue and in essence we already have, with sub-centers such as Tysons, Bethesda, Silver Spring, etc. Before the useless plaza for extra height zoning rule did away with the step-backed rule, we (NYC) did have a beautiful skyline that tried to keep light at the bottom of streets, and we should definatley be looking into that.

For now though, being the subjective romantic I am, I'll look at our skyline from Meridian Hill Park and be thankful the Cairo was built while I point out all the landmarks to my children. It'll gove them a sence of scale and geography that no computer game or GPS will ever match. They might even think money isn't all it's cracked up to be.

by Thayer-D on Nov 23, 2010 3:30 pm • linkreport

@Thayer

That's a fair point. If people are willing to accept the tradeoffs, that's one thing.

What needs to be discussed, however, is the impact of those tradeoffs. If DC is to be kept low-rise as a part of its role as the Capital, then that's going to severely limit DC's ability to ever be self-sufficient since it cannot maximize its tax base.

That's why I suggested this needs to be part of the larger narrative about the District and the role it has with the Federal Government.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2010 3:37 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.

No, zip codes are not great, but so what if Clarendon's zip code includes single-family homes? If the point is that we want to be able to fit more people into a given area, then it's accurate to say that D.C. can achieve higher densities without necessarily building higher buildings.

It may not be a perfect comparison, but it's not totally invalid. The fact still remains that areas of D.C. already have fairly high densities and everyone seems to believe that even greater density would be even better. I'm just not sure that higher densities are desirable or that the current infrastructure would be able to handle much more. Given the current budget problems and political climate at the Federal level, I'm not sure we'll be able or willing to make the investments (major expansions to public transit, utilities, etc.) that would be needed to sustain the higher densities people here seem to be advocating.

by Adam L on Nov 23, 2010 3:51 pm • linkreport

"What needs to be discussed, however, is the impact of those tradeoffs. If DC is to be kept low-rise as a part of its role as the Capital, then that's going to severely limit DC's ability to ever be self-sufficient since it cannot maximize its tax base.

That's why I suggested this needs to be part of the larger narrative about the District and the role it has with the Federal Government."

The vast amounts of tax-exempt property and non-resident income have a far greater effect on D.C.'s financial sustainability than the building heights. Unfortunately, there's little reason for Congress to do anything on that front, either. Why would they bother?

by Adam L on Nov 23, 2010 3:55 pm • linkreport

@Adam L

My point with the zipcodes is that large areas of both zips have old, single family homes (whether they are detached or they are rowhouses) that set a baseline level of density. That level is higher in DC than Clarendon.

Asserting that Clarendon's density is lower and attributing that to minimal impact from their midrise buildings is just faulty logic. You can't say that Claredon's zipcode has lower density than Dupont Circle and then conclude that taller buildings don't matter - because you haven't made the direct connection between taller buildings and density within the zipcodes you're talking about.

I'd also note that Claredon's zip code includes many taller office buildings, as well - building heights that won't be reflected in terms of residential density.

And yes, DC can achieve higher densities without tall buildings - but what you're implying then is that you'd rather see much of the current fabric of the city replaced.

These are the kinds of trade-offs that we need to discuss. If we're not willing to make the investments to support that kind of density, that's another trade-off that needs to be discussed up front. If we're not adding density to the city, then we're probably growing out on the fringe.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2010 4:23 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.

The taller buildings do matter. All I was pointing out is that D.C. has already achieved a certainly level of density without the need for high density clusters surrounded by low-density suburban elements. I would also submit that there exists a similar amount of office/commercial space in the 20009 zip code as in Clarendon.

The issue is that Arlington reached a conclusion as to how much density they wanted by focusing high-density developments around Metro stations. Imagine the density Clarendon could achieve if more single-family developments were converted into high-rise apartments. They could, but they decided that was not desirable. Fantastic.

By the same token, areas of DC has achieved a relatively uniform density without the need many tall buildings. Just as Arlington made a decision to structure their density a certain way, DC did the same. The idea that D.C. needs more space and that the only way to achieve that is to build higher else give in to sprawl is a false choice. Given the population growth in the last decade, it will take at least 50 years to get back up to the same population DC was at in 1950. But given how amenable the Committee of 535 is to D.C.'s concerns, I doubt much will have changed.

by Adam L on Nov 23, 2010 5:31 pm • linkreport

If we increase density anywhere in the city it should required to come along with increasing public transit, rebuilding sewers and redoing all streetscapes in that area so that nothing is overwhelmed by the new people.

by kk on Nov 23, 2010 5:41 pm • linkreport

@Adam L

DC's population in 1950 was very different than it is today. In 1950, far more households were actual families than there are now, and the average family size was substantially larger than it is today. This trend exists across the US, but was particularly noticeable in cities. Also, many areas of DC that were residential (and downtown-adjacent) have since developed into fully commercial areas, eliminating much of the old housing stock. Likewise, many of those old housing units were disastrously small and unfurnished. We can argue about the ills of slum clearance and urban renewal, but that doesn't change the fact that there were slums without flush toilets that housed tens of thousands in conditions that are unthinkabke today.

It's entirely possible (indeed, plausible) for DC to be more dense now (in terms of built square footage) while having a lower population.

The point about Clarendon is that it increased its density. Likewise, the market clearly shows that DC could stand to increase its supply (i.e. density) under the right market conditions. The fact that DC is already dense doesn't matter to the market, the question is about what the urban economics support.

Cities are economic places. They are agglomerations of activity and enterprise, and density is the natural physical form of that agglomeration. We can ignore those signals of the market at our own peril, and at the peril of the economic health of the places we love.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2010 9:49 pm • linkreport

Tall buildings are despotic and make us feel like termites.

We are not against tall buildings, but tall buildings seem to be against us.

POI - I recommend this book - especially Chapter 3, The Sacred Skyline: The Battle Over Height Limits - but the rest of the book seems really good, too (so far) (video). I don't think it takes a stance on tall buildings one way or another. it does point out that there are virtually no shopping malls in downtowns anymore, and that they, not tall buildings/skyscrapers, were/are responsible for most pedestrian traffic/congestion in the streets.

my argument for smaller/shorter buildings are many, but primarily because they don't tend to block the sun (based on the average width of streets) -- i like my Vitamin D and like to avoid depression.

Also, I find bogus the argument that mid-rise architecture is inherently boring

Word. Maybe DC is doomed to look as ugly as Paris, London, Barcelona, Boston, etc.

as far as 'home rule', corporations have much less influence at the higher levels of government -- and that is what has protected DC from the ravages of tall buildings to date.

The city will run head-long into an economic conundrum. It could keep the height limit, but at the risk of becoming an unaffordable wealthy enclave.

Like skyscraper-rich Manhattan and skyscraper-rich Vancouver, two of the least affordable, wealthiest enclaves in North America? The few/dozen skyscrapers that SF has doesn't seem to have saved it from 'unaffordable wealthy enclave' status either.

There's a reason the Right to the City movement exists -- hypercapitalism which destroys cities by, in part, removing poor people in order to construct tall buildings (aka urban renewal/slum clearance/gentrification).

Ryan Avent notes that the height limit means property owners must squeeze every bit of value out of their developments

As for all these highrise property owners that do not try to 'squeeze every bit of value out of their developments' -- I'd like to meet them -- I have a feeling they're about as common as unicorns.

There are real economic costs to the limit.

There are real economic costs to the lack of a limit. The question is, who pays those costs?

If we're going to preserve DC as a low-rise city, that's one choice — but what about the city's finances?

Skyscraper-rich NYC dumped 5,000 cops over the past year - does NYC just need more tall buildings?

but with setback requirements

i thought setbacks were a bad thing? maybe not? a few people here have suggested them. honest question.

A study from the Tony Williams administration found huge benefits for a modest increase in the maximum height.

While ignoring the even-greater costs.

Vancouver's Larry Beasley laid out several principles (MP3) to add height while maintaining character

I guess the vertical toilet paper holder look qualifies as 'character'.

up close, the place looks like a third world country. with 365 days of artificial shade.

Alexandria and MoCo both got their fare share of this sort of development, which actually seem to have had the overall effect of *lowering* density (not to mention the stark ugliness and often-shoddy construction methods used to build these properties).

i like this 'lowering density' argument, especially if/when tall buildings tend to be office buildings, which are only occupied for less than half a day, and only five days of the week.

financing tall buildings is risky, and taxpayers often end up holding the bag, in New York just as in Dubai. the banksters have taught us that we need less risk, not more.

also, real estate markets are destabilized when huge sums of new square footage of office space comes onto the market. buildings next to new highrises, because they are deprived of sunlight, air, views, and prestige, can see their rents and tenancy drop 30% or more, which decreases the value of their buildings/property, which decreases their tax payments to the city, which means they are forced to build higher themselves, etc.

In short, keep the code, but feel free to tinker with it to allow a few more floors, in exchange for requiring other features that improve the building's overall function and aesthetic.

to 'tinker' with the code is to 'not keep' the code. history shows that once you allow one tall building to go up, there's going to be ever-increasing pressure to let more tall buildings go up -- that's how many height limits were effectively circumvented in America. and if you don't let everyone else go up to the new height limit, they'll sue.

Bill Clinton and crew 'tweaked' the Glass-Steagall Act, which was a limit on financial speculation, and look how that ended. The Height Act is a limit on development speculation. Let's not tweak it, too.

I think the answer is that supply creates demand

i've argued the same, but i don't have proof yet, other than to say, "Look at every tall building-rich city in the world."

seems like 'induced demand' is part of the explanation.

It's anathema to a vibrant city and needs to be removed outside of the federal and monument areas.

reading this comment, one would think DC and/or the federal and monument areas are hellholes, and getting worse by the day.

I do think it's worth mentioning that building heights do affect walkability - wind tunnels.

and bikability. SF builders are required to do wind tunnel analysis. on 7th Street, mini-tornadoes can form and blow you into auto traffic. or, it will blow at you and stop you in your tracks. and check out the awesome smaller buildings on the right, and the gargantuan Death Star-like monstrosity on the left.

as for sun-baked streets, that's what trees are for -- to 'filter the sunlight/protect from the rain, soften the hardscape of the buildings, and create a vaulted ceiling over the street at its best'.

The District already has minor wind tunnels downtown. Raising the height won't greatly affect wind tunnels on the ground anymore than the heights do now.

If you drive everywhere, wind tunnels are no big deal. If you're trying to stay dry when it's raining, tho, maybe a different story. If you want a great city, be sweet to walkers and bikers -- that usually means going out of your way to improve the walk/bike environment, not compromise it even further.

That said, I don't hear many people complaining about insane winds in NYC or Chicago very often, and I don't think we would here, either.

I know that I've complained about both NYC and Chicago (and SF) winds. The number one complaint I hear about Chicago is it's too windy/too cold+windy.

short block length

think i remember reading here or BikePortland.org about how short block length kills density.

Rosslyn is not nice to walk around not because it has tall buildings, but because the buildings it does have don't interact with the street well.

this is a good point, but it think it's at least both these issues and more - like, no trees, skimpy sidewalks, no bike lanes, etc.

Can we take an honest look at what would be most likely to actually happen if the height limit were lifted?

i think this is an excellent idea.

the rest of your comment also makes good sense.

Finally, if taller buildings are desired because we want increased density, nobody has really discussed whether D.C. should have more density.

i'm with this -- DC should become sustainable/self-sufficient, including handling its own garbage.

removing cars from the ecosystem will help.

p.s. congrats to France for finally returning the favor and deciding to build Las Vegas in Paris.

p.p.s. DC seems special in that the Prez and Congress ain't movin. So, all those lobbyists and all their people want to be close by. So, we can build taller buildings, start tearing down parking garages and replacing them with structures that are actually productive for the city, or...we can stop the increase and then roll back the insane number of lobbyists. Sometimes we have to look outside the urban planning bubble for solutions.

by Peter Smith on Nov 23, 2010 10:40 pm • linkreport

The building law encouraged mid-level sprawl across the region, as opposed to a tight legitimate downtown "core." One could argue it's also part of the reason traffic so bad across such a large area. A tighter core would encourage more public transit use.
It's an archaic law that was enacted because rich people didn't approve of a change in their neighborhood. Get with the times, make use of space as opposed to restricting it.

by Matt Glazewski on Nov 24, 2010 9:20 am • linkreport

Matt,

You summed up my views as well. I get the feeling that those who are so adamant not to tinker with it were around when it was first put in place. Cities are supposed to grow. The stasis mentality in this town concerning development can be too much.

by blogo on Nov 24, 2010 11:16 am • linkreport

@blogo - the city is growing. It's just growing into areas like the ballpark district and NoMA rather than growing vertically into the sky in the west end.

by Paul on Nov 24, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

Not really much of a _debate_. It doesn't seem anyone has actually talked to actual developers to see their p.o.v. I have a little. They want to have higher first floor heights for retail, more roof space for mechanical penthouses, more between-floor depth for utilities. One may argue with some of these...but essentially more height will just allow them to build very similar buildings more cheaply, unless we remove the limit altogether.
Do we really have enough demand for space?
And we have a very cyclical procession of build/teardown/build again on K Street already...many more could still undergo this process. I think we all have some unfavorite building which could be torn down and replaced wiht better.

by Matthew on Nov 24, 2010 4:51 pm • linkreport

Taller buildings don't automatically create a better economy; big cities feel the pain of economic downturns like anywhere else.

Using tall buildings to improve the budget by "keeping the income class mix the way it is" would be more credible if the current income class mix could at least be correlated to a current positive budget situation.

There are significant costs to a city (in infrastructure) to support tall buildings. Supporting this would put DC on the hook for providing more services. This in itself isn't a reason for or against tall building, but tall building advocates must at least acknowledge the tradeoff.

Increasing density might be a good idea, but we know from experience that DC can accommodate at least 33% more people than it does now. Increasing density can already be accomplished by building on empty and severely underused lots. The fact that developers have plans for new buildings is evidence enough that there are methods to increase density without changes to any laws. Changing zoning laws to allow for more density is far easier than changing the height limit. And "tinkering" with or "modifying" the height limit is to change it.

"Before we start talking about how great it would be to increase building height and densities in the District, we should first decide how much density we want, how much density our infrastructure can handle, and whether we can achieve those desired goals without waiting for Congress to act on the behalf of its subjects." - Adam L + 1

by Amber on Nov 24, 2010 8:48 pm • 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