Posts about Height Limit
Tim Craig, Mike DeBonis, and Emma Brown asked the at-large candidates about a number of different issues that matter to DC residents, from testing in schools to police to bike lanes.
A question on bike lanes revealed some interesting differences of opinion. Patrick Mara (and Anita Bonds and Perry Redd) seem to prioritize not removing any parking over bike lanes, while Elissa Silverman was the strongest supporter:
"Would you support a new bicycle lane on Connecticut Avenue NW, even if it resulted in fewer on-street parking spots or altered traffic patterns?"
Matt Frumin and Paul Zukerberg would need more information about the lane's design before giving an opinion. Bonds, Redd and Mara are inclined to oppose it, worried about a loss of on-street parking. Silverman is inclined to support it. "If we are to promote cycling, we need to promote cycling on our major thoroughfares," she said.
Accommodating bicycling on Connecticut Avenue is a good idea, though I'm not aware of concrete plans to put a bike lane there right now or whether it would cost parking. Some bicycle infrastructure does supplant a small amount of parking, like on L and M Streets downtown, so the general thrust of the question is helpful.
On the Post interview, all candidates agreed on relaxing the height limit in a few places outside the core. Everyone but Zukerberg thinks there should be more restaurants east of the Anacostia. Mara and Bonds appear the least supportive of legalizing marijuana.
On a possible NFL stadium on the RFK site, the Post asked if candidates would support a stadium if Dan Snyder would pay for it but wouldn't change his team's name. All but Mara opposed the idea:
Redd, Zukerberg, Bonds and Frumin all said no. Silverman would oppose it, saying the focus should be on redeveloping the area around RFK Stadium with new housing and retail. Mara hopes the Redskins change their name, but the matter would not dissuade him from supporting a new team-funded stadium.On top of that, a stadium proposal very likely would not actually mean Snyder paid all of the cost; at the very least, DC would have to fund considerable infrastructure and site work. It'd be helpful to know if Mara (or any of them) would spend city dollars for a stadium, and how much.
These are just a few of the issues that matter to residents. Read the whole article.
The National Capital Planning Commission has invited experts on building height from European capital cities to come to Washington for a forum about our height limit. I'm moderating a chat with two of them today.
Update: The archived video is now available here and embedded below.
Robert Tavernor is Emeritus Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the London School of Economics, and was previously professor of architecture at Edinburgh and Bath. He has been involved in the planning for several key London development sites.
You can tweet questions using the hashtag #HeighteneDConversations.
Our chat leads into NCPC's panel discussion tonight from 7-9 with these two gentlemen and a few others from elsewhere in Europe.-->
Are you coming to the party to celebrate 5 years (and one month) of Greater Greater Washington? We hope you can!
We'll be celebrating from 6-10 pm at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street, NW near Archives Metro and not far from Gallery Place. Besides a great chance to meet your fellow readers, some elected officials from DC and elsewhere in the region will be joining us.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to schedule any event without conflicting with some other great stuff. In Montgomery County, the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan hearing is also Tuesday, so some of our Montgomery readers will be testifying. It also means our friends on the County Council won't be able to join us.
Plus, there are many more important forums and workshops coming up in DC, Maryland, and Virginia:
Live chat on building heights: The National Capital Planning Commission is also having a forum from 7-9 Tuesday on building heights, with speakers from 3 other capital cities, London, Paris, and Berlin.
Fortunately, there's another chance to engage in the conversation: I'll be moderating a live chat with some of the panelists at 12:30 Tuesday. More details will come soon. If you have questions about how other capital cities deal with building heights, post them in the comments.
Outer Beltway community meetings: Smart growth and environmental groups are holding three community meetings about VDOT's efforts to build an Outer Beltway in Virginia. The meetings are on successive Mondays: March 4 in Middleburg, March 11 in Chantilly, and March 18 in Ashburn.
ACT with Ken Ulman: This month's Action Committee for Transit meeting will feature Ken Ulman, Howard County Executive and a likely candidate for governor. He'll talk about how Route 29 fits into the future of transit in Maryland. The meeting is Tuesday, March 12, 7:30 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Center, One Veterans Place.
MoveDC workshops: As it moves into the next phase of designing a citywide transportation plan, the MoveDC project will hold 4 workshops in the evening of Wednesday, March 20 (at Minnesota Avenue), Thursday, March 21 (in Anacostia), Tuesday, March 26 (on Capitol Hill), and Thursday, March 28 (in Tenleytown).
Have an event we missed? Post it in the comments or email email@example.com.
The question over whether or not to raise DC's height limit has come up periodically for several years, but gained new traction earlier this month when some members of Congress asked for a study about modifying the height limit legislation. With the possibility of actual change looming, more and more people are weighing in.
Most height limit opponents have so far based their position on the argument that taller buildings downtown would be more economically efficient, and that allowing some offices to be located outside downtown is costing DC a lot of money.
The latest to do so is David Schleicher at The Atlantic Cities, who opposes the height limit and poses a series of questions to supporters.
Having long advocated for raising the limit strategically, both downtown and in surrounding areas, I cannot be characterized as a height limit supporter. But I also think that the economic arguments put forth by the loudest height limit opponents, including Schleicher, are too narrow and miss important considerations.
That in mind, Schleicher's questions are worth discussing.
Supply and demand
Schleicher argues that DC's height limit is restricting the supply of available buildings, which is making it impossible to meet the demand for office space in the city. He says,
But if Height Act proponents think limits on supply do not increase prices, why not? Is it some distinction between housing and offices and other markets? If so, what is your model of how office and housing markets work?Obviously there is a connection between supply and demand. But is the height limit really limiting DC's supply?
There is currently around 100 million square feet of office space in downtown DC, which makes it the 3rd largest downtown in America after New York and Chicago. Despite no skyscrapers, downtown DC currently has a greater supply of office space than downtown San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles.
More importantly, DC's supply of potential building space is not anywhere close to being maxed out under current regulations. The height limit is not currently restricting supply in the vast majority of DC. It is only restricting supply within the area roughly bounded by Massachusetts Avenue and the National Mall.
It's true that DC's historic rowhouse neighborhoods are largely off-limits to significant densification, but large sections of central DC are nonetheless available. Even with the height limit, there is room for at least double downtown's current square footage in underbuilt areas of NoMa, Southwest, and along the Anacostia and Potomac waterfronts. Without touching DC's height limit or its historic rowhouse neighborhoods, there is room for decades of additional growth within a radius of 2 miles of the Capitol.
There would be even more room available for infill if the decision were ever made to redevelop Roosevelt Island, Bolling Air Force Base, or National Airport. Doing so would surely be controversial, but should at least be discussed in an honest assessment of options.
So it is simply not true that the height limit is restricting building supply in DC overall.
It is, however, true that the supply of buildable space is being limited in that geographically small downtown area. This brings up Schleicher's next questions.
Where and how to grow
Schleicher asks a few questions:
Why do you think development should be spread out? What effect do you think limiting heights has on agglomeration, including the depth of local markets and information spillovers? Do you believe in a single optimal city form? And why do you think DC captures it? Or are height limitations somehow a particularly good fit for a national capital?Opponents of the height limit like to ask why DC's existing limit is so special. If the height limit happened to be 20 stories instead of what it is, would supporters still claim it's the perfect regulation?
Opponents need to answer the opposite question.
"Downtown DC" used to only mean a few blocks near Pennsylvania Avenue. Now it means a larger area, spanning from New Hampshire Avenue on the west to Union Station on the east. Since downtown is the only area being functionally limited by the height act, what about the current extents of downtown DC make it the perfect geography?
Downtown grew from that area around Pennsylvania Avenue to its current extents because of the height limit. Since that growth happened, buildings at 19th and Eye Streets are not generally considered to be much more poorly located than buildings at 12th and G. In the future, if the height limit is kept, downtown will again grow to encompass NoMa, Southwest, and the waterfronts, and they will not be considered any more out of the way than the West End is considered today.
If it was OK for downtown to expand to include the West End, why isn't further expansion OK too? What's so magical about today's definition of downtown, which is different from the definition a few decades ago and will surely be different again in the future?
Theoretically it would be possible to cluster all the office space in downtown DC in no more than a dozen super-tall skyscrapers covering only a couple of blocks. And some day in the future we might even be able to fit all of it in one single thousand-story building, covering only a single square block. Would that be ideal?
If maximum agglomeration were desirable, it follows that we'd want a much smaller downtown than we have today.
Granted, that thousand-story example is reductio ad absurdum, but the point is simply that there's nothing magical about the current definition of downtown DC, so any argument that's based on solving the problem of restricted supply within that current definition is necessarily flawed.
So the question is not "how can we fit more office space in the area currently defined as downtown?" Rather, it's "where do we want future office space?"
If we want to have more space specifically at, say, Farragut Square, then we can raise the height limit around Farragut Square without eliminating it completely for all of downtown. I'm OK with that.
But we also have to recognize that there are many benefits to spreading development around a little bit. We don't want sprawl, of course, but the region is better off for having vital mixed-use neighborhood uptowns like Bethesda and Clarendon spread near the core.
If all the office space is clustered in a small office ghetto downtown, that deprives the surrounding neighborhoods of key mixed use elements. Not only daytime office workers, but also office-reliant retail and support services that are necessary for any successful mixed-use district.
The desirability of mixed use neighborhoods is one of the most basic premises of contemporary urbanism, and it's why many people who care about good cities want to spread some office space around outside of downtown districts. Unless we're prepared to force everyone to live within walking distance of downtown, we need healthy neighborhood uptowns that are mixed-use.
Economists seem to have a difficult time grasping this point. It's probably true that it's economically more efficient to cluster offices more than we're currently doing (though surely not to that single thousand-story building extent). But the economic models being employed so far in this debate don't take into account livability or good urbanism. The benefits of spreading some office development to uptown districts aren't captured if all you're thinking about is property values at 12th and G.
And it's not just the uptowns that reap the livability benefits of the height limit. Downtown DC does too.
With the exception of New York, no large city in the US has fewer surface parking lots in its downtown than Washington.
Surface parking (red), above-ground garages (yellow) and park space (green) in 4 US cities in 2011. Left to right, top to bottom: Houston, Milwaukee, Little Rock, Washington. Images from Old Urbanist.
Because of the height limit, it is less economical here to let properties lay fallow than in any of our peer cities. This means there are no gaps in the urban fabric, which improves downtown's walkability.
But again, the near-certain likelihood that gaps in the urban fabric would develop without a height limit is not something that's captured in the economic models.
Questions for opponents
Schleicher's questions deserved discussion, but height limit opponents need to answer some questions themselves. The economists who seem to be largely driving the movement to repeal have so far focused on a narrow set of arguments, and ignored or attempted to marginalize any broader issues. That's not a recipe that will result in buy-in from anybody who doesn't already agree.
Some questions that height limit opponents more fervent than myself need to answer:
- What about the current extents of downtown DC make you think it is the perfect geography in which to cluster office development?
- Do you accept that there are reasons some people like the height limit which cannot be captured in traditional cost-benefit models?
- Instead of repealing the height limit, would you accept modifying it to permit taller buildings only at specific and limited locations? If so, how might you go about determining those locations?
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Without question the most stunning and majestic perspectives of the city lie east of the Anacostia River. As we approach a new round of debates over the height limit, it's important to understand the contemporary and historic value of these astonishing sight lines.
Views from the campuses of Cardozo High School in Northwest and McKinley Technology High School in Northeast cannot compare to those from Saint Elizabeths' West Campus. The panorama of the sunset from atop Cedar Hill, with the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the foreground, is surreal.
Despite the current stigma of many east of the river neighborhoods, Anacostia, Barry Farm, Buena Vista (Spanish for "good view"), Bellevue (French for "beautiful view") Fairlawn, Fort Stanton, and Hillsdale have a romantic naturalism that has been recognized in literature and paintings since the early 19th century.
Last week, Congressman Issa (R-CA) and Congresswoman Norton (D-DC) announced a study to re-examine the 1910 law which limits the height of buildings in Washington. There are strong, well-reasoned arguments to both maintain and revise the law. In that study, the National Capital Planning Commission is very concerned about preserving views of the monumental core from across the city.
In March 1873, 12 years before the Washington Monument was finally finished, Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science waxed poetic about the sight lines:
"A stranger visiting the national capital should begin by leaving it. He should cross the Anacostia River at the Navy-yard, climb the heights behind the village of Uniontown, be careful to find exactly the right path, and seat himself on the parapet of old Fort Stanton.
His feeling of fatigue will be overcome by one of astonishment that the scene should contain so much that is beautiful in nature, so much that is exceedingly novel if not very good in art, and so much that has the deepest historical interest. From the blue hills of Prince George's county in Maryland winds the Anacostia, whose waters at his feet float all but the very largest vessels of our navy, while but six miles above they float nothing larger than a Bladensburg goose. To the left flows the Potomac, a mile wide. Between the rivers lies Washington.
A vast amphitheatre, its green or gray walls cloven only by the two rivers, appears to surround the city. 'Amphitheatre' is the word, for within the great circle, proportioned to it in size and magnificence, dwarfing all other objects, stands the veritable arena where our public gladiators and wild beasts hold their combats. This of course is the Capitol, whose white dome rises like a blossoming lily from the dark expanse below.
In form and feeling the symbols of federal Washington yield aesthetic and therapeutic influence on the east side of town. Across the other side of the deep divide of the river is where the political influence is felt and permeates daily life. East of the river you can feel the literal sense of geographic disengagement and detachment from official Washington. There's a sense of pride in this disconnection. Life still moves slowly here. The historic development of the community personifies this truth.
In 1855 the United States Government Hospital for the Insane, later renamed Saint Elizabeths, saw its first patient. The palatial landscape situated high on a bluff overlooked the Washington Navy Yard and the first efforts to erect the modern cast iron Capitol Dome, that now defines the city skyline. For the first inmates and staff, alike, the scene was as palliative then as it is today.
Ascending Howard Road SE, in the Hillsdale neighborhood, the Washington Monument, illuminated at night, is the sentry keeping a vigilant eye over the "southside". Over on Morris Road SE is Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, known to the go-go community as the Panorama Room. The name is purposeful, from here the entire city unfolds before your eyes, revealing itself. In the award-winning independent movie, "Slam," actor Saul Williams ponders his existence and future as a low-level drug dealer from this sweeping indigenous veranda.
Down in historic Anacostia, the Statue of Freedom, crowning the Capitol Dome, has watched over folks of this inner-city suburban village with village folk watching right back for nearly 150 years. Whether on foot, peddle, bus, or car, formerly on horseback, carriage, and streetcar, glimpses of the Capitol often flash in and out of the periphery between buildings, alleys, and fences.
As feasibility studies and further analysis of the city's height limit moves forward, we hope the character of these vistas are protected and not ignored in favor of political calculus and economic expediency.
The law restricts buildings to 20 feet taller than the adjacent street, up to a maximum of 90 feet on residential streets, 130 feet on commercial streets, and 160 feet on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown. In most neighborhoods, local zoning is more restrictive.
Completely repealing the height limit is almost surely not on the table, but should it have some limited exceptions? Here are some of the major arguments for and against the limit.
Arguments for changes
Supply is too low, making the rent too damn high. Downtown DC has the lowest office vacancies in the nation and very high rents. This means that some high-revenue businesses, like law firms, take up a lot of space while technology startups might have a very hard time finding offices.
It's arbitrary. Someone (maybe Matt Yglesias) made a good point on Twitter recently: If the height limit had been 200 feet, would many people insist that 200 is the perfect height for DC? It's a myth that the limit has anything to do with the height of the Capitol dome or any other structure.
It impedes good design. Most attractive buildings have some variation in their shape. The base might come all the way to the street, but then farther up, the building is set farther back, and has interesting cut-outs and curves. With a height limit, it creates an enormous economic incentive to build a box filling the lot.
It impedes other amenities. NoMA has no parks. Why? Because all of the landowners say that they can't afford not to fill their whole lots. If DC could give a couple of buildings permission to build taller if they give up some of their land for a park, it could make the neighborhood much more livable.has suggested taller buildings east of the river. There are tall buildings right across the Potomac in Rosslyn. Why not across the Anacostia too?
Arguments for the limit
It encourages more infill. Go to a lot of midsize US cities and the downtowns have a few big towers with lots of empty space for parking in between. Those empty spaces create walking dead zones. The District has almost no empty lots downtown, and even space on top of freeways like the Center Leg I-395, or the Union Station railyards, will be covered over. That's because land is so valuable (thanks to the height limit) that it's economical to build decks for buildings.
It pushes growth to other neighborhoods. Near Southeast and NoMA are booming because downtown had to spread somewhere. Without a height limit, there might never have been an incentive to transform them. Anacostia, Saint Elizabeths, Minnesota-Benning, and Rhode Island Avenue could see new growth as well. The companies that can't afford to locate downtown can go to these neighborhoods and bring new residents, amenities, and jobs.
However, the growth in other neighborhoods is a double-edged sword. NoMA's growth is bringing more gentrification to Bloomingdale and Eckington, and potentially pushing out the Florida Market wholesale food market. With limited supply, more neighborhoods become unaffordable.
It can also make neighborhoods more office-heavy and less residential. Foggy Bottom has changed enormously from a generation ago. Dupont Circle was moving aggressively in that direction before some strict zoning and historic preservation limits halted the trend. Reduce the pressure to develop outside the core, and fewer legal restrictions would be necessary or desirable.
Rosslyn is damn ugly at ground level. The flip side of the Rosslyn argument is that as an urban place, Rosslyn is not the most exemplary. Most of this is actually a consequence of its buildings dating to an era when towers set far back from the street, with large concrete plazas, was in vogue, so it suffers not from too-tall buildings but from bad urban design. Still, there's less incentive to fill in those plazas than there would be in downtown DC with the height limit.
It gives the monuments more emphasis. This is the main argument from the National Capital Planning Commission. DC should focus on the monuments, and a lower, more horizontal skyline means that the Washington Monument, Capitol, and National Cathedral and National Shrine dominate the skyline instead of a striking private sector tower of some kind.
How can it change?
Are there ways to change the height limit that don't spoil its positive effects? Here are a few that have come up in previous debates:some careful design.
The federal government transferred the land to the District, with the proviso that most of the site stay parkland. That means there's no reason to want the economic incentive to spread out the development; instead, it's better to have an incentive to focus it.
More growth there would house a lot of residents and jobs, bring people across the river, create a customer base for businesses in Historic Anacostia where the buildings won't get tall, and ease demand elsewhere.
Grant a few exceptions for exceptional design and amenities (the Malouff plan). Let some buildings go just a little bit higher, but not by right. Instead, they could do it if that allows a really interesting, attractive architectural design, and if the building provides some amenities, like parks or daycares or libraries or something that won't otherwise be economically viable in the tight downtown market.
Auction off height waivers (the Avent plan). Define a set of zones where a few taller buildings might be okay and a few where they're not, like key viewsheds. Auction off a limited number of permits per year for building up to a somewhat higher limit. This would prevent a stampede to tear down perfectly good buildings just to add a few floors, but would also create a more varied skyline with a few taller buildings, which would be much more aesthetically interesting.
What do you think?
Within the confines of the District of Columbia, the question of whether to allow tall buildings is a subject of much debate. But in the burgeoning urban centers of Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, there is no question: more tall buildings are coming.
For many decades Rosslyn has been home to the tallest skyscrapers in the Washington region. The taller of its Twin Towers is 381 feet tall. But soon that building will rank no better than 3rd tallest in Rosslyn alone, with the 384 foot tall 1812 North Moore and the 387 foot tall Central Place in construction or soon to begin.
Even with those new buildings, Rosslyn could soon lose its crown. Buildings as tall as 396 feet could soon be built around the Eisenhower Metro station in Alexandria. They would eclipse Alexandria's current tallest building, the 338 foot tall Mark Center Hilton.
Tysons Corner is in on the action too. It's tallest buildings right now are the 254 foot Ritz Carlton and the 253 foot 1850 Towers Crescent. But at 365 feet, a building in the proposed Scotts Run Station development will soon dominate.
In Maryland, North Bethesda Market I topped out last year at 289 feet tall, beating out Gaithersburg's 275 foot tall Washingtonian Tower and thus becoming Montgomery County's new tallest skyscraper. Its reign will be short-lived, as a new 300 foot tall ziggurat has already been proposed nearby.
And this week, big news is coming to Reston and Crystal City.
Fairfax County approved a 330 foot building in Reston yesterday that will become the tallest building in the Reston Town Center cluster.
Meanwhile, the Arlington County Board is scheduled to vote this coming weekend to either approve or deny a 297 foot building in Crystal City that would tower well above all its neighbors. Tall buildings have long been constrained there by restrictions due to Reagan National Airport, but those rules recently changed, so taller buildings are now allowed.
These aren't particularly tall buildings by the standards of large central cities. Baltimore and Virginia Beach both have buildings over 500 feet tall, and the world's current record holder is a whopping 2,717 feet. But still, the trend in the DC area is unmistakable; buildings are getting taller, and will most likely continue to do so.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Please welcome Matt Yglesias, Slate Moneybox economics blogger, author of The Rent Is Too Damn High, and frequent commentator about how regulations limiting development affect cities.
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