Posts about Height Limit
Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is ready to give DC more local control over the sizes of its own buildings, a small step forward for self-
"I heard separately to my astonishment, for the first time ever, a rejection of Home Rule," he said. "I expected you all to say, 'Gosh, this will take years and years.' ... I did not expect, for the first time ever, to have people say, 'Please don't give me authority. I can't be trusted.'"
Issa needs to hear from people who do support the idea of Congress loosening its grip over DC. Please send him and other relevant Congressional leaders a letter asking them to let DC residents make their own choices about their built environment (at least where it doesn't directly affect the federal government).
Mendelson argued that "citizens of the District do not support any change" to the height limit, or even the right to make changes in the future, largely because most of the people who could take four or six whole hours, often in the middle of a workday, just to attend a hearing and speak for three minutes opposed change. (Note to Mendelson: Some of us have other stuff to do, like jobs and kids.)
Even if DC doesn't change its building height rules now, sooner or later we're going to need to do something about the housing shortage that's pushing up housing prices so fast. As Harriet Tregoning noted in the hearing, if DC eventually decides that height, even just in a targeted area, is the solution, it might be too late if the House oversight chairman at the time doesn't believe as strongly in local self-government as Issa does.
When Congress granted DC Home Rule in 1973, they were willing to let a locally-elected council and mayor pass most laws, but didn't entirely trust DC to decide everything for itself. They kept power over the courts, didn't let the council change any criminal laws for 2 years, gave the federal government seats on the boards that decide zoning, and forbade the local government from making any changes to the height limit. Each of these is basically a reminder that they only trusted DC citizens so far.
Now, a powerful committee chairman wants to trust us just a little more. Despite some bad apples, the District has balanced its budget for many years now, has reduced crime, and provides municipal services about as well as any city. Any height changes would have to still go through the federal NCPC and hybrid federal-local zoning commission, and Congress could still veto a change. But we're grown up enough to have a say in building heights, whether we end up deciding to change building height rules, or not, or wait until later.
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On Monday, DC Mayor Vincent Gray said he will seek a second term. He joins an already crowded field, which will make for a very interesting race. But there's also the question of how Gray has done as mayor.
What are his biggest accomplishments? What are his biggest disappointments? And does he deserve a second term? Our contributors weigh in:
On transportation, Gray has been OK but not perfect. He's done a good job moving the streetcar program forward, but progress on bike infrastructure has moved much more slowly than it did under Fenty. He'd be a low risk/moderate reward choice for a second term. We'd know that we'd be getting someone who basically advances our goals, but maybe not as quickly as a more progressive candidate might. On land use planning, he's worth voting for just to keep Harriet Tregoning on the job.
One Gray accomplishment that I'm fond of is the Vision for a Sustainable DC, which cuts across departments and agencies and sets aggressive goals for emissions reduction and restoration of clean waters and healthy ecosystems. It remains to be seen how aggressively Gray will implement the plan and whether each department will receive adequate funding for their share of the work, but the plan is a significant step in the right direction.
I also applaud Gray for sticking with the streetcar plan despite opposition from many corners, including many voters who supported him.
However, I am unhappy with Gray's positions on minimum wage and labor standards issues. The majority of the Council is ahead of him there. I supported the Large Retailer Accountability Act and am dismayed that Gray vetoed it.
I think Gray and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero have made great headway in planning, laying out a vision and foundation that moves DC in the right direction (Sustainable DC and Age Friendly DC are my two big ones).
We will have to wait and see, though, how implementation plays out (as Malcolm mentioned) either through Gray in a second term or through a newly elected administration that could turn all of that good work on its head. I'm inclined to say he deserves a second term because it's a better bet for successful implementation. But maybe I would also support a candidate that recognizes those accomplishments and is highly committed to being an implementer.
Although "One City" sometimes gets short shrift, Mayor Gray has done much to fill the slogan with meaning. The One City Summit, held in early 2012, brought 1800 residents to the Washington Convention Center.
It was actually successful at getting the participants to work together in diverse groups to identify the priorities for government services and the future of the city. Participants became engaged while educating themselves about the trade-offs of various policies, such as how new business attraction may drive out existing small businesses.
Increasing sustainability and diversifying DC's economy while improving access to it were the big policy winners at the Summit. And Gray's administration has followed up, continuing its support for the Sustainable DC plan, promoting development at the St. Elizabeth's site, and enabling continued growth city-wide through the MoveDC plan and relaxation of the Height Act.
Bringing Walmart to the District is a negative for sustainability and diversifying the economy. While improving the connections between education and jobs will take much more time, it is clear that Mayor Gray is not just continuing past policies on autopilot, but is asking hard questions about how the city and the region can succeed in the years ahead.
On Tuesday, the DC Council sent a message to Congress on the subject of self-determination. That message: "Congress, please don't give us more control over our city. We need you to tell us what's good for us. We don't want to make our own choices."
The issue was the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which limits how high buildings can rise throughout the District. ... Most of the debate about the height limit has indeed revolved around whether one appreciates or reviles tall buildings. It would be understandable to think that DC leaders were debating this week whether to loosen the rules that made the city's skyline look the way it does.
They were not. The issue was not whether to increase building heights. It was whether DC residents and leaders should get a say on the issue.
Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.
DC needs to find a place for substantial new housing and jobs in the future, and federal planners now seem to acknowledge that fact. They're willing to create a process, though an exhaustively long one, by which some future growth could exceed the federal height limit.
It's a tiny step forward for the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a very cautious federal agency, but actually a significant one. The blanket height limit made it impossible to even consider creating a skyscraper neighborhood somewhere in the city, perhaps like Poplar Point, or even having an occasional, iconic tower amidst lower buildings.
Last night, NCPC staff published an updated recommendation for changing the federal height limit. They've decided to insist on absolutely no change in the original L'Enfant City (basically everything between Florida Avenue and the rivers), but are willing to open a gate to a very long road for taller buildings elsewhere.
To recap, the federal law, which only Congress can change, limits heights of buildings in DC to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet, up to a maximum of 90-130 feet depending on the area. Outside downtown and downtown-ish areas like NoMA and the ballpark, local zoning restricts buildings far more, however.
The local zoning can change if the Zoning Commission, a board with 3 local and 2 federal representatives, agrees, but that board can't pierce the blanket federal height limit. Under NCPC's proposal, that could happen, but DC planners would first have to define the taller-building area in an amendment to the official Comprehensive Plan, a voluminous document updated every 5 years.
The DC Council, which otherwise has no voice in zoning, would have to approve the plan change, and NCPC, the mostly-federal board with representatives from agencies like the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration, would also have to assent. Congress would then have its own chance to overturn the changes if it chose.
But if, and it's a big if, a future plan for some tall buildings somewhere gets enough political support to convince the DC government, the DC Council, and NCPC, it could become a reality.
It's not a bad idea to ask that a taller building area undergo thorough planning and community discussion. Certainly many argue that we should simply have fewer restrictions on buildings. But that isn't a majority view right now. Eventually, however, enough residents may recognize that severe limits on our housing supply push up costs and be willing to explore solutions.
Those solutions could simply entail upzoning many areas around Metro stations and transit corridors (which wouldn't require height limit changes). Or, maybe it means a lot of tall buildings in one small space, like Paris' La Defense. Or each section of the city has an architectural competition for one distinctive and exceptional taller building.
Under this plan, at least we could have that debate. Those alternatives are within the realm of the possible. The city could try to trade extra height for important amenities that residents really want, as Montgomery County is doing with its White Flint plan.
On the other hand, this path certainly means a lot of veto points. And we know that any change engenders strong opposition, almost no matter what the change. It will be mightily difficult to get a plan for taller buildings past all of these boards.
Still, at least NCPC is willing to entertain the notion. The staff recommendation still reserves for NCPC control over any height limit exceptions, but that's a lot different from a Congressional law totally banning it. Which means that if and when DC needs more height, at least there's a way, even if it's a hard way.
One change would make a lot of sense at this point: if the process for allowing greater height involves so many steps of local and federal approvals, it now seems silly to completely exempt the L'Enfant City. There are tradeoffs between growing in the center, where it's already busy but there is more infrastructure, and at the edges, where some people crave economic development but taller buildings would stand out more.
NCPC staff argue that the federal interest is greatest in the L'Enfant City, where most federal land is, and lesser outside. Plus, just outside the L'Enfant City in Arlington there are already tall buildings, so it seems silly to insist on such a strict rule outside in other directions.
But it's still unclear that having buildings low, boxy, and boring A joint local-federal discussion about where to add height should encompass downtown and L'Enfant city neighborhoods as well as outlying areas. Why simply exclude a place like Hill East/RFK stadium from this discusssion? Or NoMA? NCPC can veto a proposal in those areas if it's not on board, but given that it would have to agree to any change, there's no need to exclude whole sections of the city at the same time.
A joint local-federal discussion about where to add height should encompass downtown and L'Enfant city neighborhoods as well as outlying areas. Why simply exclude a place like Hill East/RFK stadium from this discusssion? Or NoMA? NCPC can veto a proposal in those areas if it's not on board, but given that it would have to agree to any change, there's no need to exclude whole sections of the city at the same time.
Do you know when city elected officials get to make a decision, and when a federal agency or hybrid makes the decision instead? Do you know what our current zoning says and what planners want to change? Or what the height limit really is?
I put together a quick quiz for the Washington City Paper about a few specifics of DC rules that you might not know. Take the quiz and post your score, or your questions, in the comments here.
Supporters of DC's height limit say restricting building heights has worked to keep Paris beautiful. But embracing the Parisian built form would have unintended consequences on DC's neighborhoods.
The mid-rise Paris that we know today was built not by a democracy, but by a mad emperor and his bulldozer-wielding prefect. As Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning said in a recent WAMU interview, "Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them essentially block after block of small apartment buildings."
"If we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate easily 100 years' worth of residential growth," she added. "But they would be very different neighborhoods."
A haunting exhibition of photographs by Charles Marville, now on view at the National Gallery of Art, offers us a glimpse at how this change manifested itself in Paris.
The city government hired Marville to document the systematic demolition of central Paris' low-rise neighborhoods, the construction of new mid-rise neighborhoods (the ones we know today) in their stead, and the widespread displacement of the center's low-income residents to the urban fringe. (Numerous books have been written about the era, notably "Transforming Paris," by David Jordan.) There were technological limits on buildings in that era, too: elevators were slow and expensive, and the new water mains could not supply satisfactory water pressure to the upper floors of many buildings.
Not dissimilarly, downtown DC's horizontal march has steamrolled numerous low-rise neighborhoods in its wake, from Chinatown to Foggy Bottom. Now that only a few blocks are left for downtown to grow into, office buildings are muscling into Shaw. This is only natural for a mid-rise city: Paris' mid-rise urban fabric superimposed on DC would spill outside the diamond, vastly larger than the existing downtown.
That path of destruction is why most other growing cities in this century (i.e., built-out but growing central cities, from London and Singapore to New York, Portland, Toronto, and San Francisco) have gone the Vancouver route and rezoned central industrial land for high-rises. This method allows them to simultaneously accommodate new housing, and new jobs, while keeping voters' single family houses intact.
By opposing higher buildings downtown, DC's neighborhoods are opposing change now, but at the cost of demanding far more wrenching changes ahead: substantial redevelopment of low-rise neighborhoods, skyrocketing property prices (as in Paris), or increasing irrelevance within the regional economy as jobs, housing, and economic activity get pushed further into suburbs that welcome growth.
Among large North American cities, only Toronto has joined DC in making a concerted effort to redirect growth into mid-rise buildings along streetcar lines, and only as an adjunct strategy in addition to hundreds of high-rises under construction. (The two metro regions are of surprisingly similar population today.) Yet there, just like here, neighborhoods are up in arms at the very notion.
DC cannot put a lid on development downtown, in the rowhouse neighborhoods, in the single-family neighborhoods, and on the few infill sites we have left, and yet somehow also accommodate enough new jobs and residents to make our city reliably solvent, much less sustainable. The sum of remaining developable land in the city amounts to 4.9% of the city, which as OP demonstrates through its analysis, cannot accommodate projected growth under existing mandates.
Something will have to give. A good place to start is a loophole-ridden law imposed back when DC was a protectorate and when Greater Washington counted fewer residents than today's Asheville or Quad Cities.
The Office of Planning has suggested a reasonable framework for a subtly revised Height Act that can accommodate growth and change while preserving the city's cherished urban design and historic neighborhoods. Adapting the rigid 130' cap to a street-width rule maintains the Height Act framework along our ceremonial avenues, where our city's namesake actually set a height minimum.
Along streets like L'Enfant Promenade, Washington had the right idea: taller buildings will better frame vistas. Beyond the L'Enfant City, the Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance will continue to ensure that most buildings never reach the 90' Height Act maximum, but the city will have the flexibility to adapt to evolving construction techniques and special opportunity sites.
As DC re-adjusts to a new century of urban growth, after a lost generation of population decline and disinvestment, inaction poses a far greater risk than action. Paris' combination of horizontality and verticality is undeniably beautiful, but its unique form resulted from a peculiar historical process that I would not wish upon an American city today.
The District of Columbia Council is accepting written testimony about the Height Act until next Tuesday. For more information or to send your comments, visit their website.
A version of this post appeared on West North.
As part of a new weekly series on Greater Greater Washington, we'll take a topic that is relevant in the week's news and allow our contributors to briefly weigh in on it. This week: proposed changes to DC's height limit.
Dan Malouff had a great post on the topic and there have been several stories featured in the Breakfast Links recently on the subject. Should DC keep its height limit, tweak it, or get rid of it all together? Are there possible consequences people aren't considering? Two of our contributors weigh in:
Canaan Merchant: I think the original reasons for it are outdated and the current arguments insufficient. That doesn't mean I think we will start digging foundations for skyscrapers on the Mall anytime soon. I think we can protect the things we like about the height limit by changing the argument from "why should we let this building be tall?" to "why shouldn't we let this building be tall?"
In his original post, Dan Malouff compares DC's height limit debate to Paris'. I would like to point out the lessons we can learn from London. London has a special neighborhood for high-rises at Canary Wharf, similar to Paris' La Defense or our own Rosslyn. But it has started building very tall buildings in central London as well because there is still a lot of demand there. In DC, demand will remain high for downtown office space as well, even if we do allow much taller buildings in areas like Friendship Heights or Poplar Point.
London hasn't stopped protecting its views either, like King Henry's Mound, a hill that is 10 miles away from St. Paul's Cathedral. In DC, we can do the same thing from some of our most famous viewing points while still allowing taller buildings in many other places as well.
Eric Fidler: One point that was largely absent from last Monday's DC Council hearing is that new housing exceeding the 130-foot height limit will produce more affordable housing thanks to DC's Inclusionary Zoning laws.
Critics often refute the supply-and-demand argument for greater heights by noting that all the new tall apartment buildings are expensive. That is true because new apartment buildings, like new clothes and new cars, can command a price premium over their older counterparts. Today's pricey, new buildings become tomorrow's discounted, "lived-in" buildings.
However, DC's Inclusionary Zoning law requires that new residential projects with more than 9 units set aside 8% or 10% of units for affordable housing.
Assuming Congress relaxes the Height Act, then DC amends the Comprehensive Plan, then the Zoning Commission amends the zoning text and map to create taller zones with higher height and FAR limits, these new, taller buildings will produce more Inclusionary Units. Think of it another way: 10% of a 22-story building is greater than 10% of a 13-story building.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Are you getting priced out of being able to live in the kind of neighborhood you want? Do you wish your neighborhood had more local stores and other amenities in walking distance? Please tell your story below.
At recent hearings on planning and zoning issues, we've been hearing from a lot of activists who say that everything is just perfect now, so nothing should ever change.
Next week, DC's Zoning Commission will hear testimony on parts of the zoning update including accessory apartments (which would let a homeowner rent out a basement or garage) and corner stores. There will be a lot of people testifying there, too, that their neighborhoods are perfect just the way they are, and zoning needs to block any new people or stores.
But everything is not perfect and we can't simply ignore the skyrocketing costs of housing for people across the income spectrum.
Either DC plans a way to keep up with its housing demand (which still outstrips the new units getting built), or it sees the city become out of reach for many people, from young professionals starting their careers to fixed-income retirees and legions of lower-income residents.
Adding housing doesn't have to mean skyscrapers or 6-story density everywhere or anything in particular, but it does mean finding places to put the 122,000 new units DC needs (and the same for walkable places in other inner jurisdictions like Montgomery and Arlington) somewhere, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and thinking that if we don't change a thing, then our current housing problems won't get any worse.
What about you? Are you finding that housing prices keep you from being able to live where you would like to? Or do you wish that you could have more corner stores or other retail walking distance from your home?
I'd like to collect stories about what residents and prospective residents want, beyond just the same voices that show up at hearing after hearing. A lot of you can't go to all of these hearings because you have day jobs, families, and/or things to do. But your experiences matter as well.
Please fill out the form below. I will forward your stories to NCPC and the Zoning Commission. It asks for your real name and address, because these decision-makers want to know the real people sending the opinions. In addition, the text you write will get posted to this article as a comment, but it won't include your real name or your address.
Congress is considering whether or not to change DC's height limit. Here are 9 suggestions that will help the city get the most benefit out of changing (but not eliminating) its height regulations.
Regulations can change in practical and beneficial ways, without destroying Washington's unique layout. If Congress repeals or changes the DC Height Act, the District will be free to regulate height in much more flexible ways.
That in mind, here are some suggestions that Congress and the DC Council should consider as they move forward.
1. Don't eliminate, calibrate
Even though eliminating all height limits completely isn't anyone's proposal and has never been seriously on the table, it's worth saying up front just to be clear. There are good reasons to regulate height, but our existing laws are not necessarily the ideal set. We can make them more ideal with some fine tuning.
2. Target development where we want it
Many assume raising the height limit would result in taller buildings everywhere, or all over downtown, but that need not be the case. It would be smarter to pick specific areas where we want to encourage more development, and only increase the limit there.
The city can raise the limit only on blocks with a Metro station entrance, for example, or only within 1/8 mile of Metro stations with low existing ridership, or only near Farragut Square, or only in Anacostia. Whatever.
No doubt where to allow them would be a contentious question, but the city already has many regulations encouraging or discouraging development in certain areas. There's no reason the height limit can't be used in the same way. We can be selective.
3. Grant a residential bonus for downtown
Downtown DC has no trouble attracting development, but office is usually more profitable than residential, so downtown is often packed during work hours but pretty empty in the evenings. More residential would help downtown stay active on evenings and weekends, not to mention reduce the capacity stress on our transportation network by allowing more people to live close to their work.
But under current rules, developers often can't justify using floor space under the height limit for residential when office is more lucrative. If they got a bonus for residential, allowing them to build taller only if some or all of the added height were used for apartments, that would benefit everyone.
4. More offices can go downtown, but also other places
We want a lot of office buildings downtown because that's where our regional transportation system converges. But we also want office buildings outside downtown so residential areas don't empty out during work hours, and to encourage a healthy economy throughout the city.
Uptown nodes like Bethesda and Clarendon are good for the region and would be good for the city, and would happen in DC if we allowed them to. So while it may be desirable to allow taller buildings in some parts of downtown sometimes, it's also desirable to encourage office development elsewhere as an anchor for uptown commercial districts.
5. Be inclusive of affordable housing
Height limit opponents say taller buildings will make DC more affordable, because it will increase the supply of housing, thus helping to address rising demand. Supporters of keeping it say tall buildings will make DC more expensive, because new development is almost always expensive. They're both right, but those points aren't mutually exclusive.
New buildings are indeed almost always expensive, because it costs a lot to build a skyscraper, and developers need to turn a profit within a few years.
But new buildings eventually become old ones, and this isn't a short-term decision. Buildings that are expensive at first often become the next generation's affordable housing. Part of the reason DC has an affordable housing problem now is that we didn't build enough new buildings a generation ago. If we don't build enough new units now, the next generation will be out of luck too.
In the mean time, we can solve the short-term affordability problem with inclusive zoning; in exchange for allowing taller buildings, the city should require some of their units to be affordable. Win-win.
6. Require good architecture
Some who want to change the height limit say regulations hurt DC's architecture, resulting in boring-looking buildings. Meanwhile, many others hate tall buildings because so many skyscrapers are ugly. Both arguments are equally bad, because the world is full of both great and ugly buildings of every height.
But there's no denying that tall buildings stand out, and thus become landmarks whether beautiful or ugly. To ensure we get the former rather than the latter, DC (or even NCPC) could require aesthetic review & approval for the design of any building above a certain height.
A city the size of DC wouldn't want to insist on aesthetic review for every building, but there's no good reason DC can't do it for tall ones.
Of course the devil is in the details. To use this sort of oversight, DC would have to establish design guidelines that tell architects what the city will approve or deny. That could be contentious, and might not be the same everywhere in the city.
7. Preserve historic facades and encourage entrances
Frequent, unique-looking entrances are incredibly important for quality walkable urbanism. One problem with tall buildings is many are so wide that they're boring to walk next to at the ground level. The minimalist facades of modern architecture compound the problem.
This is why the urbanism in Georgetown is better than Rosslyn. It's not that Rosslyn has buildings that are too tall, it's that Rosslyn's buildings are too wide, and too bare at the ground level.
While it's not practical for tall buildings to change completely every 25' the way rowhouses in Georgetown do, their ground floors can be designed to look and function as smaller buildings, and historic buildings can be integrated into larger developments above.
This may not strictly be a height limit issue, but it's a good way to ensure that taller buildings improve the streetscape. It can be accomplished using the design guidelines and architectural review process outlined above.
8. Outlaw surface parking lots
Surface parking lots are the bane of walkable urbanism, but they're common in almost every skyscraper-heavy downtown in America, because one large building can sap up years worth of demand, leaving developers of other properties waiting in limbo for reason to build.
Many developers in downtowns around the US opt to leave land nearly empty rather than fill it with short buildings, on the chance that they may strike it big with the next big once-a-generation mega skyscraper. Surface parking lots provide a convenient way to use that land in the mean time.
This is a big problem, and DC is not immune. In 2008 the developer of what's now the shiny office building on the northwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street wanted to use that land as a parking lot.
Outlawing surface parking lots in areas where tall buildings are permitted would go a long way towards ensuring downtown DC never looks anything like this.
9. Protect the iconic monuments
Development economics are important, but they're not the only thing. The most valuable land in DC is probably the White House Ellipse, but we're not going to put skyscrapers there. DC's skyline view of the Capitol and Washington Monument is one of the world's most iconic, and should of course be preserved.
But taller buildings in Farragut Square or Brookland or Anacostia wouldn't impede that view any more than they do in Rosslyn, and La Defense did not destroy Paris.
We can, and should, allow taller buildings where they're most appropriate, while protecting the views that define our city.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
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