Photo by mrlaugh on Flickr.

Darrell Issa and Eleanor Holmes Norton just announced that they’ve asked for a study on revising the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, also known as DC’s height limit. Should it change?

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.

Photo by Glyn Lowe Photoworks on Flickr.

Rosslyn has tall buildings. What about outside downtown? Mayor Gray 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:

Vancouver. Photo by lorea2006 on Flickr.

Allow limited taller areas like Poplar Point (the Gray plan). Poplar Point would be an ideal spot for a La Défense of Washington. The buildings would have a great view of the L’Enfant City and, if designed well, would be a beautiful sight from the L’Enfant City. A dense cluster at Poplar Point would complement Rosslyn and Crystal City but more attractively. Vancouver’s clusters of towers are beautiful, for instance, thanks to 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?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.