Photo by Mr. T in DC.

Downtown DC could use more residential units, but the strong demand for downtown office space crowds out most residential development. Could a selective bonus above Washington’s height limit for downtown residential units allow for new residents while avoiding a land rush?

The height limit generates perennial debate. I’ve opposed raising the height limit in downtown Washington, but supported much taller buildings in secondary nodes like Rosslyn.

Concentrating yet more office space downtown with taller buildings isn’t in the region’s best interest. More mixed-use neighborhoods are better than an office ghetto surrounded by bedroom communities.

There’s also so much available land near downtown in places like Southwest and NoMa that the central office district could easily expand without taller buildings. Also, eliminating the height limit downtown could result in a push to tear down and redevelop too many historic buildings that are culturally valuable.

However, raising the height limit could make Downtown Washington a better neighborhood. It may be the most intensely built part of the region, but it is almost completely commercial. There are so few residential units that vast swaths of downtown are almost completely devoid of people outside the hours of 9-5. 

If we want Washington to be a city of mixed-use neighborhoods, then downtown is failing. Even the downtown BID thinks this is a problem.

Getting more residents downtown is hard, however. The parts of downtown most in need of residential development are already built out with office buildings. Also, commercial square footage generally rents at a higher rate than residential square footage, so any developer would choose office over residential if zoning allows. Even if we change the zoning to require new buildings be residential, developers won’t be likely to tear down older office buildings and replace them with lower-renting residential ones.

A solution would be to increase the allowable height for residential projects, but not commercial ones.

But by how much? We need to allow some redevelopment of existing buildings, but not too much. We could simply allow residential skyscrapers at unlimited height, but that would defeat the aesthetic reasons for having any height limit at all, and it might lead to the sort of land rush that would wipe out valuable historic structures.

What about a smaller rise? The height limit is currently defined as the width of the street plus 20 feet (for “business streets”). It would be possible to rewrite the regulation to provide a height bonus in exchange for incorporating residential square footage, say 20 additional feet of height in exchange for three floors of residential.

For example, say you own a piece of land on a 90-foot-wide street. You could currently build a 110-foot building with 10 floors of office space. With this suggested bonus, you could instead build a 130-foot building with nine floors of office and three floors of residential.

That would be enough of a windfall for most developers of new buildings to take advantage, but it wouldn’t be so much as to encourage redeveloping existing builldings unless the owner was going to redevelop anyway. We wouldn’t see wholesale demolition of historic properties, but we would see a substantial residential component in any new buildings.

There’s still no reason to allow skyscrapers downtown, or to raise the limit for more offices, but a modest height bonus for residential development along these lines would add people to downtown’s streets without significantly altering the city’s mid-rise character. It would incrementally improve downtown as a neighborhood, while allowing it to retain its role as regional commercial center.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.