The District of Columbia’s restriction on building heights is one of the most contentious issues in the region’s urban development.
Originally enacted in 1899, Congress placed height restrictions on the city following the construction of the Cairo apartment building near Dupont Circle. Proponents of the law argue that height restrictions preserve DC’s character and maintain a European-style skyline.
Opponents, however, point out that the height restriction may be a major contributor in the city’s housing shortage and may impede its general dynamism.
While the debate is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, it is prudent to look at how other cities have dealt with height limits and new construction.
London: A European city that embraced a modern skyline
London has gone one of the most radical changes to its skyline of any European city in modern times.
For hundreds of years, the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral has dominated the London’s central business district. In recent decades however, it has gained some impressive neighbors, including some of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers.
As building technology leaped ahead throughout the 20th Century, London worked to preserve vistas of St. Paul’s throughout the city. Throughout the last few decades, London’s booming financial industry has radically transformed the skyline, making the Cathedral is just one component of the cityscape.
To date, many restricted zones still exist to protect a an unimpeded view of the Cathedral–which is in itself controversial. The city’s demand for commercial real estate and expensive property make it increasingly costly not to use the space restricted from building taller structures.
Opponents of the restrictions also ask whether it is just to restrict construction on new architecture simply because of the age of an existing landmark. These advocates of the new buildings also point out that increasing density in high-demand
Preservationists in the UK are less impressed, arguing that hastily built skyscrapers are damaging London’s historical heritage. In one particularly egregious case, the curved glass of a skyscraper in London amplified sunlight, causing nearby cars and bikes to melt.
Whereas modern architects envision London as a cutting-edge city, many people object to the rapid changes in the city. Recent construction in the city has even prompted UNESCO to suggest architectural revisions to proposed new buildings.
Whatever the outcome, London’s challenges balancing new skyscrapers and historic preservation sound eerily familiar.
Paris: cautious steps forward in a historic city
Perhaps no situation parallels DC’s debate over height restrictions as in Paris. Paris has enforced a strict height limit within the city, but this may be slowly changing.
Like DC, a single building inspired the government to ban skyscrapers–in this case, the much maligned Tour Montparnasse. While the Cairo Building hardly stands out in DC’s modern skyline, the 210 meter (789 foot) tower in Paris is prominent throughout the city. Accordingly, buildings were limited to a height of 37 meters (121 feet) for decades.
Inspired by other global competitors such as London, Paris is now allowing some buildings to exceed its height limit. The Parisian city government is worried about accommodating a growing population and a high office vacancy rate driven by expensive real estate. Currently, the city is moving forward cautiously–only a handful of buildings are slated to exceed the height limit, and city authorities have restricted them to the periphery of the city center.
What DC might be able to learn the most from Paris is how to live with height restrictions.
Although Paris has banned most tall buildings in the city proper, they are allowed in the nearby area of La Defense. La Defense serves as metropolitan Paris’s principal modern commercial district, accommodating office space without encroaching on the historical center.
Since Paris has created La Defense as a built up area outside of the city center, perhaps the Washington region could do the same by focusing new office space in Rosslyn, Silver Spring, Tysons, or other areas with some existing development. In fact, CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan suggest that the marginal benefits of building a handful of skyscrapers in the center of Paris would be less than if the region focused on improving La Defense’s transit connections
La Defense in Paris is not a unique situation. A number of the concentrations of skyscrapers throughout Europe exist in newer, peripheral districts, such as the Cuatro Torres Business Area in Madrid or the Lakhta Center in St. Petersburg, while preserving their historical cores.
Cities like Paris also demonstrate that population density doesn’t require high rise buildings. Despite its character as a city of 8-10 story buildings, Paris has more people per square mile than New York. Barcelona, another city with mostly medium-sized buildings, also boasts a higher density than America’s skyscraper capital.
Americans may not want to live in closer, denser spaces like Parisians or Barcelonans, but these cities do demonstrate that housing lots of people doesn’t necessarily require tall buildings.
Milan: Where skyscrapers made a city more impressive
Milan usually does not garner as much attention as other Italian cities such as Rome or Florence, but the city is undergoing a modern renaissance. Despite being the country’s financial and fashion center, Italians have long seen Milan as bland and lacking in culture.
Milan’s reputation is now changing, and a flurry of new buildings in the city center are part of the reason why. Whereas many Parisians and Londoners worry that new skyscrapers will harm their cities’ cultures, developments in Milan seem to be doing the opposite.
The large Porta Nuova urban renewal project in the heart of the city has reinvented Milan’s image. Whereas the Duomo di Milano once dominated the skyline, renowned architect Cesar Pelli’s UniCredit building is nearly twice the height and is visible throughout much of the city (DC area residents might recognize Pelli’s work, as he designed Terminals B and C of National Airport).
Milan is also doing a number of other things well, as tall buildings in of themselves do not revitalize a city. Milan has also significantly expanded its bike-sharing and car-sharing schemes, working to make the city more walkable.
The city also has a number of assets that have made it a good candidate for revitalization: it is a financial hub, it is one of the biggest centers for the fashion industry, it has a desirable location in between the ocean and mountains, and it already boasts extensive transit including a large tram network and Italy’s largest metro system. In this sense, new skyscrapers are just one component enabling a world-class city to realize its potential.
Just as urban revitalization in DC has some negative consequences, renewal projects like Porta Nuova aren’t unequivocally good. Nevertheless, in trying to overcome its image as cultureless and industrial, Milan has had a similar struggle to DC’s efforts to shed its reputation as a violent city for stuffy politicians 20 or 30 years ago.
Milan will never be Rome or Florence–just as DC will never be New York or Chicago–so a modern skyline has helped Milan find its footing.
Philadelphia: An American perspective
For many of us in the urbanism community, Philadelphia is very special. It is one of the most historic large cities in the United States, containing Independence Hall, a massive stock of 19th Century rowhouses, and much more.
At the same time, Philadelphia also boasts one of the nation’s most impressive skylines. Arguably only New York, Chicago, or San Francisco can compete with Philly’s tall buildings.
Philadelphia is not a city that has traditionally had tall buildings, either. For most of the 20th Century, Philadelphia’s 548 foot tall city hall was the tallest building in the city. Only in 1987, when developers built One Liberty Place did Philly embrace Center City as a place for skyscrapers. After One Liberty Place surpassed City Hall, a building boom began that radical transformation in the 1990s. Today, the skyline is iconic and still growing. It accounts for seven percent of the country’s entire skyline office space, and has a low vacancy rate.
Former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode observed that, “Breaking through that artificial ceiling was a way of people saying that the sky's the limit for this city.”
Historical preservationists are criticizing the level of new development in recent years, so Philly may need to take additional steps to balance its history and new development. Nonetheless, Philly has demonstrated that tall buildings can coexist in a historical city.
These examples show that height limits shouldn’t be black and white
The most difficult thing about DC’s height restriction debate is its emotional basis. Removing the restriction will irreversibly change the character of the city, but forever trying to preserve the past will risk the city’s dynamism and make it more exclusive.
While I personally tend to favor the height restriction because it sets DC apart from other American cities, I also do not believe that it is productive to discuss the issue in absolute terms.
One of the best examples of compromise that I found was in Barcelona, where tall buildings are uncommon. When they do exist they must be in strategic places where they do not damage the character of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Medium-rise cities like Barcelona and Paris are wonderful because of their low skyline. It is prudent to point out, though, that these cities only became this way after the likes of Ildefons Cerdà and Georges-Eugène Haussmann radically reenvisioned them in their own times.
These cases are important to understand if DC ever decides to rethink its height restrictions. What other lessons can DC learn from other cities?
This post has been updated to reflect that Tysons Corner is further from DC's city center than La Defense is from the Paris city center.