Photo by JamesCalder on Flickr.
The 1910 Height Act, while it has made Washington’s skyline distinctive, is not without controversy or drawback. While it’s unlikely that there will be any changes to the height restriction anytime soon, the issue came up for discussion earlier this month after a New York Times piece marked the act’s hundredth anniversary.
In the spirit of friendly debate, we posed an open-ended question to GGW contributors on what they thought about the city’s height limit. The opinions exposed a diversity of opinion on how the height limit factors into the District’s appearance, urban experience and development patterns.
Here are thoughts from four GGW contributors.
While I understand the arguments on both sides, we have vacant and underutilized land across the city that is ripe for infill and economic development, could be built reasonably high with zoning code adjustments, and would contribute to a tighter, denser fabric across all quadrants.
On the other hand, folks using the Height Act as a preservation measure are misinformed. It is certainly nice that it preserves viewsheds, but that was not the original intent. It isn’t written as a preservation law, much like overhead wires, at their core, aren’t necessarily a preservation issue. I tried writing about both for the historic preservation class I’m taking this semester, and was unable for that very reason. After looking into it some more, I agree. In fact, perhaps one day when I’m not writing a paper on DC’s actual historic preservation law, I could write something up about how the Height Act and overhead wire limits are erroneously trotted out under the guise of preservation.
I understand the height limit is overly restrictive, but we’ve still got a lot of opportunity focusing on our underutilized areas and working to update zoning regulation. The development taking place in NoMa is a great example of this.
Also, I find bogus the argument that mid-rise architecture is inherently boring — it’s a shame Leinberger fell for that in the Times piece. We humans are quite capable of building gorgeous, usable, and not-so-tall buildings if we stop being lazy and start thinking outside the K Street box. Thankfully some of those buildings still exist as examples.
We like to think of the Height Act’s impact on our skyline as special, and we think of the congressional process needed to change the Height Act as unique. However, there are parallels to be drawn here with policies in other cities.
For example, Mayor Bloomberg had to get Albany’s approval for congestion pricing, another seemingly radical idea. The proposal failed because Bloomberg forged ahead without consensus from stakeholders within the city, most important among them, Sheldon Silver. In that analogy, Albany was the city’s Congress-like overlord, but in our circumstance no Bloomberg figure has emerged to become the champion of amending the Height Act.
In the end, New York moved forward with a different model of congestion management by reallocating road space to pedestrians, cyclists and transit. When it comes to increasing density in the city, DC should heed New York’s lesson and forgo a drastic policy change outside its control. Instead, we must continue to use the tools at our disposal by developing dense nodes in transit-accessible areas while still operating with the Height Act.
While that solution operates within the political reality, it should be noted that the blanket restriction on tall buildings is absurd outside the L’Enfant City and historic vistas. The highrises of Rosslyn, for example, have a more significant impact on historic viewsheds than taller buildings on the DC side of Friendship Heights ever could.
The highrises of Rosslyn are visible from the Mall, diluting the effectiveness of the Height Act, which only applies to the District. The Height Act looks quaint when it restricts buildings in neighborhoods far and occluded from the monumental core.
I can see both sides of the height argument, but we have plenty of underdeveloped land in this city. Look at NoMa and the Navy Yard. Unlike many other building and zoning codes, modification of the Height Act will require an act of Congress. The public, preservationists, urbanists and statehood activists should expend their political energies on more important matters. The height limit is very far down on my list of things worth fighting over.
Something’s going to have to give. While it may seem that DC has lots of land left, it really doesn’t. All those empty lots in the Navy Yard and NoMa are spoken for and have development plans. There are maybe a few other areas to be developed — Poplar Point, RFK Stadium/Hill East — but that’s about it. What happens when we hit that limit?
The city will run head-long into an economic conundrum. It could keep the height limit, but at the risk of becoming an unaffordable wealthy enclave. It could upzone historic areas that are currently below the maximum height, but risk losing that charm and design. Or it could modify the height limit to let the natural — and beneficial — urban economic pattern of density and agglomeration unfold.
Some think the low-rise nature of the city is appropriate for a capital, but at what cost to the local economy? Ryan Avent notes that the height limit means property owners must squeeze every bit of value out of their developments, thus encouraging the kind of pressure that eliminates cheap office space for innovative start-ups, art galleries or similar enterprises. There are real economic costs to the limit. If we’re going to preserve DC as a low-rise city, that’s one choice — but what about the city’s finances? Would people accept, say, regional tax base sharing in exchange for DC’s height limit remaining in place?
What will need to happen is some sort of broad planning process and consensus, not unlike the McMillan Plan. I’m talking about more than the Comprehensive Plan, and something with more buy-in and a broader scope than NCPC’s previous efforts. It will require the involvement of Congress. It will probably have to address the question of what DC’s role really is as a capital — and will undoubtedly touch on home rule, self-determination and representation in Congress.
My preferred solution would be to modify the height limit to allow modestly taller buildings across the board, but with setback requirements and other design codes that would continue to preserve DC’s aesthetic. A study from the Tony Williams administration found huge benefits for a modest increase in the maximum height. Vancouver’s Larry Beasley laid out several principles (MP3) to add height while maintaining character, including building setbacks, creating targeted areas for increased height and use of urban design. I think you can keep the city’s aesthetic while still allowing greater density via code.
I’d also designate some development areas for high rise development, but these areas would be limited and must be transit oriented. Three areas that come to mind would be the area near Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station, RFK Stadium/Hill East and Poplar Point. These three would present terminal vistas for what’s left of Delaware Avenue, New Jersey Avenue, and East Capitol Street. All have relatively underutilized Metro stations right now.
Whether the act is changed or not, there is a need to discuss this in the near future. The status quo of the Height Act will clash even more with economic reality.