Let D.C.'s Buildings Grow The case for scrapping Washington's height act

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Bradley Truding, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s youthful-looking legislative director, didn’t quite know what he was getting into when he agreed to narrate the history of the District of Columbia Height Act at an early October event commemorating its centennial anniversary.

The Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a venerable group of civic worthies pledged to the preservation of Washington’s historic character, had convened its membership to discuss the past and present predicament of the 1910 law that limits D.C. buildings to a maximum height of 130 feet—and even less, in most parts of town. Truding was tasked with reciting the Act’s legislative origins, and began his talk by explaining that the limit had been enacted out of concern for fire safety.

In most contexts, the idea that fire-safety was a big deal back in 1910 would be unobjectionable. But as Truding uttered those words, necks stiffened in the Charles Sumner School’s second-floor meeting room; a sense of rebellion stirred the aging crowd. What about the preservation of Washington’s grand vistas, or its “human scale”? It wasn’t just fire safety that had prompted passage of the legislation, the preservationists bristled. Beauty played a role too.

“That can’t be, because what they would have done is say all buildings can go to the height of the fire ladders, so it would have been uniform,” protested an audience member. “The fact that there’s a formula means that it’s based on aesthetics.”

“You just cite the reports,” admonished another, arguing that Truding’s research must have been incomplete. “But you have to look at the newspapers.”

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Why do they defend that rationale so fiercely? Simple: If the century-old rule were based on purely practical considerations that had gone out of date with the advent of sprinkler systems, its continued existence becomes difficult to defend. But defend it they do, year after year, decade after decade. Over the years, the notion of Washington as a vertically abbreviated city has moved from legislative edict to local custom to holy writ. Question the Height Act at your peril.

That’s still true today, even as practical considerations provide a strong case for overhauling the law. D.C. recently surpassed New York City to become the nation’s most expensive commercial office market. There’s not enough affordable housing for city employees to live in the District with their families. The federal government and its attendant industries have been expanding locally faster than any time since World War II, and high-rises are mushrooming in places outside the District like Rosslyn and Bethesda to accommodate it. Every high-rise in the suburbs means District tax dollars lost.

Notwithstanding the height limit’s hallowed reputation, calls for everything from drastic modification to outright repeal have been issued in almost every decade of its existence. And they haven’t always gone unheeded. Congress allowed apartment buildings to rise five feet higher in 1925, for example, at the urging of the American Institute of Architects. They also made exceptions for buildings like the National Press Club and the Harrington Hotel. But the law never crumbled.

It’s time for that to change.

The District desperately needs more capacity. The way to build it intelligently is to let the market and the city decide where tall buildings might or might not prove valuable. The idea of buildings puncturing D.C.’s squat skyline might seem unsettling at first—especially to those who absorb the terrifying rhetoric from the District’s preservationists. But even as scrapping the law would involve some tricky maneuvering around the District’s relationship with Congress, abandoning the Height Act and letting zoning rule would be worth it. Here’s why.


The District of Columbia had height limits even before it had the United States government. But the evolving justifications for those limits represent a study in changing ideas of how a city ought to function.

Back in the 1790s, President George Washington, who never actually governed from the city that would bear his name, first ordered that the new federal capital have a height limit at 40 feet. Washington wanted to avoid the rickety, dangerous tenement buildings already springing up in his chaotic temporary capital, New York. By contrast, the new metropolis was to be an oasis of serene elegance. Thomas Jefferson, the first chief executive to sit in the new capital for his entire term, greatly admired the scale of Paris; he supported a limit on height “to provide for the extinguishment of fires, and the openness and convenience of the town.” At any rate, the largely pastoral District hardly needed tall buildings at that point; home to a tiny federal government, the city wasn’t supposed to be a place where many people would need to spend much time.

Our Readers Say

Nice work. And not that you need it, but here is some additional evidence to support getting rid of the DC height restriction:

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/10/18/041018fa_fact_owen.

I am not an NYC fanboy and certainly don't think DC should try to become NYC, I just think the above was an interesting and compelling article.
Great piece. Though this has been hashed and re-hashed too many times, the economic reality is still setting in.

Funny that the CFA guy back in the day used arguments against more height as a fight against greed. In reality, it's the other way around - limiting height (and thus density) restricts supply and increases prices.
Lydia, I think this is an interesting article, but I've got a few quibbles. One, we should not just look at things from a developer's point of view. Of course they want to make as much money as possible. So what? Does that mean that we should do whatever they say? This idea that developers have the right to get rich at all costs is not particularly compelling to me.

Second, your argument for higher buildings around tod makes a bit of sense if you only think about tod as being related to Metro. TOD does not have to be subway focused. If we were willing to make investments in bus infrastructure and see that as a legitimate means of transport with dedicated lanes, we would probably do ourselves some good.

Third, there seems to be this unspoken assumption that this city is going to triple in size in the next thirty years. Where is the proof of this?

Finally, you are making comparisons to New York, but I think that DC is more comparable to a place like Boston in terms of physical size and population.
@Indeed: 1) The city is projected to grow quite rapidly over the foreseeable future. 2) Lydia's arguments for TOD actually concentrate around Metro and streetcar lines. Bus lanes, even dedicated, do not attract the same investment as permanently-installed rail tracks.
as a DC native that has since moved to explore education opportunities, i hate coming home to see less and less of the sky. i grew up in downtown DC and have very vivid memories of being able to see the city fireworks from any city sidewalk. now, i have to go to a friend's rooftop deck in a city that has never been about rooftop decks. i miss the skyline and, however selfish that may be, i wish to preserve it.
Let me get this straight, we have a one-of-a-kind city with gorgeous vistas, a street-level intimacy not found in any other city in the US, and a Viennese stateliness to building scale and street architecture, and you want to erase this in a blur of shadows and glass boxes so that we can match wonderful places like downtown bethesda and Roslyn. Hmmmm.
One of the great things about this city are the little corners you turn throughout it to suddenly find a view of the Washington Monument or the Capitol Dome or even the Library of Congress. These are the things that drew me back here. These are the moments that keep me here, that catch my throat with their beauty.

Every city I've lived in that's relaxed its height restrictions (3 so far) has ended up with complications from wind. Somehow, I hope we can avoid that here.
@Eric,

Well, yes, it's very nice that the city is going to grow for the foreseeable future. But that does not put a number on it. Building up when we need to build out doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Again, people seem to think that we're going to be on approaching New York in scale. We're not. We still haven't passed Baltimore.

As for streetcars, I'm ambivalent. I don't see how it makes sense to put down permanent ground level infrastructure to meet our transportation needs. This might work in other cities, and I'm hoping that it works here, but I think that the desire for them is more ideological than practical. That streetcars are more of a draw is something drawn from hope rather than experience. Buses don't draw the same investments only because people with money want streetcars and see buses as the transportation of poor people. That's the bottomline. They like hte idea of streetcars. Nothing to do with practicality.
@Eric,

My point, which I didn't quite make, is that your argument is merely a self fulfilling prophecy. If everyone says that streetcars attract investment then it must be true...because everyone is saying it. There is far too much group-think going on.
Where is the proof that the city "desperately needs capacity"? Take Tenleytown, where a property owner recently built a one story building right next to the Metro. Maybe the market isn't in as desperate need of capacity as some folks say. And if it is, why shouldn't the first step be for the District to loosen zoning restrictions to allow building up to the height allowed in the Height Act? Only in downtown does zoning allow development to max out the federal height limits.
Yeah, great idea. Metro can barely handle the capacity we have. Fund metro fully, exhaust every square inch of city space -- then maybe we need to change the height restrictions.

Fort Totten built a ton of new stuff and none of it's used. They are about to build the same apartment building type complex at RI Avenue.

DC is unique. It is a monument to humanity, unlike Manhattan which is a monument to hubris. I like sky. I like small buildings. I don't really care what developers want. They are interested in profits only, not what's best for the city and not what's best for the residents.
Eliminating the height restriction immediately increases supply, and without an identical increase in demand, causes existing home prices to tumble. Thus, the height restriction should stay.
Lots of great points in the article, and I agree with most of them. A few high rises, stratigecallly placed, can be a great value. If you look at the Gold Coast of Chicago, for instance, you have houses that are very similar to Dupont circle, but on corners there are condos that rise perhaps 40 floors. That adds tons of people who are shopping, eating and walking the streets, making a rich urban presence. If Capitol Hill or Dupont Circle had a few of these buildings, it was would make those areas even more desirable, which would raise the existing housing even more in demand.

IF we were to raise the height limit, I would suggest that it be part of an overall package. AFterall, if the developers get all that new space to rent, the citizens should get something for it as well, and any such package needs to have enforcement teeth in it.

1. All new development must have extensive street landscaping. The sidewalk in front of the building must include a dense selection of shade trees, AND the maintenance of these trees is the responsibility of the landlord. I am tired of expensive buildings going up and they put in two spindly trees that die the next year. And the tree boxes should have low bushes and/or a changing array of flowers. No one should object, since this makes the building and the neighborhood more attractive to everyone.

2. Any high rise on a commercial street must have stores facing the street on the entire first floor. This is essential to creating a walkable neighborhood. AND a certain percentage cannot be national chains so that it's not all Starbucks and CVS stores.

3. If there are enough high rises down a street, they can be taxed to create a streetcar or trolley, or they have to pay a certain revenue towards metro. The only way Washington can survive is if we have a functioning metro, so it's in their interest to make sure the escalators really work well.

Randy



Quibble: Gramercy Park? The gated, private park that you need a key to enter is the solution to NoMa's ills?
I disagree with scraping the Height Act. Commercial space in downtown DC will most likely be more expensive than in the suburbs simply because of that old realtor maxim: location. Businesses are unlikely to move from downtown to Georgia Avenue simply because the high rise on the Avenue is less expensive. And tall buildings do not lend themselves automatically to affordable or desirable housing necessarily. Look at NoMa for pricey condos. Who can afford that? And if the emphasis is on low income, look at Cabrini Green in Chicago. The last tower is being vacated now to prepare it for destruction. The last thing Georgia Avenue would need is low income high rises. And finally, while I do agree that there are some tall buildings that look simply beautiful; I can think of some in New York and even in Baltimore. But the ones in Rosslyn, Crystal City and Bethesda are more likely to be what would be built in DC and let's face it: those are not exactly architectural treasures. I have to agree with Sarah, Tom and Carly, DC is a beautiful, low rise city. Why not focus on moderate density increases where Metro allows but keep the city on a lower, more human scale?
<em>Let me get this straight, we have a one-of-a-kind city with gorgeous vistas, a street-level intimacy not found in any other city in the US, and a Viennese stateliness to building scale and street architecture, and you want to erase this in a blur of shadows and glass boxes so that we can match wonderful places like downtown bethesda and Roslyn. Hmmmm. </em>

if i could marry a comment, this comment would be my one and only true love.
#1 Take a look at Montparnasse Tower and notice how ugly it looks in central Paris. Then look across the river Seine at La Defense and see that the height restrictions are relaxed outside of the city center. The exact same can be said for DC and Rosslyn. You cite Paris, but its clear that you've either never been there or don't realize how completely out of place Montparnasse Tower looks in the center of Paris.

#2 The height restriction makes DC unique and beautiful. No one wants DC to be like Manhattan. Sorry. If you want a Manhattan, just move back to New York City where people are stacked on top of each other like sardines, the quality of life sucks, and everything is more expensive, except bagels.

#3 You must be joking about the placement of skyscrapers at location #16 on your quaint map. This is in the the flight path of planes coming into DCA. If you've ever spent time on the Georgetown or GWU campus, you'll know that the planes are extremely loud in their low-flying approach to the airport. Can you imagine people in the building being forced to mute their phones every time a plane flies by? Scratch that location entirely. In fact scratch all locations within the footprint of the old boundaries of Washington City.

#4 DC has a lot of space to grow, even with the current height restriction. The problem is not a lack of vertical space, but a lack of financial incentive to build new buildings and fill out the city. There are a lot of places throughout the city that do not have 13 story buildings which would benefit from development.

#5 George Washington had to write a personal letter to the state of Maryland asking for $100,000 to help finish the construction of the government buildings before Congress was due to arrive in 1800. Congress also passed an amendment to the Residence Act 1791 which forbid government buildings in Virginia. Combined, these reasons were based on the fact that the Federal government was poor in the beginning and the height restriction was based on the frugal desire to not spend lavishly on government buildings and put the government further into debt.

#6 The District of Columbia is one of the most beautiful cities in America. Much of this beauty is due to the fact that it's architectural history is preserved. Giving developers the incentive to build taller buildings will cause many existing buildings to be demolished and rebuilt to match the new height allowances. The net result of this is increased property taxes and more expensive rent. Your premise that higher buildings will lower the cost of office space is incorrect because all studies show the reverse happens-- it becomes more expensive not less-- just like Manhattan.

In summary, keep the height restriction in place and stop wasting your time trying to advocate for changing something that makes DC beautiful.
The DC Council authorized special fuding about 6 years ago for a project to study the tax benefits of raising the height limit in one small area. The finding was that the City could raise millions in additional tax revenue. The consulting firm iof Jair Lynch oversaw the study.
What's needed is a real discussion of the trade-offs the height limit involves.

For those that like vistas and views, that's great. I like them, too. However, capping the supply of office space and housing will only raise rents and raise costs. Consider the trade-off - would you like that kind of city if it were really expensive?
No, just no. DC wouldn't be DC without the height limit. It's part of what gives the city it's unique character. You like tall building move to St. Louis or some crap.
In your December 17 cover story “Let It Grow,” Lydia DePillis argues for permitting high-rise buildings on the Southwest Waterfront on the theory that a “tall tower here would have stunning views.” But the “tall tower” DePillis envisions won’t likely provide “stunning views” to just anyone who wanders off an elevator. Rather, the tower will provide those views only to the select few who can afford them. And here’s a secret: people already live in Southwest. Some of us already have pretty nice views, views DePillis would block with her towers. Sixty years ago urban renewal redeveloped Southwest with little regard for the people whose families had lived here for generations. Southwest will not let that happen again. Whatever DePillis thinks.

David Sobelsohn
ANC Commissioner
Southwest DC
Height=Density is a false equation. Paris with at height limit of 6 stories is many times more dense than DC. Density is low in DC because many single people or couples live in 3000 or 4000 square foot houses. Zoning can be used to encourage the 500 square foot residences that are common in great world cities.

Neither does height make housing more affordable- just the opposite. Tall buildings are much more expensive to build and the resulting residences are expensive. Many cities now encourage 5 story buildings which can be built from lumber very quickly and economically.

Great cities like Paris, Berlin and DC have height limits in the near-downtown to preserve the quality of life. It works well where average residences are 500 square feet. The problem with low-density has little to do with height but rather with a sense here of entitlement to large residences.
I see nothing wrong with allowing heights of buildings to rise so long as we don't destroy the vistas we have--and that the tourists like to photograph.

However, I don't see the urgency in doing this right now when the housing market is stagnant.

The article is very interesting and food for thought.
Totally off base.
It is precisely because we are the Capital City, is why we must remain unique among all others.
If we allow ourselves to grow vertically, it will ruin our uniqueness. The city council will inevitable fall victim to the almighty dollar.
Only congress can save us.
At first I thought I would be open to taller buildings in Washington, but having just walked around Georgetown this morning, I've changed my mind. Keep the height limit! It's noticeable how a couple of buildings constructed in Rosslyn in the the last three years have impacted Georgetown for the worse. Walking south on 35th and 36th Streets, their southerly location blocks the light and creates a hulking silouette above the streetscape. Let's not mar other views. The low scale city, light filled streets and open views are some of the best defining characteristics of the nation's capital. Why strive to be like anywhere else? Leave the height limit alone.
The argument in favor of the height limits seems to be, simply, it's pretty, and pleasant. Okay, but the low-rise limit and relatively low density results in sprawl, and dependence upon automobiles. If we're going to change the automobile-centered lifestyle, reduce the traffic congestion that degrades the quality of life in our urban neighborhoods, and permit people to live lives without owning cars, we have to have density such that people can walk, or take urban transit, wherever they need to go. Columbia Heights, for one, is going in that direction. Yes, it works, and it has to be our future. Our cities weren't designed to handle an automobile or two per household, and the District is being strangled by cars.

Check with those Committee of 100 folks, and you'll find that they all have cars, most likely several per household. That's the lifestyle of the past, which these preserve-everything folks want to keep. The result is Georgetown -- too many cars, too much traffic, too much congestion, and no place to put all those cars.

Lose the height limits, yes. The District has to be a place for people to live, not a pretty artifact of an obsolete lifestyle.
The issue isn't height, it's density. We all decry how little street front retail there is the District, even along the most dense streets like K St. The truth is DC will never become a truly livable, 24/7 environment without more street front retail....and the only way to get that is to increase density.

A study should be undertaken to determine how much addition density is required in order to support retail development, then height restrictions should flow from there. It may mean an increase in height in residential zones of only a floor or two, and it may mean greater increases in commercial zones.

“The District desperately needs more capacity.”
Your thesis---but no where do you back up this asssertion.
Prove it. How much? How "desperate" are we? Who says?
And unless you plan to have all the addtional "density" riding bicycles how are they going to travel? Metro's pretty packed these days, so's K Street.

As for streetfront retail, somehow more intelligent planning decisions and incentives surely could be devised. Look at all these bank branch store fronts. Worthless in the evening and weekend for encouraging streetlife.
Perhaps I am being simplistic in my opinion, but it seems that the reason to repeal the "Height Act" is to expand the residential capacity for the federal employees that keep growing with big government. That is about to change.

There seems to be growing concern that federal hiring is outpacing private sector jobs, and reduction of government seems inevitable. So it may be a moot point when there are hundreds of vacancies instead of hundreds of needed additional dwellings.

Instead of building up into the sky, why not build below ground? It would be more energy efficient to do so.
I have been to DC many times, and sorry, but I think it's ugly. I'm not sure about this whole concept of "human scale", what the restrictions have created is a bunch of low, squat buildings that look like massive big-box stores. Very few of the buildings actually have interesting facades. And it just has a very sprawling, unrefined feel to it.
The review process for proposed skyscrapers could be made very strict, and require approval by a large body in a democratic process. Allowing a very limited amount of high-rises does not guarantee that we'll have a forest of ugly monstrosities. We could hire renowned American architects to create "centerpieces of America", and these skyscrapers could complement nicely the current open-air atmosphere of the city. Think of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, or maybe something in the style of Canary Wharf in London.
why not a compromise? Amend the archaic Height Limit to fit the times. I propose a change in the height limit from 90 to 120 for future residential development out of the downtown core - 2-3 extra floors per building will increase the supply in our current time of high demand and inch down rents without ruining anyone's quality of life. For commercial development, increase the limit to accommodate another 1-2 floors per structure, and even more in certain areas like Friendship Heights. these slightly taller buildings can acquire much-needed ground floor retail anchor tenants, revenues will moderately increase across the board, we attract more and more residents which helps to bolster our No Taxation Without Representation argument, and our beautiful vistas aren't ruined.
If they raised/removed the height limit, everyone in the taller buildings would be able to see the layout of the giant pentagram and the jigg would be up.
Don't believe me?
Think its crazy conspiracy talk?
Look it up yourself.

Ever wonder why they chose a pentagon shape? A pentagon forms the inner portion of a pentagram star.
Your brain wants to tell you its a coincidence because it clashes with your world view but the truth is, this country was founded by Freemasons. Freemasons worship Lucifer (although the lower degrees don't realize it).
Don't believe that either?
Ask a freemason who the bearer of light is.

In fact, read about Albert Pike (33rd degree Mason) and his revelations about what Freemasonry really is about.
IN FACT, read his book, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, where he details explicitly how Freemasonry is the worship of Lucifer aka Satan.


When talking about why it is that U.S. cities aren’t “dense” and “walkable”, is there anything more to blame than their height limitations? Where these limitations aren’t explicit, they’re still enforced indirectly through zoning. This robs cities not only of their “urban” feel, but prevents them from being affordable, economical and environmentally sound. I can’t understand why this attitude is so prevalent, especially in cities like New York and Chicago, which are defined by their skyscrapers. Seattle is another city with stringent height policies, which you can learn more about by visiting:

http://bigcitysparkplug.com/2012/11/01/chapter-2-the-consequences-of-process-building-height-limitations-in-seattle-wa/
Not sure why anybody would not want the best for Washington, DC. DC is handicapped by this archaic law that does not parallel the growth and success of this city. There should be NO reason to have a height restriction here or anywhere throughout the city. I understand not having building that block the monumental core of the National Mall, but outside of that...YOU NEED TO BUILD HIGHER!!! Taller buildings in this city creates more of a tax base for revenue, more people to add to the population and greater and attractive development for this wonderful city. You naysayers need to move to smaller cities, perhaps a town of less than 800 people and reside there. Washington is a major city that continually requires VISION! Our lack of leadership within our city council lacks the vision that makes this city viable, livable, extraordinary and great!

Please by all means abolish the Height Law and Build higher in DC!

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