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.”
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 Simple: If the century-old rule were based on purely practical considerations that had gone out of date with the advent of sprinkler systems, its continued existence becomes difficult to defend.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.