By the end of the 19th century, that was starting to change. But the modern height limit wasn’t spurred by some towering bureaucratic edifice—it was a response to the 1894 construction of the 160-foot Cairo Hotel at 1615 Q St. NW. The Board of Commissioners that ran the District at the time was mightily disturbed by the soaring steel-framed structure. One issue was that the firehoses of the era couldn’t quench a blaze on the upper floors. Another would sound more familiar today: Its overshadowed neighbors were worrying about their property values.
The commissioners responded by limiting building heights at 90 feet on residential streets and 110 feet on commercial avenues. The regulations were reinforced by Congress in 1899, with permission for heights up to 130 feet on the broadest promenades—a number cribbed from Boston and Chicago’s safety-oriented limits at the time. The law was refined to its more-or-less final version in 1910. According to a 1976 legislative history of building height regulations done by the House Committee on the District of Columbia, safety was far and away the primary concern of lawmakers in their deliberations.
But even then, before modern skyscrapers began springing up around the country, the popular press was pushing an aesthetic argument, too. “It seems that these regulations are in line with the policy of making this city the handsomest in the world,” read a contemporary commentary in the Evening Star. “It has already obtained that enviable distinction, and it is believed that the tendency towards the erection of sky scrapers, if left unchecked, would mar rather than increase the beauty of the city.”
And so in one sense, the absolutists at the Committee of 100 are right: While aesthetic values didn’t factor into the actual passage of the regulations—and the height of the Capitol’s dome, contrary to popular myth, had absolutely nothing to do with it—they had their advocates from the act’s very inception. Over time, a low-slung conception of the nation’s capital became the act’s staunchest defense.
Some quibbled with the Height Act from its very inception, and several exemptions were obtained to get around the law. But broader opposition started to arise in the 1960s. In other cities around the country and around the globe, local restrictions were ditched as urban boosters sought to erect proud new monuments to their modernity. Locally, D.C. itself started to worry about losing businesses and residents to the suburbs. Aesthetes also disdained an unintended effect of the height limits on D.C.’s downtown—a proliferation of boxy buildings that architect Arthur Cotton Moore decried in a 1966 Washingtonian article as “short, fat, and sexless.” While elegant towers sprouted up in Chicago and New York, D.C. was doomed to build boring bureaucratic slabs.
In 1971, the D.C. Council completed an extensive review of building height regulations. Its conclusion: In order to “start a dramatic reversal of the continuing deterioration” of downtown Washington, height limits should be selectively raised to a maximum of 250 feet. Everybody got on board: Mayor Walter Washington, then-Del. Walter Fauntroy, the city’s Zoning Commission, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and a number of civic and industry groups supported the modifications. But the federal Commission on Fine Arts took strong exception. Chairman J. Carter Brown extolled the fact that President Washington’s “vision is unpolluted as yet by the pressures of economic greed,” and said the city’s proposal would allow “a few visible belches, towers allowed to spring up piggly-wiggly.” Bills offered in Congress fizzled before reaching a vote.
After that attempt, the issue died down for a few decades, perhaps because demand didn’t exist in downtrodden D.C. for much beyond the 12-story superblock. Meanwhile, construction of the Metrorail system ferried people efficiently between government jobs downtown and houses in the suburbs, and the city’s population dropped by 30 percent between 1950 and 2000.
Now, the debate crops up every few years, whenever some high-profile person—like architecture writer Witold Rybczynski or urbanist developer Christopher Leinberger—sees fit to launch a polemic one way or another. The discussion has become circular and wooden, and even worse, carries an air of futility. According to Truding, nobody has approached his boss in the last few years to try again with legislation that would relax the limits. Even the most vociferous advocates of allowing higher buildings offer little in the way of ideas for actually making it happen.
If Mayor Walter Washington thought it made sense to relax height limits back in 1971, it makes even more sense today. After decades of decline, the District is hot again, and it’s missing opportunities: At a time when capital and the demand exist to support controlled experiments with higher buildings—just look at the bulky new edifices planned for the Center Leg Freeway’s air rights, over Union Station’s rail yard, and even further up 14th Street NW—the 1910 law still sits there, entirely inert. The Office of Planning is again reviewing its zoning regulations. But to get a sense of how lame the conversation is, consider this: The most contentious question involves how to measure the height of a building that’s on top of a bridge. The organization is powerless to make more substantive alterations.
Why change now? There are three main arguments.