First, consider commercial space. Here, D.C. has a natural advantage over suburban locales, because of its proximity to an increasingly active federal government. Although the District isn’t a financial center, incoming Mayor Vince Gray has expressed a desire to turn it into one, by creating a special tax district akin to those in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. The point: Astronomic office rents are a testament to the fact that downtown is full to bursting. While allowing developers to build a few towers wouldn’t necessarily make a dent in those prices, it would allow the District to capitalize on the presence of new business (and compete with the suburbs by building the high ceilings that both office users and retailers increasingly want). The Office of Planning’s director, Harriet Tregoning—no Committee of 100 favorite—worries that raising the height limits might weaken interest in other areas around the city that cry out for investment. But isn’t it also possible that the ability to build a tall building to anchor a commercial zone in those districts might prove as attractive?
Next, residential character—ironically, one of the reasons preservations love to cite for maintaining the height rules. It’s obvious that we have a supply problem when it comes to housing: Residential prices, still stagnant in much of the country, continue to rise precipitously in D.C., which risks turning into a wealthy enclave as the proportion of units subject to rent control grows smaller and smaller. The best way to solve that problem is to create a variety of different kinds of new places for people to live.
Many argue that ample opportunities currently exist to add density, and that’s true: Walking around D.C., you’ll still see a fair number of empty lots and ramshackle houses that could be knocked down and rebuilt to fill the zoning envelope. But new buildings aren’t like water, simply flowing to low points and collecting there. Sometimes the buildable capacity on a given piece of land isn’t worth the price it would take to consolidate several parcels. Moreover, historic districts already place much of the city off-limits to large-scale development. It makes much more sense from a developer’s perspective to build a tall building where it’s financially feasible and where more people want to live, like around a Metrorail station. An empty lot in Shepherd Park may just never be an attractive enough prospect for anything higher than a single family home.
Right now, highly desirable areas—or ones that have the right ingredients for vibrance, but just lack the residential density to bring them to life—must be developed very densely from a horizontal perspective. In NoMa, that’s inadvertently led to a dearth of park space, since all the land has been taken up by 12-story glass blocks. The same tension is evident in the planning of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site redevelopment on North Capitol Street near the Washington Hospital Center: Residents want more park space, but developers need to build more square footage to make it worth their while—and the whole area needs a huge infusion of new people in order to support the kind of retail the neighborhood would like to see. The pattern will eventually repeat itself in Hill East and Poplar Point.
Now imagine if the city had been allowed to grant developers in NoMa or on North Capitol more height in exchange for keeping some land clear for grass and trees? Urban parks surrounded by tall buildings, like New York City’s Gramercy Park, can feel cozy and safe—and be a huge factor in drawing people to the neighborhood.
Finally, since opponents of raising height limits rest most of their arguments on aesthetics, let’s talk about that.
From a structural standpoint, D.C.’s height limits have given rise to immense creativity. Our buildings have some of the deepest parking garages in America, for example, and quite a bit of engineering has gone into squishing heating and cooling systems into the smallest amount of space so that more floors can be packed under the height caps. And sure, it’s not impossible to build handsome short buildings.
But if there are architecturally innovative buildings in D.C., it’s in spite of the Height Act, not because of it. More often than not, developers demand as much square footage on a site as the zoning will allow, leaving the wistful architect with only façade design to play with. The variety in height and form in the rowhouses of Mount Vernon Square, Georgetown, and Dupont Circle, is a tremendous asset to those neighborhoods. Allowing it on a larger scale in other neighborhoods and commercial districts would make for a much more architecturally exciting environment.