Plus, tall buildings need not be just anonymous, glassy shafts that are the same in every city: What if additional height were granted on a competitive basis, and awarded for the best design? When you stop thinking about height in terms of letting greedy developers pack more profit onto their land, and instead in terms of creating leverage to hold them to a higher standard, the aesthetic argument gets flipped on its head.
Part of the problem with the Height Act debate thus far is that it’s lacked a real sense of what the city would actually start to look like under revamped regulations. The discussion is ridden with the depiction of “concrete canyons” that will shut out all light from the sidewalk, and skyscrapers that will defile our national symbols. That’s absurd.
The only realistic way to change D.C.’s height limitations is as part of a strategic, comprehensive planning process that allows for higher development where it makes most sense: Downtown, around Metro stations, along the waterfront, and where wide inbound streets cross the District line and are bordered by much taller buildings, like the spot where Georgia Avenue crosses into Silver Spring. A few towers on the edge of Rock Creek Park would be tremendously valuable, and impede nobody’s view. Large residential buildings bordering Pennsylvania Avenue SE would add grandeur to that largely empty promenade.
Builders would take these opportunities, but slowly. Much of the time, their plans would still go through multiple layers of development review to ensure compatibility with their surroundings and allow for public input. Just look at Paris, which Thomas Jefferson so admired: Its city council just passed legislation that will allow commercial buildings up to 590 feet in the city’s 13th Arrondissement, while protecting the character of its other historic neighborhoods.
But guess what? You can’t do that kind of fine-tuning from a federal body. The House and the Senate aren’t involved in any other city’s land-use decisions, for good reason: They’re no good at it. D.C.’s own elected government is perfectly capable of making development decisions, and much better equipped to do so in collaboration with residents.
In defense of Congress’ continuing hegemony, over and over again, we hear from the Committee of 100 that Washington isn’t like other cities, it’s the nation’s capital. Fine. But how does it follow that said capital, in contrast to other growing cities, must remain a turn-of-the-century village in perpetuity? There is no sinister smart-growth agenda to transform D.C. into Manhattan overnight. Washington can still be Washington—it’s just that more people should be allowed to enjoy it.