Housing Complex

Shorter Height Act

Shortness is in the eye of the beholder. (Lydia DePillis)

Shortness is in the eye of the beholder. (Lydia DePillis)

Over the last few days, the news that D.C. office rents had finally surpassed New York's sent the blogosphere into another tizzy of recrimination about the economic and aesthetic costs of the 1910 Height Act, which caps buildings at a maximum height of 130 feet (and in most areas lower). Meanwhile, the Committee of 100 got together for a lecture on this very subject, where many venerable members expressed indignation that bloggers would impose their cost-benefit analyses on the beauty and grace of Federal Washington.

We've heard this all before—preservationist types have been parrying arguments against the Height Act for decades, including a 2006 manifesto by Michael Grunwald. In case you missed the fun, here's a quick recap of the latest Height Act round robin:

Shorter Yglesias: It's just supply and demand. People who like short buildings need to get over themselves.

Shorter Atrios: What Matt said. Medium-sized buildings are ugly and boring.

Shorter Committee of 100: If you can't build nice medium-sized buildings, you're just not being imaginative.

Shorter Malouff: The correct answer is somewhere in the middle!

Shorter Avent: The correct answer is not in the middle. The height limit dooms D.C. to remain a dull, homogenous company town.

Shorter GGW: Calm down everybody. We don't have to get in a fight with historic preservationists over the Height Act—there are plenty of places to build in density without needing to change the law.

My two cents, for what they're worth: There are definitely ways to add square footage without crowding out the sky, if that's what you care about. D.C.-type office tenants, by and large, don't want to be just anywhere in D.C.—they want to be downtown. It's entirely possible to create a very dense zone for them in the central business district without generating the "concrete canyon" effect the Committee of 100 fears; many buildings in Washington do a great job of setting their massing back from the street so that you can't even notice it from the sidewalk. Dan Malouff mentions exceptions: I would love to see a Zoning Commission and Historic Preservation Review Board empowered to make height exceptions for buildings of special architectural merit. That way, the Act could be used to incentivize creativity in architecture, rather than creativity in how much mass a builder can fit under that upper limit.

Now, about those streetcar wires...

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