Housing Complex

Buried Height Act Economic Analysis Revealed!

A really grainy sketch of how high buildings could go.

In this whole circular, somewhat academic debate over building heights, people keep referring to a 2007 Washington Post article about a city-sponsored 2003 study on the economic impacts of the Height Act. Paul Schwartzman reported:

City officials have broached the subject, although carefully. In 2003, the administration of then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) commissioned a study that concluded that the District could generate an additional $10 billion in tax revenue over 20 years if it raised the height limit to 160 feet.

But Williams's advisers, already pushing an ambitious development agenda that included a new baseball stadium, did not publicize the results. "It's a hot-button issue in the District, and you have to choose your battles," said Eric Price, then the deputy mayor for economic development.

This kind of made me want to see the study, and Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning was kind enough to send over a grainy scan. She cautioned that the numbers would now be out of date, however, and also that the authors failed to take into account what development might be lost if height restrictions were lifted in the most desirable parts of the city.

“There’s not an unlimited quantity of people who want to be here,” Tregoning said. “So if you were to satiate that demand with a tower, you wouldn't get development that you were expecting in another location…We need that demand to begin to revitalize and catalyze development in a much larger geography, and I think that would be greatly impacted by changing the height limit in a few different places.”

The study, by Jair Lynch Companies and Einhorn Yaffe Prescott, looked at scenarios with heights in high-density commercially-zoned areas raised to 90 feet, 110 feet, and 160 feet, using maximum possible lot occupancy. The highest scenario, assuming all commercial office space, would:

  • Allow for 93 million more square feet of gross floor area
  • Cost $18.7 billion to bring to market
  • Create 209,000 construction jobs
  • Draw $2.4 billion per year in rents
  • Support 662,000 office workers
  • Generate $2.4 billion per year in retail goods and services
  • And $888.9 million in annual tax revenue

It’s all a big math problem, with even bigger assumptions. And I can see, from the city’s perspective, how publicizing it might not have been worth the headache.

But a fun thought experiment nonetheless.

Comments

  1. #1

    Umm, I take Lynch's point but she's not making sense. Just because demand isn't unlimited does not mean that it isn't greater than current supply. It's clear to anyone who works in downtown DC that there is greater demand than supply to be located there--same true in other neighborhoods. If we can respond to that demand by increasing some supply (i.e. increase hight limits), then we don't end up with *unlimited* growth in the district, but we do end up increasing density and things that come along with that (jobs, tax revenue, increased burden on city services, etc.)

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