Housing Complex

Should Money Buy You Height?

Mess with this, but carefully. (Darrow Montgomery)

Economics blogger Ryan Avent has a modest proposal for D.C.: In order to allow for more capacity in areas where there's demand for it, impose a one-time "floor tax" on all stories that a developer would like to build over the existing height limit. He's on the fence about whether to charge different rates in downtown, office-oriented districts vs. more residential areas, but the principle remains the same.

We're on the same page about the need to allow taller buildings, but I'm going to go ahead and disagree with this idea that it's enough to simply accept as much cash as a developer wants to pay in order to build higher, which is a very dismally scientific way of looking at how the city ought to be shaped. As much as I think the argument about a building being "out of scale" with its surroundings is overplayed, the city should make these kinds of planning decisions intentionally–if we decide that it's okay for buildings to be higher in a given area, then there shouldn't be a financial disincentive to take advantage of the new rules.

Avent's proposal is akin to Ed Glaeser's idea that we should get rid of zoning restrictions and just allow developers to pay whatever we deem the public cost to be. The thing is, governments make rules in order to achieve ends that can't be achieved financially. If you believe in a "human-scaled" city, then the wealthy shouldn't be able to undermine it. If you don't, then everybody should be able to build as they see fit. (I happen to believe in something in between).

Instead of cash payments, I'd rather see height exceptions granted for excellent architecture, as the Zoning Commission is likely to do for Burnham Place (though buildings will still not be able to breach the 130-foot height limit). That way we can use rules to achieve a more beautiful city and a more competitive one at the same time. Under Avent's plan, I can imagine developers spending money they might have otherwise put into great architecture on just adding a few more stories–which would just be a lost opportunity.

  • Ben

    I thought buildings with "exceptional architecture" *could* breach the 130 foot limit? Couldn't they go to 150'? I thought that was how the Franklin Park development got approved.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    No, not buildings - only certain elements of buildings - spires, roofs, accent pieces - as well as mechanical penthouses and other more mundane things. The law prohibits adding inhabited floors above the height limit.

  • Rick Mangus


  • Mario

    Hell no!!! The city's infrastructure can barely support the residents we have now. DC, with it's narrow neighborhood sidewalks and many 1 traffic lane, one way streets cannot take many more folks without becoming a completely congested nightmare. Chances are, buildings getting a height restriction exemption would be in already heavily populated/built-up areas, thus causing even more congestion. If you want to do it in Friendship Heights of Takoma Park, go for it. But not it in the CBD or close-to-downtown areas.

  • ADP

    Heck, yes, everyone, let's just let the market tell us what should be built. Junk the height limit and most zoning and let developers put up what they feel they need to. And we might get some exceptional skyscraper architecture, too. Think of what we're missing out on.

    Welcome to Houston.

  • crin

    I agree. The rich should be able to get whatever they want as long as the price is so high the less rich can't get it for themselves. Egalitarianism is for losers like our Founding Fathers.

    And by the by, what are the current vacancy rates?

  • RDed

    Shouldn't we demand great architecture from all projects regardless of height? Why do we have to provide incentives for good design? It should be the norm.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    since architecture is in part aesthetics, some people's excellent architecture is other people's s***. This is an issue that is ultimately insolvable.

    The issue with developers is that it is all about monetization of value. (What the Marxists call valorization.) Only if the "thing" whatever it is is done in a way where the marginal return is positive do developers want to do it.

    I happen to favor breaking the height limit strictly for economic reasons. The limit on supply crowds out lesser value activities such as retail or innovative ventures (which need low rent at the start) or organizations and activities like nonprofit organizations, shoe repair, etc., that are unable to pay the highest rents.

    Similarly, the lack of supply for industrial land and the lack of restrictions on commercial and nonprofit use of that land means that non-industrial users can outbid industrial users, who have to bid economically viable rents supported by their business revenue.

    I agree with the commenter that all developers should be expected to develop projects with high architecture values (despite the aesthetics issue). It's why I favor design guidelines and review procedures for the entire city.