Housing Complex

Say What About the Height Limit?

On Friday, Vince Gray continued his march into the world of modern communications with a live chat over at the Washington Post, which is supposed to become a regular thing. At the very end, some blessed soul asked:

Are there any plans to raise building heights to capture a larger tax base and to take advantage of more mixed use and transit oriented development?

To which Gray responded:

In the aftermath of a recent conversation, we checked to determine if the height standards could be changed anywhere in the city. We confirmed that the Federal government would have to change the height standards. However, we will continue to explore ways of making these changes where appropriate.

Of course, while overall height is capped by the Height Act, it's kept lower in some places by zoning standards. Gray seems willing to push on those, so perhaps we'll get a little closer to what we're allowed by federal law.

  • JM

    Ugh... can someone explain to me why the sudden push to turn DC into Crystal City? What exactly is wrong with an urban landscape with predominately mid-rise structures like (for example) Paris?

  • samantha

    JM, the WAPO and the NY Newbies want DC to look like and stink like the rotten apple!How many of the non journalistic editorial board at WAPO are NY REJECTS? Case Closed !GOD BLESS KAPLAN !

  • Eric

    You mention Paris as an example of what's desirable, and I think that is closer to what Major Gray is referring to. DC can't raise the overall height limit without the federal government doing it, but it can change the height limit where it's currently very low, e.g., changing zoning laws that currently allow 25 feet to allow 50 feet. Nearly all buildings in Paris are about 6 stories tall, but much of DC is limited to only a few stories by zoning laws. If we made the change Mayor Gray is referring to, we would actually be much more like Paris. No one wants to make DC Manhattan, but if Paris is what you want, this is the sort of change you would want to support.

  • Alex
  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Why do people bring up Crystal City?

    Crystal City is the way it is because of the modernist building plans, not because of building heights.

    A taller DC wouldn't look like Crystal City, it would look like DC already does - just stretched a little bit in the vertical direction. Taller buildings won't mean DC will suddenly demolish all street level retail and banish pedestrians to underground tunnels.

  • drez

    The part of DC that is limited to just a few stories is almost if not all located in neighborhoods and made up of historic housing stock, AKA "Neighborhood Preservation Areas" in the Comp Plan.
    If you want to raise the height limit in those, best get ready for the NIMBY fight of the century.

  • Chris

    Dead on Eric. Hate to break it to folks but DT DC already looks a lot more like Crystal City than Paris. Mostly 10-12 midrise office buildings with little street life on the weekends.

    Just got back from a week in Europe. The whole continent is full of dense vibrant cities jam packed with 5-6-story walk up apartments. Lots of street life, lots of ammenities to walk to. By contrast, the vast majority of DC's residential neighborhoods feel like quiet small towns. Not a bad thing, but nothing like a grand European capital city.

  • Paul

    If you don't feel that Crystal City in an apt comp what about Ballston? Ballston doesn't have the modernist buildings or the underground tunnels of Crystal City. But it still in inferior to downtown D.C. in terms of vitality and the pedestrian experience.

  • JM

    @Chris, Eric - the vibrancy of Paris (or other European cities) comes not from the height of the buildings, but from residential, commercial, and retail uses being mixed at a fine grain. This is why Dupont, Logan, Georgetown and a few other parts of DC have the right "feel". If you increase the height limit in DC you will simply get taller office buildings downtown, and taller condos along the avenues.

    There are two big issues that need to be addressed to increase DC's vibrancy. First, you need to lure residential land use downtown, or (maybe better) just give up on the idea and let our financial district exist apart from the "city". This isn't so different from cities like San Francisco and New York - lower Manhanttan and Montgomery St (SF) are pretty bleak after dark.

    The second issue is luring retail to the new "condo gulches" around metro stations. Note that Georgetown, Dupont, etc manage to have vibrant retail & entertainment without tall buildings. In fact the densest residential development in DC is around 14th & U and Columbia Heights, which are also plagued by empty storefronts. Sadly the issue here (IMHO) is demographic. On paper there are simply too many low-income residents and high crime to attract either national or local retailers. Again, building heights have nothing to do with the solution.

    @Alex - Great - you posted a picture of the southern (or western?) suburbs of Paris. The analogy with Crystal City is almost perfect. Now... how many people want to visit, play, or live in those sterile high-rise suburbs? Yes, it's partly a matter of modernist design tendencies. But without height limits you'd get the same boring K-Street architecture in DC, just taller.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    You're right, Ballston isn't great, either.

    What's the difference between Ballston and Crystal City when compared to DC? Urban design.

    DC has very specific requirements that ensure buildings are built right to the edge of the property line. This ensures a solid streetwall (ideally with active ground floor uses like retail) that frames the sidewalk. The buildings in DC frame the public spaces and define them, whether you're in old areas like Georgetown or Capitol Hill, or more recently developed areas like Columbia Heights or the parts of downtown that have been extensively redeveloped.

    Crystal City, and to a lesser extent Ballston do not do this. Their tall buildings are oriented in all sorts of haphazard ways, but they rarely form a coherent streetwall that is a key element of a pleasant pedestrian experience. In DC, there's a rhythm to the solids and voids of cityscape, and that rhythm matches that of DC's street grid. That's not the case in Ballston because of awkward plazas and/or buildings that do not orient themselves to the street.

    Arlington County gets this, however. Ballston's newer buildings are much better at orienting themselves to the street. The plan for Crystal City's redevelopment should do a great deal to remedy that area's issues - the first steps along Crystal Drive have active storefronts that face the street and bring the streetwall to the sidewalk, rather than just having the old modernist 'towers in the park' design.

  • Eric

    By mentioning Dupont, Logan, and Georgetown you are only bolstering my argument. Dupont and Logan are two of the tallest and densest neighborhoods in the city. Georgetown is the only exception here but most of its vibrancy is due to non-resident shoppers.
    DC needs to be denser and more mixed use if you want more vibrancy. It's hard to be more dense and mixed use with with 2-story single family homes and very low limits on building heights in commercial areas outside of downtown. Additionally, comparisons to Crystal City (or even Ballston) are a little ridiculous because, like many have already pointed out, the problem there is poor urban design not tall buildings.

  • JM


    Well we may be in violent agreement on some of this! I certainly agree that most metro stations shouldn't be surrounded by 2-story rowhouses. 4-6 story buildings usually seem about right to me, and that's what Dupont, Logan, etc already have. But as you point out we can do this easily by changing local zoning, not just getting rid of the city-wide height limits. I'm concerned that getting rid of all height limits would just give us taller sterile office blocks downtown, which wouldn't help anyone (except the lobbyists).

  • Eric

    JM, I think you're right that we're in agreement. I also think that Mayor Gray agrees because nothing in his statements indicates he wants to remove city-wide limits. I don't think anyone wants that.