Housing Complex

Gray Wants to Boost Height Limits East of the River

Poplar Point could use some height.

Because of the Current Newspapers' obstinate refusal to put their content online, I missed this April 20th report regarding something Mayor Vince Gray told a group of entrepreneurs at the end of March:

Mayor Vincent Gray plans to explore the idea of eliminating or moderating the limitation on building heights in parts of wards 7 and 8. The goal would be to entice companies needing large spaces to locate in the District, he told a group of entrepreneurs recently.

After a March 29 meeting with the D.C. chapter of the Indus Entrepreneurs, Gray said the purpose of the citywide height limitation “would not be violated” by the change, because it “would not affect the monuments on the Mall.” He said he would ask the attorney general to look into the issue.

The Current followed up with Kate Carr, the group’s co-chair and president of Cardinal Bank in D.C. and Maryland:

“In order to attract major banking and financial companies to the District, we discussed the fact that the height restriction limits the ability for any large governmental or nongovernmental organization to be headquartered here,” Carr said in an interview. “We felt that increasing the density in an area of the city that needs true development and stimulation–wards 7 and 8–would incentivize development,” Carr said.

As Gray should know, the Height Act doesn't just apply to areas where tall buildings might affect monumental views–it's just as strong east of the river as it is downtown. But he may be correct that Congress could be more willing to consider legislation that would boost height limits east of the river, where most of them have probably never set foot anyway. If, as Carr later suggests, that were combined with a targeted reduction in the corporate tax rate, areas like Poplar Point could be hugely attractive. And ironically, the mental and physical divide created by the Anacostia could work to ward 7 and 8's advantage, for once.


  • Skipper

    He also said during the campaign he planned to explore the idea of making DC an international financial insurance hub. And then dropped that right after the election.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    This is a good idea, but needs more fleshing out.

    Adding height and density is one thing, but I don't think you can just willy-nilly attack the height limit in one area but not others.

    Also, let's not forget that Poplar Point might make a good location for high rise development, but it won't be a substitute for downtown, just like Rosslyn isn't a true substitute for downtown.

    Nevertheless, there are lots of good precedents for this. Canary Wharf in London comes to mind - though I'd note that all the development in East London was structured around massive investments in the Docklands Light Railway and the extension of the Jubilee Line.

  • RobShaw

    This would be a perfect opportunity for so-called smart growth. What I mean is mixed used development along a multi-nodal model. In that respect, it wouldn't be a "downtown" in the traditional sense but several mini-downtowns would certainly cut down commuting costs and times, in addition to creating investment and development opportunities elsewhere. On a different note, I would if anybody is going to make the argument that this (a multi-nodal network) would reinforce ghetto-ization?

  • Rusty

    I'm with a project consultancy and have to say honestly that raising the height limit east of the river would not be that interesting to us. Maybe you could build tall and get the GSA to go over there, but no one will be that interested in mixed-use, certainly not anything upscale. Maybe a decade out, who knows? Now, downtown and anywhere along the Connecticut and Wisconsin corridors is a very different story. It's much easier to market upscale residential and retail in NW. Buyers would clamor to be around Cleveland Park and Woodley, but there would need to be some real political pressure to upsize the zoning there. A higher height limit from Glover Park to Friendship Heights would be very attractive, including for offices, because of the city views and location on the MoCo to downtown corridor.

  • Karl

    This might provide job opportunities for the high percentage of unemployed individuals in Wards 7 and 8. It would lead to de-ghettoization when the cost of living in high rise units becomes prohibitive for current residents because the property tax base would change. Do smart growth advocates think about that reality when they promote TOD and increased height and density? Seems like a prescription for destabilization of neighborhoods to me. Where do the displaced go or isn't that a concern?

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    !!! Say whaaaaaaa?! Looks like someone's been reading Housing Complex!

    This could be very interesting, though if it actually works I fear that it might work a little too well for its own good – when longterm residents start getting priced out en masse, there'll be some sort of backlash. Affordable housing mandates can only go so far...

    ...that is, if he goes through with it. Huge if.

  • http://dcbac.blogspot.com Randall M.

    As Alex B. said, the proposal needs more fleshing out but I think the idea could promote serious growth in the area. Increasing the homestead deduction for those who live in the immediate area could be a way to preserve the tax rates for long-term residents. Also, a real honest-to-goodness community benefits fund paid for by developer would help support job training and other programs that could raise the educational and economic status of current residents.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    Also, a real honest-to-goodness community benefits fund paid for by developer would help support job training and other programs that could raise the educational and economic status of current residents.

    Would this really help? Jobs training programs are a nice talking point but from what I understand have a very spotty track record. And if we're talking about improving the public schools, then it should be obvious to all by now that what they need is competent leadership and and someone who's willing to stand up to the unions, not more money.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    What the schools really need is to be good enough that the middle class students return. The schools cannot succeed as concentrations of poverty. Once you're able to reintroduce the middle class to the school system, the benefits will follow. And yes, that does require competent leadership.

    Regarding heights, I still want to see how they plan to do this, how they plan to get Congress to agree. That's what I'm curious about - it doesn't really matter if Gray wants to do it. What matters is who he can convince.

  • Paul

    Gray has no follow through on big game changing items like this. First he'll talk the talk and relate it back to EOTR job creation. Then he'll just throw money at a study so he can then call the study one of his accomplishments. Even if he is able to earn a second term he will never truly accomplish anything on this matter.

  • Hillman

    "It would lead to de-ghettoization when the cost of living in high rise units becomes prohibitive for current residents because the property tax base would change. Do smart growth advocates think about that reality when they promote TOD and increased height and density? Seems like a prescription for destabilization of neighborhoods to me. Where do the displaced go or isn't that a concern?"

    The idea that rising property taxes kicks poor people out of their homes in DC is a myth.

    There are roughly one jillion programs in place in DC to prevent that from happening. Including one that literally delays all property tax increases until the homeowner dies or the property is sold.

    So can we quit with that myth already?

    As for the 'displaced', you are aware that the considerable majority of the immediate area is nothing but affordable housing, right? It's not like there aren't other blocks they could move to.

  • Wills

    Any such consideration of raising the height limit in this part of town must take into account efforts to reclaim DC's water front properties. I worry that an across-the board increase in the height limit there would result in massive buildings blocking the waterfront for the rest of the EOTR community. Perhaps such consideration would also determine distance from the Anacostia and natural or viewpoint sight-lines?

    P.S. Multi-Nodal is definitely the way to go for any city, but esp. in one so spoke-and-hub focused as DC.

  • SEis4ME

    @Stephen, if "unions" were really the issue then those states w/o them would be in the top list of schools. I don't think there is much evidence to suggest otherwise.

    I think boosting the height limit is a good idea but as w/all first introductions, I’m sure it will be tweaked.

    @Hillman, I agree that there is are many available programs. However, the reality is that they are largely unknown and it is the reality that most of us live in – however distorted it may be. There are a jillion myths about blacks. That does not stop many (including blacks) from repeating them.

    Affordable to Hillman is not the same as affordable to others. Heck, affordable to Hillman is not even necessarily affordable to SEis4ME. So let’s not be so callous about what someone can/can’t afford.

  • Hillman

    If someone is too stupid or lazy to educate themselves and take advantage of the many government programs available to them, I have trouble mustering up much sympathy for them.

  • SEis4ME

    @Hillman, I don't think asking for your sympathy was ever an option on the table. So no point in having "trouble" doing what you were never asked.

    There are a thousands of government programs available to all people of all income and class levels and most of us, including you, are completely unaware. Being lazy or stupid has little to do with it.

    Your position makes it all about you which is why I imagined you felt that someone..anyone asked you to be sympathetic. Not about you dude. Not about you.

  • Hillman

    Actually, it's about all DC residents. Including those of us that are paying the taxes. And that would include guys like me.

    I should clarify a bit. I do have some sympathy for the stupid. But the vast majority of not knowing about DC programs is sheer laziness. Honestly. Does anyone in DC not think there are programs out there to avoid the evils of 'gentrification'? How hard is it to make a couple of phone calls?

    As for callous..... I'm all for affordable workplace housing. Absolutely.

    Not that it's relevant, but my own parents received public welfare assistance. But they didn't make it a lifestyle. They used it as a temporary bridge when they really needed help, and even then they were both working as hard as they could to raise us kids responsibly and to be productive members of society.

    But so much of our 'affordable housing' is geared toward the nonworking who could be working.

    And that I have become a bit sick of funding indefinitely.

    Particularly when it's defenders constantly cry 'displacement' and 'rising property taxes' and the other easily disproven canards of the day.

  • SEis4ME

    Hillman, so what you're saying is that you are aware of every available DC program that could benefit you?

    Your parent's station in life is completely irrelevant. Completely. The target was affordable housing. I don't know what your parents being on welfare had to do with that. That is unless you equate affordable housing with welfare. If so, that's an even larger problem to digest. Not sure how you made it (once again) about you.

    For some, 250k-300k is an "affordable" housing option. I don't see how that caters towards those who don't work. The gov't does not provide subsidies that will help to offset someone unemployed purchasing a 300k home.

    In cases where they do, you must income qualify for the part you're personally responsible for paying and I'm not sure how you income qualify when you're unemployed.

    BTW, I'm sick of funding schools that underperform and bike lanes/dog parks that I don't use. We can all sit back and complain about how we want our tax dollars diverted.

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    Many smart-growth advocates have been consumed with the problem of maintaining housing affordability and reducing displacement, and there's a whole library of policy tools out there -- inclusionary housing, property tax freezes, and (my favorite) the community land trust -- available to address the problem. Whether or not displacement is truly as big of a problem as it's made out to be, or whether or not jobs created via such a strategy are ones that could help the local community, are other questions entirely.

    I do wonder about whether such incentives would have an appreciable effect on the market, though. Upzoning in NoMa seems to have worked to some extent, but at Navy Yard the jury's still out on whether "build it and they will come" really works even in a market as tight as DC Class A offices. As Rusty points out, the favored quarter (where the executives who run these offices will tend to live) is W-NW of the city, which explains why so many corporate offices are in Tysons, Bethesda, and maybe Arlington. It will take a lot of work to get executives to commute from Potomac to Poplar Point. It has indeed been done; Alex mentions Canary Wharf, which is definitely on the "wrong" side of London, but also Midtown Manhattan and Chicago's Loop both shifted west over the years partly in response to government intervention.

    @Wills: Keep in mind that the Anacostia waterfront is well below the neighborhoods east of the river, since the neighborhoods sit above the bluffs. The hill is something like 200' in many places, so you could hide the first 15 stories of a building below the hill without affecting anyone's view.

    @Stephen Smith: Worker re-training is a nice catchphrase but it covers a lot of ground. There are places that appear to do a great job of it (say, Denmark and Singapore, and I hear a lot about the hotel union in Vegas), and others that don't.

  • Hillman

    Affordable housing programs are paid for with tax dollars.

    So by definition that's a form of welfare. Just like public housing, cotton subsidies, and I'd even argue most of our military spending.

    Since even basic requests for accountability in affordable housing programs is almost always met with the 'you must hate poor people' canard, my own circumstance is absolutely relevant.

    As for educating myself to DC programs that can help me, I guarantee you I could do so quite easily. Probably in less than a week. Particularly if my home were at stake.

    And, again, as long as we are talking about my tax dollars, which we are, it is at least partially about me. And about every other similarly situated DC taxpayer.

    The original post was talking about 'displacement'. By definition to be displaced you must be in the affected area already.

    And a good many in the areas East of the River are in fact on welfare. And they don't work.

    Just like a good many East of the River work their butts off, and struggle to be decent citizens in a challenging environment.

    Ironically, a large part of their struggle is because of the selfishness of the nonworking-by-choice.

    Much of the 'displacement' we are talking about would be of public housing and Section 8 residents.

    As for being sick of funding schools that don't work, I'm with you there. 100%

    But for bike lanes and dog parks, you lose me on that one. Those are amenities that draw people to the city, and that creates tax dollars for the city. Whether you use the amenities or not.

    And those very tax dollars are the ones that pay for things like affordable housing programs.

  • Silent Conspirator

    Going to have to agree with Hillman on ALL his points. He hit the nail on the head and his thoughts are shared by Ward 8 residents across the spectrum. What might have started out as a "bridge" to better times has become a lifestyle for too many. A significant (not all) portion of the welfare population feels they are entitled to those benefits, it has become part of their compensation package. Some (those who choose not to work) have literally been grandfathered into the cycle of "entitlements." That's not to say that some people do not need short-term help (and they should get it!) but we have a serious problem of people taking advantage of the system, of people expanding their families just for the benefits. It's no longer "family falls on hard times and gets on welfare until they can get back on their feet." It has become, "get on welfare, make no plans to get off of it, and start a family in the process." I don't care how sympathetic you are, if someone has been on welfare for 6+ years and they choose to have multiple children while on welfare, you have to ask yourself, " how serious are they about joining the workforce?"

    We need to ask ourselves,"What inspires a young person to get an education and get good job when no one in the immediate or extended family works? Why should you work for a paycheck when everyone you know has an EBT card? How would young men know how (or why) to provide for a family when daddy wasn't there and when the government has been providing the food, shelter, healthcare, clothes, etc. necessary for survival? When did it become okay for diaper bags to outnumber backpacks?

    Why work for a dollar when the government will give you two for sitting at home?

    People keep saying "jobs" but the real issue is "job readiness." How ready can you be for a job when you have tattoos on your face, neck, and hands? Who is going to hire you? How ready can you be when you don't go to school and can't read?

    The VERY unfortunate reality is that in order to improve the situation in Ward 8 (for everyone including those aforementioned) we would have to acknowledge the reality of the situation PUBLICLY so we could help people meaningfully and for the long-term and that just is not going to happen lest we be labeled a big bad "gentrifier" or "hater of the poor" or whatever "anti" word Barry is throwing around these days.

    It's big business (and politics) to support the "under class."

    Something I have noticed living in Ward 8. People will move here and will have the best of intentions with his very liberal idea of things and "helping poor people" and then a few years later, after living here and seeing how NOT effective most of these entitlement programs are (over the long term anyway) they become hard-core conservatives. They see the reality of the situation up close and personal and it's not warm and fuzzy. They see it, they realize it, but again they keep their lips sealed less they be run out of town on a rail for daring to say anything different than the party line.

    Throwing money and programs at the problem is not the answer. It may make middle-class whites feel less guilty but at the cost of crippling low-income blacks by treating them like infants.

    Historically, the black community has always risen to the occasion, why set the bar so low now?

    We can do this...if you give us a reason to.