Housing Complex

On Height Limits, It’s Time For a Plan

Mayor Vince Gray's mention of his support for raising height limits east of the Anacostia seems to have touched a nerve: Even NewsChannel8 got interested in the subject (yeah yeah, my quote's nonsensical and they repeat the myth that building height limits were instituted to preserve monumental views, but it's T.V.).

The depressing thing: The city's been talking about this for years now. In 2008, then-city administrator Neil Albert said it was a good idea too:

The Fenty administration, Albert said, hopes to prod developers to invest east of the Anacostia River, where he said historic areas such as Anacostia, Deanwood and Congress Heights are ripe for what has been built downtown: a dense mix of residential, commercial and retail.

But to achieve that vision, Albert said, the District probably will have to reconsider one of its main tools for controlling development: a height-limit law that bars virtually all city buildings more than 130 feet. Lifting the cap in areas east of the Anacostia River, he said, could mean taller buildings and the chance to create the kind of population density necessary to attract retailers and create thriving neighborhoods.

"There's nothing that would develop Poplar Point faster than if investors saw it as a place to build high-rise offices," he said. "We hear a growing drumbeat from planners and developers that it's the right thing to do."

So I'm not getting excited about this again until I see a bill in Congress. One way to do it: Wrap together a package that statehood groups, the city's business leaders, smart growth types, and social services advocates could all get behind. Throw in things like budget autonomy, the idea of making D.C. into a hub for insurance companies, and anything else that can gain broad support within the city. In other words, instead of narrow constituencies pushing their own priorities with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, build a coalition to that can mutually support a basket of pressing needs to help the city grow.

  • Anon

    Lydia - I find your constant support for increasing the height limits extremely frustrating. This is not a good idea. We should preserve the vistas we have, many people live here particularly because it feels much more open and comfortable than tons of skyscrapers and never being able to see the horizon.

    Just because you think its good for your sector and friends, meaning developers, realtors, and others - doesnt mean its the right thing for the city. We are building plenty of buildings thoughout the city, and we are not even CLOSE to reaching capacity.

    There have been blocks and blocks of beautiful buildings destroyed in the name of development, if we did away with the height limit, soon, there would be none of the original character of old Washington.

    Please stop using your bully pulpit to campaign for something that is destructive and most of Washington doesnt want.

  • John

    Anonb: Uh, long time resident and I'm totally for the idea. Please stop using your "comments bully pulpit" to pretend to speak for "most of us".

  • Bob

    @Anon

    I too disagree with you. The height limit needs to go.

    Blocks and blocks of ugly square buildings have been built because developers must squeeze every possible square inch of rentable space out of their plots of land. Removing the height limit will allow for better flexibility in aesthetic design to create a more architecturally interesting city.

  • Hillman

    I agree with Bob about the ugly square short buildings that dot DC because of the height ceilings. When you must use every square inch of the lot you end up with ugly squat square boxes with no visual interest. Witness so much of downtown DC.

  • Ktriarch

    @ Hillman

    "witness so much of downtown DC."

    And so much of Paris

    On the other hand, we have Rosslyn. Now there's a paragon of urban beauty and vitality.

    Point being that height limits don't necessarily result in boring buildings and lack of urban vitality any more than tall buildings result in great architecture and exciting cities.

  • DesignNut

    I'm never comfortable walking around in mid-town Manhattan, the poster child cityscape for towering skyscrapers - it feels a bit too dense. But the buildings do look great as you're coming into the city from the other side of the river. I've also stayed in high rise hotels in New York which offer disappointing views of other buildings. Maybe tall buildings are most appreciated by people far enough away to actually see them.

  • Anon

    Funny how a non-native journalist is so hung up on ending her surrogate city's tradition of height limits.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    There's something weird about saying a person's opinion doesn't count unless they were born in a city. I mean, theoretically wouldn't someone who actively chose to live in a city be more interested in the place than someone who lives there based on accident of birth?

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com IMGoph

    Who the heck is this whiny anonymous person who conflates the height-limit debate with the 'native washingtonian' canard? Please, keep your tinfoil hats separate, please.

  • Bob See

    Yes, the height limit resulted in squat, maxed out boxes. Downtown. Relaxing the height limit across the river or in other outlying areas isn't going to have any effect on that. Those areas are far from maxed out even within the present height restrictions. Raise the height limit across the river but maintain the street r.o.w. width and we'll end up with another Rosslyn.

  • First Anon

    I am not the second Anon, but I did post the first comments.

    A lot of the ugly architecture isnt due to the height restrictions, its a result of the time period in which these buildings were built.

    If you think shorter buildings = ugly, take a look at Paris... or Capitol Hill, or Ledroit Park, or Georgetown, or Bloomingdale, or Logan Circle.

    All of which would be at risk once we start building higher buildings.

    If you dont like an ugly k street office building, buy it and redo it - but dont act like you dont want to do it because it would still be short. If you want a tall building go anywhere else in the area, or country, that doesnt have the same restrictions.

  • Ktriarch

    @ DesignNut

    "I'm never comfortable walking around in mid-town Manhattan, the poster child cityscape for towering skyscrapers - it feels a bit too dense. But the buildings do look great as you're coming into the city from the other side of the river... "

    This raises the question I've never been able to get a satisfactory answer to. Do folks in favor of raising the height limit think we need a more exciting skyline as seen from Virginia, or do they think that taller buildings will make for a better city for folks here in the District.

    If it's the first, I disagree because I think the Washington Monument and the Capitol ought to remain the most prominent buildings in the capital city skyline.

    If it's the second, I'm not convinced by the evidence. Tall buildings alone do not make for a dynamic urban environment. If they did, we wouldn't be making snide comments about Rosslyn. Neither does density. The C-4 and C-5 zones in downtown DC allow maximum densities of FAR 10 and 12, respectively. The only other place in the region with that level of density is a two block area in Rosslyn where they allow 400 buildings but limit FAR to 10.

    Can anybody provide a specific example, such as Corporation "X" was looking for "y" square feet in the Washington metro area, but the largest office building in downtown DC only has "z" square feet", and explain how landing corporation "X" would result in the creation of a "thriving neighborhood"?

  • Johnny

    Hey I'm born and raised and I am just fine with the idea. Also Mayor Gray is a native and he is the one proposing the east of the river idea in the first place no? Natives have varying opinions on the idea as do the interlopers. I've heard many new residents say they want to keep the height limit solely because they have purchased homes in "up and coming" areas and feel the height limit speeds gentrification. Which I'm sure it does...

  • Keith

    @Anon

    Your opinion does not mirror those of the people. Im also a long time DC resident, and property owner, and Im just fine with easing the Height Act.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Ktriarch

    No, I don't think an "iconic skyline" should drive development (though it's certainly a nice thing to have). See:

    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2010/08/25/how-important-is-a-skyline/

    And you're right, tall buildings certainly aren't sufficient for a vibrant streetscape. But that's where bringing in the Rosslyn bogeyman is a false choice. That "town" was created at a time when skybridges and inward-facing retail were still in vogue. Now we know that streetscapes need people-oriented spaces too. But the key to vibrance is just that--people, and multiple uses. That's where the height thing comes in. Plus, it's easier to free up space for things like parks and plazas, without making everything feel spread-out and difficult to walk to, when you can pack people vertically instead of horizontally.

    As for a company that might have been attracted by the ability to occupy a 15 or 20 story building? Try Northrup Grumman, or SAIC, or all the insurance companies that Gray things he can lure here with a few tweaks to the tax code. It would be a big way to level the playing field between D.C. and the likes of Tysons Corner, without offering huge tax breaks. And it can be done without wrecking those viewsheds that people apparently treasure.

  • D

    Lydia,
    A city block is ~500' long. A building that takes up one quarter of a block would be 250'x250', for a floorplate of 62,500 SF. At 20 floors, that's 1.25MM SF of office space. There are very, very few users for that kind of space, and fewer still that desire to move the 5000 or so employees they'd need to move to fill it. DC isn't losing out on nearly as much new business as you think.

  • Hillman

    Ktriarch: You raise a valid point about how good design is possible in short buildings,to a point. Food for thought.

    But you lose me on the Capitol and Washington Monument being focal points for a skyline.

    Given the fact that the Feds own and control everything around those two icons there's very little chance anything of significance will be built near them. Building higher in Anacostia in no way mars the 'federal' skyline of the Capitol or Monument.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @D

    Rents in downtown DC would indicate that there's quite a bit of demand for offices here.

  • D

    Alex B,
    I agree that there is demand in downtown, but that isn't where Lydia is saying to raise heights. She's saying to do it in Ward 8, and then we'll get a bunch of huge block users of space coming. I don't think that's accurate. I also think she underestimates how hard residents on the east side of the Anacostia will fight to preserve their views, which can be pretty spectacular.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @D

    I think Lydia was reporting on Gray's idea to raise heights EotR, but I seem to recall her personal position being different than the Gray idea. But my memory might not serve me well.

    There are still examples of creating a new office district from scratch on the 'wrong' side of town. Canary Wharf in London is a good example, if there's a strong enough connection to the core CBD and the incentives are strong enough to build.

    But, the main point of this particular post seems to be that Gray needs to add more details to this plan - which seems like an obvious next step.

  • DesignNut

    @Lydia

    That's where the height thing comes in. Plus, it's easier to free up space for things like parks and plazas, without making everything feel spread-out and difficult to walk to, when you can pack people vertically instead of horizontally.

    Actually DC has one of the highest per capita greenspace ratios of US cities. I have to go back to the Manhattan example. Walk around in the skyscraper canyons of Midtown and see how long it takes you to find a patch of grass as compared to the triangle parks and slices of nature created by our unique street grid. In the battle for builidng height, the biggest proponents of tall are usually architects and their developer clients - not the people who actually live in the neighborhoods (just an observation).

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