Housing Complex

How Important Is It That Darrell Issa Is Talking Sense on Height Limits?

Tim Craig reports this morning that Republican House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa is chill with the District's desire to add a few more floors to tall buildings here and there:

“The city is just as concerned, and city leaders and community folks are just as concerned, about not raising the height limits in a way that would adversely affect vista or historic areas,” Issa says. “The question is, ‘Should a federal prohibition be loosened to allow them to make those decisions in concert with historical groups?’ And my general feeling is, ‘Yes.’ ”

And then, later:

“We have an architectural interest in the nation’s capital, but it’s a pretty small area that we are really interested in,” said Issa, referring to Congress. “When you get to the edges of the city, you have to ask yourself: What harm would it be if those buildings were taller?”

Glory be! As voting rights backers have sought to emphasize with their "Don't Tread on D.C." slogans, District autonomy comports with the tea party line that localities should make decisions for themselves, rather than having the federal government do it for them. I'd actually argue that land transfers and control over land use are the most important intermediate step, since real estate arguably is more relevant to the city's future (and realistic considering political realities) than representation. So it's great to see Issa at least being ideologically consistent.

But will it matter? Busting the century-old on building heights will require a nod from the entire House and Senate, after all, not just a congressman's blessing. I think it will. Having one powerful guy be the first to offer his support—despite the fact that he's not politically aligned with most people in the District—could very well be the chink that breaks the rest of the dam, if D.C.'s leaders play this well.

How does that happen?

First of all, it can't be just a local government push. The District's big business interests need to sign on to a letter saying that boosting height limits is a good idea, or at least that they wouldn't oppose it. The National Capital Planning Commission, the federal body charged with guiding the District's development, also needs to be on board. Support from the General Services Administration, with its new D.C.-rooted chief, would help as well.

Second of all, there needs to be a plan. The city of Austin, Texas, for example, put together a detailed map of where additional height should and shouldn't go. While this reporter would be happy to let the private market sort that out for itself, something with more community input could ease worries about taking such an historic step. I'm willing to bet that the Office of Planning is quietly working on something to this effect.

That's the thing: Whatever form this change might take, it's definitely not going to mean giant skyscrapers obstructing views from Meridian Hill Park to the White House. The District's federal overlords wouldn't stand for it; neither would many local residents.

But that's not the entirety of the city, by a long shot. And even if buildings were simply allowed to grow by a floor or two downtown, I'm pretty sure even the strongest opponent wouldn't notice.

  • Lance

    From the Post's coverage on the issue:

    "“If you raise the limits . . . what you would see is buildings getting just a little thinner as they go up,” Baranes said. “You would get a little bit more light and a little bit more space between them.”

    If the city would also boost density rules, Baranes said about 100 office workers could be added to each additional floor. Residential buildings could house up to 40 additional residents per floor, he said."

    So ... which is it? If the rules are relaxed, are we going to see 'a little bit more light ... and space between them'? or are we going to find room to stick another 100 office workers or 40 additional residents per floor?

    And, if we're going to add that additional space to support the additional 100 office workers or 40 additional residents, how is this (from the same article) going to happen:

    "Instead of vast changes to building heights, architects and builders said, tweaking the restrictions would free up a bit more space to allow them to experiment with design. In the suburbs, for example, most buildings are constructed with at least 9-foot ceilings but they are kept to about 8.5 feet in the District, said Shalom Baranes, an architect whose firm is working on the CityCenter DC project."

    It should be obvious to all that there isn't a shred of truth in the supposed benefits of allowing higher building heights ... At least not to the non-developers amoung us.

  • Christopher Siddall

    Now might be a good time to have a DC Republican or two engage on this issue with Chairman Issa. Of course, if the House flips back to Democratic column that might not matter.

    In the meantime, I'd like to hear more about the Austin, Texas plan.

  • Christopher Siddall

    @Lance -- I wonder if we would end up with something more like the Philadelphia height limit change (without the immediate focus on the downtown business district since that is largely built out) than the more modest Austin, Texas plan mentioned in Lydia's piece above.

  • TM

    Has anyone argued that like the overhead wire ban, this "federal" law became, essentially, a DC law (which could be amended by the Council) upon Home Rule? Why would it be any different?

  • Naive

    "Second of all, there needs to be a plan. The city of Austin, for example, put together a detailed map of where additional height should and shouldn't go. While this reporter would be happy to let the private market sort that out for itself, something with more community input could ease worries about taking such an historic step. I'm willing to bet that the Office of Planning is quietly working on something to this effect."

    Are you serious? They will never allow more height in the historic or government core of the city. The places where more height makes sense (Tenleytown, for example) would fight it to their dying breath. If you think MORE community input is the key to more development in this city, you haven't been here long enough.

  • RT

    I wish they'd abolish the whole damn thing outside of the monumental core. Let OP decide via zoning.

  • Christopher Siddall

    @Naive - You are right about Tenleytown never allowing taller buildings. A top District official recently told me that he had given up on waiting for tax revenue to flow from building higher in areas abutting most stations despite the original Metro plan. Overall, I think we can leverage the market's insight within the context of an Office of Planning process that recognizes political and social reality in D.C.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @TM

    Has anyone argued that like the overhead wire ban, this "federal" law became, essentially, a DC law (which could be amended by the Council) upon Home Rule? Why would it be any different?

    The Home Rule act listed several things DC's local government couldn't touch - including commuter taxes and the height limit, among others. It did not include wires. All other federal laws that were local in nature then became local laws that the DC Council can amend.

    http://www.abfa.com/ogc/tit6.htm#602

  • Thayer-D

    What's missing from this increased height conversation is how much is enough? I agree with Lance that if they increase the height a bit now, why wouldn't developers put the same preasure on their archtiects to fill the larger envelope? If we're going to do this, let's do it once but base it on some kind of metric that studies light, space, and even psychological well being balanced against assumed economic benefits.

    IMHO, the height limit is ideal, and the idea that it squaches creativity is balloney. Especially an architect like Shalom Baranes who specializes in sliding grids accross a box.

    Ultimatley they need to build-out areas like Telneytown, Brentwood, and all the fallow land around our freeways before considering this seriously. Our hight limit is one of our cities assets. To squander it for a little more profit or to unshakle Shalome's creative genius is short sighted in the extreme.

  • urbanette

    Whatever you think about the height limit, you should support this proposal. Why? Because WE THE CITIZENS OF DC should be making the decision how tall our buildings are NOT the Congress. To me this is not a zoning or architecture question, it's a self-governance question. Maybe we'll decide, through conversations with the community, OP, elected officials, that the height limit is great. It should be our decision though, not a bunch of white guys from Kansas or wherever who sleep in their offices and never set foot in most of our city.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @Thayer

    To squander it for a little more profit or to unshakle Shalome's creative genius is short sighted in the extreme.

    A fair point, but consider that the primary reason to reduce the constraint on supply that the height limit represents (which I think can be done while still preserving quality urban design - consider a limit that was simply 2x street width with a mandatory setback starting at 1x +20, instead of the current 1x + 20 feet. You can do it without 50 story skyscrapers.).

    I agree, the argument about aesthetics is empty. If DC increased height without increasing allowed density, then I don't see the point.

    However, I don't see why people are concerned by profit. The limits mean that the current landowners are sitting on a very valuable asset with limited chances for competition. The assumption that more height leads to gains that are somehow ill-gotten is fundamentally wrong - I don't see the logic.

    Prices are so high here, I think DC needs to substantially upzone areas like Tenleytown as well as increase the height limit across the city.

    So, how much is enough? Enough to meet demand.

  • jp

    The District shouldn't even be considering this. The low-rise architecture is the cities most interesting feature and adding obtrusive glass and steel boxes to the skyline will benefit nobody except developers.

    The city has a staggering amount of under utilized land which should be redeveloped way before there is any consideration for adding taller buildings.

  • http://twitter.com/elcolin Colin

    Bravo. The height limit makes this town boring through lowered density and drives up prices by artificially limiting supply. Also, having as many people in as small a footprint as possible is environmentally friendly. Driving homes and offices further out just promotes more congestion. It's a truly moronic law.

  • Bert

    @Urbanette,

    Sorry, there is a federal interest in planning the nation's capial. Clearly local interests should be represemted, too. But if the planning and zoning of the capital city were left to the likes of Marion Barry, Harry Thomas and Vincent Orange and whatever interests were stuffing their pockets, one can only imagine how Washington would look.

  • danmac

    The argument that there is nothing left in downtown DC
    defined as This special district, where property owners have agreed to tax themselves to fund services, encompasses a 138-block area of approximately 825 properties from Massachusetts Avenue on the north to Constitution Avenue on the south, and from Louisiana Avenue on the east to 16th Street on the west omits areas like NOMA and Mt Vernon Triangle which have considerable vacant lands. This is the Capitol and its' business is arguably Federal government and this DC Downtown omits the Federal Government and many of its' agencies . NOMA and the Federal Triangle as well as near Southeast are developable . No change to height limit should be entertained until these areas are built out.

  • Ben

    "The city has a staggering amount of under utilized land which should be redeveloped way before there is any consideration for adding taller buildings."

    The thing is, a lot of that under-utilized land exists outside of the federal city and the monumental core. To me, the question is: is DC's unique cityscape harmed by allowing taller buildings outside of the core? My own feelings are no, it's not.

    Consider Rosslyn and Crystal City. Both areas were once within the District's boundaries, and in fact exist a mere stone's throw from central DC. Yet is anyone actually arguing that Rosslyn's steel and glass 25 story buildings somehow marr DC's urban landscape? I can't see that they do. I think it's a rather tenuous argument to hold that a 20 story building in Fort Lincoln, Anacostia or Chevy Chase would ruin, or any any way detrimentally impact, DC's cityscape. Somehow, London remains unique despite Canary Wharf, Paris isn't harmed by La Defense...I think DC could survive a few taller buildings sprouting up along its fringes. We're not talking about the Burj Dubai here, after all.

  • Thayer-D

    Alex,
    "Enough to meet demand" is saying anything goes while your argument about the 20 story limit has some logic behind it. While I don't like the 20 story height limit, what happens once they "fill up" this limit and ask for another 10 stories with some other street to height ratio?

    There's an inefficiency to keep raising the height limit incrimentally becasue it will encourage tearing down young 10-12 story buildings to get to 20 and then again to 30. Not very sustainable if that still matters.

    To clarify, I have nothing against profits, being a die hard capitalist, but there's also a return on developing a distinct character for a cities economic health. See the Atlantic Cities article "Character Is Key to an Economically Vibrant City".

    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/04/why-character-key-economically-vibrant-city/1729/

    If we're going to do this, let's pick a point where we won't change for another 100 years. I don't know if we'll ever determine an ideal height limit, but let's see what our architects can do with the tons of buildable land we still have by relaxing the zoning and stream lining the permit process.

  • Ben

    " NOMA and the Federal Triangle as well as near Southeast are developable . No change to height limit should be entertained until these areas are built out."

    Don't know about Federal Triangle--I don't think there's a lot of developable land remaining there--but NoMa and Mt. Vernon Square are indeed being built out. I don't think you'll need to look too far into the future to see those neighborhoods being fully developed as well.

    The problem with this "no tall buildings until everything else is developed" mindset is that it sets the city on a path where it MUST be reationary to impending economic and development constraints. Putting aside the development incentives in allowing taller buildings in neighborhoods not presently on many developer's radar screens, why wait until certain ring neighborhoods are fully built out and commercial and residential lease rates remain through the roof? Like it or not, a driver of DC's high commercial and residential space costs is simply a lack of volume. You can only fit so many people into a 12 story building (never mind that most neighborhoods don't allow buildigns even that high--try pitching a 12 story building on 14th Street, for instance.)

    There is demand, which in many neighborhoods is outpacing supply. Raising the height limit, even by a small amount, will help contribute towards lowering these costs.

  • merarch

    Ben made a good point re: 14th Street. The zoning height limits in many neighborhoods in DC are set below the Federal height limit, and these are limits that WE control. Upzone those areas before we talk about the federal height limit.

  • er

    skyscrapers for the palisades!

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @Thayer

    If we're going to do this, let's pick a point where we won't change for another 100 years. I don't know if we'll ever determine an ideal height limit, but let's see what our architects can do with the tons of buildable land we still have by relaxing the zoning and stream lining the permit process.

    That's a fair point, but we have to consider the tradeoffs.

    Do we want to keep the absolute height of the city low, but sacrifice more and more of the rowhouse-type neighborhoods to mid-rise development? Or, do we want to preserve those areas and open up mid-rise areas to high-rise development? In other words, some of the restrictions we have in place must change - which ones do we want to adjust? There's also the matter of downtown being the place to add more height because that's where our infrastructure is. That's where the Metro trains go, etc.

    I agree, there's an inefficiency to raising the height limit incrementally, but some of that is inherent to the idea of a statutory limit on height in the first place.

    As for profit and need for doing this, I think it's stupid to divorce a decision like this away from the economic rationale. Consider that Paris is quite lovely, but also very expensive. I'd also opt to include relaxing the limit and zoning citywide with the designation of a new high-rise district (similar to a Canary Wharf or La Defense) on, say, Poplar Point.

  • Naive

    Okay, let's use the Poplar Point example. One, that piece of dirt is about 10 feet above the water table, so you'd have a really, really hard time getting a suitable foundation. But if they figure that out, you are putting a second barrier between the East of the Anacostia communities and the majority of the city. So a group of people in those neighborhoods that has been and feels disenfranchised in part because of separation now has an additional physical barrier in front of it.

    There is not a chance that the city can build significantly higher in the places the Fed would allow. There isn't the political will locally to get it accomplished. But please, Lydia, write about this subject once a week like you always have. Or move 200 miles up 95 if you want taller buildings so badly. Or to Rosslyn.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    I don't know about the water table, but how is a hi rise district at Poplar Point a barrier to folks from Anacostia

    A. Is Midtown manhattan a barrier between Tudor City and Hells Kitchen? Between the Upper West Side and Kips Bay? People go through the hi rise district easily

    B. The natural link between Anacostia and the rest of the city is near SE, not Poplar Point.

    Alex's point is good - how do we tie this in with preserving townhouses that are more important to the district's character than the absence of 30 story buildings?

  • Jno

    I find the issue of the city's character being compromised kind of funny. Having 10 or 11 story architectually mind numbing builds scattered all over the city has improved the city's character how? I can see the sky, but I can also see the sky if a building is several stories taller and adding the potential for what might be a more attractive building would seem in line to maintaining the city's character even more. Let's also be honest here, there is a dearth of classically good architecture here in DC beyond the monuments and the government behemoths along Pennsylvania and 15th st. area. What good is a vista when all buildings are the same height anyway?

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    ewwww....when did Lance Salonia decide to "grace" this blog with his presence as well?

  • fedacct

    Lance is a total D-bag. I went out with him a couple of times. It isn't that he ended it, but it was the way he did it.

  • Nathan

    Lance is a total D-bag. I went out with the guy a couple of times. It isn't that he ended it, it's how he did it.

  • fedacct

    Doesn't look like time has been too kind to him either!

    http://www.dupont-circle.org/Resources/Pictures/Lance.jpg

  • fedacct

    Time apparently hasn't been kind to him too!

    http://www.dupont-circle.org/Resources/Pictures/Lance.jpg

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