Housing Complex

MIT Thesis on Height Limits Backs Strategic Boosting

Where heights could increase.

One of the things that's been missing in this whole renewed round of chatter about the District's height limit has been data—or really any rigorous analysis of the available options. Turns out that back in 2009, a graduate student named Andrew Trueblood put something like that together for his Masters thesis in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Trueblood is now ensconced in the federal government, but sent over his paper, which is quite a read. Here are some interesting revelations:

  • While height restrictions were relaxed in cities around the country, they stayed in place in D.C. because the steady presence of the federal government offset the "growth machine"—the part of any city's economy that benefits from the exchange value of land, rather than the use value—and pressed vertical development to the suburbs.
  • While buildings are shorter, D.C. actually has about the same amount of built space as other cities—it's just spread out evenly over a greater surface area ("like cake batter slowly filling up a pan"). That might encourage development in neighborhoods rather than just the downtown, but it also puts a damper on the kind of commercial vitality that comes with residential density. It also puts more development pressure on older buildings—when you can't build up, you demolish buildings in desirable areas that are shorter than they're allowed to be, even if they're still perfectly good structures.
  • Trueblood thinks we can reconcile the city's historic character with the economic benefits of greater height: "Traditions, serving as a connection between the present and the past, are not immutable. Terming D.C.'s form a tradition does not relegate it to a future of exactly the same. Just as in Europe, where tall buildings have ben experimented with, so should D.C. work to adapt its regulations to create better places while maintaining a connection to the traditions of the past."
  • How should we do it? By modifying the limits in certain locations outside the city's monumental core and more iconic corridors, like 16th Street NW. Trueblood proposes an "urban bowl," allowing heights to rise to 175 feet or about 14 stories in Mt. Vernon Square and Southwest, 190 feet in NoMa, 200 feet on the waterfront and east of the river. The area around Florida Avenue Market, Friendship Heights, and Buzzard Point should also be considered. The "secondary markets" have a better chance of achieving more balanced employment/residential ratios, better allowing people to live near their jobs.
  • He closes: "Additional height of three to four stories in Washington D.C. could serve to improve the downtown environment and contribute financially toward improving the city. As importantly, it would serve as a relief valve on development pressure, as the core reaches complete build out. Without such relief, the fiscal and urban vitality losses to the District and the metro area will start to become even more apparent, with more expensive space, increased dispersion and greater travel costs and distances...A few additional stories could be enough to address demand while preventing out-of-place skyscrapers in the core...The city can be a better place for visitors and residents alike, and small changes in its height regime could help to ensure that the District lives up to its unique potential."

Infuriatingly, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has just issued a statement completely disregarding any such proposal.

My support for the Height Act remains as strong as ever. The discipline embedded in the Height Act accounts for the distinctive look that sets the District of Columbia apart from any other city in the world. Both the livable scale of our city and the vistas that feature its unique historic monuments and sites depend upon maintaining the Height Act discipline that flows naturally from L’Enfant’s original vision and the McMillan Plan. The common understanding that our identity as a city depends on the Height Act is so strong that no one has approached my office about changes in the heights of buildings permitted here.

That's disappointing on a number of levels: That no advocate of raising height limits would think to reach out to her, that Norton would have such a reactionary attitude to change with no consideration of what small tweaks to the law could actually mean, that there could be such a presumption of unanimous support for the District's squat skyline, which honestly does nobody any good.

A pox on all of you!

  • washcycle

    Really, she supports NO change to the Height Act. How about changing it from a law imposed on DC by Congress into one that the DC Council has passed. Either she is against federal meddling or she is against it. But if she accepts that Congress can tell us what we can and can not zone, then she accepts that they can tell us which abortions we can and can not pay for.

  • Name

    Cool! Let's all build waterfront high rises 10x larger (20 stories is all it takes) than the building behind you is screwed.

    What a fantastic transfer of wealth from small property owners to wealthy DC/VA developers for zero social gain (there will never be enough 'affordable' apartments in these builds to offset the loss of value from all the other property owners).

  • Drez

    Im with "name" and Eleanor on this.
    small changes, maybe. But thesis-dude is proposing big changes, not small ones.
    Regardless, demand will always outstrip supply.

  • Andrew (thesis dude)

    The graphic from my thesis was really used for analytical rather than illustrative purposes and does serve as an ideal reflection of recommendations. I did not recommend building 20 story buildings everywhere. Regulations that take into consideration neighborhood character are extremely important. In fact, a major finding of my research is that the height restriction has played a major role in destroying these very townhouse, small scale neighborhoods such as Foggy Bottom and Chinatown in favor of nondescript office blocks built to the limit. If it were allowed to be loosened in certain areas, such as Navy Yard, it may be able to alleviate the pressure on others.

  • Drez

    Or, had those areas been zoned for the pre-existing density, there would have been little advantage to tearing the historic 2-4 story stock down to build 4-8 story structures.
    PUDs aside of course.
    And setting aside the fact that said demolition largely took place at historic residential market lows.

  • tasso

    Why is it that none of the people who want to make everyplace another Crystal City ever LIVE in Crystal City ?

  • http://www.houseguydc.com Michael

    Have you ever been to Crystal City?

  • http://phillacombe.com Phil LaCombe

    I really wish people would give up pushing the height limit as an issue. DC is the only place in the United States without oppressively tall buildings downtown. That's one of its greatest attributes. Let's not take that away. Even the 12-story heights that are allowed in some places are too tall. Tall buildings make people crazy--just read Christoper Alexander or Jan Gehl. Contact between building and street is only possible for the first 5 stories. Any taller than that and the best connection you can maintain with city life is the view, and that's a shallow relationship. We should strive to make this city more livable, not less.

  • Anonymouse

    L'Enfant could have never envisioned a city full of tall buildings because the technology to build them had not yet been invented -- yet, L'Enfant envisioned a city of more than 1 million residents with vibrant neighborhoods, wide, expansive avenues and grand vistas -- at worst, deliberately raising the height limit does not destroy this vision, and at best, it encourages fulfilment of this vision by stimulating growth in areas where L'Enfants actual original vision has been destroyed by cheap urban planning.

  • washcycle

    Why is it that modifying the height limit will make DC into Crystal City. There are literally millions of places in the world without DC's height limit that are not Crystal City.

    "DC is the only place in the United States without ... tall buildings downtown."

    That's not really true, but even if it were, wouldn't that tell you something? Is the overwhelming majority usually wrong?

  • http://phillacombe.com Phil LaCombe

    @washcycle Which of DC's peer cities has no buildings taller than 13 stories downtown? I don't know of any. In fact, most US cities smaller than DC have skyscrapers downtown.

    And yes, when it comes to the United States and building livable cities, the overwhelming majority is usually wrong. Thankfully DC is an exception to the rule.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    I think washcycle's point is that 13 story buildings are already much taller than the 5 story ideal you propose.

    If you can find a way to continue to allow DC to absorb growth and increase density without altering the height limit, lay it on me. I'm all ears.

  • beegirl

    Increasing building heights need not result in a windfall to owners. In exchange the city can require community benefits such as affordable housing and parks. See Arlington's site plan process and bonus density provisions as examples.

  • drez

    DC's post war population was in the 800-900 thousand range- and that was well before many of our current large buildings were built. We've got a ways to before we in any way approach our existing built capacity.

  • http://phillacombe.com Phil LaCombe

    @Alex B. In order to grow without increasing the height limit, the District's (and the metro area's) neighborhoods should be allowed to mature naturally, adding density incrementally. Multi-unit rowhouses become apartment buildings, single-unit rowhouses become multi-unit rowhouses, triplexes become rowhouses, duplexes become triplexes, single-unit detached houses become duplexes. Before zoning this was how cities added people (in addition to growing some at the edges). It doesn't need to happen all at once in a sweeping demolition. One property at a time, a neighborhood grows and matures. The key is to enforce good design standards so that you make neighborhoods more beautiful with time and not less.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    That's fine for residential density. I don't disagree at all. In fact, I think that's how DC ought to be developing in the residential areas.

    But you've only addressed where people will live, not where they will work. You're right that changing the height limit won't make a huge difference in residential areas, but that's not where the land values and need for density is straining against the cap - the place where buildings are against the upper bound is in the employment centers. Offices don't scale as organically as residential units do, you need larger scale development to pull it off. You'd also need to allow mixed uses across the city.

    Spreading out jobs has a severe cost to it. It reduces productivity, it makes transit service harder to provide, etc. Spreading outward to downtown adjacent areas (as Downtown has spread in DC) isn't that bad, but it does have a cost. It's also helped push office development to massive centers like Tysons.

  • oboe

    My support for the Height Act remains as strong as ever.

    EHN == "Old Skool DC"

    Most folks who oppose increased density do so because they're afraid free curbside parking will become scarcer. Fortunately time and tide will make such density inevitable. Give it a decade.

  • http://phillacombe.com Phil LaCombe

    DC should look to Paris as a model for how to distribute employment across the city. Offices and other employment are located all over Paris. La Defense is an employment hot spot, but its employment share is much less than the skyscraper CBDs of other cities.

    As far as productivity is concerned in a more uniformly dense city, businesses would cluster by industry. Agglomeration would still work its magic.

    And on the transit issue, the system would evolve to look more like a web than a wheel. We have a hard time in the US making sense of subway systems that do not concentrate on a single point, but that's only because we distribute both population and employment density so unevenly throughout the city. There's an added opportunity of producing a transit system with fuller vehicles in all directions.

    Speaking as a planning student, our field talks a good talk about mixed-use places and living close to work, but it's mostly talk. Most planners still believe that there should still be something called a "residential neighborhood," which can also be described as a place with no employment other than a token corner store or restaurant. Most planners still believe in separating homes from work--just less than we separated them in the 1950s. For most of human history, the line between home and work has been much blurrier.

  • Davey Ives

    Where's the talk about set-backs? There are many ways to add height. Doing so by requiring set-backs would preserve the streetscape while adding new sq footage.

    Is this already mentioned in the the Height Act?

  • Phil

    The problem isn't the height restriction, it's that everything keeps getting reduced and that zoning prohibits density to match what it could be at its maximum. Didn't the Historic Preservation Board essentially force JBG to reduce the scale of its Florida Avenue developments, even though those should be as high and dense as possible to benefit the city by encouraging dense, urban infill development? This happens all the time. Tall buildings on their own don't solve anything and we'll just end up like Paris, with our Tour Montparnasse that everyone hates. I can understand some leeway in Anacostia, Friendship Heights, Reservation 13/Stadium-Armory, and Fort Totten, but that's it.

  • Breaux

    EHN is in favor of the Heighht Act, that should tell us everything.

  • Kevin C

    I think the obvious solution is to raise the height along M Street only (from K to P) and to use the extra revenues to build the separated Blue Line along M street like this:

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  • Nathaniel P

    As useful as improving general building heights, this is deeply flawed because how long it takes to replace the newer buildings built to the current maximum allowed by law.

    Selected sky scraper zones, built to the maximum safe heights, built on the north side of mass transit hubs, (Metro, commuter rail, and new streetcar lines,) at Union Station (NoMa), L'Enfant Plaza, Farragut (West and North), GalleryPl/Chinatown, and Metro Center, would help drastically improve the DC economy and tax base, by maximizing skilled labor market opportunity, while minimizing opportunity costs (of travel measured in time and energy), forever. Improved economic growth rates and tax base (without rate increases) would help pay for key city services such as Public Schools. See my map for more detailed proposal.

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