Housing Complex

Holmes Norton Says She’s Torn on the Height Act

What downtown heights are today. (Image by Andrew Trueblood)

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton wasn't happy at my impatience over her statement last week that her "support for the Height Act is as strong as ever." We were talking about something else, and she launched into an explanation.

"The fact is it is true that what distinguishes a city is its scale. The scale has a whole lot more to do with the attractiveness of a city," she said. "It also has to do with the only private sector business we have, which is tourism, which is 95 percent connected to the federal government. This is a tourist city because of the monuments, the museums. The scale reinforces that."

I'll just continue to respectfully disagree on that one. Saying that squat buildings are the District's sole distinguishing characteristic is selling the us terribly short—does she really think this city has nothing else to recommend it as a tourist destination? Furthermore, I'm fairly sure that people would still come visit the Holocaust Museum or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial if buildings were a few stories taller downtown, let alone east of the Anacostia. Finally, the idea that the "only private sector business we have is tourism" is patently ridiculous. Most of our private sector business is connected to the federal government, but it's private nonetheless, and creating tremendous demand for office space in the downtown core. Besides, aren't we supposed to be diversifying our economy? Stifling it to protect an industry we're not even sure is truly threatened by the Height Act makes no sense at all.

However, Norton did say she's willing to entertain a discussion about changing the law, because she understands the value of building tall near Metro stations. "If you're a smart growth person, the way I am, then build to the sky," she says. "That's what I would like to do in the neighborhoods."

The bottom line, as I mentioned when this all came to light, is that somebody's got to do the numbers and make the case. "Nobody has anything but opinions," Norton said. "I know of nobody who can lay out the arguments on the other side who could help us...If i were the city, I would look closely at this issue. One wants to avoid the unintended consequences that tend to come when you make changes without trying to think them through."

And God damn it, she's tired of all these people running around saying they want to scrap federal laws, which she's learned the hard way is a rather difficult thing to do. "You don't just decide that you want to change the Height Act. Nobody knows what they're talking about," Norton said. "These people are the idiots who think they already know everything."

I'm trying to not do more than one Height Act post a week, by the way. If you want to listen to me argue with a British architect on the BBC about it, though, you can (starting at 36:00).

  • D

    Wow. Utterly thoughtless, almost belligerent quotes from EHN. Of all our fair city's bad elected officials, she might be the worst.

    Raise the limit slowly and strategically. Take care not to replicate Crystal City anywhere and don't stifle growth in underutilized areas of the city by overbuilding elsewhere. The hope that sky-high supply will induce demand (especially for office space) all over the city is Econ 101 fantasy. Appealing, I know, but too optimistic.

  • DC Resident

    I will say this: At one time everyone thought tiber Island was a good idea. Now we can't get rid of it. This is a big mistake. Tourism may not be all we have to offer, but the height restriction is ABSOLUTELY what makes the built environment of the District so unique and distinct. You are making a huge mistake and I am ashamed of our political for supporting. You think Rep. Issa wants to lift the restrictions because he wants to do what's best for the City???

  • Colin

    "the height restriction is ABSOLUTELY what makes the built environment of the District so unique and distinct."

    Distinctly boring. I work in the West End and the rows of short, boxy buildings that line K and L street is not a big selling point for the district. Georgetown? Sure. But this notion that having short buildings throughout the city is an awesome feature is nonsense.

  • Pingback: District Line Daily: EHN on the Height Act, Cap City Diner Lands - City Desk

  • Please stop

    We get it, you want to scrap the Height Act. Some people disagree with you. Please please please stop cramming this down our throats.

    CW Norton is absolutely right that there are sure to be unintended consequences, just as she's right that it isn't as simple as just changing the Height Act.

    And what is the appropriate height, Lydia, and where? You despise the Height Act so much, but all you've ever proposed is more of the same, just a bit taller. You still want to say where e can build higher and to what height, but is that really so much different than what we have now. We can build to 15 stories in NoMa, 20 in Anacostia. So now we have a little more diversity in our buildings heights, and a little more FAR, but why are you the arbiter of where and how much?

  • RT

    D, I may be a hater most days, but not when it comes to EHN. You don't know the half of it. This lady is our city's patron saint, quietly fighting behind the scenes to prevent us from having to bend over and grab our ankles while (insert Republican culture warrior/Tea Partier here) has their way with us. It's stunning what she has to do while her gutless Democratic colleagues leave us for dead as the bargaining chip they're happily willing to concede. (Meanwhile, the Repubs concede nothing). If the average citizen knew how tireless EHN is... the hours she puts in... the manuevering and groveling she has to do... to keep our city from being a true federal colony... they would understand what a treasure she is. Full disclosure: I don't work for her, nor have I even met her. But I know those who do, and the stories I've heard as well as what I've seen over the decades reinforces that EHN her importance to this city.

    I happen to disagree with her on this issue, but that does not make her the worst elected official. Far, far from it.

  • Chgobluesguy

    Density is key to growing the population and the tax base. I doubt taller buildings would fundamentally change the character of the city. Keep the heat on, Lydia!

  • Paul

    Lydia,

    Love your blog

    What we need in this city is a real urban feeling kind of place that is not overrun by tourists 24/7. To the extent that increasing the height limit does that, I'm all for it.

    Stop planning this city around tourists!!!

  • JM

    I've never understood the problem that taller buildings are supposed to solve. Chgobluesguy thinks that our population is limited by height restrictions. First of all, the taller buildings that Lydia would love to see are going to be downtown - they would simply add more sterile office space for use by commuters. There is no reason to expect added "vibrancy" from 20 story office buildings compared to 11 story office buildings.

    The neighborhoods already have many areas that are zoned for taller buildings. In some "hot" areas they are going in. But vast parts of the city (e.g. east of the Anacostia) are under-built because of little demand. Fundamentally, the population of DC isn't limited by lack of tall buildings, but by the fact that most people don't want to stay and raise families in such a lousy school district.

    As for the "squat" office blocks in Foggy Bottom - sure they are mostly ugly. What makes you think they'll suddenly be transformed in to works of art once the height restriction is lifted? They'll just be taller rectangular boxes. What you will loose is sunlight, ability to support urban tree canopies, and a pleasant walking environment.

    Fundamentally ENH is correct - a unique aspect of DC is that it is NOT New York City. We have wide, tree-lined avenues, long vistas, and historic architecture. This is why many of us moved to this city. I can't understand why someone would want to trade that for Crystal City Part II.

    I also don't understand why Lydia is pushing this issue so hard either. I believe she just moved here a few years ago. Why would you move to a city that you don't respect, and then set about trying to systematically change it?

  • Jesse

    JM - Thank you for using the old "not another Crystal City" argument. I was wondering when somebody was going to prop up that straw man.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    I'm with Lydia on this. We should work to scrap the Height Act, and allow taller buildings in certain key areas, away from the monuments and museums, clustered around Metro stations.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    PS I've lived in DC and been interested in zoning, planning, smart growth and development issues since 1996. I'd happily live right next door to or in a very tall building. :)

  • http://bobcatarts.com Robert Gandy

    Why not allow taller buildings only where it wouldn't disrupt the current shadows on the mall and monument clusters created by the arc of the sun throughout the year. There will be two swathes of shorter buildings and the taller ones around them, with no loss of light on the touristy places.

    More space (even vertical space) means more space for the Arts!

  • JM

    Jesse - why is Crystal City a strawman? If I do an inventory of the post-1950 complexes of "tall" buildings in the metro area, I get Rosslyn, Crystal City, Tysons, Silver Spring, Bethesda... personally I don't consider any of these areas as models for DC, either in terms of architecture or livability. I guess I don't understand why you think tall office buildings in downtown DC will be any more "vibrant" or "urban" than these locations...?

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    I've never understood the problem that taller buildings are supposed to solve.

    They allow for more density.

    There is no reason to expect added "vibrancy" from 20 story office buildings compared to 11 story office buildings.

    Sure, no reason - except for more density, which means more people, which means more retail, etc...

    What you will loose is sunlight, ability to support urban tree canopies, and a pleasant walking environment.

    No, not really. Tree canopies are all about providing good soil conditions, avoiding compaction. Pleasant walking is perfectly achievable next to tall buildings.

    We have wide, tree-lined avenues, long vistas, and historic architecture

    And, with taller buildings, you would have: wide, tree-lined avenues, long vistas, and historic architecture.

    I can't understand why someone would want to trade that for Crystal City Part II.

    Ah, the Crystal City strawman.

    Ask yourself: why is it that people don't like Crystal City compared to Downtown DC? The buildings are essentially the same height.

    The reason is because CC is planned differently. It was part of the modernist planning paradigm. Taller buildings won't turn DC into CC. Does New York remind you of Crystal City too?

    Crystal City is a strawman because you've reduced the experience of Crystal City to one factor: height.

    If you actually go there, you'll find that the real problems are more about the vacant street frontages, the underground passageways, the segregated uses, the poor pedestrian realm, etc.

  • Drez

    The city is growing at the fastest rate of any in the country.
    Obviously, we're doing great even with the height limitations.
    We're at ~650,000 residents now. And we add ~13,000 per year.
    Our historic peak population was between 800,000 and 900,000.
    With those same height restrictions.
    At current growth rates we've got at least 10-20 years before we're even where we were 60 years ago.

  • JM

    @AlexB: "density, which means more people, which means more retail, etc... "

    Then why is the West End arguably the least interesting area of DC? Adding greater density of office space does not produce a vibrant neighborhood.

    My experience is based on San Francisco, which I consider a more diverse retail and entertainment environment than DC. For me the most interesting neighborhoods in SF are places like Hayes Valley, Cow Hollow, the Castro etc. These neighborhoods are dominated by 2-3 story row houses and 3-5 story apartments, just like DC. In fact, other than the Financial District (again, the least interesting part of the city), there's not much in SF that would violate the current DC height restriction. So I dispute the claim that persons/m^2 and building height is some magic formula for creating an interesting city. It's a bit more complex than that.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @Drez

    When DC was at peak population, the average household size was much larger than it is today. Ergo, we need more space to accommodate the same number of people.

    Likewise, DC's daytime population has also grown (i.e. workers).

    @JM

    Then why is the West End arguably the least interesting area of DC? Adding greater density of office space does not produce a vibrant neighborhood.

    Office space (historically) offers the greatest return. Given the limits on density, instead of having the option to provide a mix of uses, many developers would opt to put their limited density towards the highest return - office space.

    And the West End is hardly the least interesting area of DC.

    So I dispute the claim that persons/m^2 and building height is some magic formula for creating an interesting city. It's a bit more complex than that.

    Well, of course it's more complex than that. But SF is substantially more dense in the residential areas than DC is. DC's rowhouse neighborhoods are OK, but even they could use some infill apartment buildings. DC's single family detached areas are no where close to the density in SF. SF's avg residential density is 17,000/sq mi, DC is 10,000/sq mi.

    Again, don't confuse residential density and employment density. You're right that we can add more residential density below our height limit, but that's only part of the equation (and it requires some serious zoning fights in DC's 'hoods to allow such shorter but dense development). That doesn't change the demand for greater employment density, however.

  • Jno

    Lydia, I love your blog and agree with you 100%. Just look at the Ballpark area, almost all knew construction with no variation in height. Boring and a missed opportunity. The idea that the height limits preserve a certain integrity is true, they preserve a mundane, boxy integrity which does nothing for the cityscape IMHO. If we lift height restrictions in certain areas at the least we will have a varied and more interesting cityscape.

  • Ward 1 Voter

    I'm with EHN. Drive up 395 from Virginia sometime. When you reach the crest of the hill by the Pentagon, DC unfolds before you. It's beautiful in a way that no other North American downtown is, and that beauty comes from the predominance of the light-colored structures and the way the eye is drawn toward the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Library of Congress.

    That wouldn't be possible if the buildings weren't "squat" or if they were surrounded on three sides by the boring and boxy 30- or whatever-story buildings the architects would put up to replace the boring and boxy 10-story buildings there now.

  • drez

    @ Alex-
    When DC was at peak population, the average household size was much larger than it is today. Ergo, we need more space to accommodate the same number of people.
    You are arguing against density? Stating that 30% fewer people need some unspecified larger space to live?
    I don't buy it. During the same period, the average home size has more than doubled. It seems to me that what you are arguing for is not more density, but rather a greater amount of built space to house the same number of people.
    We already have that. It's called "the suburbs".

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @Drez

    You are arguing against density? Stating that 30% fewer people need some unspecified larger space to live?

    No, not at all. Just saying that the average household size has shrunk.

    We see these demographics across the US. More people are living alone, they are delaying marriage, delaying having kids, and if/when they do have kids, they're having fewer of them.

    So, it's not that the housing units need to increase in size, but rather that each unit is now hosting fewer people.

    Therefore, it is indeed more space to house the same number of people, but that's because households are smaller, not because of less density (in terms of dwelling units per sq mile).

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Also, a smaller average household size isn't something I or anyone else is 'calling for,' I'm just observing the trend.

    http://www.neighborhoodinfodc.org/pdfs/demographic_trends05.pdf

    DC's average household size:

    1970: 2.72
    1980: 2.4
    1990: 2.26
    2000: 2.16

    And in 2011: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/11000.html

    Avg Household size is 2.12.

  • DZ

    @drez: I recently looked up the 1940 census record for my 3br rowhouse in petworth. 12 people lived there. People lived differently back then, and we are not going to draw new residents into DC by promising those kinds of living conditions--I don't think anyone is advocating that kind of density.

  • drez

    @Alex-
    While the # of people per household may have shrunk, since the 1950s the average household size (square feet per address) has more than doubled in terms of square footage. So each person is occupying more than twice the square footage they used to. By that metric (X people per X unit of space), DC is much less dense than it used to be, and the number of people per household issue is less important. This is also true economically because children are net consumers of resources, whereas working adults are producers.
    People can choose (for reasons of economic or other convenience) to live in smaller spaces, and in major cities people do. When consideration is given to the above history and and trends, it's very arguable that DC's density is more a function of how the existing cumulative built space is used (within current zoning) than it is a function of the aggregate cumulative built space.
    Again, we're ~25% short of our past peak population, and we've added, not eliminated housing units in the interim.

  • drez

    @ DZ
    How many of those were children? What is the historic percentage of children as a proportion of the population? I guarantee it is much lower today.

  • drez

    @ mike, please free me from the queue.
    thx

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @drez

    While the # of people per household may have shrunk, since the 1950s the average household size (square feet per address) has more than doubled in terms of square footage. So each person is occupying more than twice the square footage they used to. By that metric (X people per X unit of space), DC is much less dense than it used to be, and the number of people per household issue is less important.

    This is undoubtedly true nationwide, but do you have any stats for DC specifically? DC has added a great deal of housing in multi-unit buildings with smaller square footages, not the kind of suburban McMansions that skew those stats on the national level.

    In short, I'm not convinced the DC per unit size has increased nearly as much.

    When consideration is given to the above history and and trends, it's very arguable that DC's density is more a function of how the existing cumulative built space is used (within current zoning) than it is a function of the aggregate cumulative built space.

    Um, isn't this universally true?

    I guess I'm not sure what you're arguing.

  • Canaan

    We've only added housing in DC since 1950 (or whenever peak population specifically was?) You might want to check that. Seems to me large numbers were cleared out of SW during the 60's and a lot of places left vacant after the riots.

  • Drez

    @cannan
    Much was torn or burned down, but much more and much larger were built in their place.

    @alex
    I'm saying our current laws and regulations leave ample room for expansion, and am citing historical examples for why and how this is true.

  • xfriendship

    These commentaries repeat over and over and over. Yes, EHN is a saint. She understands complexity and she loves this city and its people.

    If ALL truth were told about each one of these above and regular posters spouting the benefits of dumping the Height limits, including Ms. DePillis, it would be easy to understand their points of view (it would have very little to do with rational neighborhoods or aesthetics). It would have everything to do with financial return and influence. I'm sick to death of developers and their allied forces and shills shoving this crap down our throats, especially in the name of so-called 'smart' or 'green' growth.... astroturfing at its worst.

  • Drez

    How is mandatory inclusionary zoning working out for everyone?

  • xfriendship

    @Drez Really subtle, cynical, arrogant..... and pretty sad. Your insulation from (those who are just) residents of this city could very well upset your CART.

  • a change gon’ come

    I live east of the river and I do not want 20 story buildings blocking the view. Frankly, the low-build of DC is a significant part of its attractiveness and charm, and if you're one of the new arrivals who thinks the definition of a downtown is skyscrapers, please move to one of those cities. High density doesn't have to mean high rise and perhaps if those high rises aren't built, some new residents, work and services will actually come across the Anacostia, rather than fantasy 20 story buildings. And I'm not even interested enough to explore why East of the River should have a higher profile than downtown.

    As far as I can tell, we've not actually run out of room in the city. It may be a little crowded in the particular corners that some folks want to occupy, so they'd rather build up than move into unfamiliar terrain. Get over it. Or put more high rises in Chevy Chase.

  • xfriendship

    @a change gon' come

    Absolutely. There are a number of neighborhoods that could benefit from more rational development in the District. There are terribly under served places. And that doesn't necessarily mean building big box stores. It also does not require high rise development.

    Developers have already put plenty of high rises in Chevy Chase.... and ruined the Wisc Ave corridor. It is now national chains, Rodeo Drive and untenable traffic and parking. They have ruined the neighborhood. Not attractive, not friendly in Friendship Heights. Many of us have left.

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    Why is Crystal City a straw man? The entire core of Crystal City, from ~14th to 26th east of US 1, consists of buildings that are shorter than DC's maximum height (160' or about 14 stories). The poor quality of its urban environment has nothing to do with the building heights. Only seven buildings in the entire neighborhood clearly exceed the heights now allowed under the Height Act, and they are all at the edges around the Hyatt or the Doubletree.

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