Housing Complex

Repeal the Height Act, Fund the Metro?

Matt Yglesias has a proposal for how to fund the $6 billion expansion that Metro wants to undertake, and if you've ever read Matt Yglesias, you can probably guess what it is: Repeal the Height Act!

He writes:

Restrictions on the height of buildings in the DC central business district cost the city billions per year in lost economic activity. Rescind the Height of Buildings Act—not just in a tweak around the edges way, but in an honest-to-god skyscrapers way—but charge a fee to get permission to build high. That direct revenue can pay for the new infrastructure, infrastructure that will conveniently support more density. The much increased levels of employment and retail activity that would be associated with a denser central business district, meanwhile, will replenish the District's general coffers for years to come.

It's a logical enough proposal (if you're into the whole density thing), and I've often wondered why there hasn't been more discussion of direct fees to the city from developers who want to build above the current height limits. I foresee just two problems:

1. If you're really building enough "honest-to-god skyscrapers" to bring about "much increased levels of employment" and pay for a $6 billion Metro expansion, then you're talking about a vastly bigger downtown population, which would in turn require even more Metro investment to get all those people around. Yglesias would probably counter that this is in fact a virtuous cycle, where more downtown population means more Metro, which enables more population, which can fund more Metro, etc. But the bottom line is that you don't just allow skyscrapers, do a one-time expansion, and wash your hands of the matter.

2. It'll never happen, at least not anytime soon. This is, of course, the bigger roadblock. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) recently commissioned a study on possible changes to the Height Act—but Norton told me a few weeks ago that it's simply a matter of exploring an issue that hasn't been explored in too long, and that "neither Darrell nor I are anxious to change the Height Act." Michael Brown, who chaired the D.C. Council's economic development committee until his electoral defeat in November—he's attempting a comeback in the April special election—and has been a leading advocate for amending the Height Act, maintains that he has no interest in raising the height limit downtown, but rather east of the Anacostia River, where it won't impair sight lines. And Mayor Vince Gray told me recently that when he discussed the Height Act with Issa, they talked about tinkering with the issue of mechanical penthouses on building roofs, not more substantive changes. When I asked him if he'd support lifting height limits even just east of the river, he replied, "I’m in support right now of the mechanical penthouse legislation. Then we’ll see what happens after that."

A height-for-Metro swap is a nice idea. It's just not a feasible one for the time being.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • NE John

    Another reason for me not to like Michael Brown. Who is this Yglesias guy anyway? DC restricts heights for a purpose, and exceptions to this rule will ruin the character if the city - especially for the trees. He needs to spend some more time in my city before making such ridiculous proposals.

  • OHDC

    NE John - Are you serious? Yglesias used to have his own blog with Think Progress and is now at Slate. He has lived in DC for years.

    In my experience, most of the good views that I get are straight down streets. For example you can see the White House straight down 16th St NW. You can see the Capitol right down North Capitol and Maryland. Building higher would not change those views. Whose views are they protecting? I don't think we should never change the height act just because someone has a penthouse apartment in Georgetown and wants to always have a view of the Capitol and Washington Monument.

  • NE John

    It is a combination of physics and city character. Sunshine is a huge factor in keeping height restrictions, especially when the angle of the incident rays cannot pass through high obstructions.

  • NE John

    And yes, I am serious. Never heard of him.

  • Tom M

    Does Yglesias live in Washington, DC or the region? I cannot find that info either in wikipedia or on his slate page(s). He grew up in New York City and went to a very exclusive (expensive) private school and on to Harvard University. He voted for Mitt Romney for Massachusetts Governor. Maybe he wants to live in a place more like where he grew up? Washington DC is not and never will be NYC. But then again, he has the option of living in NYC... if he isn't currently there.

  • Tom M

    Opps. I did find in one of his 2011 columns -- DC is Not Berlin (not a "cool city") that her reports he has been "in dc for eight years." As he is in his very early thirties, that might suggest he has "been in DC" for all his adult, post-college life. (Despite our confirmed uncoolness).

  • Bob See

    ^I'm glad you're here to tell us who has a right to offer a commentary on DC and who doesn't.

    "ruin the character if the city"

    The city core's character consists of squat fat boxes sitting on numerous consolidated lots. Whatever character that may have been there has been destroyed long ago because of height limits forcing buildings to be wide and eating up small lots. Taller buildings would introduce back at least some variety.

    "Building higher would not change those views. Whose views are they protecting?"

    Exactly. I recall an article or blog having to scaremonger with "elevated walkways across the street" because they realized the views-argument is a non-starter; people using it just won't admit it.

  • Bob See

    "especially for the trees"

    Trees are constantly blocking my views. argh!

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    Its okay that things won't change immediately. The WMAta proposals go to 2040. There will still be lots of transit to be funded if the height act is relaxed in, say, 2020. And by that point places like NoMa and Cap Riverfront will be closer to buildout.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    "Washington DC is not and never will be NYC."

    and relaxing the height act would not make it NYC.

  • OHDC

    Increase the limit to 200 feet and then let it go up 5 feet per year. Then if we hate it we can pull back the reigns.

    It should also impact apartment and condo buildings. New developments around the city should be able to be taller as a matter of right.

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