Housing Complex

What Can D.C. Learn From European Building Heights?

Last night, the National Capital Planning Commission hosted a panel on building heights in European cities. It wasn't purely an academic exercise; NCPC has been charged with studying potential changes to the 1910 Height Act that restricts building heights in the District.

Panel moderator Gary Hack, professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, led things off with a discourse on just how unusual D.C.'s situation is. "Washington," he said, "remains the only large American city that has height limits that are consistent across the entire city."

Back when D.C.'s limit was enacted, however, most cities had height limits, Hack said. Baltimore's was 175 feet, Chicago's 200, Boston's 125, and San Francisco's 102. Most European cities had height limits, too: Paris buildings couldn't be more than 1 to 1.5 times the width of the street (generally not more than 66 feet); London's limit was typically 80 feet or the width of the street, whichever was lower; and Berlin's was 72 feet or the street width.

But those limits were generally abolished as fears of destructive fires diminished and cities needed to find new ways to grow. In the process, cities have had to find other ways to ensure that growth contributed to the pleasures of urban living rather than inhibiting them. Their strategies are informative as D.C. tries to carve a path forward.

British urbanist Robert Tavernor discussed the case of London, which has tried to maintain its status as a "premier world city" alongside New York and Tokyo without reducing its appeal to tourists—foreign tourism, he said, is greater than in any other city and contributes substantially to London's economy.

So how to build the city up while retaining its charms? Tavernor focused his presentation largely on one of the city's top attractions, St Paul's Cathedral. Planners have tried to devise ways to keep sight lines to St Paul's unobstructed from a variety of angles:

That means that buildings follow a "saucer"-like arc around the cathedral:

The result has been more concentrated growth in the east of London's center, while the areas directly around St Paul's have remained lower. Here's a rendering of what the city may soon look like:

Let's contrast that with the German approach. Berlin is a massive, sprawling city that, in its reconstruction after World War II, has largely retained its horizontal, low-slung character. Here's a representation of the city's governmental and tourist core, looking down Unter den Linden (which, though an active street, serves a similar role to D.C.'s National Mall):

Berlin does have one advantage, so to speak, in its efforts to maintain a low skyline: a weak economy. Presenter Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, who has been involved in such groundbreaking German developments as Berlin's Potsdamer Platz and Hamburg's HafenCity, said that there were plans to build 500-foot buildings at the city's Alexanderplatz, but that they never materialized amid nonexistent demand.

Where taller buildings have gone up in the city, at Potsdamer Platz, the approach has been a "spiky" one, with buildings so sparse and narrow that they do little to disrupt sight lines:

Hamburg does not share Berlin's economic situation; average incomes there are twice as high as in Berlin, and the inner city is smaller, so there's more demand for development. But unlike Berlin, Hamburg has never been a national or state capital, so the sights it must preserve are not monuments or grand promenades but churches:

Bruns-Berentelg is the CEO of HafenCity, a massive new development on an island in the Elbe River, right across from Hamburg's core. The challenge there was to create something dense and interesting that wouldn't detract from the city's existing character.

Bruns-Berentelg couldn't replicate London's "clustering" approach to tall buildings without completely blocking views of the city. Instead, he attempted something more creative: a variety of building heights and structures—including donut-shaped buildings—to ensure that nowhere is sunlight or a view to the center city completely obstructed. The image quality here isn't great, but here are a few of the buildings:

Bruns-Berentelg also says that some Hamburg office buildings have multiple levels, including one tall but thin tower and one or more shorter sections. That ensures ample office space without completely obstructing the skyline.

It's clear that D.C.'s current situation is far from ideal: a downtown dominated by squat 10-story buildings that maximize square footage without contributing a thing to the city's character. So what's the right approach for us? A London-like clustering of skyscrapers away from the city core? We already have something like this, only across the river in Arlington; perhaps we could replicate it along the Anacostia or up in Friendship Heights. Or a more flexible Hamburg-like spikiness to keep things interesting without being overly disruptive? No one's really proposing this, and it's hard to imagine, given the likely incremental nature of changes to the Height Act, but it could be the most rational way to get away from the city's deadly uniformity.

What do you think? If you've made it this far, please share your views in the comments!

Photos by Aaron Wiener

  • Perro1

    Could keep the height restriction for just the monumental core of what is federal DC, then let the more local areas of Anacostia and the rest of DC from M street northward all the way to Md build beyond the current restriction.

  • SirSpicious

    The 10-story buildings do add something to the city's character, like an abundance of skyline when walking down the street and a greater feeling of lightness. There is more to character than taller buildings.

    I would also mention that DC is a hillier city than the examples used, which allows for varying buildings heights as the elevation changes.

  • SPgorm

    I recall a recent meeting by the preservationists where the topic was the origin of DC's height limit. The guest historian said that the real reason for the limit was because fire engine ladders could reach only so far. I understand that reaction in the room was that you could hear a pin drop because the prevailing membership mythology was that height limits were enacted due to aesthetics.

  • Scott

    I say keep the height restrictions in historic neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and Gtown but allow for higher buildings in Friendship Heights and closer in to Silver Spring. And we should definitely ensure that buildings be built to their proposed height when zoning allows for it rather than scale them down a level or two because of NIMBY complaints.

  • Alf

    Frienship Heights could never reach the density of a Rosslyn as an employment center because it is served only by arterial surface roadways like Wisconsin and Western Avenues and one Metro line which is getting close to capacity. FH could support Rosslyn height and density only if the 270 spur were extended into NW Washington and that's a political non-starter. Even Bethesda is only about 1.5 miles from the Beltway/270 spur, and it is scrambling to add road capacity to serve Walter Reed/Bethesda medical center (which also has its own Metro stop).

  • jno

    I would argue that many of the 10 story building are rather heavy and oppressive. I like seeing the sky too but there has to be a better way. So now all the 10-12 story buildings going up are glass, but they're still boring and uninspired.

  • hoos30

    The fact that we call ourselves an international city is a joke. Not only do we only speak one language, but our architecture is less inspiring than my toddler's wooden block set. Perro1 above has already highlighted what we should do...will it take us another century to do it?

    Even from a purely economic or ecological pov, our antiquated system is madness. The biggest shame is that NoMa will have been completely built out long before any adjustments can be made.

  • Federico

    I have lived in Buenos Aires, Paris, London, Chicago, and LA, to mention a few big cities, and while DC is really is a very large village, that is part of it's charm. And the fact that we can see the sky and have so much sun light is wonderful. The height should not be changed, and if someone wants to be higher, they can move to the suburbs of VA or MD!

  • http://www.preservenet.com Charles Siegel

    If you think that London's skyline is a plausible example for Washington to follow, you must be totally blind to urban beauty.

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