Height Made Right
The people who ponder the physical state of the District have been asking whether the city’s height limits should be abolished for so long that the obvious followup question has basically been ignored. What if, instead of wondering if the Height Act should be repealed, D.C. looked ahead to how things would look once it was?
It was Rep. Darrell Issa, the California scourge of Democrats-turned-leading D.C. autonomy ally, who started the latest round of debate about the height limits by musing aloud last summer about doing away with them—and fittingly, it was Issa who summed up the next step when he popped by, unannounced, at a panel talk last week on tall buildings in D.C. “It’s not about how high you go,” Issa said at the National Capital Planning Commission’s talk. “It’s about how well you go high.”
The Height Act, passed by Congress in 1910, has been the subject of both derision and praise as it’s entered its second century on the books. Depending on who you listen to, the building height limits—generally the street width plus 20 feet, with a cap of 90 feet for residential buildings and 130 feet for commercial ones—are either necessary to maintain the District’s low-slung, airy character, or they’re a federal imposition on D.C.’s autonomy and potential for economic growth.
But now that Issa has NCPC and the D.C. Office of Planning studying potential changes to the Height Act, the District may be moving on to the “how” of tailoring its urban topography to its needs and goals.
Aesthetically, D.C.’s current problem isn’t its horizontality—which brings us sunlight and a certain village-like charm—but its monotony. With building heights capped, developers feel the need to maximize their square footage in other ways to make a buck, which sometimes means building an entire city block up to or near the limit. The result is boxy and squat and usually unattractive, not through any fault of the architect’s but simply because you can only do so much with a rectangular prism.
So if the feds loosen D.C.’s height limits, it’d be a mistake simply to bring a 130-foot max up to a 160-foot max, or something along those lines. Instead of the boxy 11-story buildings we have now, we’d have a cluster of boxy 14-story buildings, which wouldn’t be much of an improvement.
What might work better? The height cap should be lifted altogether in certain areas, or at least raised substantially. And in place of a one-size-fits-all policy, rigorous review by boards like the Zoning Commission should screen out bad plans and ensure that in exchange for added height, developers looking to build tall are adding both to the community’s attractiveness and to its livability. That means interesting design first and foremost, but also the construction of public parks or affordable housing units in exchange for additional feet.
So where should these tall buildings go? Chances are, neither Congress nor District officials will want development that would obstruct the so-called monumental core—in other words, buildings that would poke up in the background of tourists’ photos of the White House or Capitol. That means no skyscrapers in the heart of D.C.’s downtown. Which is a shame from an economic standpoint; there’s obvious demand there, which has made the city’s office rents at times the highest in the country.
The tall buildings that do get built outside downtown, though, should still be accessible by public transit, particularly Metro. A new business district without Metro access should be a complete nonstarter. But it might be unwise to build up around already-overburdened Metro stations. Union Station, for example, is just about maxed out as it is; if nearby NoMa were allowed to grow taller, the station during the morning commute could become like L’Enfant Plaza on Inauguration Day. (Of course, in an ideal world, Union Station would get a second line through it and additional exits, and NoMa would get added height, but that’s a whole different dream.)
The Green Line, then, is an obvious place to start. It’s become the residential and nightlife heart of the city for many younger residents, but it’s never had the business capacity to match. Construction around the Waterfront, Navy Yard, Anacostia, and Congress Heights Metro stations could change that. The Waterfront and Navy Yard areas have gotten a boost from various government agencies’ recent moves to new headquarters there, but they haven’t yet become magnets for private development. Anacostia—where tall buildings in the historic downtown should be avoided, but Poplar Point presents a nice opportunity—and Congress Heights could use an economic lift, and the development of the St. Elizabeths campus between the stations should bring new life to the area and make it more attractive for investment. The land in these areas doesn’t yet have the kind of value that would drive developers to swallow the cost of building tall towers in order to get the most out of their square footage on the ground, but perhaps coupled with other incentives, the opportunity to build high could make the area more attractive.
Areas around the city’s edges also make infinite sense for taller development. Bethesda and Silver Spring already have buildings over 200 feet; why not add a few across the border in the District? Extra stories along Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Georgia avenues wouldn’t block any views—you can’t see the Capitol from upper Northwest, anyway. And if developers can be persuaded to build along struggling corridors like Rhode Island Avenue NE and Benning Road NE—the planned streetcar route along the latter should help—commercial activity there could give a boost to the local economies. These locations all have the added benefit of being outside the city center, so the addition of commercial buildings there and the commuters they’ll bring shouldn’t burden our trains, buses, and roads as much as development downtown.
The arrival of shiny, tall buildings to poorer areas outside the traditional business core will inevitably bring fears of gentrification, and not without reason: Even if loosened height restrictions ease the space crunch and stem rising rents on a citywide basis, they’re still likely to increase property values and rents in areas that suddenly become business and retail centers. That’s why it’s crucial that developers be required to provide affordable housing in areas where they’re granted permission to build higher. Changes to the Height Act shouldn’t be allowed to undermine their own goal of making the city more affordable.
While the periphery will be the main focus, some loosening of the cap downtown might be feasible. Areas on the margins of the core that aren’t terribly vibrant right now, like K Street west of Farragut Square, would benefit from a little bit of skyline diversity in exchange for public amenities like small plazas and perhaps more housing. And even central downtown wouldn’t suffer from a few additional stories here and there, if it’s done right.
Which brings us back to last week’s NCPC panel. The discussion featured three experts on building heights in European capitals, which offer lessons in adding height without screwing up your city. London’s situation is not dissimilar to the District’s: Sight lines to St Paul’s Cathedral—call it London’s White House or Capitol—needed to be preserved, so tall development is being concentrated in areas just outside the core. This “cluster” model has already been replicated in the D.C. region, just not to the District’s benefit, with skyscrapers going up just across the Potomac in Arlington. D.C. could capitalize, as London has, by allowing such tall building clusters in places like Friendship Heights and Capitol Riverfront.
But it’s another model presented at the panel that offers the best lessons for the parts of D.C. that currently have the most demand. This one comes from those renowned masters of aesthetic prudence, the Germans. Berlin is a mostly low city whose few taller buildings, said leading German developer Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, are skinny enough to allow plenty of light (and sight) through. Hamburg, where demand for center-city development is high, has some three-tiered office buildings with a tall tower and lower sections to allow greater density without excessively obstructing the sun or the city’s many church spire views.
This kind of diversity would do D.C. good. Every trip to the monuments on the Mall is a reminder of the architectural gems we, as the national capital, are treated to. But you’d never know it among the walls of monolithically medium-height buildings just a few blocks to the north. As rapid development comes to other parts of town, let’s not make the same mistake by forcing them to operate under arbitrary blanket rules.
Photo illustration, photo by Chase Elliott CC 2.0 attribution