Housing Complex

How to Rile Up a Crowd (in D.C.): Talk Building Heights

So far, reviewing the Height of Buildings Act to provide recommendations to Congress on how to amend it has been pretty fun for Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning.

"From a totally geeky planning perspective, I have to say it’s kind of thrilling to be asked to look at this issue," Tregoning said last night at a meeting at the Petworth Library.

Unfortunately for her and the Office of Planning's partner in the Height Act review, the National Capital Planning Commission, they don't get to work from a totally geeky planning perspective anymore. Now the process goes public—and it can get contentious.

The Office of Planning and NCPC were tasked by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) last year with submitting recommendations on revisions to the 1910 law limiting D.C. building heights by September. They've hosted a panel with experts on European cities to learn about potential model skylines. They've laid out the process ahead. And last night in Petworth, they held the first of four public meetings to get input from Washingtonians.

Even before their presentation began, a heated debate erupted among attendees. Standing in front of one of the explainer posterboards set up for public review and comment, a passionate defender of taller development argued with a growing group of skeptics who questioned the effects of higher buildings on the skyline and on lower-income residents.

The short presentations from NCPC and the Office of Planning didn't quell residents' fears. One attendee worried aloud that D.C. would end up with a slew of uninhabited high-rises like in China. Others said tall buildings would block sunlight and be susceptible to earthquakes. A man said the city's purpose in allowing taller development would just be to raise property tax revenue, and he questioned "whether the Office of Planning is an honest broker in this process because it is so pro-development.” (Tregoning responded by reassuring the man that by the time taller buildings are actually allowed, she'll be long gone.) During the question-and-answer period, there were no comments in favor of higher development.

The presenters repeatedly clarified that a change to the Height Act wouldn't automatically result in taller buildings in D.C., since the city would first have to revise its comprehensive plan and zoning code. Instead, it would simply represent, in Tregoning's words, more "democracy" for the city, allowing it to set its own rules on building heights (within the federal government's constraints, which are likely to be loosened only slightly).

The presentation did shed some light on NCPC and the Office of Planning's priorities and criteria as they evaluate potential changes to the Height Act, from the cities they're looking to as models (NCPC's David Zaidain pointed to Barcelona and Paris for pushing taller buildings to the outskirts, Vancouver for molding height to natural resources, and London for shaping its buildings around St. Paul's Cathedral) to the technology they're using for modeling (aerial photography for panoramic views, digital imagery for skyline studies). Take a look at the posters and the presentation from last night's meeting:

The next meeting is this Saturday at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

Poster image courtesy of NCPC

  • jcm

    Their presentation has an error. On Page 5, they used London's population and area for San Francisco, and Paris's for Vancouver.

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  • Logan Res

    I think it's time that anyone who feels passionately about DC and is in favor of good changes to start attending these meetings just like we did to oppose the liquor license moratorium. We can't let these ridiculous concerns be the only voices shaping our city.

  • http://westnorth.com PCC

    Whining about earthquakes? Really? The stupid, it hurts!

  • Sarah

    I can't think of anything that would more visually mar the harmonious city texture of Washington, DC than allowing skyscrapers in the city. I find it difficult to imagine where within DC but on its periphery it would make practical sense to raise the height limit signficantly. East of the Anacostia River won't happen because the real estate market economics aren't there for that kind of class A, high cost building. And while the market might support taller building, in say, Friendship Heights, FH lacks the infrastructure (like nearby highway access and multiple metro stops) to become a concentrated employment center.

    So I say, keep taller buildings in Rosslyn, where at least the FAA regulates height on approach to the airport. There's still plenty of space for Washington's "downtown" to grow.

  • http://www.ncpc.gov/heightstudy William H Herbig

    jcm -- Thanks for the catch! We’ve corrected this. We will have updated boards at our remaining three round 1 public meetings and will post it online soon.

  • kob

    I really don't see how residents will benefit from this. The District is certain to award generous tax breaks to the developers that will mitigate any added tax revenue. And while more office workers might increase commerce in some areas, the only thing that might change is the number of food trucks.

    Not to be skeptic, but I'm at a loss to see who this really benefits.

  • Asuka

    DC stands out BECAUSE it lacks a skyline. It's a testament to the idea that some places can be sacred and not every square inch in America needs to be monazite to it's fullest extent. I know, I know - you wanted to live in NYC, but you had to settle for DC. But why do we have to pay for your discontent?

  • Barrie Daneker

    OMG all these nimby's.

    First of all if you don't increase the housing in DC all of your property taxes are going up at a rate that even middle class people won't be able to afford. Those who believe that more housing will increase your taxes actually know very little...hence you can't fix stupid!

    As far as views go or visually appealing...are you kidding me. DC looks terrible in many areas of the city. Increase in development just might fix a ton of areas that are in need of investment to fix the failing infrastructure of this city and will help reduce some of the awful eyesores this city has.

    Earthquakes...my comment...well you can't fix stupid! Of course a newer build will be better engineered for an earthquake than a lot of building right here in DC!

    The China reference is out of line it's only happening in China because that evil government who not only keeps their currency rates so low for their own economic benefit, but it won't let it's people take their money out of China. Therefore they have nothing but property to invest their cash into no matter what happens in that real estate market.

    If DC wants to move into the 21st century then this is something we must do. If we allow these small factions of loud and frankly stupid people to get in the way of progress, then we can expect the same old for DC...NOTHING!! No jobs, no economy, no education and more and more welfare checks!

    Take McMillan as an example of a development that has been marred by the small minded in DC. A Small faction of people have stopped that development for 30 years and for what? Nothing because nothing has been gained by residents and the city for 30+ years on that site. It's an industrial wasteland that has cost the city instead of being a good investment and an economic boom to DC where affordable housing, biotech, medical jobs, and much need community amenities are needed.

    DC is estimated to have housing shortage of 17,000 units by 2020 which will increase housing costs even higher... forcing more and more middle and lower income folks...yes I'll say it because it's true "Black folks" out of DC because they won't be able to afford the housing. We'll have more homeless and I mean homeless families in the city as rents go sky high! So please wake up DC! Don't let these folks who seems to think that they have the best interests of DC at heart...they don't. They are blinded by ignorance, they are blinded by "tree huggers"! Get with it DC before it's too late!

  • Nancy

    DC is gorgeous as it looks - and one reason I moved and live here. I can't imagine living in a rat maze like NYC. Let DC continue to be the beautiful city it is. If folks want to build skyscrapers, that's what Bethesda and Arlington are for.

  • Sarah


    If you really believe that permitting tall buldings will result in developers builidng shiny new towers full of affordable housing for moderate and lower income people, then you must be smoking the same crack pipe as the other "Barrie" (as in ex-Mayor-for-Life Barry).

  • Asuka


    You lost me at "NIMBY." Try opening a dialogue without an snide insult and you might get someone to read that incredibly long post of yours.

  • HTinWDC

    I hesitate to jump in here, but I would just ask people to consider what incremental changes might mean and look like. What would one story mean if it could absorb and shield all the (often ugly) rooftop mechanicals and penthouses? What would it look like if more buildings in the high density parts of the city were the height of the existing buildings on the north side of PA Ave NW (160 ft)? The choice is not really THIS height limit or NO height limit, but WHAT height limit(s), WHERE, and HOW to apply them.

    The whole other discussion is WHY? It has been 100 years since Congress really considered the height of buildings in DC. The limit at the time had as much to do with fire safety and the technical ability to reach the upper floors of buildings -pre-sprinklers- with fire-fighting equipment as anything else. Over the next 100 years, what does the city achieve with some additional height and what does it lose?

    I am very interested in hearing what people think. Please continue weighing in.

  • Brad

    @Sarah -- It's not that developers will build new high-rise "affordable housing," but that in a healthy and efficient housing market with sufficient supply, "filtering" takes place. Essentially, as wealthy people vacate their old houses for newer, fancier penthouses, that creates more housing stock down the value chain. Essentially gentrification in reverse.

  • Jeff G.

    To the people saying that they don't want DC to become NYC: You do realize that the discussion regarding the height limit isn't an "all or nothing" game, right? That is to say, just because there is a discussion about easing the height limit in targeted areas of the District doesn't mean that the entire city will be transformed into Lower Manhattan. Surely you can acknowledge that there is a lot of middle-ground between the height/density of New York City and that of DC.

  • http://metroderp.tumblr.com MetroDerp

    Love how they have Paris there - a city with SEVEN TIMES the density of DC.

    That's the key part missing from this. How much of DC's land area is totally underdeveloped? Forget the core; let's push everything else up. Build the city to its existing potential and THEN talk about maybe raising a height limit.

    More importantly, though, the core Metro lines ABSOLUTELY CANNOT HANDLE the massive additional capacity that higher densities would generate. Once we add multiple new lines through the core, then we might be able to support more density. But as I was saying, we haven't at all maximized our potential under the *existing* limit.

  • Asuka

    @ Jeff,

    There is no middle ground with urbanist progressives. Given the inch, they take the mile, then double back again. It's inherent in their world view - they are smarter than everyone else, therefore they have the right to dictate how the rest of us should conduct our lives, and anyone who disagrees with them must be stupid (see the above post by "Barrie"). Their shrill arrogance has cost them credibility.

  • Robby

    The adjustments that they are studying are only marginal increases for the heights of buildings. This in no way would change zoning, which also controls the size of buildings through FAR (Floor Area Ratios). Most office buildings in DC have very low ceiling heights. This is because zoning dictates how much square footage a building is allowed to have in relation to the size of the lot. Have you noticed how every new office building in the city is made from concrete? Post-tensioned concrete allows for developers to squeeze a few inches out of the thickness of floors so that they can achieve more floors in an allowed height. No other city in the country squeezes as many floors into the same height as DC. A maximum height adjustment wouldn't allow buildings to have any more rentable area, but would likely allow for taller ceiling heights and additional open space (atriums, courtyards, green space). Hey that sounds nice! Developers want to make the most money they can on a project, which they do through maximizing the amount of rentable area they have in a building. That would not change with a height adjustment because they are controlled by two separate laws. Just my two cents.

  • eponymous

    Metro Derp has completely hit the nail on the head.

    I'm absolutely in favor of tall buildings in DC (assuming it's done in a London/Barcelona way and not in an NYC way). But we need to increase Metro capacity first, and there's a lot more potential for growth right now than people realize (this city used to house over 150,000 MORE people than it does now, and that was before we built up a lot of Logan/Columbia Heights/14th Street!).

    Also, it would be unwise to assume that there's DEMAND for tall buildings at this point in time. Who is going to move into more office buildings? Look at the massive amount of vacant office space in Arlington. If businesses were that desperate to move to the area, Crystal City would be seeing a lot more activity. Apartment rents are also stabilizing or dropping. And once all of the NoMa development is completed, there will be even more supply. Let's work on building the foundation for more private sector jobs, and THEN consider building up - given sequestration, we can't afford to take an "if we build it, they will come" attitude.