Housing Complex

The Main Arguments Against Changing the Height Act, and Why They’re Wrong

A rendering of Pennsylvania Avenue with 200-foot buildings.

A rendering of Pennsylvania Avenue with 200-foot buildings.

Opponents of the city's proposed changes to Congress' 103-year-old Height of Buildings Act came out in full force to a D.C. Council hearing yesterday to lay out their arguments for preserving the law that caps the verticality of D.C.'s skyline. Their points were manifold, and often intelligently thought out and presented. But there were a few persistent themes to their opposition—and to statements made by the two councilmembers present—that fundamentally missed the mark. Here's a roundup of those arguments and why they're wrong.

Raising the Height Act would lead to tall buildings downtown rather than in neighborhoods that need an economic boost.

This is probably true. It's also irrelevant. For one thing, most struggling neighborhoods don't really want 15-story buildings. Anacostia residents have fiercely resisted a proposed six-story building on their main street, in part because they say it's too tall.

Downtown, however, could use some additional density. D.C. office rents are sometimes ranked the highest in the country. Increasing supply could ease rents, lure more businesses to the District, and create local jobs. It would also boost tax revenue significantly—from the higher property values that would result, the incomes of the new residents the city could accommodate, and the 10 percent food tax that all those new office workers and residents would spend on lunch and dinner. That revenue could then be spent on subsidies and incentives for development east of the Anacostia River and elsewhere that's appropriate in scale and type to the neighborhoods. Residents of those neighborhoods would be more likely to welcome grants for retail and community organizations, and perhaps a new government agency building or two, than the arrival of skyscrapers.

Where's the infrastructure?

This line of reasoning came from both public witnesses and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who accused Planning Director Harriet Tregoning of failing to consider the "cost of infrastructure" if the Height Act were amended. The basic idea is that taller buildings would mean more people in development clusters, particularly downtown and near Metro stations, and so better transit and road and utility infrastructure would be needed.

The problem with this argument is that the infrastructure is already needed. Bits of our streets keep getting swallowed up by sinkholes. Metro's miserably overcrowded during rush hour. There's a $1 billion plan underway to bury the city's power lines and prevent massive power outages, and a $2.6 billion plan to build huge tunnels under the city to mitigate flooding and stormwater runoff. What we need isn't to limit our demand for new infrastructure; it's to raise the money to pay for that infrastructure. The new revenue from taller development downtown and elsewhere could help bring us the infrastructure we're already lacking.

It won't lower the cost of housing, because high-rise units are expensive.

Laura Richards of the Penn Branch Citizens Civic Association made this argument at the hearing. Given that condos and apartments in high-rises tend to be pricey, "changing the Height Act will just exacerbate" the problem of unaffordable housing, she said—unless we fill up high-rises with people on public housing assistance.

But the goal of allowing taller buildings isn't to create affordable housing in those buildings; it's to make housing cheaper elsewhere in the city. I won't launch into an explanation of the basic principle of supply and demand, but I will note that there's a cascading effect in D.C. When there's a limited supply of high-end housing, people of means who can't find that housing will settle for, say, a condo near U Street, thereby driving up the cost of rents and for-sale homes in that neighborhood. Young professionals who would have moved there find themselves priced out and head for Petworth, which then becomes unaffordable to the families who have long lived there, and the pattern continues. It may seem counterintuitive, but creating housing for wealthy Washingtonians can actually make it more affordable for the rest of us.

And then consider the alternative. If we don't create a mechanism to boost the supply of housing in D.C. and the population keeps growing, then we're definitely going to see our housing prices rise. Some critics of amending the Height Act argue that D.C.'s population growth forecasts are inflated. But even if that's the case, housing isn't about to get cheap in D.C., and so increasing supply will continue to make the city more affordable.

The public hasn't been consulted.

Many opponents of the changes have made this argument. It simply isn't true. The Office of Planning has held 10 public meetings in different parts of the city, and there was a public NCPC meeting after the draft recommendations came out.

Now whether the Office of Planning has actually listened to and incorporated public input is another question. But precedent suggests Tregoning is amenable to changing her mind if presented with sufficient public outcry. After her proposal to eliminate parking minimums in transit zones as part of an update to the zoning code was "really wigging people out," she dropped that provision this summer. On the Height Act, she could do the same; she said yesterday, "I expect that there will be changes to it in response to the public comment."

Home rule is a distraction.

"This is not a home rule issue," said Ward 3 resident Sue Hemberger at the hearing. "What the Office of Planning is proposing is smoke and mirrors," not home rule, agreed Committee of 100 on the Federal City Chair Nancy MacWood. Home rule is a "red herring" in this debate, said Loretta Neumann of the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Their main line of reasoning is that removing congressional limitations on heights outside of the L'Enfant City doesn't actually hand the power to set those height limits to the D.C. government, but rather to the Zoning Commission, 40 percent of which is federally appointed.

But the other 60 percent of the Zoning Commission is made up of D.C. residents who are approved by the Council and the mayor. And the Office of Planning—whose leadership is appointed by the mayor—plays a big role in crafting the city's zoning priorities. Just look at the comprehensive update to the zoning code that's now taking place, where the Office of Planning has conducted the studies and written the recommendations for approval by the Zoning Commission (and where Tregoning has taken even more heat than on the Height Act).

This argument also ignores the flip side of this, which is that even if removing D.C. from congressional height limitations doesn't mean 100 percent local control, not making this change means, essentially, 0 percent local control. By saying that the Height Act should remain intact, you're saying that you have more faith in lawmakers from Iowa and Texas to determine our skyline than you do in our local elected officials. Not only that, you're saying that you have more faith in lawmakers from Iowa and Texas 103 years ago. To argue that those distant, historical figures represent D.C.'s interests better than our contemporary elected leaders is downright cynical.

It'll make D.C. ugly.

This is, of course, a matter of taste. But many people, myself included, would argue that boxy, block-long, flat-topped, uniform buildings aren't all that attractive. That's what our current, restrictive height limits have brought us. If a developer spends a fortune on a valuable parcel of downtown land (and expects to pay a fortune in property taxes), that developer is going to build every square foot possible up to the height limit. As a result, we end up with monotonous downtown blocks.

You don't really see that in cities without such low ceilings on their building heights. Skyscrapers may not be your idea of beautiful, but they tend to be varied. And in all likelihood, we're not talking about skyscrapers. We're talking about a situation where a developer could build, say, a 15-story building in exchange for certain concessions: setbacks at the top to make the building appear less tall from the street, or design review to ensure that the building would be an enhancement to the city's skyline, or things that are not at all related to aesthetics, like affordable housing. Tregoning even suggested a "beauty contest" so that only the most attractive tall buildings would get built. The bottom line is that the ability to grant additional stories to a developer is a valuable trading chip for the city, one that can be cashed in for things we find desirable, aesthetic or otherwise. Right now we don't have that power.

Changing the Height Act won't benefit D.C. immediately.

Mendelson levied this charge at Tregoning during yesterday's hearing, arguing that modifying the Height Act wouldn't bring about affordability today. "Why talk about affordable housing 100 years from now?" he quipped. Tregoning replied in the same vein that I will: Why wouldn't we talk about affordable housing 100 years from now? If the current, 103-year-old Height Act is any indication, the decisions we make today could still be around a century from now. It would be extremely shortsighted not to consider the long-term implications of our policies.

The fact is, blunt tools like zoning and height limits aren't going to affect affordability in the immediate future. If we want more affordable housing in the next five years, we have to start building it; if we want it immediately, we have to start printing vouchers for subsidized housing, stat. (Neither is about to happen to any meaningful degree, for a whole host of reasons.) But given that what we're actually discussing right now is height limits, why not take into account what they'll mean for affordability down the line? Future generations will surely thank us if we get this right.

Rendering from the Office of Planning's draft report

  • BCA

    Aaron:

    Something that may be of interest here. Architizer ran an interview with Skyscraper Museum's Carol Willis yesterday:
    http://www.architizer.com/blog/sky-high/

    Although I find most of her statements a little too cold and calculating, I was struck by this:

    "And bemoaning the height of these buildings as anti-urban blight misses an important fact about the transfer of developable air rights: 'These buildings use up the low space—they use it up forever.' That is, relocating the stratospherically wealthy into the stratosphere, paradoxically, brings more light and air down to the rest of us."

    While Tregoning's notion of a "beauty contest" is charming, a more compelling argument would be to create some kind of system where developers/building owners could bid to purchase adjoining air rights after the height limit is raised, thereby ensuring the staggered profile along the streetscape so many of us would like to see.

  • xmal

    Bravo Aaron for restoring some calm and reason to what has been a shrill debate.

  • TJ

    Very pleased to hear that most people attending the hearing opposed changes to the height limits.

    Some of your arguments have merit, but not the one on infrastructure. Are we really supposed to believe that the limited changes you say are likely will pay for repaired and expanded transportation infrastructure? Not to mention development in Anacostia? Will we also get ponies? Please.

    Also, I happen to be of the view that what you call a "boring" skyline makes the city more attractive, more on a human scale. Does an even building height make Paris, Rome, Vienna, St. Petersburg boring? Now of course Washington is not as beautiful as those places, but all share an even height. If suddenly some buildings are allowed to soar above the others, it would be ruin one of the defining characteristics of the city. It would also create the caverns of darkness seen in many other cities. No thanks.

  • fongfong

    @TJ

    The infrastructure argument you make is plain silly, as Aaron noted. We already are not investing in infrastructure, mostly because the pols like Phil Mendelson, who came into office with NIMBY support, refuse to devote the funds to those matters. DDOT seems to be trying to create more options, with streetcars etc., which are also opposed by the NIMBYs mentioned as testifying against removing the Height Act.

    NIMBYs want it both ways. We cannot build here because the infrastructure stinks (i.e., I cannot find parking there) but are against any expansion of streetcars and other public transportation because, you've got it, more people will come.

    Mostly, they just hate people and want fewer of them around so their chances to find parking can improve.

  • Drumz

    TJ,

    Does an even building height make Paris, Rome, Vienna, St. Petersburg boring
    No, probably not. But is it just the height of the buildings that similarly make the buildings not-boring? I'd argue the design of those buildings themselves play a greater factor.

    Not to mention that Paris has very tall buildings but just outside its city limits, and massively upgraded the the infrastructure to make it possible. Also, Paris literally had riots over the high cost of housing (among other reasons).

    If suddenly some buildings are allowed to soar above the others, it would be ruin one of the defining characteristics of the city.

    Ok, but is it the most defining characteristic. In a world where we never had a height limit but still had the smithsonian, monuments, seat of government, etc. I still think DC would be a popular place to visit. OP did an analysis where they photoshopped in higher buildings and what it would look like from different vantage points. You'd be hard pressed to notice a difference if you didn't know any better.

  • muskellunge

    "most struggling neighborhoods don't really want 15-story buildings."

    This is a caricature, a straw-man "nimby" exaggeration undermines your argument. Struggling neighborhoods would be happy with more of those 3- and 4-story buildings that they will not be getting if the development is channeled downtown.

  • drumz

    If development is channeled downtown then presumably some of it will be offices or retail and people may not want or be able to live downtown as well. Therefore, they'll want to move in to other DC neighborhoods. As has been happening in DC for about, forever.

  • Plooop

    As previously mentioned, some of the arguments that Aaron makes are reasonable, some are laughable. The infrastructure argument he makes is logically unsound. Further, as to housing costs-supply and demand...blah blah blah. If anyone here thinks that allowing big office and residential towers downtown will exert any real downward pressure on housing prices, I suspect that you were born yesterday.

  • name

    I can't find a large group of current residents that benefits from raising the height limit.

    Foreign investors? yes.
    Property Developers? yes.
    Small property owners and investors? no.

    Low Income Renters? no.
    Average renters on a DC salary scale? No.
    Super high end renters, that can't afford NYC, but still like to show off? Yes.

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  • Fabrisse

    @ Drumz -- Like Paris, DC keeps its tall buildings outside the city. It's called Rosslyn.

    I like tall buildings. I don't want them in Downtown DC because I think we're confusing height with density. We have not tried rezoning to increase the density which I think should be the first step.

  • let ‘em grow

    @Fabrisse...if you don't want additional height but you want additional density all you're going to get are more of the same boring boxes of buildings that downtown is cursed with now.

    adding density in a way that allows the buildings to grow in height will allow for far more interesting building massing than the maxed-out FAR boxes that we now see throughout DC.

  • Richard Longstreth

    This is an interesting contrarian piece, but ignores the central issue: how to plan effectively for long-term growth. This the city planning office has not done. The proposal is just a one-dimensional stab that ignores a range of issues considered fundamental to sound planning. Among many other things, it assumes recent trends in demographic growth and, equally important, the rate of growth will remain more-or-less the same. The assumption also seems to be people occupying new, taller apartment buildings will work close by, but re is no there is no consideration that many others may commute, and indeed, many people living in town may commute to outlying areas, a not uncommon phenomenon these days. Mr. Wiener is naïve if he thinks rise in downtown residential real estate values will not affect those beyond. Precisely the opposite is the case in every major city. The city's proposal is perhaps the most sweeping one made since the McMillan plan of over a century ago, but it could not be further from the intent or the sophistication of that scheme, which was instrumental in coalescing the movement for city planning. It is an ill-conceived, one-dimensional, narrow-agenda-driven initiative that stands to ruin the city if it is implemented.

  • SFB

    London has gone through many of the same debates. For a long time, it was almost entirely low-rise. More recently, there have been several large skyscrapers built, with great controversy (the 'gherkin', the 'shard' etc). Mostly these buildings are occupied by bankers and foreigners. In DC, tall buildings might also be occupied by defense contractors, who occupy most of the tall buildings in NoVA. Nonetheless, it's STILL a good idea to allow taller buildings, because the taxes paid by those new residents would provide DC with revenues to fund other public goods.

  • maktoo

    The so-called luxury condos downtown will likely - as has most of the high-rise housing along the Mass. Ave. corridor and near Chinatown - be purchased as speculative investments. The individual units will then be rented out, mostly to bands of college-fresh, young professionals whose jobs are liberally sprinkled throughout the metro area.

    So saying that building housing for the rich only benefits the rich is funny. Because *they* don't want to live in downtown D.C. - they just want to rent it to 23-year-old party monsters and their friends who LOVE the Metro-accessibility. Which is fine: more bodies on the streets at all hours makes the city more liveable for me.

  • AMT

    Re: changing the character of the city.

    Calling this a sweeping proposal on the scale of the McMillan plan assumes that the zoning will be immediately updated to say anything goes all across the city. That simply will not be the case, as Tregonig has made clear time and again. The current zoning limits on height and density would remain for the vast majority of land in the District, with that in targeted, transit-accessible zones and corridors the only areas allowed increased height. The difference will be the ability of the OP and ZC to make those decisions, whereas now the only actor of any consequence is Congress.

  • NO

    Screw you fools who want MORE idiots working in DC. First of all, government employs too damn many people in the first place. Fire some of the bums and it'll make space for people who work.

    Second, if you're under the delusion that Metro or the roads in the DC region are fixable, even with some funding, you're kidding yourself. It would take a fortune, and in the process the disruption would be a nightmare. The entire DC area needs to be LESS dense, spread out some of these major agencies into various nearby states.

    What kind of idiot actually wants traffic to get WORSE? Some of the idiots here, apparently. Screw you!!!

  • Robb Tufts

    "What we need isn't to limit our demand for new infrastructure; it's to raise the money to pay for that infrastructure. The new revenue from taller development downtown and elsewhere could help bring us the infrastructure we're already lacking."

    YES! INFRASTRUCTURE PYRAMID SCHEMES WILL SOLVE ALL OF DC'S PROBLEMS.

    Seriously though, I can't believe you wrote that and meant it. It is an ignorant statement and shows a true lack of understanding of how infrastructure funding works.

  • pwedz

    ok - but what if we are of the neighborhoods that don't want five 20 story apt complexes popping up next to our metro station.. I dig the new apartments at the Brookland metro. I'd like them a lot less if they were 30 stories high.

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