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