Friday Question of the Day – Should DC Building Height Restrictions Be Lifted?

Sky-Scrapers, originally uploaded by freddyjinkins.

We’ve never talked about this subject before though someone brought it up under a different context in a previous discussion so I thought it’d be worth exploring. There was a pretty interesting article written on the subject by the Post back in May of 2007. According to the article to lift the restrictions:

“To do so would require the support of Congress, which created the Height Act nearly a century ago to restrict virtually all of Washington’s tallest buildings to a height of 130 feet.”

So what do you think would housing become more reasonbly priced if the restrictions were lifted? Would DC stop losing companies that move to VA or MD? Would it kill the look of the city? Which side do you support?

48 Comment

  • In areas like Tenleytown, Van Ness, Fort Totten, and Anacostia, yes. Everywhere else- no, but maybe there can be higher heights far away from the capitol and monuments. Neighborhoods would never allow this.

  • Vonstallin

    F**&K no….
    Two thumbs down to lifting the hieght restriction. When I goto Cities with sky scrapers I always say..nice place to visit, but wouldn’t want to live there. I hate walking in the shadows.

  • Vonstallin

    Plus, isn’t their alot of office space for rent downtown? and tons of condos for sale in NW?
    when i drive to work and around downtown all i see are signs saying office space for rent and condo buildings thats been completed for a few years still have the banner in front saying condos for sale.

    Arlington is close enuff for anyone who needs to look at sky scrapers.

  • It will take an act of Congress, they can keep them in like others sais, Arlington or even Bethesda.

  • The restriction should be lifted slightly (e.g. up to 18 stories), in areas a 0.5 or more from the National Mall, in close proximity to Metro and a sufficient distance from clusters single family homes. Greater height means more tax revenue and the city is losing too much of this to the taller, edge cities in MD and VA. The only issue with enacting this it would immediately alter land values in these boundaries, but that would need to be mediated.

  • There is nothing better than going on a trip to say, NYC and then coming home to the open sky! Also, cities that have the big scrapers always seem to appear much dirtier.

  • I agree with Kalia completely but the whole system we have. the metro for instance. is set up for downtown density. to maximize smart growth we need to at least roll back the limits. 20 stories downtown. allow friendship heights higher limits as well. for totten would be another good area as its on two metro lines. it would take decades to get a skyline like nycs and there isnt enough demand for it anyway. but we need to be smart about maximizing our density and using our infrastructure to the best of its abilitys. in doing so we increase our tax base as well.

  • I love the height restrictions. It keeps real estate values and rental rates up in the air. Any artificial law restricting supply will only drive the price of that good up.

  • yes nate everyone knows this. but thanks for the lesson in greed. we are talking about smart growth and whats best for the city however. not nates rental income.

  • I wouldn’t be so sure on the demand lacking. Maybe not at current rental rates. But if Class A office space downtown was renting for $35/sq. ft. instead of ~$60, then I think that would open up a lot of demand from nonprofits and other organizations that have been fleeing the city.

  • Honestly, I’m all about getting rid of these artificial restrictions that impede the organic development of the city. However, I do like that the buildings downtown are not skyscrapers. I like the small-town feel of the city. So, I’m torn.

    However, in terms of compromise, as well as smart transit-oriented development, opening up significant new markets in real estate, and, really, understanding that our city is already artificially contained in a 10-mile, it should be time for taller buildings in the denser areas outside of downtown. I’m thinking some kind of border that starts north of U Street, includes areas like Tenley and FH, but with some kind of local control to not destroy the fabric of other neighborhoods.

    But, then again, I get irrationally hostile towards curb cuts, so maybe I’m not the one to ask.

  • yes nate and wouldnt that be a GOOD thing. For businesses and jobs to stay in city limits?

  • Lets not all get ahead of ourselves. first if anything was to happen to the restrictions they would only be relaxed not scrapped all together. but even if they were. the notion that DC would suddenly have cranes decending on it left and right erecting the next nyc is ludicrous. buildings are already being scrapped now that were in the planning stages and that is WITH the height restrictions in place. I saw on dcmud that columbia rd was supposed to get a midrise apartment building near the unsafeway. the developers decided not to bother and just redo the existing 1 story commercial row. so the idea that dc would have a skyline in 2010 is just way out of whack.

  • It may be my greed on my part. But it is stupidity for others. The same people that argue for economic principles in this instance, argue against the same economic principles in other cases. Choose a side.

    As for businesses and jobs to stay in the city, there is a premium for being located here. I once worked for a nonprofit that would not leave the city due to the prestige of being in very close proximity to policymakers. Even if the marginal companies move outside of the city they won’t go far as the talent pool & transportation is here. Furthermore, does it really matter if businesses are across the bridge in Arlington or DC? The whole metro area benefits.

  • “Furthermore, does it really matter if businesses are across the bridge in Arlington or DC? The whole metro area benefits.”

    True, but it does really matter where the taxes go. DC already has a terribly small tax base, as it is the only city in the country that doesn’t have the ability to draw from state taxes. So, in this case, every little bit helps.

  • I think what has been done in Philadelphia is great and could be adopted here. In Philly, they have a strict corridor between the 30th St. Station and City Hall for taller buildings. The skyline looks great from the train and the city seams to be bustling.

    However, seeing the Capitol or Washington Monument from afar is fantastic and is unique.

  • I find that Chicago is an immensely livable city with neighborhoods that equal and surpass DC AND with MORE non-chain restaurants downtown AND with gigantic skyscrapers.

    Remember that more people working downtown equals more and cooler restuarants and nightlife. Otherwise we lose out the Gallagher show to the State Theater.

    I had a friend whose tiny dotcom had a 4th floor office in a 38 story building in Chi and he said his rents were really affordable.

  • I’m a smart growth advocate, but taken to its logical conclusion, restrictions would be removed and EVENTUALLY we could end up with a haphazard skyline like say, Baltimore. I grew up here, and to me, a big part of what DC is about, is its lack of skyline. I say screw new real estate markets. We’ve been fine without them this long. There’s a hell of a lot we could do with what we have without going and letting the height restriction genie out of its bottle.

  • I agree with the emerging — but not unanimous — consensus for easing but not eliminating height restrictions at favorable transit locations far from downtown.

    But I’ll add two cents:
    1′ above sea level — Washington Monument
    108′ above sea level — Florida/U Street
    238′ above sea level — GA Ave/Petworth Metro

    The escarpment geography of DC kind of works against one of the rationales for height restrictions. My piddly little row house in Petworth already towers above the Washington Monument. So preserving sight lines in the monumental core of DC — surely worth preserving, as they lend DC its unique identity — doesn’t require height restrictions once you’re up the hill.

  • And I just looked up that the Washington Monument is 555′ feet tall. So unless my rowhouse has 90′ ceilings instead of 9′ ceilings, I am wrong. I can still see it from my roof, though.

  • I’m with Geezer on this one. I believe we can preserve the spirit of the city and its attractively low-cut skyline near sensitive landmarks and demographics while still encouraging new economic development in areas toward the peripheral of the city and in those areas where development is stagnate. Call it what you like, but this city has a cost of living akin to New York while allowing much of the business and commercial revenue (the taxes & benefits thereof) to take place in the surrounding states. Sensible mixed-use development in the district is sorely lacking and sorely needed, ease the height restriction in those areas who need it most.

  • Yes, Geezer’s interpretation has my vote, too.

  • First, rents is only an incidential reason for companies to not come to DC but taxes are the main reason the companies, non-profits, etc tend to move to Virginia.

    Saying that, I think height restrictions should be looesed in certain areas like dupont Federal Triangle and out past Union Station but not near the government center i.e. capital hill and the white house.

  • Vonstallin

    Well, All I will say is that DC is not like any other place on the planet. It is viewed by many countries as the Powerhouse of the world. The American president and the town that he lives in don’t have to meet all the requirements of other cities. It’s the only “Territory” inside of America. We should be tax free like other US territories.

    What im getting at is that this place is different and I think that difference is what brought most to DC? So if they restrict the height so that the beauty of down town can be viewed from afar. Then so be it. I love the fact that on the 4th of July I can get on top of my roof and see the Monument shot fireworks and then turn and can see the National Cathedral.

    I bet they will never lift the restriction within one mile or so of the Whitehouse or Capital just for the fact that a good sniper can shot at the President or member of congress.

    Ok someone help me get down off my soap box….

  • DC will not reach its potential until larger swaths of DC are made safe. Until then, you will have large numbers of people trying to squeeze into a small space. Most of us pay more in rent in Petworth than NE. yet, the amenities are not much different. There are large parts of DC that are affordable and ready to be built out. The crime stops investment. Changing the height limits only avoids the issue instead of solving it.

  • What about this – lift (or modify) the height restrictions in all of Northeast and Southeast outside of a 4 block radius from the capitol to increase business investment there? This means a 40 story hotel on the river where the stadium used to be.

    Lift height restrictions north of U St in NW so that Wisconsin Ave can finally grow to its natural height?

    Do not change height restrictions in SW.

    That’s my plan.

  • Nate, I respectfully disagree. DC as we both agree has a great deal of potential as a beacon of responsible urban and economic growth in the next american century. However, the social factors which restrict businesses from entering traditionally high-crime areas are mostly limited to shops and storefronts which depend on foot traffic and the crime that preys on it. I believe that office buildings which employ a mixture of residential, office, and commercial spaces would provide and influx of new residents, consumers, and revenue that would transform the landscape of these areas and, consequently, their crime statistics (and yes, thank you in advance for the glib I’m going to recieve about pricing people out of their homes). Look just across the river and you will see immediate and rapid change in the area surrounding the ballpark; offices and middle income residences are germinating and flourishing in the rich untapped economic soil on the banks of the Anacostia river. Furthermore (love that word), we only need to look down the street and a few years in the past to see the stark changes made to Columbia Heights, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the general quality of life. Deregulation of the height restriction may not solve all of DC’s problems but it would certainly give us another option in fighting many of the city’s battles discussed so often on this blog.

  • The height restriction is something that makes DC unique. And lifting it isn’t going to make real estate prices drop.

  • As a Texan I’m all for taller, bigger, and better generally. But I do like the fact that DC’s downtown is different than most modern downtowns which, frankly, all look about the same. So I’m torn.

    If they do raise the restriction I’d like to see that they keep new buildings under 569 feet so that they don’t surpass the height of the San Jacinto Monument (Pro Texana!), which was itself purposefully built to be 15′ taller than the Washington Monument.

    True story: the San Jac Monument was a WPA project and nearly all of the workers had no prior construction experience yet they finished the project on time and in budget. Can’t say the same for the Washington Monument which took 30 years to build, involved years of squabbling in Congress, way over budget, and heck, the stones don’t even match.

  • Flipflopirate,
    If you make the neighborhood safe, there will be businesses that were sitting on the sidelines that will eventually invest. I truly believe that. Years ago, I looked at buying a convenience store. The potential for getting murdered (sadly, I can deal with being robbed) was too much to overcome.

    There has to be hundreds of people like me. Ditto for housing. I have a 1br for rent right now in SE. I’d rent if for $700 to a working class person right NOW. But most working class people will live in a room in CH before venturing into an unsafe neighborhood. Height restrictions do not change that. Addressing crime does.
    And that is where DC gov’t has let the residents of this city down.

    Look at the Anacostia Gateway building on Good Hope and MLK. A brand new building and it has sat vacant for a couple years now. It is right at the foot of downtown. Cheap office space. Yet, noone will rent it.

  • There’s no reason to maintain the current height restrictions along, say, the K Street corridor, the “NOMA” corridor and around a lot of metro stations. More people, more businesses, more options and more tax revenue. Less pollution.

    What’s not to like?

  • I’m for it. I am tired of all these lower case buildings!

  • I have to tell you that I’ve lived in D.C. for so long is always weirds me out a bit to go to other cities with taller buildings. It’s a little discomboobulating (yes I spelled that wrong on purpose) at first and then when I get used to it, I still don’t like it so much. I’m good with the lower buildings. Fill up what we’ve got for now and then go from there (plenty of empty office space available).

  • Maybe when the city is completely built out we can revisit this but until area such as NOMA, the new ballpark district, H st NE, and Shaw are completely full (ie no more vacant properties, full occupancy in new condo buildings etc) then the height restriction should remain. Without this restriction tons of the commercial type money would have just overbuilt the K street /Dupont area instead of spreading to other equally charming but less dense neighborhoods. When the poulation of DC hits close to 1 million people instead of the 600,000 that it is currently at then we may have to look at some other options. It could take close to 15 years to fill up the city at the current rate.

  • Vonstallin

    Man if i see “Economic Development” used in one more post Im going to tell all Da hood Boys in SE that the average income in PW/CH is is close to 100k and they love the metro.


  • Vonstallin

    C Says:
    January 9th, 2009 at 11:31 am

    thanks…that is spot on and what I’ve been trying to say for a while.

    Everyone just wants to cluster in a few spots and change the law so that those same few little spots become overpopulated, while DC have sooooo much more to offer development wise…(damn did i just say that) East and South of the “Hot Spots”

  • How about we rebuild the current janky looking Washington Monument to be the tallest structure in the world and then there wont be any problem with the height restrictions. Our monuments are kind of minor league compared to other countries, we need to flaunt our wealth and power a little more

  • Lots of issues here, lots of nuances to address re: the points already made.

    Office space for non-profits is not only about high rents, it’s about the class of office space. DC has a disproportinate amount of Class A and Trophy office space, at the expense of Class B and C space that non-profits can ususally afford. Same argument for luxury condos vs. affordable housing. Some may argue, “great, that means the quality is better” and that may be true to a degree.

    However, 21st century thinking about sustainability, not just environmental, but economic and SOCIAL sustainability, points towards having a diverse mix of people and viewpoints. I think this is especially important in DC where the lawyers in Trophy office space to the non-profit in B-class space, the executives in luxury condos to the dry cleaner in affordable housing, all need to be heard and represented.

    But there is also more to the city than numbers and square footage. Social sustainability also relies on the sense of local and national identity. The height restriction lends DC a unique character, and the aesthetics and intanginbles cannot be ignored just to satisfy a demand curve on a financial projection. However locking DC into a time capsule of visual identity is not the way to preserve it.

    Zoning and height limits are too cumbersome a tool to deal with the variety of aesthetic and ecological considerations that need to be addressed on a building-by-building basis.

    In general, I think height restrictions should be loosened for transit oriented, LEED gold rated, multi-use buildings that mix employment and residential components, and present neighborhood serving retail/restaurant/entertainment at street level.

  • Oh, one more thing to consider is that there are break points that correlate number of stories and construction methods (and thus costs).

    For a 4 story building and under, you can build the entire structure out of wood (called “stick built”). Above that, you’re talking concrete and steel – way more expensive. So to a builder that is allowed 5 stories, it may not be worth it to go for that one extra story. If he’s going to switch to concrete and steel, then he’s going to want 8 or 10 stories to make it worth the extra construction cost.

    Above about 10 or 12 stories, the elevator technology changes and again makes going for that 13th story way more expensive. It may not be worth going above 12 stories unless you can actually get many more.

    For areas of the city already above 10 or 12 stories, no height will be left on the table, since they are already past that construction method break point. But in other lower, more residential areas, a height limit change might not see much results unless it allows for some drastic height increases.

    Sorry for writing a novel!

  • Social Sustainability is an opinion and nothing more.

    Having volunteered heavily in a PTA there’s a HUGE difference between what different classes of people find sustainable.

    For instance, I do not believe that single adult me should be allowed to loiter on an elementary school playground drinking and selling drugs. I PRESUMED that no one would think that would be ok. The principal of that elementary school DISAGREED and told me that those people were members of the community and deserved to have a place to hang out.

    I promise you that comment from the principal is 100% true.

    I reported this to the Mayor and the police and 6 months later there were new lights and no drug dealers on the property.

    To this principal, having space for adult me was “sustainability” to people who were not friends with Mayor Barry, that’s “criminal element that must be removed from the property.”

  • @Odentex: The Washington Monument is made of mismatched stone because, well, there was a small interruption between 1861 and 1865, after which stone from the original quarry was unavailable. Lazy construction workers – couldn’t even build a monument during a little civil war, huh? Of course, if the Texans hadn’t been busy fighting against the Union, maybe they could’ve helped git ‘er done on time and underbudget… (I keed, I keed)

  • Ed: I’m well aware that the War of Northern Aggression halted some of the North’s vanity projects, regardless, Texans with any sense wouldn’t have ventured east of the Sabine under any conditions, not even to help hapless yankees build a (short) monument to a Virginian slave owner. 😉

  • Technically the Know-Nothings gang/political cult “owned” the monument during the first phase of construction. Construction of the monument was stopped at least 5 years before the Civil War started.

    The civil war, of course, had to be over before they could restart it, but it was not the reason it stopped. The reason was that it was being managed by a quasi-skinhead group that was partially profiled in the film Gangs of New York.

  • Neener: Didn’t the Know-Nothings take a marble slab that was sent by the Pope (for use in construction) and pitch into the Potomac in protest?

    Take that papists!

  • I used to be a strong supporter of lifting the height restriction. Higher buildings = more density = smart growth and all that jazz. I wrote a couple of papers on it my first semester of grad school, and even worked out a formula to predict the average height each neighbohrood in DC would be with no restriction, using real estate prices. (If you’re curious, Downtown buildings would average about 19 stories.)

    Two years and 1 urban planning degree later, I’ve changed my mind. The height restriction is one of the reasons DC is so walkable. In other American cities (not counting New York, which is clearly an outlier) you get a lot of haphazard development: skyscraper, parking lot, skyscraper, lowrise, parking lot, etc. Here in DC, its different. Developers can’t build high, so they build MORE. There are very few vacant lots left in the city, which makes for a more interesting, walkable city.

    When ALL the vacant lots are developed and we’re out of space, lets revisit the issue. Maybe the height restriction could be restricted in selected parts of the city on the outskirts like Anacostia, New York Ave NE, or Friendship Heights. For now though, I’m very happy with the city as it is. Let Rosslyn have the skyscrapers…they’re on their way already anyway.

  • I agree withOdentex, in Texas the motto is “Don’t mess with Texas” as I am familiar with San Antone and the Missions which helped Texas become the great state Texas is today.

  • Well I used to be a fan of DC having taller buildings. That was until September 11th. The amount of time it takes to get down 7 flights of steps during a fire drill scares me.

  • Is it by accident or design that no buildings in either MD or VA are taller that the Washington Monument?

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