Friday Question of the Day – Should DC’s Building Height Limits Be Lifted? (Take Two)

by Prince Of Petworth April 12, 2012 at 10:22 pm 78 Comments

Yesterday the Washington Post published a story titled Gray, Issa consider relaxing D.C. building height limits:

Issa, Gray and Norton said they primarily envision minor modifications to the height restrictions, perhaps an additional story onto some projects. But even a small change could make District buildings sleeker, raise ceiling heights and provide more opportunity for green space, architects said.

Issa said he’s also exploring whether the District should have greater flexibility to consider even taller buildings in areas away from downtown, a change that could one day remake parts of Northeast and Southeast and help the city absorb new residents and businesses.

Under the Height Act, a building on a commercial street can not exceed 20 feet greater than the width of the facing street, to a maximum of 130 feet. There is an exception on Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st and 15th streets NW, where buildings can rise to 160 feet.

Back in Jan. 2009 after polling PoPville about this 62% said it should not be lifted and 38% should be lifted. I’m wondering if folks still feel the same way? If you think they should be lifted – should there be any limits at all? If so, what should the new limit be? Do you think the restrictions should only be limited to downtown?

  • concerned

    Why not ask whether DC building height limits should be modified. The current discussion among the political and building industry communities is not about lifting (removing) building height limits. It’s about modifying them.

    • ET


      So much of the discussion on DCist was by people who obviously not read the WaPo article.

      The weren’t talking about turning DC into Rosslyn but that is most definitely not how many are talking this whether they are pro or con.

  • Spencer

    Do people in Popville like high rent? Increase the supply and density, then watch Rents fall. Let’s take advantage of inventions like the elevator and Crain.

    • anonymous

      If you’re going to frame it in terms of economic self-interest, then those of Popville who own homes DO in fact prefer higher rent/shorter housing supply. So there’s that.

      • Annonny

        that’s exactly why I am opposed. those who own real estate in DC, particularly those who own apartments, should be ready for a big price adjustment if this happens.

  • From an economic prospective, there are quite a few businesses that are completely priced out of the downtown market.

    With class A office space now hovering in the $50 – $60 per square foot range, that would mean a company looking to lease 30,000 square feet of space (a whole floor of a typical building in dc) @ $50 per square foot would have to come up with $125,000 a month just to cover its rent.

    Similarly, we could also address the density problem that prevents new hotels from being built. With hotel rooms being so expensive, a good many tourists are prevented from spending their dollars downtown. An example of the difficulty hotel development faces was just reported a few days ago when JLL’s hotel project on 14th and U converted to rental apartments.

    Let’s build up a few more stories in places like southeast, along new york ave, across the river in Anacostia and down the 295 corridor so we can see a whole bunch of new business and visitors in our city.

    • sb

      I think a better answer is to leave the height restrictions as is and encourage more office building in places like Anacostia, NY Ave., Ft. Totten, etc. We already have the infrastructure there to connect those places quickly to downtown and the rest of the metro area. There’s plenty of room in the District for more housing, offices, etc. without raising the height limits, and if downtown is built out then it’s just an incentive to develop other neighborhoods.

      • +1.

      • Why would we want to build further out? From an environmental and efficiency perspective it is best to have everything as close together as possible to reduce commuting times. Don’t see the point in encouraging sprawl.

        • sb

          we’re not talking about building in Prince William County or something. Anacostia, Ft. Totten, etc. are only a few miles from downtown, already connected by rail, and close to existing major population centers.

          • Right now I live in Columbia Heights and walk to work downtown. That can’t be done from Ft. Totten, Anacostia, etc.

    • Anonymous

      I think you mean JBG’s project at 13th and U.

  • Zach

    More like do people in Popville not like to control their own destiny? Every other city in the US does not have Federal Government restrictions in place dictating their height. This issues is as much about home rule as it is development.

    • 17th St

      Like so many things in DC, this is not a clear-cut home-rule issue; there is definitely a federal interest in shaping the appearance of the city. That doesn’t have to mean the height restrictions couldn’t be modified, either in the minimal way the Mayor has suggested or, as others have suggested, in specific areas away from the monumental core, but it would require coordination of the DC and federal government not unilateral action by either side.

  • jason

    I think in very particular areas the height limit should be lifted to permit development in certain areas such as Near Silver Spring and Benning Rd. east of the starburst to Minnesota.

    Great city planning and zoning could have the effect of enhancing city views without destroying our current skyline.

    (Pic of Paris skyline as example) http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_h-z4juWQd3g/S_yAz2UVwLI/AAAAAAAAC_4/VZYesPFyDh0/s1600/Paris+-+Le+Defense.JPG

  • adawg

    Think about how great it will be when each building has an additional story or two. Rents go down, everyone wins.

  • Anonymous

    Having just toured metro areas of China and witnessed the new state bird – the Crane – and a ton of empty 40 story concrete buildings, I think we need to think seriously hard about whether we want this area to become a concrete canyon! If we do build higher, we should consider requiring building owners to install cool new LED and laser light shows to each of the towering facades. Please let’s not have Ballston x10 everywhere.

    • We already have concrete canyons downtown. Without the height limit we could encourage greater vibrancy and more interesting architecture rather than the rows of boring boxes.

  • I don’t think this is a yes-or-no question. We’re talking about whether and WHERE as well as IF. No, not downtown or below the big hill (Meridian Park, etc), but may I would think it is good idea up on Georgia Ave. around Upshur or Missour. I think it is important to preserve the view closer in, but up here? There isn’t so much of a view. On the other hand, you can see a gorgeous view of the Washington monument from 15th and 16th sts below Blagden. That’s awesome.

    I think there’s room for compromise here. Maybe even to add a floor to buildings closer in.

    • rockcreekrunner

      Agreed! Once your over the hill leading up to admo and columbia heights, the height restriction makes much less sense, at least as related to the cityscape.
      there are also measures we can put in to stop the streets from turning into a ny-style canyon. giving properties air rights, which they can sell only to adjacent properties. so you’d see a skyscrape when the landowner bought the neighbors’ air rights, but the seller of the air rights has a much shorter building.

  • Anonymous

    I think they should remove the limit east of the Anacostia, but leave it to the west.

    Home prices in the west really do reflect the height cap in some ways and lifting it there would create losers I fear.

    Lifting it east of the river would create a lot of growth as that area would essentially turn into London’s “The City.”

    I think it would be a great plan to fuse history and progress.

    • Anonymous

      Lift it everywhere. We pander to incumbent landowners enough. Increase the supply so the city is affordable for someone who wants to move here. A view of monument is not worth the cost of high rent throughout the city. Everyone should read the Rent is to dam high by Matthew Yglesias or Gated City by Ryan Avent.

      • A


  • me

    I know that the argument now is only for an extra story or two, but I kind of feel that once the restriction is lifted for that, it will continue to be lifted in the future. One of the reasons why I really dislike other cities like NYC or Chicago is that I hate walking around the city and never being in sunlight. I really like the low skyline of DC.

    • Same here; it’s nice that here the sun light hits the streets and kills lots of germs and odors unlike in other cities.

    • TaylorStreetMan

      I agree. I feel like this is the tip of the wedge and if things aren’t handled very carefully (in other words, keeping in mind quality of life issues, not just profits and supposed rent decreases), we could end up losing the simple pleasure of walking in the sun while on a city street.

      By the way, I say “supposed rent decreases” because one of the reasons cited for the need to build higher is to accommodate more residents, whose influx would counter balance any rent decreases expected from an increase in the housing stock. This feels to me like the first steps on the road to a super high density (overly so) city that’s as expensive to live in as any other major metropolitan are (NY, etc).

    • Anonymous

      Is the sunshine worth the higher rent and higher cost of housing? And I’d be fine if we left downtown alone and just allowed high buildings near some of the less developed metro stations. Would you be amenable to that? There’s a way to do this that is win-win. We just need to be open to the idea and then we can work out the details later.

      • Agreed. Also, I find the skyscrapers in other cities to be hugely interesting and inspriring. Makes DC look rather bland.

    • I hate the sun. It gives me headaches and sunburns, bring on the skyscrapers!

  • classic_six

    While I like other cities for their impressive skylines (NY, Chicago, Hong Kong come to mind) what I like about DC is the height restriction on buildings here; it makes for a unique cityscape. I’m not convinced about the economic pulls that some might argue about more office or rental space, so prices will go down. There have been so many construction projects and I don’t think the increase in places has forced rents or sales down. I think all these new developments are being filled by people coming back or to the city and the demand actually continues to rise, so the supply needs to keep up with the demand, in this example. If the buildings were to go higher, won’t the building codes need to be adapted as well? Of course, depending upon how high the buildings go. I also think the argument about being able to have high(er) ceilings is a bit silly. People won’t be retrofitting their ceilings to be higher and as far as new places being developed, with maybe the exception of a few places, I think the more places a person can fill in said development, ultimately means more money and they’d probably aim for that as opposed to drawing in higher ceilings, which while could be nice wouldn’t equal the cost of being able to rent or sell another “floor” or “level” of units.

  • Modify it to encourage increased housing density. In preserving historic neighborhoods and views/sightlines down town I think limiting it to areas in NW/NE north of the first set of alphabet streets would be fine. It shouldn’t be touched on the hill, but across the river perhaps. SW seems to be okay with the height limit so no need to modify.
    What should also be included is a requirement that it not be modified for a period no less than 50 years – this way the city can collect a good mix of architecture styles that reflect the history of development in this city.

    Thinking that this will lower the cost of rent is kind of funny. Lower rent – no. Slow the growth of rent – yes.

  • Look at the height limit as a the “stick”, the catalyst for developers to redevelop what is left of the enormous swaths of unused land in DC.

    There is a ton of existing commercially zoned real estate in DC that is completely undeveloped as it is. Once we maximize existing real estate in places that are still fallow, then fine. But there is literally tens of millions of potentional commercial sq/ft waiting to be built in places along NY Avenue, Ball Park / Navy Yard. Mt. Vernon Sq, H Street, Anacostia etc. Places that in many cases were literally junk car lots or block after block of unused building husks or parking lots and that are still in metro accessible areas perfect for density development.

    Even if DC were able to maintain its level of current development (not gonna happen) it would be 20-30 years before we ran out of empty commercial lots to fill.

    So before we start looking to build skyscrapers on K street, why don’t we force the focus of developers dollars on the tons of places in the district that need it.

    • Anonymous


    • anon

      + 1 kabillion

    • Anon X

      Finally, I agree with Joker on something.

    • imonaboat


    • Well said. Also – want to triple the available housing in DC? Just end crime.

    • PJYinCapRiverFront

      +1 There are quite literally thousands of square feet of office space in Navy Yard already built that are unoccupied. We’re talking brand new, state of the art buildings with metro and 395/295 access, one mile from the capitol, that aren’t occupied — to say nothing of all the zoned and ready office/apt. projects that are sitting in the Capitol Riverfront BID that are planned for the next 5 years (and I’m assuming don’t have tenants.

      • Gallery of Peanuts

        Umm, OK. But people / businesses don’t want to be in those locations. So good luck not losing out to Arlington / Bethesda.

        • sb

          But I think the reasons why companies don’t want to locate there are completely unrelated to the height limit. I don’t think the areas mentioned in the above comment have higher rents than Bethesda or Arlington. So raising the height limit won’t solve the problem, if the problem is taxes, governance, crime, where their workers prefer to live, etc.

          • Anonymous

            Exactly. Businesses would love to have an address just a couple miles from the capitol, but these buildings are still priced too high, so they’re renting office space in Silver Spring and Arlington, instead.

    • “So before we start looking to build skyscrapers on K street, why don’t we force the focus of developers dollars on the tons of places in the district that need it.”


    • Anonymous

      If developers don’t want to build a ten story building there now, why would they want to build a thirty story building there tomorrow?

  • Anonymous

    Prices will not go down people! If you can build a taller building on the property, the price of the land will go up negating the benefit of the added stories.

    • swinam

      yes, but when you reach a certain level of supply, not everyone will be able to pay $2,000+ for a 1-br. then prices start to drop according to demand and ability to pay of renters.

      • Anon

        Because that has worked so well in Manhattan?

  • It should be lifted. The city is growing, and the height restriction is a hinderance to growth. It’s not 1910 anymore.

  • Anon X

    I like the city the way it is.

    If we want to add density, lets make more efficient use of the areas and buildings we do have. Perhaps make it mandatory that if you’re going to tear down a building, or in certain areas build a building, it has to be at least a certain number of floors.

    For instance, there is no excuse for the Home Depot development. Until we dont have any more surface parking lots and 1 floor strip malls across the city, I dont think we should change the height limits.

    As for businesses being priced out of downtown, I doubt these places can afford anywhere in manhattan either. They probably cant afford downtown boston or chicago. Someone will always be priced out, others will be able to thrive and find the rent manageable overhead.

    I’m all for changing the height limit if I thought things would be efficient, but we’re not maximizing efficiency now, why should we change hte limit in the hopes people will later?

  • Matt

    They should be lifted in places like upper NW, near Bethesda and Silver Spring, where we’re losing businesses to those taller buildings. DC would get the tax revenue, but you wouldn’t even be able to see the buildings from the Mall… they’d be farther away than Roslyn!

  • Taylor

    I’m tired of commuters trying to murdalize me on my bike every morning. Let’s build a few extra stories so more commuters can live in dc, stop taking their taxes over the border, and maybe get to work feeling a little less violent.

    : )

    • I support raising the height limit, but what I really like is not taller buildings but more density. I would rather change the zoning code to allow for denser development. There are many places outside of the downtown core where the height limit doesn’t really come into play but rather the FAR regulations for whatever the area is zoned. Look at the Col Brooks issue, you are talking about 50 feet versus 65, chaining the height limit in the city wouldn’t affect that.

  • Anonymous

    Definitely think it should only be restricted to downtown. It would be great to have more varied buildings farther out. Though how tough is the restriction anyway? The Senate Square Towers in Union Station and the 909 at Capital Yards in Navy Yard are pretty tall.

  • KenyonDweller

    The height limit is one of the things that makes DC special. It would be a shame to lose that.

    • Bobby

      Really? It’s not the fact that it’s the seat of the Federal Government? Or that it has wonderful, and free, museums? Or the largest public park in a any capital city in the world? Or one of the best public transportation systems in the country? Or the great university systems? I guess I’ve been mistaken all of these years. Sure the height limits give DC a unique pedestrian experience compared to many cities and this should be protected around the National Mall, the Capitol, and the White House, but to say that the height limits are the only thing that makes DC special just doesn’t really make sense.

      • Elza

        Note that he/she said “one of the thingS.” Plural.

      • Anonymous

        Nope, just the height restriction.

      • Annonny

        The height limit is the ONLY REASON I moved to DC. I have unusually short legs but am paranoid about riding elevators, so I can only climb 5 to 6 stories of steps. TAKE AWAY THE HEIGHT LIMIT AND I MIGHT DIE!!!!!

  • Bloomingdude

    I’m very skeptical of the need to lift the hight limit. When I look across the city, I see lots of properties that are vastly underutilized. And I don’t buy the argument that DC is unaffordable when there are very nice townhomes, for example, off RI Avenue in NE selling for about $150,000.

    DC is the capitol and should be unlike other cities in the U.S. I like that the Capitol towers over the rest of the city, not only for how it looks, but what it represents.

  • notpostingtooquickly

    NO. A resounding NO. It’s what makes DC so wonderful. this is NOT NYC, nor do I want it to be. This issue comes up on a consistent basis and gets slammed each time… I hope it stands up this time around…

  • Elza

    I’m just not sure I can imagine prices really going down. All new development in this city is for a high-end, luxury market that never seems to reach a peak. I suppose in theory enough new buildings could drive down the rent of existing apartments, but I’m skeptical. Rents might not rise as fast, but its hard for me to envision them dropping as much as people claim they will.

    Unless it means rents would drop to the point that I could find a non-basement studio apartment for $1200 or less (does this exist?!), I don’t think its worth sacrificing the pleasant, historic feel of the current DC skyline. Plus, I like sunlight when I walk down the street, not shadows of towering condos.

    • Agreed.

      Sunshine and aesthetic considerations ARE important. Part of the reason I don’t like NYC is that Manhattan skyscrapers are intimidating.

      • classic_six

        If you’re willing to answer, are you from big-sky territory? I ask because the only time I’ve heard someone’s response to NYC that was somewhat similar to yours is when an ex of a friend landed in Times Square (of all places in NYC) and was overwhelmed by all the lights, etc.

        • Nope, not from big-sky territory.

          I think I just prefer cities with shorter or more medium-height buildings rather than skyscrapers. Or even cities that have skyscrapers, but where it doesn’t feel as hemmed-in as in Manhttan.

          I feel very at home in London, but I always feel ill at ease in New York, and I think the building heights and lack of sunshine are a big part of the reason why.

    • Anon20009

      I agree that it is unlikely that a height limit adjustment would have a major impact on rents. We’re still slogging through one of the worst recessions in national history and that has barely affected rents, why would allowing a few more units in a few buildings make much difference either? If anything it would create more pressure to tear down existing buildings to rebuild to the new height, and new construction is never cheaper than existing. But even that is unlikely since there is so much opposition to new construction in most residential neighborhoods now – I don’t see a large crop of tall apartment buildings being allowed to spring up anywhere.

  • T Street

    I’m all for raising it in areas off the mall, capitol hill, and historic neighborhoods / streets such as Georgetown. I also agree though that we have plenty of opportunities to increase density with existing lots and one or two level non-historic properties that could be built up. Zoning allows for heights of proposed new buildings to go to a certain height yet every one of them in the planning process gets downsized because of NIMBYs complaining that they don’t want a tall building in their neighborhood. Show up to your ANC meetings and voice your support for density if you want to stop these ridiculous demands of the few folks who just don’t want anybody near their little patch of turf.

  • Anon X

    Just another thought, NY used to have rows and rows and rows of great townhouses, similar to what we have all over this city. However, the market dictated that these houses should be torn down. Now there is very little history left in the city and living in an old house and having the opportunity to preserve it for the small space in time that you own it, is only available to the uberwealthy in NYC.

    If we start allowing for the economics to be in favor tearing up city blocks of old buildings, we will soon lose our history and be just another megalopolis.

    • classic_six

      Depends upon which neighborhoods you are speaking of in NYC. NYC is a city of sprawling (I guess I should say climbing skyscrapers) but there are historical neighborhoods (the mix is what I love) and plenty of buildings that reflect the history. Many of these neighborhoods are preserved as landmark districts, so to go about and make changes requires approval, which typically means you cannot make changes on the exterior unless it is within keeping of historical accuracy. These neighborhoods and homes are beautiful.

  • Anonymous

    Do you any of you know how completely ridiculous you sound when you defend this height restriction on the basis of keeping the wealthy wealthy or keeping sunshine? People’s lives are seriously affected by this restriction. DC has some of the highest housing prices in the country, despite it’s relatively low population (compared to New York or San Francisco). The poor and middle classes have been squeezed out of the city, forced to relocate their homes and their lives because of these cost increases. You are seriously worried about views? Sunshine on your walk? How elitist can you be? We have to increase housing stock in order to buck the trend of rising housing costs in this city. If nothing is done DC will become the most expensive city in the nation at the cost of also becoming the most elitist.

    • Annonny

      Last time I checked, the bulk of NE DC and Wards 7 and 8 are full of middle class and poor people. Lifting the height restriction is not a way to attract working class people back to DC. Fixing the miserable school system is.

    • Elza

      What a lot us are saying is that we DON’T think a change in the restriction would automatically reduce rents. If rents really were guaranteed to go down, I’d be the first to support a change. However, I think it’s more likely that most new development would continue to be in the luxury, elite market–perhaps bringing more and more wealthy people in from the suburbs, but not having a very large effect on those of use who still couldn’t afford any of the new housing to begin with.

    • And that’s why all the poor people live in unrestricted, cheap Arlington and Bethesda.

      Oh wait…you mean maybe it’s not the height restriction?

  • I don’t believe rents would drop significantly either. Rent in the surrounding areas(Arlington, Bethesda, etc) are quite comparable. You might get a little more square footage, but you are paying the same and you are still living in Virginia.

  • recoveringplanner

    The most under utilized space in DC=surface parking around House/Senate office buildings; why is the fed govt looking at moving agencies like the FBI to PG county when they have prime, secure land right here…problem is that Congress controls it and they don’t want to share.

    Greatest potential for taller buildings = east of the river; it could be DC’s version of Canary Wharf

    • Anon202

      Except that the Canary Wharf area was desolate industrial land, while East of the River is home to many neighborhoods, some of them thriving and all of them full of people who may very well not welcome a wholesale revision to their community. Sure, you could focus on specific areas in which to raise the height limit but then you run the risk of creating too small a supply to entice the development in the first place. And to the extent that you might create a Canary Wharf, just watch the rents rise everywhere nearby, and who is that going to help?

  • Anonymous

    No. Adding more stories/heights is no guarantee that rents will drop. Why would they? As others have said, plenty of room still to build in DC without changing the height restriction.

  • Folks, follow the money.
    Rep. Issa has never been a fan of DC or the interest of the residents living in Washington, otherwise he would support things like full voting rights in Congress. I suspect Issa ha$ a campaign and lobbyist to help out.

    • Anonymous


  • UScitizen

    Once again Europeans must think we are mental midgets. They know how to treat National Treasures…. nope not us! Why don’t we implode the mall so we can put a few “nice” high rises in?



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