Study: Raising D.C.’s height limit would help city, not cause world to end

OP_Height Master Plan Economic Feasibility Study_PES_07 24 2013


For more than a century, the height of buildings in Washington D.C. has been capped by federal law. The original rationale was fire safety — ladders back in 1900 only reached so high — but the height limit has since made its way into the city's aesthetic mythology. It preserves "light and air" on the streets, defenders say, and symbolizes the subordination of commerce to the rule of law.

But it also helps make housing and office space really expensive in a city that's already difficult to live and do business in, and forces a monotonous, ice-cube tray quality on the skyline. For those reasons, over the decades, the city's leaders have asked Congress to lift the restriction. Their cries have always gone unheeded — until last year, when Republican Rep. Darrell Issa struck up an improbable friendship with D.C. Mayor Vince Gray (D).

So Issa asked for a study on what it would mean to raise the height limit. Today, a preliminary economic feasibility analysis was released, and it confirms what you would expect: Boosting the height limit, even to between 130 and 160 feet total, would incentivize developers to add on to existing buildings and construct taller new ones.

That wouldn't necessarily be cheaper on a square foot basis, and developers wouldn't all jump at the chance to add height; the analysis concluded that only a few sites in the District have enough market demand to support taller construction. But it would make it easier to build higher ceilings, making office space more attractive, and add enough capacity to ease office rents. That would attract new businesses and allow others to expand, which the study projects would create 7,100 to 14,000 new jobs, plus some 1,000 temporary construction jobs each year (or between 1 and 2 percent of current employment).

On the residential side, the study forecasts that boosting the height limit modestly would create between 4,400 to 7,900 new units over 20 years — that's 10 to 18 percent of the capacity the city is expected to need. That might not substantially decrease rents, but the city would reap the benefits of new residents, especially clustered around metro stations. And since a chunk of every property transfer goes to support affordable housing, people on the low end of the spectrum would benefit too.

The city's Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, while professing a love for the city's current graceful proportions, made the economic case in a presentation of the study's results. "If we were to continue to grow at our current pace, well before 20 years from now, we would exhaust the capacity of our city to accommodate the population growth that would be coming to the city," she said. "And way before then we'd feel incredible pressure on prices. Some of us would argue that we're feeling it right now."

What would all this look like? The Washington City Paper has the boards where D.C.'s Office of Planning presented what the city might look like with a little room to grow. (Of course, this isn't the first study on what raising the height limit would mean for D.C. An MIT grad student did a much more detailed one back in 2009, and came to even more positive conclusions.)

Will anything actually happen this time? The odds still don't look great. Some locals  vocally oppose the idea. The Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission, which are running the study process, have started from the premise that any changes should "maintain the horizontality of the existing monumental skyline" and "minimize the impacts to nationally significant historic resources," not work towards economic growth. And as for congressional momentum, with Issa now tied up on a whole bunch of other highly politicized issues, it's doubtful he'll get a chance to push hard on this one.

But hey, there are still plenty of large must-pass bills to insert height limit language into. And from a deregulatory, job-creation perspective, it's now even harder to argue against.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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