Washington D.C. is nearing the end of its examination of whether to relax the city's strict height limit, but it's no closer to actually doing so than when it started. In fact, even after concluding that allowing taller buildings would be an economic benefit, it's probably further away.
Why? Because rigid adherence to a one-dimensional understanding of the city's purpose had doomed it from the start.
The latest evidence comes from the National Capital Planning Commission, whose job it is to evaluate the impact of any particular project on the "federal interest." The inter-jurisdictional body defines that interest in three basic ways: Security, symbolism, and space needed to house the government.
If those are your top priorities, of course, boosting the height limit becomes completely unnecessary. Tall buildings are just harder to lock down in a crisis. The federal government's long personnel expansion is over. And an office building poking its penthouse above the obedient skyline insults the dignity of our iconic monuments, violating the imagery of commerce being subject to law.
"The horizontality of the city allows these landmarks to stand out and emphasizes their importance and symbolism," reads the staff's draft report. "Changes to the Height Act could impact the scale of nationally significant landmarks, their setting, and alter or reduce their symbolic meaning." It also goes on to explain how tall buildings would do violence to the city's century-old McMillan Plan, which it has pledged to forever defend. Oh, and don't tall buildings get in the way of radio signals and stuff?
In response, one might argue that a conception of whether Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Avenues are or aren't flattered by tall buildings is a subjective aesthetic judgment; New York City's Broadway and 5th Avenue feel no less grand for their soaring borders, and Central Park seems even more powerful for its skyscraping perimeter.
One might even play NCPC's own game and say that right now, all the height limit symbolizes is rules that make the rich richer by artificially constraining supply, forcing the poor and middle class to the fringes -- not to mention enforcing a myopic government monoculture that's oblivious to reality in the rest of America (Bejing's Forbidden City and imperial Versailles come to mind).
But you don't even have to make those arguments. Fine, let's keep our uncluttered vistas of the White House and the Capitol in the footprint of the McMillan Plan itself. There are plenty of places to build higher without marring that pristine patrimony: Next to Union Station, down by the waterfront and the Ballpark, at the city's universities, etc.
The Commission, however, insists that protected viewsheds extend to the edges of the city's "topographic bowl": Neighborhoods far outside downtown where a few other federal landmarks reside. In their estimation, all of that must also fit into a flat envelope, as if it had no purpose other than to serve as a backdrop for the projection of government power.
Of course, it's perhaps too much to expect anything more progressive from a body that is set up to care about the preservation of federal grandeur and little else. It's disappointing, though, to see the same kind of thinking from people who also care about the character and vitality of urban space.
This weekend, the Washington Post magazine has a package on that very subject, featuring some neat interactive visualizations of what the city might look like if buildings reached 130 feet, 160 feet, 200 feet. Perhaps because of the constraints of the medium, they represent a maximalist abstraction: Giant beige boxes placed on top of graceful buildings. Even the most ardent urbanophile would be horrified.
But lifting height limits wouldn't immediately result in that kind of dystopian future. Any change to the law would doubtless require that the massing of the buildings be stepped back from the street, and subject to rigorous design standards in exchange for the additional height. Also, buildings would pop up over a long time, and end up at different heights, giving the city the kind of "sawtooth roofline" that historic preservationists love so much.
An overplayed fear of urban "canyons" is only one part of the opposition to D.C.'s height limit-free future. The other is a belief that the city's local government is still a cesspool of corruption that can't be trusted not to hand out development rights to the highest bidder.
“I simply don’t have confidence in the history of municipal government,” argues the eminent urbanist Witold Rybczynski, to The Post's Phil Kennicott. “It is very much swayed by money, by power, by various interest groups.”
Unlike, I don't know, Congress?
It's terribly unfortunate that the handful of recent scandals in Washington D.C.'s local government have tarnished confidence in its ability to govern. But overall, it's not the 1980s anymore. Starting with the mayorship of Anthony Williams in the early 2000s, the city has become increasingly professionalized; as new residents demand better services, cavities of waste and incompetence are being unearthed and burned away. As longtime planning director Harriet Tregoning points out, the process for granting taller building permits would likely be so closely watched that fraud would be nearly impossible to pull off.
Besides, even if developers do get a small opening and start asking for more, what is the terrifying bottom of Rybczynski and Kennicott's slippery slope? More places for people to work and do business? A more dense and sustainable pattern of growth near transit? More interesting forms of architecture than the ice cubes that are a blight on the built environment today?
All of those futures sound more desirable than what we've got right now, not less.
Most cities, when confronted with the kind of population influx that D.C.'s now experiencing -- a good problem to have! -- are able to tweak regulations such that the market can respond to accommodate it, while preserving historic resources. And D.C.'s able to do some of that, through relaxing its own zoning code to allow for things like less parking and accessory dwelling units in residential backyards.
But the most efficient markets allow for development to go where it makes the most economic sense. High office rents downtown justify more construction downtown, in proximity to transit, shopping, and all the personal interaction that greases this city's gears. The idea that development will just spread around to underserved areas if denied the most desirable ones is unrealistic. But a powerful core is more likely to generate knock-on benefits that could seep out to the rest of the city. A strong and diverse economy requires that buildings be allowed to concentrate where demand justifies the cost.
This is the option that Washington is unable to create for its citizens, because of a federal government that jealously guards the primacy of its own edifices, and the enduring misperception of D.C. as a feeble protectorate that can't be trusted to plan for its future.
D.C. could be more than just a gilded government town, if only it were granted the freedom that every other city in America enjoys.