Commentary: The case for more height in D.C.

September 29, 2013

Among planners, developers and preservationists, nothing stirs emotions more than the question of the District’s building height restrictions. During the past century, the Constitution, conceived as a living document designed to evolve as the nation matured, has been amended a dozen times. During that same interval, the 1910 Height Act has remained substantially unchanged. This anomaly has persisted despite the profound changes that have occurred over the past 100 years in building technologies and space utilization.

A modest revision to the Height Act would allow new buildings in D.C. to be more energy efficient while allowing for the creation of interior spaces with more natural light and better views. This basic fact has been lost in the fog of debate surrounding the act.

As recently as Sept. 15, The Washington Post published a lengthy article opposing revisions to the act based on the history of corruption in local D.C. politics. The Height Act can be modified without necessarily transferring authority to the District. Other objections have been raised based on concerns over altering the city’s horizontal skyline. Yet significant improvements can be realized without exceeding the maximum limit currently allowed under the act.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) convened a hearing this past July to review the Height Act and is expected to issue a report this fall after receiving reports from the District and the National Capital Planning Commission. These reports have been recently issued, and, given their conflicting recommendations, it appears that the Height Act remains as contentious as ever.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that height restrictions have served the District well over the past 100 years by creating something no other American city has, a man-made horizon line with a uniquely articulated dialogue with the skyline. Pierre L’Enfant bequeathed us an 18th century urban vision in two dimensions; the 20th century Height Act defined its third dimension.

We are now at a juncture, however, where the century-old height restrictions are coming into conflict with modern needs. The 1910 restrictions force us to design buildings with deep floor plans where a significant portion of a building’s area is located far from windows providing natural light.

Historically, these deep spaces have been used for libraries and file storage in office buildings, and for pantries and enclosed dining rooms in apartment buildings. The Internet age has rendered these office functions obsolete. Apartments have shrunk by as much as 40 percent during the past few decades, creating more pressure to design leaner buildings.

The fix does not need to jeopardize the city’s horizontal skyline. Allowing downtown buildings to be 30 feet taller than currently allowed, but no taller than the 1910 Height Act currently allows for that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, would solve the problem.

So long as current allowable densities remain unchanged, such a modest increase in height would yield more slender buildings which would be both healthier for their occupants and aesthetically more pleasing. It would be the equivalent of solving the obesity problem by granting every citizen an additional eight inches of height.

A modest vertical stretch of downtown buildings would also lead to a considerable reduction in their energy consumption by allowing mechanical systems to be routed more efficiently through deeper ceiling plenums.

These benefits would only accrue if allowable building densities were not increased proportionally to height increases. The District report’s argument supporting height increases, unfortunately relies heavily on the need to densify the city. Densification is a worthy endeavor. It would, however, be tragic to amend the Height Act only to find our streets filled with larger versions of our current bulky buildings.

Given that downtown buildings have lower ceilings, provide less natural light and are less environmentally sustainable than suburban buildings, one has to wonder whether corporate decision-makers will be able to continue making the case for a downtown location.

It is imperceptible to the public that buildings along a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue are 30 feet taller than most other downtown buildings. Likewise, a three-story height increase on other downtown streets would also be imperceptible to most and would not alter the horizontal character of the District’s skyline. It would, in fact, increase sunlight on many streets by creating more spaces between buildings.

We should not allow fear of change to stand in the way of a healthier and more sustainable downtown which embodies the spirit of the capital’s original planners while addressing the needs of its future generations.

Shalom Baranes is principal of Shalom Baranes Associates, an architectural firm based in the District.

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