D.C.’s height limits: The risk of ending them
From the beginning, Washington was not quite a real city, more of an idea and an ideal laid out on the marshy lowlands of the Potomac River. Other cities — Chicago and New York — grew fast, and tall, with a nervous eye on the competition and an obsession with the record books. Washington was different, a city based on a European plan, an ambitious framework of avenues that were too wide and roads that were too many, so that the city always seemed a little empty, unfinished, struggling to fill in its vast empty spaces. It looked like a kid in an oversize Sunday suit, never tall enough for its trousers, with a jacket hanging loose and long on a frame that was the opposite of Chicago’s City of the Big Shoulders.
That has changed. Washington reversed a decades-long decline in population, and has for several years been growing as fast as any of the fastest-growing states. Long-neglected neighborhoods have been gentrified, real estate prices are skyrocketing, and the Office of Planning predicts that we could run out of attractive places for developers to build. We think of ourselves — finally — as a real city, full of amenities and rich in culture, where the streets are no longer rolled up snugly at 10 p.m.
All of that has made the current conversation about raising the District’s height limits, codified in federal law more than a century ago, different from past efforts. Today, with an influential Republican congressman willing to help amend the law, the city’s technocratic elites anxious to be free of its blanket proscription on building tall, and developers investing as never before, there is a real possibility that the height limits could be rescinded.
That would put control over height in the District’s hands and, after amending the city plan and zoning laws, there probably would be targeted increases downtown that wouldn’t affect views of the major monuments and federal landmarks, and possibly high-rise development near Metro stops away from the city center.
The city, concerned about the controversy raised by any discussion of the height limits, has stressed that amending the law doesn’t necessarily mean raising the limits, and that any increases would be sensitive to the horizontal character of the District. Working with the National Capital Planning Commission, the city is holding public meetings, researching the impact, and will make recommendations to Congress this fall.
The problem is, we remain a city troubled by corruption, with three councilmen in two years pleading guilty to crimes that included fraud and embezzlement. Our mayor is under investigation for possible illegal activities during his 2010 campaign. A former mayor who was sent to jail, then reelected still serves on the city council. Politically we tend to learn the true character of too many politicians only after they have criminally abused their office. Rescinding the height limits could test the city’s ability to manage its development, enabling new forms of corruption. This could lead to radical changes in the urban fabric driven by politicians and developers seeking profits, tax revenue and personal gain.
So the question isn’t just about urban design, it’s about politics and collective maturity: Have we grown up enough to grow up?
Almost from the city’s birth, height has been a central concern. In 1791, George Washington established not only an upper limit but also a lower minimum: “The wall of no house to be higher than forty feet to the roof, in any part of the city; nor shall any be lower than thirty-five feet on any of the avenues.”
The goal was a streetscape as grand as the avenues were wide, but that proved too much to hope for in a city that felt more like a provisional encampment than a national capital. Washington’s ordinance was suspended in 1796, 1801 and 1803. As historian Witold Rybczynski explained in a 2008 lecture at the National Building Museum: “Washington wasn’t filling in.”
Even so, for most of the 19th century, only a few federal buildings rose above the general low level of the city. It was the 1894 construction of the 12-story Cairo Building, near Dupont Circle, that led to the height limits as we know them. Shocked by the 164-foot-tall apartment building, District residents sought to curb any race to the sky.
After iterations in 1894 and 1899, Congress passed the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which said the height would be proportionate to the width of the street, plus, in some cases, an extra 20 feet. Thus buildings can rise no more than 90 feet on residential streets, 130 feet on commercial streets, and 160 on a small section of Pennsylvania Avenue. Government buildings and ornamental features (towers, spires and other architectural gewgaws) were excepted.
The District’s law was based on what other cities were doing and was motivated as much by safety concerns as by aesthetics (fire was the paramount worry). In 1900, London drew the line at 80; Chicago at 130; and St. Louis at 150. New York and Philadelphia had no limits.