How Washington went topless

Ron Edmonds/Associated Press/AP - What if Washington were taller and decided to lop off its buildings for this view?

Ryan Avent is an economics correspondent for the Economist.

In hindsight, it was kind of a silly thing to do.

Planners were the first to promote the idea of lopping off the tops of Washington’s buildings at 130 feet. “A city,” they said, “is like a well-manicured lawn. Ours must be mown.” They tried other metaphors, too: “Imagine the city as a delicious sheet cake, with the monuments as birthday candles, but not burning birthday candles obviously.”

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Ultimately they settled on a martial motif: “Think of the even cornice line and imagine disciplined soldiers marching in formation through a grand plaza, like Red Square.” That struck some as vaguely un-American, but the planners reassured everyone that that was the point. “A great capital should look European,” they reckoned, “especially an American one.”

Some Washingtonians concluded that chopping off building tops would free up parking, while others argued that running a scythe across the capital would make the city more inclusive. How could it not, when those living on top floors were so rich and white and high up? Supporters demanded that the demolition teams begin immediately.

Those living above 130 feet were skeptical. Some worried about the expense. Supporters devised a clever plan, however. Washington leaders in bygone times had established a trust fund into which a share of property tax receipts from tall buildings flowed. Money from denser areas had paid for new infrastructure investments around the District. But that would be unnecessary in a city without tall buildings, and so the money for the gambit was found.

The mayor declared the first day of deconstruction “Topless Day.” Men and women dashed about the city dressed as buildings wrapped in scaffolding. The displaced stratosfolk picketed the proceedings, but no one paid any mind. Eventually everyone went back to their normal routines.

Yet things weren’t quite as they had been. Rents skyrocketed. Many of those displaced from their lofty perches left Washington. Others worked in businesses that depended on the government and found it harder to go. They made increasingly outrageous bids for suddenly scarce living space.

Not everyone complained. Middle- and lower-class households embraced the windfall, mostly, and left for places with more affordable real estate.

Sleepier neighborhoods became hotbeds of construction. Successful lawyers descended on Logan Circle; less successful ones settled for new condos farther out. The District became a sea of Brooks Brothers and Burberry. Wine bars and loft buildings sprung up — no higher than 130 feet, of course, as befits a decent city. The shopkeeps and small-business owners who had lined the main streets didn’t earn fancy cocktail-lounge profits, so they closed down. The doctors and accountants who had served the neighborhoods weren’t quite the newcomers’ cup of tea, so they shut down, too. The city started to seem a little one-note.

Life was especially hard for the start-up scene. The charmingly gritty neighborhoods northeast of Union Station had housed a cluster of mobile-technology entrepreneurs operating out of old warehouses. Rents were cheap there, and the buildings were close to a sizable concentration of customers in the banks, consultancies and corporate headquarters in downtown office towers. When the tops came off, those advantages vanished. Landowners jacked up rents in expectation of the lawyer boomlet to come. The techies fled elsewhere, leaving empty, graffitied warehouses.

Oddly enough, traffic didn’t get any better. Plans for a new Metro line across the Potomac and through downtown were scrapped. The money had gone toward the deconstruction effort, and most people figured the capacity wouldn’t be necessary anyway. But lots of people who had been living close to their downtown offices suddenly needed to commute from farther afield. Many of them took Metro, packing the system during rush hour. Plenty started driving.

The suburbs, however, came off splendidly; you would have thought Virginia politicians were behind the move to go topless. House prices shot up. The big corporations that needed to be near the government headed to Fairfax County, where they could get big blocks of office space. The ones that didn’t do much government business left for Philadelphia or New York. Philly was still cheap and liked buildings with their tops on. New York wasn’t, but the huge number of businesses there made it attractive for companies to relocate. The District found itself in that too-expensive, not-many-companies sweet spot. It was pretty devastating for the non-lawyers.

In the end there was plenty of disagreement about whether the move had been a good idea. Those who stayed around had their reasons for doing so, and those who didn’t, well, no one much cared what they thought, even when they wrote annoying New York Times columns about how boring Washington was, the stuck-up jerks. In truth the District was a nice place still, if you could afford it. Lawyers aren’t all bad, after all. They like a good small-plates establishment and don’t clutter up the seats behind home plate by using the tickets they buy just in case a client needs one.

The traffic was awful, everyone agreed on that. Some neighborhoods took even more off the tops of their buildings in hopes of securing ample parking. It didn’t do any good. Die-hards attempted to pave over Northwest Washington between North Capital and Seventh Street to create surface lots.

Everyone agreed that the views were nice — it was easy to see the Capitol and the Washington Monument from places where, previously, you could see those things. When walking in Meridian Hill Park, some residents pointed at the void above K Street, saying: “There’s where the old Gannett tower was. And that used to be the M&T Bank building. I have a postcard at home with the old skyline that I can show you.”

But the planners looked out on the order of it all, and the emptiness between the Capitol dome and Washington’s obelisk, and knew they had done well.

“A national capital,” they said, “should be a grand thing.”

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