Time for taller buildings in the District?

May 6, 2011

In revising its zoning ordinance, the District of Columbia should reconsider long-standing, unnecessarily restrictive building height limits in certain areas of the city. There are two compelling arguments for revisiting height limits, one based on real estate realities, the other on aesthetic realities.

The real estate reality is the city’s need for a supply of future commercial and residential space to sustain growth and remain economically competitive within the metropolitan region. The supply of space is constrained by height limits. Better matching supply to demand would help dampen excessive real estate price inflation. And with an adequate supply of commercial and residential space, the District could continue to attract new businesses, create jobs and promote development of new housing affordable for city dwellers.

Aesthetic realities are twofold: the need to preserve the architectural legacy defining the city’s unique form and historic character, and the need to permit taller buildings at designated places within the District where added height makes architectural and urban design sense.

Of course, whenever anyone proposes even minor changes to the District’s height limits, vocal opponents express the same assumptions and fears: Allowing higher buildings in the District will inevitably open the door to the proliferation of “skyscrapers” throughout the city. It will destroy the traditional, low-rise fabric of the nation’s capital, making Washington look like every other city. And the only beneficiaries will be greedy developers.

These concerns are unfounded. Revising height limits does not mean blanket relaxation of limits or 40-story towers sprouting up all over Washington. Instead, fine-grain planning and zoning can target areas where six or eight stories, rather than four, are desirable, or where 150-foot-high buildings, rather than 90-foot-high ones, would be an aesthetic enhancement.

Last year, a Washington City Paper article by staff writer Lydia DePillis advocated relaxing height limits in certain parts of the District. Titled “Let It Grow,” the piece summarized the District’s history of planning, zoning, political governance and regulatory oversight related to building heights. It recalled the original urban design aspirations of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned an airy, low-scale, light-filled city akin to Paris and decidedly unlike New York. Those fundamentally aesthetic concerns and aspirations have endured and influenced D.C. zoning policy ever since.

DePillis noted, however, that for much of its history, the District’s height restrictions were motivated by firefighting constraints. Early firefighting equipment — including trucks, ladders, pumps and hoses — and limited water supply made coping with fires on floors in buildings taller than 40 or 50 feet virtually impossible. And fires in 19th- and early 20th-century buildings were commonplace.

Fire safety concerns contributed to passage of the city-shaping 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which codified height limits and established a maximum of 130 feet, a cap in effect today. Contrary to popular belief, allowable building heights were linked to street and avenue widths, not the height of the Capitol dome. The act was in part a response to the 160-foot-high, steel-framed Cairo Hotel built in 1894 amid rowhouses on the north side of Q Street NW, between 16th and 17th streets. The risk of fire on the Cairo’s upper floors was one issue. But many Washingtonians and supporters of the 1910 act, shocked by the contrast in vertical scale between the soaring, mid-block hotel and Q Street’s rowhouses, were equally concerned about aesthetic risks and potentially adverse effects on property values.

Today, strict life-safety codes and state-of-the-art construction technology — including fireproofing, flame-resistant materials, fire detection and suppression systems — and emergency egress requirements, have made tall buildings safe. But aesthetic anxieties have not disappeared. People still worry that meddling with the District’s height limits will produce more and much larger Cairos.

DePillis attempted to allay anxieties. In addition to setting forth the real estate and aesthetic arguments, she identified places in the District where taller buildings would be appropriate. As a longtime advocate of selectively raising height limits, I concur with many of her site choices.

l In Northwest, along upper parts of Wisconsin, Connecticut and Georgia avenues, especially near the District line.

l In Northeast, Fort Totten and Brookland, parts of Rhode Island and New York avenues.

l The McMillan Sand Filtration site, where taller buildings at North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue would yield enough density to justify creating more public parkland and preserving the historic 1902 reservoir’s cylinders, built to filter water.

l In Southeast, along Benning Road, Minnesota and Pennsylvania avenues, plus the Congress Heights area near the Homeland Security complex that is under construction.

In the historic area of Washington planned by Pierre L’Enfant, height-limit changes should be minimal, ranging from no increase to only a couple of stories. Beyond the central city, increased height makes sense on sites served by transit, sites where taller buildings would face wide streets, public open spaces and parkland. Taller buildings can capitalize on favorable views while harmoniously complementing the use, density and scale of neighboring buildings.

Most important, it’s not enough to lift the District’s height limits just to produce more square footage and taller buildings. Allowing more height also must be a catalyst for lifting the quality of the city’s architecture.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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