D.C.'s Fear of Heights

By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, July 2, 2006

The Fourth of July is not only a day to appreciate the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the George Foreman grill. Here in the nation's capital, it is also a day to appreciate the building-height limits that allow unobstructed views of the fireworks on the Mall from roof decks miles away. Washington's height restriction has preserved the city's modest scale, preventing the Manhattanization of the downtown business district. It has promoted an understated vision of urbanity that was first articulated for Washington by the great Declaration writer himself, Thomas Jefferson.

But as you enjoy the fireworks on Tuesday, you should realize that the D.C. height restriction has also promoted suburban sprawl, boxified the city's architecture and deadened Washington's downtown. It has inflated office rents, deflated the municipal tax base, limited affordable housing, contributed to the region's hideous traffic jams and generally helped keep Washington a second-tier city despite the unrelenting growth of its major industry -- the government.

The height restriction is a prime example of one of that industry's most notorious products, the unfunded federal mandate. In 1899, Congress passed the Heights of Buildings Act in response to the 14-story Cairo apartment tower, which at the time was reviled as a monstrosity overshadowing its Dupont Circle neighborhood. (It is now admired as one of Washington's most beautiful residential buildings.) The original law limited buildings to the height of the Capitol, but was amended in 1910 to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet, so a building facing a 90-foot-wide street could be only 110 feet tall. The basic intent was the same: No skyscrapers.

This meshed perfectly with the Jeffersonian vision of Washington as an American version of 18th-century Paris, with "low and convenient" housing on "light and airy" streets. That made more sense before the invention of the elevator, but the height limit has certainly preserved the sightlines of Washington's monuments, while preventing the concrete-canyon effect found on New York streets lined with 50-story skyscrapers. Here developers can build only 10 or 12 stories, but there is no sign of any agitation for repeal, even among downtown builders. "Sure, we'd build taller if we could, and our competition would, too," says Matthew Klein, president of the Akridge development group. "But there are benefits for the city with the smaller scale."

The acquiescence of local developers is less surprising than it sounds, since they reap many of those benefits; for developers who already own buildings, the restriction on height is really a restriction on new competition. That's one reason downtown D.C.'s office rents are almost as exorbitant as downtown Manhattan's; the government has artificially limited the supply of space. And that's also a reason so many businesses that might have flourished downtown have drifted out to Tysons Corner and other car-dependent edge cities. The Washington area is teeming with the young professionals who gravitate to downtowns, but the ban on new Cairo-like buildings has dispersed residential development as well; when developers can't build up, they tend to build out. The height limit is by no means the only reason the Washington region has the fifth-worst traffic congestion of any metropolitan area in the nation, but it's one reason.

By limiting downtown density, the height restriction also limits downtown vitality. Vibrant urban neighborhoods need enough residents to support street life after business hours; downtown Washington has struggled to maintain a critical mass. And if you've ever wondered why the shopping downtown is so lame, most top retailers insist on ground-floor stores with 12- to 20-foot-high ceilings, but Washington developers hemmed in by the height restriction are forced to limit each story to 10 feet or less. They can't afford to sacrifice two stories of office space for one quality store. "There's a real tradeoff with the height restriction," says Ellen McCarthy, director of the city's planning office. "We gain charm, but we lose vitality."

Does the height limit even produce charm? It certainly produces shorter buildings. But by denying developers economies of scale, it forces them to use every cubic inch available, the result being endless blocks of similarly drab and boxy 10-story cubes that make walking around Washington feel like negotiating a rat maze. McCarthy acknowledges that without the height restriction, "we'd have a lot more graceful and more slender buildings." We'd have more affordable housing, too -- not necessarily in downtown skyscrapers, but citywide. That's basic economics: Eliminate limits on supply, and prices should fall.

Some of the height limit's defenders reply that the era of skyscrapers is over. Putting aside the question of why a height limit is needed if the era of skyscrapers is over, Washington builders and real estate analysts seem to agree that if the limit were repealed, taller buildings would emerge -- maybe not 50 stories, but more than 12. Urban expert James Kunstler argues that energy shortages will scare residents away from skyscrapers because no one wants to climb 50 flights of stairs during a brownout, but that should only scare residents away from skyscrapers without backup generators. If anything, energy shortages should scare residents away from their gas-guzzling suburban commutes.

If that ever happened, Washington would be well situated to lead the way into a new age of urban sustainability. It has excellent public transit, with plenty of room for denser development along the major routes. Nine percent of its residents already walk to work, the most of any U.S. city, and that figure could easily expand with smarter growth. The height restriction is not the only impediment to that growth, but it would be a lot easier to repeal than the region's car-dependent culture, or the knee-jerk anti-density crusades of urban NIMBYists.

It probably won't happen, though. So enjoy the fireworks.


Michael Grunwald is a Washington Post staff writer.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company