High-Level Debate On Future of D.C.

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The pace of development in Washington's central core is frenetic enough that planners say vacant land is fast becoming an endangered commodity.

In 20 years, according to one analysis, there will be no more parcels on which to build offices, apartments and stores in neighborhoods from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, from Florida Avenue NE to the Southeast waterfront.

Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, says there's a way to avoid the looming space crunch, an idea tantamount to sacrilege for preservationists and protectors of the District's historic vistas:

Build higher. As high as the market will bear, he says.

To do so would require the support of Congress, which created the Height Act nearly a century ago to restrict virtually all of Washington's tallest buildings to a height of 130 feet.

Contrary to popular lore -- and many a cabbie-turned- unofficial-tour-guide -- Congress did not tailor the law to establish the 555-foot Washington Monument as the city's tallest structure, or to ensure that the Capitol, at 288 feet, would not be overshadowed. Rather, lawmakers were responding to protests prompted by the rise of the 160-foot Cairo apartment building, on Q Street NW near 16th Street, in 1894.

That same anti-height fervor exists today. Even a proposed seven-story condominium building on Wisconsin Avenue NW -- a full 79 feet high -- has provoked an ongoing tempest in Friendship Heights.

But Leinberger, who renewed debate over the law after a February talk at the National Building Museum, contends that the height restriction drives up real estate prices and deprives the government of tax revenue.

The principal issue is land supply, he said. If additional land can be found, there might be no need to raise the height limit. If not, he said, D.C. leaders should consider lifting the limit around Metro stations that serve commuters from across the region, such as Dupont Circle, Union Station, Metro Center, the Navy Yard and, yes, Friendship Heights.

Taller buildings, he said, would lower prices and lead more residents and corporations to choose the city over gas-guzzling suburban sprawl. The threat of global warming makes the need to reconsider the height limit even more immediate, he said.

"We have a moral imperative to increase density, to get us out of our cars," said Leinberger, a developer who has no projects in the District. He also teaches at the University of Michigan and writes about land-use issues.

Civic leaders and preservationists recoil at the thought of lifting the restriction, saying high-rise buildings would spoil a low-lying, Parisian-style city planned more than 200 years ago by Pierre L'Enfant.

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