In D.C., Let's Build a Skyscraper -- or Two

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cities across the world, from Dubai to Paris to Chicago, are building and completing magnificent new skyscrapers. So when will Washington, D.C., join the party? How much longer must the city suffocate under the Building Heights Act of 1910?

Outraged over the construction in 1894 of Thomas Schneider's Moorish-inspired "residential skyscraper," otherwise known as the Cairo, local residents of Dupont Circle lobbied hard and successfully for Congress to ban more "skyscrapers" from being constructed in the District. This federal law has existed for nearly 100 years, but it is past time to send it to the dustbin.

Even the British have come to embrace the skyscraper. The super-tall building was long associated with the vulgarity of New York City: jetting up into the sky, ruining the view, and foolishly and arrogantly daring to touch the heavens. For the proper London city planners, constructing a skyscraper was a bridge too far. Plans were made to construct some in the aftermath of World War II but were quickly put aside once Winston Churchill made his views known. Now, however, London boasts 30 St. Mary Axe, otherwise known as "the Gherkin." The skyscraper, smack in the financial district, is well-loved, and more are being planned. After all, if you want to save green space as a city grows, the only place to go is up.

As more and more Washingtonians warm to the newly released National Capital Framework Plan, which seeks to turn the Potomac waterfront into the new urban core of the city while also making more areas majestic and livable, they should remember that the new urban plan lacks much mention of allowing for the construction of skyscrapers. Not only do lots of cities have skyscrapers, but possessing a few is a mark to all visitors that this indeed is a city. It might also be a mark or a comforting reassurance to residents that they do live in a larger-than-life place.

In San Francisco, residents have long gotten over their fear of "Manhattanization" and embraced the skyscraper with all the zest with which they embrace their extreme liberal politics. Longtime residents will tell you that since the skyscraper truly started populating the San Francisco skyline in the late 1960s, they have felt that theirs is a true city. Such is the enthusiasm in San Francisco nowadays for skyscrapers that they are set to construct the tallest on the West Coast, called the Transbay Center & Tower.

Also, Chicago, in its effort to remain the capital of mid-America, has approved and will soon see fully constructed the Chicago Spire, the largest and tallest residential building in the world, hovering over Lake Michigan. Chicago clearly understands the value of having skyscrapers.

While the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts did a fine job on the recent new master plan for our city, it may behoove them to take one more look at the idea of building a skyscraper or two in Washington. Not only would it mark Washington as a real city ready to compete with the other greats of the world, but it would provide much-needed housing and work space -- plus great views.

-- Thomas Cheplick


The writer is a Young Journalism Fellow at the American Spectator magazine.

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