Two almost identical controversies have been swirling about town and on the pages of The Post: D.C.'s Techworld and Prince George's PortAmerica.
Both concern the right of local jurisdictions to promote private development, in the manner they see fit, and each jurisdiction is vigorously defending its right to self-determination.
Opponents of both cite what they believe would be irrevocable and utterly unnecessary damage to the nation's capital. The 52-story PortAmerica skyscraper would dwarf the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. The Techworld bridge between two office towers and the closing of 8th Street would mangle Pierre L'Enfant's original plan for Washington.
There are two major features of genius that make Washington the splendid city that it is. The first is the L'Enfant plan, with its broad with its broad avenues and and vistas set on a grid around a monumental core. What people perceive as the beauty of Washington is essentially and profoundly a reflection of the spaciousness and flow created by this plan. As a city evolves, buildings come and go, but the essential grace, or lack of it, is in its plan.
The second aspect of genius of the city is the Building Height Limitation Act. By limiting the height of buildings in the District of Columbia, Congress ensured that the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol would stand as unparalleled and uncompromised symbols of the pride of a mighty nation.
George Washington himself enacted the first height limitation by proclamation in 1791, limiting the height of private buildings to 40 feet. Even in his day Washington was aware of the inherently willy-nilly impulse of the builder-developer and the need to create good order in the streetscape. Overseeing L'Enfant's development of the Federal City was the secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1790: "In Paris it is forbidden to build a house beyond a given height and it is admitted to be a good restriction, it keeps the houses low and convenient, and the streets light and airy, fires are much more manageable where houses are low. . . . This however is an object of Legislation."
Pierre L'Enfant placed the Capitol on Jenkins Hill to ensure its prominence or, as he wrote, "From these hights every grand building would rear with a majestic aspect over the Country all around and might be advantageously seen from 20 miles off . . . from the first settlement of the City they would stand to the ages in a central point to it. . . ."
In 1910, alarmed by the building of a 12-story skyscraper, the Cairo Hotel, Congress enacted the height limitation. Aside from preserving the visual priority of national symbols, the act ensured a quality of light and airiness on the city's streets. Thus, the charm envisioned by Jefferson was fulfilled. One wonders how he would react today to the "skysores" of Paris or, for that matter, of Rosslyn. Had Congress dreamed in 1910 that the surrounding farmlands and townships would pose a threat to the Washington skyline, it would surely have included the region in its legislation.
Tampering with either of these two features, the L'Enfant Plan or the Height Limitation Act, should be done only under absolute necessity. Tampering with them irresponsibly, arrogantly and unnecessarily is an act of vandalism to the national heritage. It is an insult to the generations that have gone before and left us a legacy of riches in the evolution of the capital. It is an insult to future generations, whose heritage we are responsible for preserving.
The 52-story tower of PortAmerica, soaring 200 feet higher than the Washington Monument, is a totally unnecessary feature of the project. There is more than ample ground space available on the site for horizontal development, rather than vertical, to achieve the same floor space at the same cost. The sole purpose of the tower is to draw attention to itself. In so doing, it would dominate the Washington skyline, destroying forever the fruits of 76 years of meticulous sacrifice in the District. If the developer succeeds in building it, others will follow suit, going even higher. By trying to draw attention to this commercial development at the expense of national monuments, the developer, architects and county officials not only look arrogant, but small.
It is time for Congress to be alarmed again, to pass a resolution calling upon the Council of Governments to convene a conference of federal and local officials to develop comprehensive guidelines for building heights in the immediate metropolitan jurisdictions. The streets, vistas and skyline of Washington are a part of a precious heritage and a reflection of our national pride; the American people have a right and a responsibility to demand that they be jealously guarded. If local governments neglect their stewardship, or if short-term local interests collide with and attempt to supersede the national interest, then it is the role of Congress, the courts and the federal government to intervene on behalf of the American people.