To even hint at it is to venture onto sacred ground. To want to change it is to border on heresy. Nonetheless, I think someone should say it: it's time to raise the height limit for D.C. buildings.
I'm not talking about endless rows of skyscrapers here or New York City-style canyons. And no matter what changes were considered, the Capitol and monumental core would have to remain off-limits. But for the rest of the city, the 1910 Height Act should be repealed.
The act was essentially an aesthetic dictate whose purpose was to ensure plenty of sunlight and air on every street and to prevent new buildings from outshining the monumental ones, most notably the Capitol. The act's authors were evidently enamored of the city's gentle skyline and wanted to keep it the way they saw it. In this they were successful; despite all the new private and public construction in past decades, not one building has come to overshadow the magnificent edifices on the Hill and along the Mall.
But although Washington's skyline has remained much the same, the city's streets lack the pleasing variety often found in other cities of comparable size. The Height Act, which establishes a formula for the height of a new building by relating it to the width of the street on which it is built, means that most structures in commercial Washington look pretty much the same.
George Oberlander of the National Capital Planning Commission, an institution that works to preserve the act, admits that there may be some connection between the height limitation and the development of less-than-attractive buildings. "Architects always claim that if they could build twice as high they would build taller, thinner buildings rather than shorter, fatter ones," he says. But Oberlander prefers short and fat to the unwelcome shadows that would result from taller buildings.
On the other hand, Donald R. Slatton, executive vice president of the Washington Association of Realtors, points out that the restrictions forcedevelopers to build right out to the sidewalk, forgoing green space and other "wasted" space intended for public enjoyment. Slatton looks no further than K Street, from 16th Street to Georgetown, to argue that the height restriction makes Washington a less interesting city, architecturally speaking, than it might be.
But there's more to this debate than aesthetics. Economics -- in fact, the economic well-being of this city -- is key.
It's not a stretch to find a link between the height limitation and the dire economic straits forecast for Washington. The zoning restrictions imposed by the height limit lead you right to the high prices of D.C. real estate. There's no place left to build -- not out, not up. "Logic tells you that if you could build taller buildings, rents would be cheaper, land costs could be spread out over larger units," explains Richard Groner, chief of labor market information for the D.C. Department of Employment Services.
The District is so pressed for space that it's tearing down shorter buildings in order to build taller ones. Soon there won't be any more old buildings to tear down, and all new construction will be built to maximum height. Fred Green, director of the D.C. zoning office, says D.C. is "90 percent built."
The price for this squeeze is high. Downtown Washington is second only to New York in high-priced commercial real estate rentals, according to a 1988 report compiled by Boston-based Colliers International Property Consultants. And the high prices, in turn, drive many companies out of the District and into the less-expensive neighboring suburbs.
Each time a company leaves, the District suffers a loss of tax revenue -- not only a commercial tax loss but a loss of consumer sales taxes as well. For every company or small business that departs, employees do too -- people who would otherwise patronize lunch counters and dry cleaners and keep small stores in business. As these entrepreneurs lose their market, they either close down or move on. The job market weakens.
Such a dismal trend is, in fact, predicted. According to a Post-commissioned survey conducted last year by Cognetics Inc., employment in the District will only grow 7.1 percent from 1988 to 1993; that's a slower rate than that of the prior four-year period and significantly less than the 16 percent growth rate predicted for the entire area, including the suburbs.
The District's population is also declining, according to recent Census figures. While most analysts aren't attributing the decline to the District's height limitation, it is an impediment to attracting more people: as businesses abandon the city for the bustling commercial centers outside its borders, in part because of zoning restrictions that include the inability to build up, jobs, and the people who prefer to live near those jobs, leave too. Many of the residents fleeing are in their peak earning years. From 1980 to 1990, the District lost an estimated 9,000 persons between the ages of 18 and 64, according to a study by the Greater Washington Research Center.
The District's declining population has important political ramifications, too, especially for those seeking statehood. It won't be easy to argue for a new status if people are leaving this diamond of land whose development potential has just about peaked. Those concerned about the District and the rights of its citizens should not sit back and watch as their neighbors move. Instead, they should think about moving the District in the only direction it can go: up. -- Joanna Stone was a summer intern on the editorial page. She is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, majoring in urban planning.