Returning from a recent trip to New York, I was reminded once again of what a pleasant city Washington is, with its spacious, tree-lined, human-scale streets and its abundant open spaces. Conversely, the streets in Manhattan tend to be either stifling, airless ovens in the summer or cold, windswept canyons in the winter. This is in no small part because of the excessive heights of the buildings. Thus, it was with dismay that I read Joanna Stone's article advocating the repeal of the 1910 Height Act {Close to Home, Sept. 2}.

Building heights in Washington were first restricted by municipal regulation in 1894, in response to safety, monetary and aesthetic concerns raised by the construction of the Cairo Hotel on the 1600 block of Q Street NW. (See Alison K. Hoagland, "Nineteenth-Century Building Regulations in Washington, D.C." in Records of the Columbia Historical Society). Many of these concerns remain valid today.

Stone says most of the commercial buildings in Washington look "pretty much the same." Yet there are any number of low-rise European cities (Venice, Florence, etc.) that are generally esteemed to be among the most beautiful in the world. Conversely, is Tysons Corner more beautiful than downtown Washington because its buildings are taller? Hardly. Clearly, the problem is not one of height but rather lack of inspiration on the part of developers and architects.

Stone also seeks economic justification for her misguided thesis. She raises the specter of businesses leaving the District in droves because of high rents. Yet the downtown building boom would seem to indicate that Washington remains a desirable location for business. In any case, since only a small fraction of the region's population resides in the District, it's understandable that some businesses would want to relocate closer to their employees and customers.

While, admittedly, taller buildings would produce more property tax revenues, they would also make larger demands on the city's infrastructure and services. There are any number of large cities in this country full of tall buildings (New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, etc.) that have financial and social problems worse than the District's. Further, Stone fails to make a convincing case of why a city with a declining population (not necessarily a detriment, in my opinion) needs an ever-expanding tax base.

Why should the livability of this city be sacrificed in order to further enrich a handful of developers? Whereas others may be leaving the city for whatever various reasons, I chose specifically to move to Washington, because I found its human scale and density an attractive alternative to the mindless, ugly sprawl of the suburbs.

Curiously, Stone sidesteps the single most important reason for maintaining the height limitation: the construction of tall buildings at the periphery of the monumental core, even at a distance of several miles (such as has already regrettably happened in Rosslyn), would have a deleterious visual effect that would demean what these buildings represent.

As the District of Columbia approaches its bicentennial, we should be celebrating those aspects of the city that make it exceptional rather than working to subvert them.

-- Mark Schara

In 1951 my family and I visited Washington for the winter and immediately fell in love with it. We never went home. That love affair has continued to this day.

We found a beautiful city with open skies, numerous parks and a human scale. Every day I bless the people who fended off the early developers and put the District Height Act into place as well as the National Park Service's continuous efforts to make the city beautiful.

Now comes Joanna Stone proposing to lift the height limitation on Washington buildings under the belief that architects cannot create beauty at less than a dozen stories. Somehow she ties Washing ton's economic conditions to the need for more commercial space, ignoring the fact that Washington's commercial space is overbuilt, while space for rental and low-cost housing is underbuilt, which has driven much of the emigration she speaks of.

No, Washington doesn't need higher buildings. It needs to consider more than commercial real estate interests.

-- Carolyn Amundson

Joanna Stone implies that Washington suffers by comparison to other cities because its low buildings "lack the pleasing variety found in cities of comparable size." A student of city planning should be familiar with the harmonious low-scale qualities of the old cores of Rome and Paris.

The nondescript, boxy buildings used to illustrate Stone's article are from the 1950s through the 1970s and are not representative of the more interesting and better detailed "low" buildings of the 1980s and 1990s. The list of handsome buildings designed under the height limitations is a long one and includes the refurbished Army-Navy Club, Presidential Plaza, U.S. News and World Report, Republic Plaza, the Hecht Company, the Canadian Embassy and many others.

Although Stone says that "most analysts aren't attributing {a decline in population} to the District's height limitation," she seems ready to accept it as a factor. It should be pointed out that New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and other large cities with tall buildings are losing population too.

If, as she says, "the Capitol and monumental core would have to remain off limits," what's left? Perhaps we'll have more block-busting on Connecticut and upper Wisconsin avenues, development assaults on Takoma Park and Brookland, and wholesale takeovers of far Northeast? No thanks. D.C. beyond downtown is a city of neighborhoods, not development opportunities.

Stone should realize that political boundaries do not always coincide with regional economics. The metropolitan area already contains plenty of tall buildings, with more to come. Some of them in Rosslyn and Clarendon are closer to the city's monumental core than most of D.C. is. Let's keep the District the open-skied, green-spaced, low-rise urban core that it is. -- Donald Velsey