OVER THE YEARS there has been a great deal of discussion about the limitations imposed by Congress on the height of buildings in the District of Columbia. Many have urged that eliminating the 130-foot height limitation would destroy the skyline - the beautiful vistas that are so much a Washington trademark. Others have said that an increase in building heights would strengthen the city's economy by encouraging additional business in the city. There's enough merit in both points of view to justify an effort to work out some sort of compromise - some way for the city to have its cake and eat it, too. And that, we are pleased to see, is precisely what's now happening.
Mayor Washington has presented a proposal to the House District Committee that would allow selected increases in building heights only in the downtown retail core: Pennsylvania Avenue NW on the south; K Street NW on the north; 15th Street NW on the west; and 6th Street NW on the east. The idea, as we understand it, would require designers who wish to take advantage of an additional 30 feet of height (bringing the buildings up to 160 feet) to submit their plans to the D.C. Zoning Commission for review. The requests would not be automatically granted, however. The commission would consider such things as public amenities and building use before making its judgment on building design. Each request for additional height would also be evaluated on the basis of rental policies. This would encourage small and minority business development and evening and night-time activities, thereby increasing opportunities for people to spend both time and money in the downtown area after the normal business day. And because 160 feet would be the absolute maximum for building height, there would still be considerable control over the city's skyline.
The net effect of this approach, as we see it, is to provide economic incentives for builders to come into the downtown area. The 30 extra feet would mean an additional two floors to some of the buildings in the area, thereby lowering the overall cost of contruction - and presumably the cost of rental space as well. This is so, we are told, because so much of the expense of a new building is in land and foundations; tacking on another 30 feet to a building 130 feet tall adds relatively little to the overall cost. But the 30 extra feet would give some opportunity for small shops, stores, rooftop restaurants and perhaps even some art activities to flourish in downtown.
We think there is no reason to fear that this proposal will set a precedent for raising the height limitations throughout other parts of the city. There are few places where this type of commercial development would be appropriate. And since this plan would affect only new buildings on a very selective basis, the city would not be encouraging proliferation of the commerical canyons of K Street. Rather, the proposal is in keeping with other plans for downtown development - particularly the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Plan, which has a similar 160-foot height-limitation incentive.
A resolution of the height-limitation issue will not be easy; it may be some time before any action will be seen in downtown. The city has some more work to do before it makes specific recomendations to the appropriate congressional committees, and there will undoubtedly be extensive review before it even gets to the full Congress for a vote. But it's well worth the effort. This disciplined and thoughtful approach would result in a modest and limited departure from the existing height limitations - and would encourage both a needed vitality and a new look for our downtown.