I’m of mixed minds about news that the political leadership of Washington, D.C., is working with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to consider changes to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. Possible changes to the long-standing restriction on how tall one can build in the nation’s capital are being presented, in part, as a transfer of authority to local officials, a bit of home-rule power wrested from a hard-and-fast congressional mandate. Anyone who lives in Washington normally cheers the devolution of power to the city level (and dreads the frequent interference in local legislation). So it all sounds good … if you trust the local authorities to do the right thing.
Height limits, which require buildings to be proportionate to street widths, have played an important role in making much of downtown D.C. look boxy and dull, with office blocks pushing right out to the street as far as possible. Long corridors in the city center are monotonous, with architectural interest limited to small variations in the skin or cladding of buildings. It’s rare to find a developer willing to pay a little more, or earn a little less, in the interest of making buildings architecturally appealing, or giving a little bit back to the street in the form of plazas or more spacious setbacks.
But the height limits are only one factor in the equation. The other essential element is the financial imperative to maximize the profits from every development. And raising the height limits isn’t going to change the power of the financial imperative. Mayor Vincent Gray has indicated that in downtown areas and near the major monuments and landmarks, he is only interested in tweaking the law for minimal height increases and perhaps greater architectural flexibility. Perhaps space on the top of buildings, where architects hide the mechanicals and service enclosures, could be claimed as interior space. With small changes, some architects insist, the buildings of D.C. could be sleeker, with a little more air and whimsy.
But once you do that, what happens? The mechanical features (and likely the architectural geegaws that also are allowed above the current height restrictions) go on top of the new top floor, and the irresistible dynamic to push ever higher continues. Architecture and urban planning critic Witold Rybczynski, a member of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, has warned against that, and I think he’s right. Tinker with the Height Act and in a few years you’ll be tinkering again. The Height Act isn’t an ordinary rule or regulation, it’s a taboo, and when you break a taboo, other taboos may follow.
I think the “slippery slope” argument is best used sparingly in the political realm, because it denies us the agency to make small, necessary changes to longstanding tradition. Sometimes, in fact often, it is possible to drain the tub without losing the baby. Theoretically, small changes to the Height Act could be good for urban density, development, smart growth and transit — if we make them responsibly.
Too many current and recent members of the D.C. Council are under an ethical cloud, the mayor’s campaign fundraising is the subject of a federal probe, and late last year, the council voted against legislation that would have required disclosure of contributions from city contractors to council members. They even voted 12 to 1 against legislation, proposed by council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), that would have required greater transparency in political fundraising. The relationship between local politicians and local developers is susceptible to corruption. Because the D.C. Council has proved unwilling to police itself in ways directly relevant to the development of new building projects in D.C., it shouldn’t have the power to start meddling with the Height Act yet.
In other words, Washington, D.C., is not mature enough to step onto this slippery slope without slipping.