The news that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House committee overseeing the District, is considering easing building height restrictions in the nation’s capital has set the architecture and development communities abuzz.
And like many other debates, the discussion threatens to be polarized: Preservationists and neighborhood leaders fear that even small changes to height restrictions will ruin the city’s unique character. Developers and economic development proponents applaud any new accommodations for burgeoning growth.
But the issue is more nuanced. The height limit isn’t the dominant issue. The prevailing debate needs to focus on more than aesthetics. Can Washington — driven equally by quality of life and engines of government and business — grow without an overall plan? And what do we want for our city’s future?
It is true that soon the height limit will become even more problematic. The city is running out of developable land, especially in the Central Business District. In the not too distant future, the entire CBD could be built to the maximum density allowed by zoning. It is a future that was unimagined when Congress limited building heights in 1910.
Since the 1958 inception of our contemporary zoning regulations, architects have complained that height limits and the developer-client’s insistence upon maximum allowable floor area conspired to force them to design boxes. By the mid-1980s, architects nonetheless discovered enough excess volume to design multi-story atria that gave nothing back to the street.
The nondescript boxes that have turned our streets into glass canyons are not a result of height limits; they are a manifestation of the limited imagination of architects and developers. Our newer skyline is the product of a collective laziness among designers content with unrelieved, easy facades and typical floor plates — a consistent recycling of the 1960s-era glass and steel cube. While this latest crop of glass boxes may claim “high performance curtain walls,” greater sustainability and a sleek and graceful rhythm of horizontals and verticals, they hardly advance the architecture of humanism. Human scale, pedestrian friendly streetscapes and a comfortable setting for human interaction are too often rejected by scale-less patterns and formalistic design statements.
D.C. does have a unique character. Like Paris and Rome, the District is a horizontal city with a walkable landscape and a scale for people. If we change the height limit, how will it change our city’s character? Do we designate certain zones where buildings can be higher? Do we mimic Paris with its gleaming La Defense skyscrapers at the edge, far removed from the historic center? Do we create more density in large land parcels such as the Walter Reed complex or the warehouse areas of Northeast Washington?
Now is the time for a civil debate with an outcome that isn’t predetermined. Let’s invite to the table architects, planners, developers, preservationists, citizens and government leaders with an open mind to look at all sides of the issue.
And we must remember that raising the height limit won’t remedy poor planning or mediocre architecture. If the limit is increased, architects will have an even greater responsibility. More of what we have now — only taller — will not do any of us any favors.
David M. Schwarz is president and chief executive of David M. Schwarz Architects, a Washington-based design-oriented architecture firm.