When proposals surface about changing the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910 — Mayor Vincent C. Gray sparked the latest discussion last month — fears about views of the National Mall and the city’s historical L’Enfant plan inevitably follow.
An Empire State Building would come to K Street! Pennsylvania Avenue would become a dreary office canyon! A commenter on a Washington Post story last month about lifting the cap put it this way: “The White House will look like an ant compared to skyscrapers a block away if they do away with the height limits.”
There are economic and aesthetic arguments on both sides of the issue. Michael Hickok, senior principal at Hickok Cole Architects, said the rule limits not only the height of most of the city’s buildings to 130 feet, but the capacity of its retail market and street life.
“Height in this city isn’t about height. It’s about density,” Hickok said. “Everyone wants to have a city that can support a lot of retail space, a lot of residential space. But now you go to New York and that endless retail is supported by millions of square feet of residential space and office space, because they can go so high. And one of the reasons we can’t get enough lively retail in D.C. is that we can’t go higher than 130 feet.”
While there are aesthetic arguments against changing the character of the nation’s capital, there is also a widespread opinion among commercial Washington architects that the Height of Buildings Act stifles creativity, forcing their brightest ideas into efficient but boring 130-foot high grey boxes.
Radical architecture isn’t proposed in Washington because it doesn’t make financial sense under the height act act; every square foot must be maximized because there is no room to spare. New ideas are often more likely to be shouted down, said Eric Colbert, principal of Eric Colbert & Associates, designer of dozens of multi-family buildings in the city. “The problem with D.C. is that there are so many layers of approvals and boards that some architects really don’t do their best work here,” he said.
Even those who think the act might need changing don’t see it being lifted in the city’s monumental core. “It’s a really, really careful and detailed study that needs to be done,” Hickok said. “It’s not a simple sort of, ‘Oh, just change the height act.”
But what if the height act did vanish? If it were completely lifted and radical ideas were proposed right in the heart of the city, how extreme could the changes be to Washington’s skyline?
To find out, we constructed a hypothetical query for some of local commercial architects. What if the height act were erased and you were asked to design a building to replace the J. Edgar Hoover building, the Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. After all, a government study found the Brutalist building is outdated and fails to meet security requirements.
The exercise ideas were more whimsy than real. One envisions a 400-foot headquarters for all the country’s Political Action Committees. Another incorporates a federally owned and operated casino.
But the exercise did allow Washington architects to do something they typically aren’t accustomed to: let it all hang out. Have fun. Let their creativity run wild, even if the products might be scary.
It’s hard to find a Washington architect that considers changes to the height act likely, even though Gray suggested to members of Congress last month that just allowing maybe another story to downtown buildings or creating new limits in peripheral areas of Northeast and Southeast would “hugely help with economic development.”
In a stirring argument that the limit ought to be removed, Joanna Stone, a urban planning major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in The Washington Post that “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 limit on taller buildings, she wrote, “means that most structures in commercial Washington look pretty much the same.”
That was in 1990.