From the beginning, Washington was not quite a real city, more of an idea and an ideal laid out on the marshy lowlands of the Potomac River. Other cities — Chicago and New York — grew fast, and tall, with a nervous eye on the competition and an obsession with the record books. Washington was different, a city based on a European plan, an ambitious framework of avenues that were too wide and roads that were too many, so that the city always seemed a little empty, unfinished, struggling to fill in its vast empty spaces. It looked like a kid in an oversize Sunday suit, never tall enough for its trousers, with a jacket hanging loose and long on a frame that was the opposite of Chicago’s City of the Big Shoulders.

That has changed. Washington reversed a decades-long decline in population, and has for several years been growing as fast as any of the fastest-growing states. Long-neglected neighborhoods have been gentrified, real estate prices are skyrocketing, and the Office of Planning predicts that we could run out of attractive places for developers to build. We think of ourselves — finally — as a real city, full of amenities and rich in culture, where the streets are no longer rolled up snugly at 10 p.m.

All of that has made the current conversation about raising the District’s height limits, codified in federal law more than a century ago, different from past efforts. Today, with an influential Republican congressman willing to help amend the law, the city’s technocratic elites anxious to be free of its blanket proscription on building tall, and developers investing as never before, there is a real possibility that the height limits could be rescinded.

That would put control over height in the District’s hands and, after amending the city plan and zoning laws, there probably would be targeted increases downtown that wouldn’t affect views of the major monuments and federal landmarks, and possibly high-rise development near Metro stops away from the city center.

The city, concerned about the controversy raised by any discussion of the height limits, has stressed that amending the law doesn’t necessarily mean raising the limits, and that any increases would be sensitive to the horizontal character of the District. Working with the National Capital Planning Commission, the city is holding public meetings, researching the impact, and will make recommendations to Congress this fall.

The problem is, we remain a city troubled by corruption, with three councilmen in two years pleading guilty to crimes that included fraud and embezzlement. Our mayor is under investigation for possible illegal activities during his 2010 campaign. A former mayor who was sent to jail, then reelected still serves on the city council. Politically we tend to learn the true character of too many politicians only after they have criminally abused their office. Rescinding the height limits could test the city’s ability to manage its development, enabling new forms of corruption. This could lead to radical changes in the urban fabric driven by politicians and developers seeking profits, tax revenue and personal gain.

So the question isn’t just about urban design, it’s about politics and collective maturity: Have we grown up enough to grow up?

Almost from the city’s birth, height has been a central concern. In 1791, George Washington established not only an upper limit but also a lower minimum: “The wall of no house to be higher than forty feet to the roof, in any part of the city; nor shall any be lower than thirty-five feet on any of the avenues.”

The goal was a streetscape as grand as the avenues were wide, but that proved too much to hope for in a city that felt more like a provisional encampment than a national capital. Washington’s ordinance was suspended in 1796, 1801 and 1803. As historian Witold Rybczynski explained in a 2008 lecture at the National Building Museum: “Washington wasn’t filling in.”

Even so, for most of the 19th century, only a few federal buildings rose above the general low level of the city. It was the 1894 construction of the 12-story Cairo Building, near Dupont Circle, that led to the height limits as we know them. Shocked by the 164-foot-tall apartment building, District residents sought to curb any race to the sky.

After iterations in 1894 and 1899, Congress passed the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which said the height would be proportionate to the width of the street, plus, in some cases, an extra 20 feet. Thus buildings can rise no more than 90 feet on residential streets, 130 feet on commercial streets, and 160 on a small section of Pennsylvania Avenue. Government buildings and ornamental features (towers, spires and other architectural gewgaws) were excepted.

The District’s law was based on what other cities were doing and was motivated as much by safety concerns as by aesthetics (fire was the paramount worry). In 1900, London drew the line at 80; Chicago at 130; and St. Louis at 150. New York and Philadelphia had no limits.

There was a powerful sense that historic cities, long defined by their church steeples and civic buildings, were being radically reshaped by commercial forces. By mid-19th century, the Christopher Wren steeples of the London skyline had been eclipsed by new construction.

And so Washington’s low skyline took on new symbolic importance. The 1902 McMillan Plan, which created the Mall, not only defined the city’s grand public spaces but also asserted the idea that civic space would be horizontal. Hewing to a consistent cornice line, the buildings along the Mall would spread out wide, planted grandly and serenely in the democratic landscape rather than striving for prominence in the Darwinian forest of commercial skyscrapers.

Over time, the McMillan Plan, the Height Act, inertia and decades of slow development all worked to keep Washington both a low city and proud of its open and airy streets and its postcard views of white marble monuments. The Height Act has “served us well for a century,” says Harriet Tregoning, director of the Office of Planning.

But now, with the city running out of developable land downtown, she isn’t sure. And so, when Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the committee that oversees Washington matters, opened the door to reconsidering the Height Act last October, the city seized the opportunity.

It isn’t the first time we’ve had this debate, and the arguments are familiar. Urban sustainability — the conviction that dense cities with good mass transit are a far more efficient way for people to live than thinly spread suburbs — is the most compelling reason to raise the limits.

The Chinatown archway at 619 H Street NW seen on Dec. 31, 1987. (Washington Post photo by Ray Lustig./Washington Post photo by Ray Lustig)

The Chinatown archway, seen on Aug. 22, 2013. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

“If we are going to address climate change, the number one thing we must do is build walkable, urban places,” says Chris Leinberger, chairman of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. Leinberger estimates that a household reduces its carbon dioxide emissions 50 to 80 percent when it moves from a suburb to dense, urban living.

Other arguments in favor include a classic American aversion to any limits on private property, and a commitment to allowing markets to decide all questions. There is also a deeply ingrained connection between tall buildings and the excitement of urban life, and many people, especially those new to the District, see no particular charm in low, often boxy buildings.

Those in favor of the limits cite the symbolic and aesthetic appeal of a low and distinctive skyline, the potential “slippery slope” that could lead to the loss of any control over height, and the way the limits, as Tregoning acknowledges, have spread development from the core to more neglected areas of the city.

“If we increase the height limit in areas that are being developed already, does that decrease the likelihood of development where we want, east of the river?” asks D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells, who is running for mayor and favors keeping the limits.

The argument that is new, and changing the dynamic of the conversation, is the one based on the pace of development over the past decade. The idea that D.C. might run out of developable land, and lose out economically to the suburbs, terrifies some urban planners. Tregoning worries about land values becoming so high that lower- and middle-income people will be forced out of the District. “I love San Francisco, but I don’t want to live in a city that is only for the wealthy,” she says.

In one respect, Washington has become much like other successful cities: After two centuries, it now has its own, internally generated momentum. We are no longer dependent on the federal government. That we have reached an important watershed in how we think about ourselves is a powerful shock to the local psychology.

But if Congress is persuaded to amend the height limits, what assurance is there that it won’t become a free-for-all for some developers who might attempt to influence decisions through dubious relationships with any vulnerable elected officials?

“I simply don’t have confidence in the history of municipal government,” Rybczynski says. “It is very much swayed by money, by power, by various interest groups.”

He adds: “Once you open the door, there is going to be lots of pressure to say if you allow it here, then why not over there?”

The Lansburgh's building, seen on June 19, 1986. (John McDonnell/John McDonnell Washington Post)

The Lansburgh’s building, seen on Aug. 22, 2013. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Tregoning says the District may have had some corrupt officials, but Washington has been remarkably faithful to the planning process, and the people who do the real work of government are professional. The city is well insulated, she argues, from any fear that overambitious developers would bribe council members to allow tall buildings to rise anywhere and everywhere.

The city would have “a very public process and be very explicit about what can happen,” she says. “That makes it harder to do backroom deals.”

The paradox, as we consider changing a law that has worked well for more than a century, is that at the moment we finally feel ourselves a full-fledged city, we realize how much that had to do with an accident, a quirk of our curious relationship to the federal government. The 1910 law preserved us from any shallow need to compete with other cities by building tall buildings, from any preening desire by private landowners to overwhelm our national symbols, and from the usual economic dynamics of most midsize American cities where a small cluster of skyscrapers eat up a disproportionate share of the economic and urban energy.

The desire to be free of any federal intrusion on our self-determination will be a powerful argument in favor of amendment. If the city experiments with small height increases, it wouldn’t make much difference visually, if done with care and restraint. But it’s difficult to be certain that we are politically mature enough.

Because Issa will leave the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee next year, city officials are eager to deal with the issue now — and there is concern on the National Capital Planning Commission — which will consider the recommendations, then pass them on to Congress — that things are moving too quickly. We might first wait to see if we can go 10 years without sending a top official to jail. That would give everyone more faith that we can make judicious, temperate changes to the most important urban design law we have. For now, it is best not to tamper with a law that has for a century saved us from ourselves.

Philip Kennicott is The Washington Post’s art and architecture critic.
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