(Washington Post staff illustration, iStock)

Opinion A monumentally modest change to D.C.’s height limit could reinvigorate downtown

5 min

Andrew Trueblood, a former director of the D.C. Office of Planning, is the principal of Trueblood.city, a housing, economic development and land-use policy firm, and a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute.

D.C.’s low-slung downtown is a distinct feature of our skyline. Local lore is that our skyline is short because no building could be taller than the Capitol or Washington Monument. That’s just a myth. The real reason for the height limit is much more practical. It’s a feature of 19th-century health and safety standards, including how high a fire ladder could reach at that time.

We have learned a lot since the late 1800s, including how to fight fires in buildings taller than 12 stories. And while every other American and global city moved on with time, D.C. has kept its height limit at 130 feet (about 12 stories) in most parts of downtown, though buildings of up to 160 feet are allowed along the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and White House. The Height of Buildings Act became law when the city was under congressional authority, and it was protected under federal law after the District gained home rule.

Over this time, a downtown that had three- to eight-story buildings (some of which you can still see on the 900 block of F Street NW) became an expansive area of massive low-slung office buildings built to the federal limit. This single-use commercial core has provided significant property and sales taxes, buttressing D.C.’s fiscal stability and its ability to fund numerous social programs over the past few decades. Yet, given the realities of today’s remote workplaces, it has quickly become a fiscal liability for the District and an even more desolate place.

The Post's View: D.C.’s downtown is comatose. Here’s how to revive it.

In her third inaugural address, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) made downtown revitalization, including the addition of 15,000 residents, a critical goal. She followed up with details in D.C.’s Comeback Plan, which includes proposals aimed at helping address the future of a central business district that suffered significantly in the coronavirus pandemic and had been struggling with vacancy for years.

More housing downtown would help improve the vibrancy and economy of the area, address the ailing office market and provide much-needed housing for the District and the surrounding region. It would help meet the mayor’s broader housing goals and regional housing goals. And because D.C. is the center of the region and rich in transit options, it is also the greenest way to support needed growth given the comparatively lower carbon footprint of dense urban living.

Yet the economics and logistics of converting office into housing mean that, without policy intervention, it is only happening in select, unique circumstances. That is why the mayor’s Comeback Plan recognizes that a significant impediment to creating more housing is that the core of the city is built out with office buildings to the maximum density achievable under the federal limits. It recommends “increased density allowances, via modifications to zoning and federal statute, to enable buildings in targeted areas to be as tall as existing buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue, to encourage conversion or residential construction and development of vibrant residential nodes.”

The Height of Buildings Act has long recognized that a small amount of additional height along the iconic Pennsylvania Avenue highlights that corridor as monumental. So carefully applying this idea of additional height to other major corridors and urban parks would improve the urban design of the city without impeding existing views or significantly altering the skyline. (People cannot easily discern the two or three more stories that would be possible with 30 additional feet.) As important, it would support more residents living downtown, improving the city where we experience it most: on the ground level.

The key to ensuring broad benefits from that additional height is to adjust zoning such that it would only be available to residential buildings that meet (or exceed) the inclusionary zoning affordable housing requirements. Inclusionary zoning has been essential in supporting affordable housing opportunities across D.C., but it has never applied to downtown. This is because the program was designed to offset the additional costs of creating affordable units through allowing additional density on a project, but the federal height limit prevented that additional density downtown. Extra building height would allow for the additional density, providing downtown homes for thousands of new residents, including low-income residents.

Some might argue that it is unrealistic to get alignment from Congress, the D.C. Council and the National Capital Planning Commission. But in past debates, the solution was not as simple or targeted and there was not such a dire need. Given the potential benefits, with a little visualization, policymakers would come to see the value of this approach. For the first time, we could make a locally driven decision to carefully shape our building heights in a manner that respects what has become an iconic skyline while sculpting it in a way that supports a more vibrant, equitable and sustainable downtown.