You, regular readers, are hopefully cognizant of my general feelings on the issue of building height. There are substantial and underappreciated costs to limiting heights — a tendency toward higher real estate prices, reduced density, reduced revenue-raising capacity, and so on. City leaders and residents all too often fall into the trap of thinking that height limits are costless, because it doesn’t take any money to pass them. In fact, there are substantial opportunity costs, and substantial benefits to easing height regulations. Many Washingtonians think it’s just urban fetishism to argue in favor of a change in the city’s height rules. In fact, those limits contribute to high office and housing rents which lead to reduced urban diversity, and they limit the (already highly constrained) capacity of the District government to raise revenues.
But lead me add a few thoughts to this, based on two recent blog posts. First, Dan Malouff (who is generally supportive of the District height limit) wrote that some leeway on the rule could potentially be desirable in order to boost the residential population in Washington’s downtown. And second, Ed Glaeser argued that Jane Jacobs was mistaken to favor six-story buildings over skyscrapers in New York, and that limits to construction in New York have added significant upward pressure to housing costs.
I’m obviously sympathetic to Glaeser’s argument. But consider this. If you doubled the density in the District of Columbia, you’d increase the area’s population by 600,000 people. If, on the other hand, you doubled the density of Fairfax County, you’d increase the area’s population by over 1 million. And you could accomplish that without building very many tall buildings at all, since most of Fairfax’s residents currently live in single-family homes.
The reason you can add more residential capacity by increasing density in Fairfax County is because it takes up so much more space. Indeed, if you built Fairfax County at District density, its population would rise from just over 1 million to nearly 4 million. And the District doesn’t have any residential buildings over 15 stories (or thereabouts). So to a certain extent, it’s less important to focus on increasing density — and heights — in places that are already quite dense than it is in places that are not. (We’re setting aside, for the time being, the relative difficulty, politically, of achieving increased density in central cities versus suburbs.)
But that’s not the whole story. For one thing, all land in a metropolitan area is not equal. A residential building in Midtown is not the same as a residential building in Hoboken. They provide different access and amenities, and if markets are demanding more space in Midtown, then substitute space in New Jersey will be an imperfect check on rising prices in Manhattan.
Yet another point concerns recent arguments that Glaeser has made about the productivity benefits of density:
What makes dense megacities like New York so successful? One reason is that urban scale and density strengthen markets by bringing together an abundance of buyers and sellers in an information-rich setting.
So let’s think about the effects of doubling density in Fairfax and the District. Now on the one hand, the benefits to doubling density in Fairfax are likely to be larger than those in Washington for reasons of scale alone — in the Fairfax example, more people are added. That makes for a deeper labour pool, a larger skills base, and so on. On the other hand, Fairfax density is likely to be less effective density. Fairfax is built in a fairly standard, suburban way. It’s not built at a walkable scale, the road system is arterial rather than gridded, transit options are limited, and so on. Doubling density, absent major infrastructure improvements, might actually reduce the metropolitan access of Fairfax residents.
Not so in the District. Yes, with more people roads, buses, and the Metro would be more heavily taxed. At the same time, every neighborhood would become individually more convenient. Brookland is fairly low density for a District neighborhood, but it’s basically built to be walkable. Were density in Brookland to double, the retail and commercial options within easy walking distance of Brookland residents would more than double.
And what’s true for the retail side of things is also true for the broader economy. Double the number of people within easy distance of the central business district, and you more than double the economic clout of the central business district.
The point isn’t that we should increase density in one place and not another. It’s that the challenges and returns to doing so are very different, and the picture more complicated than we often represent.