Short and bland, conc.

Dan Malouff has responded once more. I don’t particularly appreciate the tone of anti-intellectualism in his post (though to be fair, it is all the rage these days). I do appreciate the richness of a smart growth advocate telling someone to get out of the ivory tower. But the abused tend themselves to abuse, I suppose.

I’ll try this one more time. Dan writes:

Ryan Avent says he has a hard time taking my views on the height limit seriously until I honestly grapple with the trade-offs the limit involves.

Ironic, as I might say the same about him. His response to my suggestion that the height limit may have value that his strictly numbers-based approach doesn’t take into account was to repeat the same economic argument over again, as if the non-economic trade-offs don’t matter.

When I say we should raise the height limit in some places but not others, I’m balancing economic, urbanist and political needs. When Ryan says we should raise it wholesale, he’s thinking in one dimension.

As he notes, I’ve been urging supporters of the height limit to consider the trade-offs it involves. This implies that I believe there is something to weigh against the value of building taller. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a trade-off! I wonder what Dan thinks I’m putting on the other side of the ledger, if not the value people say they derive from a short city?

This is the point that Dan keeps looking past. He says there are useful things about the height limit. Fine. I don’t think he’s made the case for this, and I’m also not sure that Washingtonians, as a whole, really value the limit (they may say they do, but words are cheap). But I’ve been writing under the assumption that there is some value to the views or character or what have you associated with the limit. My complaint is that Dan and others seem to assume that this is a free lunch — that there is no loss to the city due to the limit. And when Dan says he wants to use a scalpel to raise the limit a bit here, a touch there, he makes no effort to consider what the economic cost of his approach is, and whether it passes any reasonable cost-benefit test.

Back in 2003, the city commissioned a study which found that raising the city’s height limit just 30 feet would bring in billions in additional tax revenue. That’s several streetcar systems! It’s also better policing, education, and city services. In a city in which many live in dire poverty, there are literally lives in the balance. And that’s just the revenue side. More space would also mean increased employment and a more diverse economy and so on.

Now, status quo bias is a powerful thing. I have no doubt Dan would easily perceive the economic cost of forcing property owners in Washington to remove 30 feet from their buildings. The economic loss, revenue loss, job loss and so on would be all too clear. I suspect he’d concede that it would be awfully difficult to justify such a policy on aesthetic grounds — the unbalanced nature of the trade-offs would be obvious. What I want is for him to recognize that a similar cost is imposed on the city by the rule that prevents builders from increasing heights. It’s not enough to assert that there are benefits to the limit — I’m prepared to accept that. What’s necessary is to consider those benefits alongside the alternative, and Dan hasn’t begun to do that.

Next, Dan questions my assertion that taller downtown buildings would allow for construction of other non-office buildings in places like NoMa. He argues that builders will still wait and bank land until they can justify the construction of skyscrapers. To support his point he provides pictures of surface parking lots on the fringe of a number of downtowns, including San Francisco and Boston.

Let me first say that San Francisco and Boston are terrible examples for him to choose, since they’re among the most difficult large cities in the country to get new residential construction approved. (This, not coincidentally, is why they’re also among the most expensive housing and office markets in the country.) Underbuilt space in those markets is more reflective of growth restrictions than market prerogatives.

I’d also suggest that a significant increase in the city’s employment level would create a lot of demand for nearby residential and residential-serving commercial development, and I’d point out that there are lots of places where the dynamic Dan describes doesn’t play out. What’s more, the problem of land banking can be addressed through a land tax. This would also encourage more rapid development on the fringes of downtown Washington right now, but the point is that the expected office sprawl would push that development toward high-end office space rather than alternative developments.

There will be a strong market for top class offices on Washington’s downtown fringe, because that demand can’t be met in downtown. Allow that demand to met in downtown, and you create room for other market demands to be met, which are currently crowded out by the height limit. Encourage development under the height limit and you get more offices. Encourage it under the alternative and you get other things. Now, those other things might be tall. But the important point is that they wouldn’t have expansive lobbies and law office rents.

Lastly, Dan changes the subject and suggests that scrapping the height limit is entirely unworkable for political reasons. That’s obviously true; I have no illusions about the likelihood of this happening. And undoubtedly, if some allowance were made for taller buildings, it would involve all kinds of compromises and decidedly non-economic negotiations. But that wouldn’t change the analysis of the situation. I’d accept and support a compromise position to raise some heights in some places, but I would do so with the understanding that the compromise was still leaving a lot of dollars and opportunities on the table. There are two questions here: what should be done and what can be done, and the answer to the former should inform the latter. Dan seems to think that the compromise is the ideal, largely, it seems to me, because he hasn’t wrestled with the balance between the value of increasing heights and the value he ascribes to maintaining the limit. I view the compromise as just that — a compromise. It’s the best that can be achieved under the circumstances.


  1. Evan says:

    In SF you can never forget prop 13, which limits property taxes so much that it’s profitable to sit on even an underperforming building effectively forever. In response to this, huge chunks of rent control legislation have been passed, so that almost all buildings underperform. Large portions of the city are also under a height limit.

    As a result, more interesting stuff is happening in Oakland than either SF or Berkeley.

  2. Aaron says:

    Is there any reason why Alexandria (or even somewhere on the Maryland side of the Potomac) doesn’t serve as the equivalent of Paris’ La Défense, as a purposely-designated CBD located away from the historic monument-filled portion of the city? Are there similar height restrictions in all the Beltway suburbs that limit density?

  3. Vik says:

    Rosslyn is basically DC’s La Defense already. But it is height limited due to FAA concerns being in the path of where planes take off and land. I don’t think buildings will get much taller than they already are further down the Orange Line, either.

    Crystal City has a lot of office space, but it is height limited obviously, and I think, but am not sure, parts of Alexandria are also. I’m pretty sure the Carlyle area of Alexandria is planned for already and could have buildings in the 350′ range or so eventually.

    I think Tysons is probably the most promising as far as tall buildings and volume of office space in Northern Virginia going forward. Maybe it’ll be like a bigger Bellevue or something like that.

    I’ve always thought Springfield had potential, too.

    In Maryland, I think Bethesda and Silver Spring will grow, but not dramatically as far as height is concerned, White Flint and Rockville Pike probably are the best bets. There has been some talk of development in New Carrolton and PG Plaza as well.

    But, DC has the best conditions for tall buildings of anywhere and it would be great for the city IMO.

  4. D.Schleicher says:

    Among the most amusing positions taken by the midget city folks is the claim that “this calls for a scalpel.” Does anyone think that removing a hard cap on all buildings throughout the city would mean removing any caps on buildings in any neighborhoods? All anyone is calling for is a scalpel, a removal of height limits in some places. (I’d prefer more rather than fewer, but I don’t think that is a too-common position). The lack of a strict height limit does not allow, say, anyone to build whatever they want in Greenwich VIllage (although, imho, they could ease up a bit on the limits there too, if you ask me).

    Also, the concept of “spreading development” is confused in the extreme as well. It’s not at all clear that the next substitute for a floor of an office building downtown is a floor of a building near the baseball stadium — it is quite possible that the nearest substitute is in Alexandria or, for that matter, New York. Similarly, the nearest substitute for an apartment in a tower in Dupont is almost certainly not an apartment in Anacostia. Location has economic and social importance, and the idea that development will simply flow where zoning officials desire it go is a planner’s fantasy.

  5. I know this is an old thread, but WTF, this crazy idea popped into my head today about the DC height limit:

    Dress it up as an economic development proposal by substantially raising the cap on building heights east of the Anacostia only.