It seems as though a little momentum may be developing for a change in the District’s height limit rule. Mayor Gray has signaled an openness to taller buildings east of the Anacostia, and public expressions of support for the idea seem to be appearing ever more often. That’s good news, and I’ll take whatever loosening of the rule we can get.
At the same time, I wish more people appreciated the economic importance of taller buildings, particularly when discussions turn to the specific areas of the city in which taller buildings might be more useful.
Gray suggested that height might be acceptable east of the Anacostia, where it wouldn’t infringe on important views and could spur economic development. In the link above, a WaPo piece by architect Roger Lewis quotes Lydia DePillis’ suggestions for appropriate places where additional height might be tolerated:
l In Northwest, along upper parts of Wisconsin, Connecticut and Georgia avenues, especially near the District line.
l In Northeast, Fort Totten and Brookland, parts of Rhode Island and New York avenues.
l The McMillan Sand Filtration site, where taller buildings at North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue would yield enough density to justify creating more public parkland and preserving the historic 1902 reservoirâ€™s cylinders, built to filter water.
l In Southeast, along Benning Road, Minnesota and Pennsylvania avenues, plus the Congress Heights area near the Homeland Security complex that is under construction.
In the historic area of Washington planned by Pierre Lâ€™Enfant, height-limit changes should be minimal, ranging from no increase to only a couple of stories. Beyond the central city, increased height makes sense on sites served by transit, sites where taller buildings would face wide streets, public open spaces and parkland. Taller buildings can capitalize on favorable views while harmoniously complementing the use, density and scale of neighboring buildings.
So, several points. First, the cost of the height limit is greatest where excess demand for additional space is greatest, and that’s clearly within the dense center of the L’Enfant city. Perhaps people are more sensitive to height there, because that area is near(ish) to the monuments. That line of argument doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me, as that’s where the District’s tallest buildings are. But perhaps it’s true all the same. That greater sensitivity should be checked with a greater awareness of the value to the city and the local economy of increased supply in those high demand areas. Rents are high there because people want to be there, because that’s where so many of the important economic locations in the city are. And it’s very costly to prevent builders from building more there out of lazy reverence to L’Enfant (who was around well before the height limit was enacted) or the NIMBYs of the early 20th century.
The suggestion has been made that scrapping or changing the height limit elsewhere could be a useful economic development tool for neglected places. This is true, to some extent. To the extent that there is unmet demand for large chunks of available office space in reasonably close proximity to the downtown core, taller buildings in a place like Anacostia could attract big office tenants, thereby supporting rapid development. But one should be cautious about this approach. For one thing, that additional space would be more valuable in the core itself, generating more jobs and tax revenue. For another, increasing the value of the core itself would increase the demand for locations in Anacostia; a taller core would be an Anacostia development tool. Of course, the city’s growth over the last decade has not translated into riches east of the river in the way it has in, say, Columbia Heights, which suggests that Anacostia has other weaknesses that need addressing — including inferior transit options, inferior connectivity to the rest of the city, higher crime, poorer schools, and so on. If you want to maximize the return to taller buildings east of the river, you need to address these weaknesses, and addressing these weaknesses would be easier with more tax revenue, which will in turn be maximized by increasing the ability to meet the high demand for space in downtown.
Next, in terms of transportation access, downtown is far better suited to tall buildings than basically anywhere else in the city. Metro coverage is far denser there than anywhere else. The city’s primary rail station is on the eastern edge of the core. There’s a high level of bus and taxi coverage, but perhaps most importantly, the walkable density of downtown makes that area particularly easy to get around. Traffic or no, I can get from Dupont Circle to Foggy Bottom on foot in about 20 minutes, and there is an enormous amount of employment and retail between those two points. In Anacostia, by contrast, a dense office cluster would be relatively circumscribed — the places one could walk from there are very limited. Transit options therefore become very important, and they are quite weak. One could obviously connect additional height with new transit investments, but that’s as true for downtown as it is anywhere else, and the return on new transit investments downtown, paired with taller buildings, would almost certainly be higher than elsewhere in the city. Which doesn’t mean that height + transit isn’t a good idea elsewhere in the city. It’s simply to point out that if we’re not going to allow much more height everywhere, then it makes the most sense to begin increasing heights in the core.
As a final point, I’d reiterate how strange it is that it’s considered easier to get tall buildings built outside of the core. The one place in the city where the height limit really constrains building is in the downtown core and the residential areas immediately to the north. Elsewhere, zoning rules and neighborhood activism are the primary constraints on denser development. Perhaps the land east of the river is sufficiently distant in the minds of those with the political wherewithal to halt development to make a change in the law work there. But in Brookland? Neighbors there positively freak out about a six-floor building. Downtown, by contrast, no one freaks out about 13-floor buildings, except to complain about the boxy architecture, which is, of course, a result of the economic incentives generated by the height limit.
Wherever the city sees fit to let builders do a better job meeting demand, I’ll be happy to take additional height. But it is a little frustrating to see so many of those people championing taller buildings miss that where the limit really bites the most, and where it is the costliest, is in the one place people seem most reluctant to relax the rules.