The Reason for Height

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 reservoir’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 L’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.


  1. Lydia says:

    Just wanted to note that Mr. Lewis borrowed rather selectively from my cover story on the subject (, in which I pretty much agree with you:

    “Many argue that ample opportunities currently exist to add density, and that’s true: Walking around D.C., you’ll still see a fair number of empty lots and ramshackle houses that could be knocked down and rebuilt to fill the zoning envelope. But new buildings aren’t like water, simply flowing to low points and collecting there. Sometimes the buildable capacity on a given piece of land isn’t worth the price it would take to consolidate several parcels. Moreover, historic districts already place much of the city off-limits to large-scale development. It makes much more sense from a developer’s perspective to build a tall building where it’s financially feasible and where more people want to live, like around a Metrorail station. An empty lot in Shepherd Park may just never be an attractive enough prospect for anything higher than a single family home.”

    “The only realistic way to change D.C.’s height limitations is as part of a strategic, comprehensive planning process that allows for higher development where it makes most sense: Downtown, around Metro stations, along the waterfront, and where wide inbound streets cross the District line and are bordered by much taller buildings, like the spot where Georgia Avenue crosses into Silver Spring. A few towers on the edge of Rock Creek Park would be tremendously valuable, and impede nobody’s view. Large residential buildings bordering Pennsylvania Avenue SE would add grandeur to that largely empty promenade.”

    The thing is though, downtown is pretty much built out, and you can’t add many more floors to existing buildings without re-engineering the whole thing. So I’m not sure how much opportunity there is there.

  2. Even though downtown is totally built out, the amount of space that a skyscraper can hold would make tearing down buildings (like, say, the brutalist monstrosities) well worth it. Developers in NYC and Chicago regularly tear down perfectly usable midrise buildings like those to build skyscrapers.

    That is, of course, if you let them build skyscrapers. A marginal increase on the order of what Roger Lewis is calling for – essentially replacing short midrises with slightly-taller midrises – would probably not allow developers margins high enough to do much redevelopment. Maybe some of the profoundly ugly buildings could be redeveloped into ultra-luxury condos, but otherwise you’re right – not much would happen.

  3. Alex B. says:


    There’s plenty of opportunity over the next 20-30 years.

    Any changes to the height limit, no matter where in the city they are located, will take place over a long period of time.

  4. “The thing is though, downtown is pretty much built out, and you can’t add many more floors to existing buildings without re-engineering the whole thing. So I’m not sure how much opportunity there is there.”

    If the height limit is increased only by enough to build 2 or 3 extra stories, then Lydia’s probably correct for the most part. But if you could build 30 stories where you have 12 now, it might well make more economic sense to tear down a whole bunch of aging 12-story buildings and put new 30-story buildings in their place, than to keep on maintaining the aging 12-story buildings.

  5. I think I’d feel a bit uncomfortable if we had 30-story buildings crowded right up against the Mall, but that seems unlikely: most or all of that land is owned by museums and/or the Federal government.

    I think you’d also want some set-back for tall buildings around the White House from an aesthetic point of view, and also because of any problems the Secret Service might have with people being able to aim guns down at the White House.

    Still, if you kept a height restriction south of I Street between 14th and 18th, say, and between E Street NW and C Street SW around the Mall, that would still leave most of the downtown core open to building upwards – and very little of the restricted area would be private property anyway.

  6. If the community is in agreement for having their area developed, they should hire 1st an architect to draft locations where high buildings can be put on without being a hindrance to the view and other factors

  7. Gotta disagree with Snoqualmie here.

    It’s a ridiculous suggestion that, in a downtown area, “the community” should be able to veto more intense development.

    That’s what a downtown is for: to put tall buildings and lots of jobs in a fairly compact bit of real estate.

    That’s especially true in a downtown as well served by public transit as Washington’s is. As Matt Yglesias said this morning, “Any metropolitan area’s transportation system naturally only has so many central nodes. If you don’t build densely near those nodes, then your job supply will necessarily sprawl outward to the periphery.”