Richard Layman makes an interesting point today, concerning office development in NoMa Radio City. That area is beginning to look a little office heavy, where in initial plans it was envisioned as a mixed-use neighborhood. He suggests that the city’s height limit prevents the office core from being denser, leading to office sprawl that crowds out residential and retail buildings. Obviously, the growth of the city’s office core is nice, but one would hope that commercial development would be accompanied by other things, to balance the tax base, reduce congestion, and prevent the expansion of downtown deadness.

Which leads me, once again, to suggest that the city rethink the height limit. As Christopher Leinberger points out, the District owns its air rights and could sell them for a great deal of money. That money could be used for affordable housing programs, transportation projects, you name it.

I believe the District should designate a few safe viewsheds, where heights cannot be raised. Then, it should auction off a set number of height allowances each year. Auctions should boost the revenue take, and a set number of annual allowances would prevent wholesale redevelopment of areas with tight supply.

Not that wholesale development isn’t already taking place in the office core. A startlingly high number of office buildings are under construction currently, either being torn down and replaced or refurbished and expanded. Property owners are doing everything they can to wring revenue out of an artificially limited space.


  1. monkeyrotica says:

    That money could be used for affordable housing programs, transportation projects, you name it.

    Alright, I’ll name it. That money is going to be used to fill in the $96 mil budget deficit. Forget any new spending, they haven’t even accounted for the $50+ mil the tax office clowns absconded with.

    I agree with air rights and getting rid of the downtown height restriction, but that would take an act of Congress and I don’t see them getting their act together any time soon. And even if they did get rid of the restriction, you’re more likely to see more of the same office buildout and zero groundfloor retail downtown.

    There was a time in the 1990s when DC could have held the developers feet to the fire and enforced more responsible mixed-use development downtown. Instead, they were stumbling over eachother to give the developers blowjobs. With the inevitable economic slowdown, DC can’t afford to be as picky and the developers will continue to promise mixed used and 9-months in, have to cutback on retail/housing to “make the numbers work.”

    Downtown in the 1970s/80s was deader than last xmas because it was ALL office cubes that went black at 6pm, no retail, no residential. Now you’ve got the condos and shopping in Penn Quarter but go a few blocks out and you’re in dead zones again. Unless the Stadium development gets decent retail, you’re going to see the same thing down there.

  2. ryan says:

    The development around the stadium is going to have a ton of retail and residential. No worries, there.

    Congress would have to authorize a change in the height limit, but they’re not going to do it if no one in the District is even talking about it.

  3. David Alpert says:

    I agree about the height limit, but unless there are so many taller buildings that all the demand is satisfied, developers are still going to favor commercial.

    Can we require some mix of uses in the zoning code? Either within each development or through some credit-trading mechanism so individual developments can be all one or the other but the area remains mixed:

  4. I wish I would have termed this “office sprawl,” as you did. Thanks.

  5. Alex B. says:

    I posted this on Richard’s blog, but I’ll repost here as well:

    I’d be curious to see a real proposal put forth that would perhaps add some density within the L’Enfant city while still preserving the low-rise nature of the city. Such a program could allow for added density, with the old height limits being the new cornice-line limits, large setbacks for the new height, taller buildings allowed on narrower streets, etc.

    I’d also like to see a transfer of development rights proposed. ‘Sending zones’ could be the whole of the L’Enfant grid, with ‘receiving zones’ outside of that. That way, every area of the city would gain the value of that added density, without necessarily adding it in one place.

    One thing to note is that this proposed project at NY and FL aves is technically outside of the L’Enfant city, as it’s on the north side of Florida Ave (once Boundary Street). So, if Gallery Place in downtown is allowed more density, even if it can’t build it, they could sell those rights to a site outside the L’Enfant grid, and they could build taller.

    I’d want to attach a few more requirements about the receiving areas – I’d still keep some restraint on height, we’re not talking about the Burj Dubai here. I’d also mandate mass transit access, preferably in the form of Metro.

    A system like this would make great sense for NoMA, Anacostia, and a few other places as well.

    It’s also worth noting that this has gone on informally for a long time – just look at the added height in metro-accessible places just outside of the District – Rosslyn, Silver Spring, Bethesda, etc…


  6. ryan says:

    Alex, the allowance trading idea is interesting, but there is something to be said for trading efficiency for simplicity. Neighborhood residents will have a lot to say about the heights of individual projects, such that it might be difficult to have a liquid market in allowances.

  7. Alex B. says:

    Yeah, the devil’s in the details, but it might be a mechanism that could help capture the value of downtown real estate and direct that development pressure into certain designated areas with less historic urban design, metro access, and so on.

    I’m not sure of a transfer of development rights program being applied in that fashion. Usually, it’s for straight up historic preservation (allowing a church to sell the rights for development while preserving their structure) or for land conservation (let the farmer sell the rights to his farmland to avoid pressures for another subdivision). In this case, you could mandate that you build to the max allowable downtown density before a transfer takes place (with an exemption for the aforementioned historic properties worthy of preservation).

    Just a conceptual idea. You’re right that it’s probably just easier to ease the height limit in the areas that would be receiving zones anyway.

  8. Duncan Brown says:

    Guys, we need that sewage treatment capacity! The ecosystems of the Potomac and Chesapeake are both dying because they get too many nutrients from human sewage and farm runoff. The federal- state Chesapeake Bay program (defined by functioning ecosystems), is required to be completed in 2010, and is years behind schedule. Virginia finally appropriated $50 million to build it the sewage plant last year. And after all these years of delay it’s now in sight.