Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Limits of DC

100 years ago today, Congress passed the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910, a law that has done more than any other to shape the physical environment of Washington DC. The effect has been dramatic - not just on heights - but on architecture, density, land values, even on the city's collective psyche. Much has changed in the intervening century, but the rules have been modified little.

In honor of the June 1st centennial, DCMud will look at the issue of density and DC's height limits, presenting varying opinions on its effects, architecture, and desirability.

A History

No, the height limits are not based on the height of the Capitol dome (at 289 feet high, the 5th tallest structure in the city), a persistent myth. Instead, the 164-foot Cairo Apartment Building (subsequently the Cairo Hotel, now a condo) at 1615 Q Street, NW, aroused the reactionary rules when architect Thomas Franklin Schneider built the Egyptian-inspired building in 1894. Responding to petitions, city Commissioners issued rules limiting building heights, later codified by Congress in the Heights of Buildings Act of 1899, setting maximum height of 110 feet for business and 90 feet for residential projects. The 1910 Act modified the law in several important respects, most notably by permitting heights to rise not past 130 feet, but setting a formula to determine site-specific maximum heights equal to the fronting street width plus 20 feet, judged from the sidewalk, though many sites are sub-zoned for still lower density. An exception still exists for such architectural embellishments as spires and belfries.

Much has changed since 1894 when the Cairo ignited the debate - when Grover Cleveland was President, DC's Commissioners were unelected, and the District didn't even have a vote in Congress (imagine). Few DC denizens are now as shocked by the height of the Cairo as were their 19th-century predecessors. Building construction has progressed dramatically beyond the steel-frame and limestone-brick pile architecture of the Cairo. Firefighting ability, an issue when the Cairo crested above the reach of fire ladders, has likewise adapted to higher structures.

The Plan

Given L'Enfant's sacrosanctity, it should be noted that building height limits at the time the L'Enfant plan was adopted, naturally low due to construction limitations, were never officially part of his creation. Parisian Pierre L'Enfant envisioned the sprawling, low-flung buildings and wide boulevards of his native capital, while President Thomas Jefferson, an extreme Francophile, also dreamed of Paris on the Potomac, providing L'Enfant with inspirational maps of European cities with buildings that hugged the ground (wanting buildings "low & convenient, and the streets light and airy"). Still, formal limits or guidelines were never established.

With the march of technology, the District's earliest architects were without compunction in designing buildings to the upper edge of physical limitations, with no apparent regard for nostalgia. Some of the earliest buildings reached upward unhesitatingly - The Smithsonian Institution Building (begun 1847, 145 feet), Healy Hall of Georgetown (begun 1879, 200 feet), the Old Post Office Building (begun 1891, 315 feet), and of course the U.S. Capitol Building (298 feet).

That Was Then

Proponents of change point to the ever taller buildings creeping up literally on the DC border in Silver Spring, Rosslyn (see Central Place, at right), Alexandria, and Chevy Chase, and with them architecture, development, residents, jobs, and city views denied to DC. Urban planners, preservationists and greenies alike argue for greater density ("if you love the country, live in the city"), a position that also offers a strong economic punch while slowing sprawl. That the law is imposed from without raises the neck fur of DC's voting rights activists who prefer a little more self- determination than that.

Yet it must be admitted that DC is not just another urban environment devoid of national significance. Its existence owes to the founders' desire for an independent district; a national model as a symbol of democracy and showpiece for America's (then) novel experiment. DC is, after all, the only city designated by the U.S. Constitution.

Others prefer DC's uniquely stubbly skyline, greater green canopy, and open, sunny streets. Height limits provide a backstop (if also an upper limit) for property values, limiting developable land and with it competition for developers and landowners. And whatever its initial demerits, DC's low-rise viewscape has become part of its identity as a livable, European-style metropolis.

An Experiment Subject to Change?

If both arguments have some potency, are the two sides condemned to an intractable, Whitehurst-like eternal battle over the issue? Compromise, if there were to be any, would be unlikely to radically change the downtown federal core in an era of accelerating security. Nor are residents of historic neighborhoods like Georgetown or Capitol Hill clamoring for towers in their midst. Others, however, have painted themselves as underserved by the development community, retailers, and entrepreneurs. Marshall Heights and Deanwood - farther from the Capitol building than Rosslyn - have limited claims on the character of DC's downtown skyline. Advocates in both neighborhoods have bemoaned the lack of investment, retail and sit-down restaurants. Taller buildings don't remedy such shortcomings intrinsically but, carefully planned, can increase density to a tipping point that attracts other economic investment.

Raising height limits in select locations could alter the investment dynamic in overlooked neighborhoods, creating entrepreneurial zones, a concept that has worked in numerous struggling cities. Washington DC's "Gateway" avenues present a vexing argument against the status quo: wide, heavily trafficked streets with commercial cores, Metro stations, and less restricted buildings heights one stoplight away. Paris, after all, has Le Defense (at right), a skyscraper-friendly district which only serves to underscore the aesthetics of central Paris and serve as an economic engine for the city of light.

DC has several such zones. East Capitol Street at the PG County border presents a high-speed thoroughfare, Metro station, and yet struggles to find the investment capital to finance its projects. Absent a raison d'etre, Capitol View Park Towers (at left) and Capitol Gateway struggle for existence in a low-density neighborhood, with development on hold.

Georgia Avenue at the Silver Spring border is a dream case study. Farther from the Capitol building than Old Town Alexandria, the two Georgias present a stark contrast - downtown Silver Spring, where painstaking planning has led to a dense and finally vibrant, livable urban core - and its DC root, which lives up to (and then some) its south-of-the-border locale.

Wisconsin Avenue at the city's northwestern terminus presents a different contrast. While the corridor does not want for high-end retail, apartment buildings, office towers, retail, hotels and supermarkets are springing up on the Chevy Chase Maryland side, while on the District's flank development languishes, save an undersized, wood-framed condo, sneaking in by not seeking increased density. Lots above the metro sit vacant or bear empty two-story parking pads, or serve as surface parking for a bus depot. Attempts at development, in spite of zoning approval, are allowed to be vetoed by single-interest groups who protest heights less than half those that exist two blocks north. Density caps on each of the lots render them not quite ripe for development.

Opponents of change need not worry about 50 stories rising in their Palisades backyard or soaring towers blocking off the Mall. The District's zoning authorities would administer appropriate zones for increased height, historic protection, architectural review and case-by-case examination. Modifying the height ban would, in any event, allow the District to make such determinations, making this debate not just an academic one.


Anonymous said...

The comparison of DC to European cities of old is too loosely applied. The height restrictions, coupled with no width restrictions, have created a very uneuropean charactersitic: whole block buildings with homogeneous street frontage. These glamorized European cities have multiple buildings on their blocks (yes there are exceptions), many with varying facades and building heights. This variety adds to the cities' vibrancy. The DC CBD is an exhibition of entire block, glass and steel monoliths that make the streets seem long and lifeless.

Amber said...

I like the height restriction. As the author notes, there are plenty of places in DC that haven't yet developed to their potential. There are still plenty of vacant lots and abandoned buildings. The height restriction forces development to spread more evenly; without it the less-desirable areas might never see their day. The height helps spread the development money around evenly.

Besides, there are plenty of places (Rosslyn, Bethesda, Silver Spring) around where tall buildings are permitted, so the greater DC region isn't really in need.

And the Metro downtown (especially Rosslyn) is already maxed out. If there's to be more density, we'll need to decide where and how much additional transportation infrastructure. It's not impossible, but it's a big discussion.

Jake said...

I love the thought of being able to discuss where and how appropriate height-restriction easing could take place. I disagree that Metro is maxed, but certainly DC could use another line to serve the now underserved neighborhoods of the city like Wisconsin Avenue.

But to argue that its enough for Silver Spring to add height misses the point, why should DC not be able to amend its zoning and match taller buildings on its borders? Its obvious now, but give it 10 years and watch Silver Spring bloom while DC (that part) wilts in the shadow.

Anonymous said...

Lift them up! There are other sections of DC that could benefit from more density too - doesn't have to be drastic. Change the height limits!

Wisconsin Avenue Streetcar Coalition on Jun 1, 2010, 4:29:00 PM said...

Jake-- Mayor Fenty's 37-mile streetcar proposal is partly designed to serve areas that currently do not have convenient access to metro rail. I have formed the Wisconsin Avenue Streetcar Coalition (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&ref=search&gid=264242402429) to advocate for a route from the terminus of the K Street/Benning Road line in Georgetown up the dense corridor of Wisconsin Ave to the Tenley and Friendship Heights metro stations. In addition to providing improved mobility for residents of this corridor and helping to reduce auto congestion and pollution, it will provide much-needed capacity relief on both the Orange/Blue and Red Lines and provide another travel option when there are service disruptions on either line. I encourage you to join to support this effort.

Jake said...


I'm aware of your efforts, and think its a good cause, but trolleys are a distant 2nd-best to real Metro service. And that was just one of the problem areas - don't forget Adams Morgan, 16th Street, Mt. Pleasant, Cap Hill north, LeDroit....all good neighborhoods without a close Metro station.

Anonymous said...

to the posters who think Wisconsin avenue is underserved yet "dense"--are you insane? the metro stops at two places on wisconins, execellent bus service and partial circulator service. NOTHING about Tenley town is "dense"-in fact Wisconsin avenue looks so crappy because the vast majority of residents have fought all height and density at metro stations. they have the crappy corridor they desire. There will be no streetcar on Wisconsin avenue. Not to serve single story commerical districts.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 5:21 PM -- further south on Wisc Ave, especially by the Cathedral, Wisconsin Avenue is moderately dense. I do agree with you that opposition to just about any infill development that is denser than single-family detacthed homes between Tenley and Friendship Heights hurts the vitality of this section of Wisconsin Avenue and leads to excessive congestion as people who would otherwise be able to live near the two metro stations have to live in less transit-accessible neighborhoods.

Tenley said...

Anon @5:21, I agree mostly. I live in Tenley, and most of us here are fed up with the lack of retail, and would fight for more development here. There are a few neighborhood gadflies that show up and protest everything here, but they are generally disliked. But Wisconsin is served here and at Friendship, but go all the way south to Georgetown and you don't hit a Metro; in fact you have to go to the West End to get the next Metro, that's a huge section. The Metro map is purposely stretched to make the Metro stops look evenly spaced, but look at it on a real map and you will see that a huge chunk from Georgetown to McLean Gardens is totally unserved.

Adam L said...

"Modifying the height ban would, in any event, allow the District to make such determinations, making this debate not just an academic one."

I wish Ken had attended Dr. Beasley's lecture on May 18. As a former proponent of loosening the height restriction, his lecture made some very salient points on why D.C. (all of D.C.) should leave the height restriction intact. In a nutshell, his argument is as follows:

1. There is plenty of development potential left in the District without the need to construct higher buildings. There's simply not enough interest/capital to develop all the current areas close to downtown that are ready and waiting for new construction (the ball park area comes immediately to mind).

2. The favored areas where higher commercial densities would be desirable (i.e. downtown, K Street, golden triangle) are the exact places where the height restriction should be left in place due to their proximity to the ceremonial core. It's nice to talk about Deanwood and Tenleytown as areas for higher buildings, but the demand is just not there.

3. Modest increases in building heights have a negligible affect on economic activity. If D.C. wanted to take advantage of the economic gains from increased density, we would have to extend building heights far higher than simply allowing for just a few extra floors.

4. In terms of residential space, D.C.'s human scale and historic neighborhoods are the reason why they're so desirable first place. In an effort to increase residential densities in what are currently the most popular neighborhoods, we risk losing what made those places special in the first place.

5. Finally, granting exemptions in certain areas opens a Pandora's Box of some likely and some unexpected negative consequences. For example, once the restriction is lifted in one area, the precedent is set for altering what has been a given for the last 100 years. Property values (and therefore rents) may skyrocket on the mere speculation that the restriction could possibly be lifted in a certain area, which in terms damages already vibrant areas and sucks much of the wanted benefits of increased density. That's a real, tangible risk to moving any discussion out of the academic arena.

JB said...


I heard Beasley's lecture. It was very good, but was not the end-all in property development. I disagree with several of your points, but foremost is that there is "plenty of development potential", specifically in the ballpark area. If you disregard the fact that a few limited landowners in that area may not sell, there might be enough development-worthy space there and in Mt. Vernon, at least for the next 5 years. What then? Because of the density limitations, there is not much overall potential for a city with a booming population and increasing job growth. We might just as easily say 'there are plenty of homes for people to live in' and ignore newcomers.

I think increasing density in places like far southeast could radically change what is now a sprawling, low-income suburb.

Anonymous said...

My main issue with leaving the height restriction in place is that over time, the outer jurisidictions (Silver Spring, part of PG, Chevy Chase etc) will be continuing to add density, residents and retail, while just across the street, the District will languish.

I would hope, under such a scenario, there would be regional relief or cooperation.

Anonymous said...

If that first photo-illustration of a no-height limits DC is what we'd end up with, let's stick with the height limits. That looks like some post-apocalyptic war-zone DC, straight from an Asimov novel cover. Ugh.

Unknown on Jun 2, 2010, 2:06:00 PM said...

Why don't they just pick one neighborhood/metro station that is outside the core and see if the demand follows. That way they can focus the impact to a single area and let demand build before repealing the height restrictions in other areas. Could you imagine the views that exclusive district would be able to market that no one else would have (except maybe Rosslyn).

I'm thinking something closer in like Rhode Island Ave, Fort Totten to complete the development push that is creeping that way. Or start a whole new district that is in total need like Minnesota Ave or Anacostia

Ken on Jun 2, 2010, 9:27:00 PM said...

Anon at 12:02;

That's exactly what the picture is, from a movie, just thrown in for good measure, its not even close to a realistic depiction of what DC would look like.

Que said...

How many buildings in DC actually touch or go near the height limit I doubt many.

Lets first get buildings to build more than 12 stories so that they come close to the height restrictions before we complain about them.

Ken on Jun 2, 2010, 10:57:00 PM said...

I don't have statistics to answer that, but many. Keep in mind that in many places, like residential neighborhoods, the height limits are much lower. In areas zoned for maximum commercial use, the street defines the building height, and most commercial zones are built to the maximum density. Some buildings are a story or two below max, but it is difficult to justify the expense of construction for an extra floor, which generally means closing the building. If the zoning permitted an extra 5 stories, for instance, the metrics of rebuilding would much more easily justify new construction.

janice on Jun 3, 2010, 2:14:00 PM said...

I totally understand wanting to keep the mall area-i.e. Capitol. Wash Mon, WH, within height restrictions- but the rest is plain rediculous, and holding DC back from what it SHOULD be, not only thr Nations Capitol but a world class city- just FYI- Philly had height restrictions for years, but developers pushed and now they have a skyline- and hugely increased economic growth, something DC surely needs. As a person who lives on a unit block of N. Capitol St, it still flabbergasts me that N. Capitol is the mess that is is- I lived in NY where every available inch of space is fought over- land should be that valuable here.
Long story short, go up, my friends. Its progress, and we need it!!

Anonymous said...

I think there are already ENOUGH people in the city. But IF we want to improve the city, I say tear down the Section 8 housing, add a few stories, and turn them into nice condos.

Also, there should be a size restriction on government. Without all the unnecessary agencies, we wouldn't have so many people looking for housing around here.

Que said...

@ Janice

Does DC really need a skyline that is nothing but show with no value except being able to brag.

I say DC should keep the restrictions but have all areas under the same restrictions that way you can expand throughout the city.

If you abolish the restrictions all your doing is giving a green-light to make the building west of 7th st NW and east of 23rd st NW taller and the other areas of DC will be the same.

We should be trying get the whole city to expand not just some areas.

For North Capitol primarily all below Florida is business except two residential buildings and above Florida is all residential there is not much that can be done unless someone has a checkbook with a billion dollars and buys everybody out to get there land.

Tom L said...

One thing that Larry Beasley could have pointed out when he talked about the development potential under the current height limits is that the District's population peaked at over 800,000 people around 1950--a time when we didn't have nearly the number of buildings bumping up to the height limit. Currently, we're closer to 600,000 within the District. One could suggest that the decrease is affected by the rise of development in Arlington and Montgomery Counties, which may be true. However, I would disagree with the suggestion that the popularity of Virginia and Maryland suburbs is a reaction to Height-Act-limited development in the District.

In the case of Arlington County, Clarendon is one of the more desirable areas to live in the greater Washington DC region. It is an area where height is limited to 110 feet, and developers need to be generous with public amenities if they hope to build a project of significant density. The County allows taller buildings elsewhere, such as Rosslyn and Ballston, but the additional height hasn't proven to facilitate the creation of the walkable type of community where someone can live, work, shop, and play that I think most of us associate with the benefits of a dense community. As the various costs of living are changing, more and more people want to live in walkable, transit oriented communities.

In considering development inside the District near Silver Spring, the battle is won by Montgomery County's public school system. Along Georgia Avenue, development or any height or density is more likely to succeed if its located north of Eastern Ave. The availability of transit and opportunities to create a walkable community aren't so different when you're just a few blocks further from the urban core of Silver Spring.

Because of the underlying elements of TOD, more new development will be focused on the areas around Metro stations which are currently underdeveloped. The success or failure of development in these areas will have much more to do with what the local communities are willing to support than the Height Act.

Many developers would love to build a substantial project on Wisconsin Ave in Tenley (where I don't believe any buildings rise to the limits imposed by the Height Act) if it weren't for other obstacles. In particular, high property values make development expensive while often drawing out a loud opposition to proposals for developments of greater density. It may also be that the local zoning ordinance limits height to something below the Height Act--I don't know whether that is true for Tenley, but this is the case along major avenues in other parts of DC.

Anonymous said...

Guys, guys. The point some of you are missing is that we have to accommodate more people. To the point of the dolt who said there are "already enough people in the city", understand that our national population is growing, like it or not. Do we provide space in our urban core, or do we rip up more farms to build more Kentlands. I think DC residents are worse off for the loss of nearby farmland in many ways.

Nikki Smith on Jun 7, 2010, 2:13:00 PM said...

Just curious: Who are these people that think the Height Ordinance has/had to do with the Capitol dome when the Washington Monument less than a mile away stands 555 feet tall?

Granted it has nothing to do with either. I just never understood why people assume it's the dome when the Capitol is significantly shorter than the monument.

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