Way back in the 1980s, one of the most famous American architects of this generation designed one of the most fantastic structures ever proposed to be built in our region.
Philip Johnson was asked to design a signature office building for an early iteration of what is now National Harbor, in Prince George's County on the banks overlooking the Potomac River and the Wilson Bridge. I remember being called into the architect's downtown office to see the model. Johnson had dreamed up a 52-story, glass-sheathed office building. It looked like a crystal icicle scraping the sky.
And that's why it failed.
Air traffic controllers testified that it might have a dangerous effect on landing patterns in the airport on the river's western bank. But a major factor in the demise of the gorgeous structure was aesthetics. Congress agreed with D.C. preservationists that such a tall glass building would intrude on the capital city's low-lying profile, and it would diminish the striking impact of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.
We haven't heard much about building heights in the District, at least in public. There was a moment in 1999 when California Democratic Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark, a longtime resident of a historic brownstone on Capitol Hill, introduced a bill to tighten the original 1910 law. It didn't go far. But in private, apparently, some developers have been bending the ears of politicians about raising the city's current building height limitations of around 130 feet.
Bad idea. Very bad. Horrible. Misguided. Soaked in greed.
Thomas Jefferson set the tone for building heights in our town. He admired the low-lying architecture of Paris. Pierre L'Enfant laid out the city in European scale and design. When skyscrapers started to rise and dominate skylines in New York and Chicago, Congress in 1910 enacted a law to limit building heights and maintain D.C.'s European feel, which also served the purpose of allowing the U.S. Capitol to dominate the skyline.
The relatively low skyline has been a benefit to all, especially developers. We residents love the scale and accessibility. For land owners and developers, the District's compressed space has kept the price of real estate precious and high. It has forced development out of downtown and into the neighborhoods, around Metro stops, which is healthy growth: out, not up.
So for Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to team up with California Republican Rep. Darryl Issa and suggest raising building heights is misguided, at best. They claim that adding height would lower rent. Never going to happen, no matter how high they build. They argue that poor neighborhoods would benefit. Been to Anacostia lately? It's hot! Developers are already scooping up land and buildings. Market forces -- stoked by the current building heights -- are driving development eastward and across the Anacostia River, as it should be.
The incentive to raise building heights is not about architecture or affordable housing or spreading development. It's about greed, period. Jefferson would cringe.
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at email@example.com.