Experts: Raising building height limits bad for D.C.

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Local,DC,Liz Farmer

Amid talk from Washington leaders about raising building height limits in the nation's capital to generate more revenue, experts say modern high-rises overshadowing the city's iconic, sprawling architecture would actually be bad for business and hurt the ongoing citywide renaissance.

The Heights of Buildings Act, enacted by Congress in 1910, has enabled growth in downtown by not oversupplying the demand for residences and office space with skyscrapers, planners said. Despite developers' complaints that they'd be more attracted to D.C. if the city raised its height limit and they could make more money off their buildings, that restriction is exactly what has fueled economic growth in the District, experts said.

The result: lower vacancy rates and more vibrant streets and neighborhoods, according to Edward McMahon, a senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute.

Height Act chronology
Height of Buildings Act of 1899: Residential: 90 feet. Business: 110 feet.
Height of Buildings Act of 1910: Residential: 90 feet; Business: Height limited to width of adjacent street plus 20 feet (generally totaling 130 feet). Some heights extended to 160 feet along portions of Pennsylvania Avenue. Exceptions for set-back rooftop structures.

"If you're in Atlanta, you can build a 70-story office tower surrounded by surface parking," McMahon said. "But, one, there's no street life and, two, a 70-story building can consume all the demand for a long time. Here the demand is more spread out and there are healthier neighborhoods downtown."

The logic flies in the face of city leaders' arguments that buildable land in downtown is "practically nonexistent," as Mayor Vincent Gray said earlier this month. Gray and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose congressional committee has jurisdiction over the District, have spoken in recent weeks about ways Congress could change regulations that limit most city buildings to 130 feet.

Don Hawkins, a historian and member of the D.C. preservationist group Committee of 100, said the city's height limits have often been cited as a supposed inhibitor to development.

"In the '70s and '80s, they said that we needed the additional height in order to inspire developers to build because there's so much unused space," Hawkins said.

The District's traditional downtown has also spread as a result of the Heights Act and increasing demand, experts said. Neighborhoods like NoMa around North Capital Street and the ballpark neighborhood in Southeast have exploded in numbers of workers and residents in recent years. In addition, the Green Line Metro corridor this year was cited as the city's fastest-growing development corridor.

"There's lots of other places to build things," McMahon said. "And in fact we are."

Many say the city's low-lying landscape -- save a few exempted buildings -- is also what defines it. The first height limits were enacted in 1899, prompted by outrage over the Cairo, a 160-foot-tall apartment building near Dupont Circle.

The vistas punctuated by the national capital's iconic monuments and the Capitol dome are what distinguish D.C. from any other city, Hawkins said.

"The reasons the developers give in changing [the Heights Act] are entire self-serving -- it isn't for the good of the city," he said.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has also spoken with Issa about the regulations, said she wanted to hear more from experts before getting involved in a specific proposal. Any change to the Heights Act would have to be made by Congress.

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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