What Would DC Look Like With Tall Buildings?

by Shilpi Paul

On Wednesday morning, the National Capitol Planning Commission and the Office of Planning launched Phase 2 of the Height Master Plan study for Washington, DC, which included the results of an economic feasibility analysis and an extensive visual mapping exercise.

Over the last few months, a team led by design, architecture and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill has been at work creating images of what DC would look like with taller buildings. In the images, federal properties, historic sites, low density historic districts and all low density areas were kept at their current heights.

From there, the team, which also includes CyberCity 3D, Digital Design and Imagining Service, AMT, LLC Consulting Engineers and Land Surveyers and Capital Pixel (who contributes our “Re-Imagined” feature), concentrated on a few different potential outcomes: building up to the currently allowable height limit (particularly making the rooftops and penthouses more useful), rethinking the relationship between street width and building height (for example, increasing the building:street ratio on Pennsylvania Avenue from .7:1 to 1.2:1), increasing heights in selected areas throughout the city, and (dramatic pause) increasing heights everywhere.

What Would DC Look Like With Tall Buildings?: Figure 2

As for increasing the heights in selected areas, the team looked at several scenarios, from choosing a dozen discrete clusters throughout the city wherein to lift the height limits, to making buildings taller along the edge of the “topographic bowl,” just outside of L’Enfant City.

What Would DC Look Like With Tall Buildings?: Figure 3
If buildings along North Capitol Street were increased to 160 feet.

The images presented today range from far-out skyline views to street-level sights. The images that elicited the biggest responses were either skyline views that showed a quickly disappearing Capitol Dome or White House, or street level views that closed in on the current view shed towards the Capitol, making it much less prominent.

“I was, like so many of you, horrified by some of the images I saw,” said Mina Wright of the GSA. “However, cities are not museums. We cannot let history put a choke hold on growth and dynamism.”

All of the images will be available on NCPC’s website by August 3rd, so city residents will have a chance to sift through them at their leisure. Residents will have a chance to give feedback on the plans at any of five public meetings planned throughout the city during the coming months.

A few images were available to view at the meeting on Wednesday, and we snapped some photos. For those hoping for a futuristic look at DC, you may be out of luck: the designers made all of the new buildings and additions windowless, sandy colored blocks, simply to get a sense of the changing views and feel.

See other articles related to: height act, dc height act

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/what_would_dc_look_like_with_tall_buildings_a_few_images/7366


  1. Build taller said at 8:26 pm on Wednesday July 24, 2013:
    There are 500 foot radio towers in Tenley and these don’t seem to have ruined the views of the Capitol, Washington Monument or other important landmarks one bit. We have invested billions of dollars in metro-rail—I don’t understand why we can’t have 15-20 story buildings in places like Friendship Heights, Georgia Avenue and within walking distance of some of the other more distant metro stations in DC. There are already 15-20 story buildings directly across the street on the Maryland side of Friendship Heights. The buildings on the DC side should be able to be that tall. This would not impact views one bit but it would allow more people to live within walking distance of transit, it would encourage more economic activity, and it would expand DC’s tax-base.
  1. hoos30 said at 8:49 pm on Wednesday July 24, 2013:
    Ditto to what Build taller just said.
  1. Michael Heer said at 10:00 pm on Wednesday July 24, 2013:
    I'm a fan of building height restrictions in the District. It's part of what makes our city so unique and beautiful. It also makes the city very politically intimidating by focusing on the political buildings and monuments rather than office towers like other American cities. I do think, if carefully planned and controlled, that height limits should be raised in areas of NW and NE that are far from downtown, particularly around the Red and Green Metro lines. I'm also a fan of revisiting building a highway from downtown north to connect 95 and 270.
  1. Horrified said at 11:06 pm on Wednesday July 24, 2013:
    Is this an Onion article? Did the government actually pay for these images? I would be horrified if I saw these images and knew that is what the funding went to. Looks like a 2nd year undergrad architecture project. Meaning crap
  1. Burd said at 11:07 pm on Wednesday July 24, 2013:
    Fully agree with Build taller...it's silly that right across the border in Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rosslyn and Crystal City, there are taller buildings, but not in DC...DC is just not competitive with its own suburbs. Plus, anyone flying into National can see that DC's skyline is also characterized by tall smokestacks. These eyesores somehow are permitted to breach the height limit... Can't understand how people like Michael Heer profess that DC is somehow unique because it has short commercial buildings...there's nothing unique about that. Many small towns that no one gives a hoot about have short buildings.
  1. Duponter said at 11:49 pm on Wednesday July 24, 2013:
    Part of what makes it unique is that you can see these buildings while IN DC. If you start building tall buildings in Penn Quarter, Farragut, etc., you cut off the sight lines from lots of different parts of the city and dwarf the significance of these buildings. I fully support the height restriction in the downtown area. But completely agree along the Maryland line, you should feel free to build as high as you want. But I'd still love to see the Washington Monument from 10 blocks north of it from pretty much any rooftop in the city. And I think driving down GW and looking over to really see the monuments and older federal buildings is a gorgeous sight.
  1. Colin said at 3:12 am on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    The height restriction costs us money in the form of higher rents. To those who support the height limit: how much is it worth to you in dollars? An extra $100/month? $500? Personally, I think it adds little aesthetically. I was in NYC yesterday afternoon and just marveled at the architecture and height of some of the buildings -- a real tribute to human achievement. I rarely get the same sense here, especially downtown where it feel like just one glass box after another.
  1. I know better said at 4:12 am on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    I can't believe these comments. I've lived in this town and have a few friends on K Street who run astroturf programs that use comments, tweets, and blogs just like this to pump their clients issues. Raising the hight restrictions will not effect rents (commercial rents down town is falling and the vacancy rate is going up) and will only benefit developers who all live in Potomac or some other upper class ghetto that would never allow for any development. There are real sky scrapers in Roselyn and Crystal City (which have high vacancy rates BTW) and they should stay there. Once these crappy buildings are built they will never go away and the benefits of living in DC will disappear so Vornado can make an additional 5 Mil per building...
  1. Rhetor Marcus said at 5:42 am on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    I favor loosening height restrictions cautiously, but I distrust the photographic renditions at the top with the Washington Monument on the right. The Monument is 555' tall, which would make a 200' building more than one-third of its height. None of those buildings reach nearly a third the way up the monument.
  1. Another Duponter said at 6:19 am on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    Raising the height limit is a slap in the face of Jefferson's vision of a sylvanian city. The lack of skyscrapers keeps our government connected to its humble, Classical roots. I personally find DC's urban landscape to be refreshingly airy and open compared to the intense claustrophobia of Manhattan's urban canyons (a city that eventually resorted to setback laws to prevent the sun from becoming extinguished permanently). We have plenty of places where developers can build up. They only want to exploit choice spots close in to the Mall, spots that have become choice because the rest of us have agreed for decades not to build tall, so that like quick-buck-artists they can build a thin wall of disgustingly overbearing skyscrapers to surround the Capitol, leaving the rest of us citizens to hunker in their greedy shade. If we want to promote intelligent development, then we need to stop forcing everyone to commute into a monolithic downtown area. Zoning needs to be rethought so that there's a continual mix of commercial, industrial, and residential development. In this day of motorized transportation and the Internet, must the Department of Agriculture really sit within a stone's throw of the White House and the Capitol? It's ridiculous that we have a vast core of commercial structures that becomes devoid of life each weekend. Then come Monday, hordes of suburbanites flood back into the city, choking all modes of transportation. Let's get the FBI out of DC, as well as a lot of other ancillary Federal buildings, so that development can spread out.
  1. JM said at 8:46 am on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    The argument that raising height limits will reduce rents makes zero economic sense. Developers only start construction if they can be assured of getting sufficient profit for their projects. As soon as rents begin to fall, whether due to recession, lack of demand, or oversupply, developers cut back on new projects, and rents begin to rise again. Also, the height limit isn't "limiting" anything except in the core business district. Even in popular areas like U Street, Logan, and Penn Quarter, taller buildings could be accommodated by relaxing local zoning laws rather than messing with the city wide height limit. In other areas (Petworth, Brookland, SE) taller buildings could be built today, under current zoning - there just hasn't been sufficient demand. If you relax the height limit downtown, all you'll get are taller office buildings. Unless office rents are falling, in which case developers will shrug.
  1. Colin said at 12:13 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    <i>The argument that raising height limits will reduce rents makes zero economic sense.</i> So little economic sense that a new government study released yesterday on the height limit found that relaxing it would lead to lower office rents: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/07/24/study-raising-d-c-s-height-limit-would-help-city-not-cause-world-to-end/
  1. Colin said at 12:14 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    <i>The lack of skyscrapers keeps our government connected to its humble, Classical roots.</i> Our government is humble? How do you figure?
  1. I know better said at 2:41 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    Colin you need to learn how to read.... Copied from the presewntation in WaPo: Minimal impact on Apartment rents: Total Apartment Impact Improve District’s ability to compete Metro-accessible locations Better product–views, high ceilings, more windows More neighborhood amenities Lower rents–minimal impact Developers would only build higher if they could charge higher rents: Developer/property owner would pursueredevelopment (new construction) only if: Substantial increase in space Higher potential rents Expiration of major tenant leases  Aging structure needing major reinvestment  Anchor tenant opportunity
  1. Build taller said at 3:53 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    Anyone who thinks relaxing the Height Act won't lead to lower rents (or help moderate rent increases) does not understand basic economics. This is from the Washington Post, "On the residential side, the study forecasts that boosting the height limit modestly would create between 4,400 to 7,900 new units over 20 years — that’s 10 to 18 percent of the capacity the city is expected to need." When you increase the price of a good or service, the price will usually fall. That is what is happening now with the construction of new apartment units in recent years: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324392804578362722741053596.html
  1. RC said at 4:01 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    Is this under serious consideration? I mean, more than someone's mental massage exercise or architecture masters thesis? If so, I can't wait for the NIMBYs to get out in full force. For the first time in my life, I'll be one of them. Doing this makes zero sense and will absolutely destroy one of the biggest things that makes this city a wonderful place to live.
  1. Build taller said at 4:01 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    First, people need to calm down. Nobody is advocating Dubai-on-the-Potomac. If the Height Act is relaxed, it will be in certain places and it will likely be incrementally. Additionally, all of the local DC planning regulations will still exist, historical preservation requirements and regulations will still exist, and neighbors can still offer input via their Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Opponents of relaxing the Height Act should answer why 500-foot tall radio towers do not compromise the views of the Capitol, Washington Monument and other historic views but a 180-foot tall building 5 to 7 miles from the Capitol will. Similarly, they should be able to answer why a 175-foot 17-story building directly across the street on the Maryland side of Friendship Heights doesn’t compromise views but on the DC side it would.
  1. Zesty said at 4:02 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    What is the purpose of building upward? Is DC running out of land? Answer is no. There are large areas in NE, SE, and upper NW that are vastly under developed. Building up would starve the impetus for developers to build in these areas. I think this is a very premature discussion
  1. Build taller said at 4:06 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    Relaxing the Height Act will: *Expand DC's housing supply, helping to make housing more affordable. *Reduce auto congestion as more people are able to live in walkable neighborhoods served by metro-rail. *Expand DC's tax-base *Create jobs *Increase metro-rail ridership, as more people can live within walking distance of the stations *Encourage better architecture Other than that, yes, this proposal makes zero sense.
  1. Build taller said at 4:32 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    Where are these vast areas of land in upper NW and Southeast that you speak of? There are plans for at least one thousand new housing units in Ward 3 and most of the land around the Navy Yard and Southwest waterfront is either under construction or will be developed.
  1. RC said at 4:33 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    @Build taller, the question in my mind is whether we're talking about doing this downtown. As long as everything south of let's say Columbia Heights is off the table, who cares. But what counts, as many have said, is the ability to walk around downtown and make the federal buildings the focus of the federal city, and see those federal buildings from every rooftop close by. Otherwise, yeah, this makes absolutely no sense. And as Zesty pointed out, if the question is supply, job creation, reducing rent, and the rest of your talking points, there's lots of places throughout NE, SE, and upper NW for development to occur, making the city better for all.
  1. Zesty said at 4:46 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    @Build Taller, Woodbridge, Brookland, Berntwood, Langdon, Michigan Park, Lamond Riggs, Manor Park, Brightwood, Edgewood, Pleasent Hill, Eckington, Most of SE across the Anacostia
  1. Zesty said at 4:48 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    Develop there areas first; THEN let's talk about the points you thought were valid!
  1. Build taller said at 4:58 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    @RC: Does anyone seriously disagree with relaxing the Height Act around metro sttaions such as Georgia Avenue, Columbia Heights, and Friendship Heights? This should really be two separate issues, the downtown core and around the outer metro stations.
  1. RC said at 5:02 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    @Build taller, that doesn't seem to be the proposal on the table. Those renderings are all about downtown.
  1. Build taller said at 5:07 pm on Thursday July 25, 2013:
    In the downtown core area, there are already several structures that exceed the Height Act limits, including the Cairo, the Old Post Office, and several smokestacks. Relaxing the Height Act by 20-30 feet in the downtown core, especially as you get farther from the Capitol and Washington Monument does not seem like it would compromise views one bit.
  1. RC said at 3:48 pm on Friday July 26, 2013:
    It would if every building downtown was the height of the Cairo, the Old Post Office, or those smokestacks.
  1. Burd said at 7:01 pm on Friday July 26, 2013:
    @ Duponter "Part of what makes it unique is that you can see these buildings while IN DC" There's nothing unique about that, and one will still be able to have great views of the Capitol, Old Post Office, Wash. Monument, Nat'l Shrine, etc., even with the addition of taller buildings. The street layout was designed to preserve views of these landmarks. @ Another Duponter Who cares about Jefferson? Last I checked, he died a long time ago, and good riddance. This isn't his city. It's mine. I was born and raised here, not him.
  1. John Strayer said at 4:40 am on Sunday July 28, 2013:
    I love DC. Love it! But I grew up in Chicago. If you live here because you like the architecture you need to get out more. Also, you can navigate Chicago's loop using 3 or 4 iconic masterpieces. In DC, telling someone that "the Cathedral is north and the Monument is south" would be useful advice for maybe 10 square feet of Meridian Hill Park. Keeping buildings short doesn't mean you can see the nice ones. It means you can only see the one in front of you!
  1. Jason said at 4:33 pm on Sunday July 28, 2013:
    I agree. The height restriction's role in allowing views of the major landmarks is a fantasy since most of us don't live on the top floors of current buildings or have rooftop patios on row houses. Height restrictions are mostly about preserving a handful of wealthy resident's views. The rest of us live at street level and want more housing close to metro stations. Relaxing the restriction to 200 feet would be a step in the right direction. The city and the surrounding suburbs need to build upward and expand mass transit.
  1. PCC said at 2:48 pm on Tuesday July 30, 2013:
    So much nonsense justifying the nonsensical status quo... You already can't see any of the monuments from ground level anywhere downtown or even from afar, unless they terminate the street (in which case nothing will change), border a park (in which case nothing will change), or unless you're on a rooftop (in which case you're not at ground level, and well, all the rooftops will be higher). The idea that new supply cannot reduce rents makes no sense whatsoever, even to a child running a lemonade stand. Yes, of course the marginal cost of providing that supply must be considered, but the marginal cost of adding floors to a high-rise are truly marginal at the heights being considered. Sure, high-rise apartments won't be cheap, but they will absorb demand for high-rent apartments that's currently flooding elsewhere and driving up rents across the region. Speaking of which, the argument that "densify the low-rise areas first" doesn't take into account (1) the tremendous opposition that engenders (2) that those areas, unlike downtown, have wholly inadequate infrastructure.
  1. Disgusting said at 7:31 am on Wednesday August 14, 2013:
    Why am I not surprised by all the strident pro-skyscraper responses from a site focused on real-estate. This alone should raise the hackles of an America thoroughly traumatized by the real estate industry and all of its quick buck con artists. Talk about being willing to sell ones mother (or national heritage) for a profit.

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