Will DC’s Buildings Grow Taller?

by Shilpi Paul

Will DC's Buildings Grow Taller?: Figure 1
The Cairo, one of DC’s tallest residential buildings.

This afternoon, DC got some attention on Capitol Hill as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing about the future of the 1910 Height Act, which restricts building heights in DC to 130 feet. (The act was installed after area residents reacted in horror to The Cairo, a Dupont Circle building that, when built in the late 19th century, rose higher than the fire hoses of the day could reach.)

Earlier this spring, Slate’s Matt Yglesias reported that Rep. Darrell Issa, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Vincent Gray were working on possibly revising the Height Act to allow downtown buildings to add another floor or two, and areas further out to have much taller buildings. Yglesias encouraged them to consider dropping the restrictions even more dramatically and to allow skyscrapers in the downtown core. Other journalists have also chimed in to question the wisdom of the Height Act in our rapidly developing city.

The representatives opened Thursday’s hearing with an open mind to lessening restrictions, but stressed that it will be important to look at every possible ramification — economic, planning and neighborhood – before making a decision.

Natwar M. Gandhi, DC’s CFO, stated that the city’s economic growth has been constrained by the limited space, leading to the second highest commercial office rental rates in the country and a low vacancy rate. Gandhi argued that relaxed restrictions are important to the city’s continued growth.

“By allowing the District to support more residential units and office space, this change would afford more flexibility to the District in accommodating growing jobs and population,” Gandhi said in his testimony.

Roger Lewis, architect and author of the Washington Post’s “Shaping the City” column, spoke to the historic considerations that initially led to the Height Act and areas where those considerations no longer apply.

“There are specific sites — such as the Southwest and Anacostia waterfronts — where upward adjustment of height limits would be beneficial without jeopardizing the city’s historic profile,” Lewis said. Lewis also mentioned the McMillan Reservoir redevelopment, where residents want more park space but developers and the city want a certain density of office and residences. A less restrictive height limit could allow for a plan that would make both parties happy, thought Lewis.

The discussion also focused on some less dramatic restrictions.

Director of DC’s Office of Planning Harriet Tregoning spoke before the committee to make the modest request of altering the rules regarding rooftop use. Currently, roof structures are limited to mechanical purposes; Tregoning requested that the rule be extended to allow recreational and office uses, like enclosed rooftop pools, gyms and restaurants.

“As you may know, rooftop structures are already permitted under the Height Act,” Tregoning said in her testimony. “While allowed, these roof structures have been limited in their use to mechanical purposes (elevator overrides, building mechanicals) and are currently prohibited from uses that qualify as ‘human occupancy’ such as recreation rooms or office space. Allowing their use for more active purposes will have no real impact on the overall maximum heights of buildings as permitted by the 1910 Height Act and will not impact the District’s recognizable and historic skyline.”

One of the biggest concerns on the other side of the debate is that taller buildings will obscure DC’s carefully designed historic core, and are not necessary to stimulate economic development in the city. A section of testimony from Laura M. Richards of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City:

“The proposal risks the creation of visual clutter. One building may develop its rooftop space while an adjacent building elects not to, creating a “pop-up” effect. Also, during task force meetings held in conjunction with the District’s ongoing work of rewriting its zoning regulations, rooftop pools and party rooms were mentioned frequently as desirable uses of roof space. These ends may be achieved in new construction by providing for these uses within the permissible height, but are party rooms a sufficient reason to disturb the Height Act?”

It may be instructive to take a look at the other world-class city with a height restriction: Paris. The French city recently decided to lift the restriction in an outer, southwest section of the city, which will soon see several very tall buildings, including one 590-feet tall tower, while protecting landmarks like The Eiffel Tower and The Champs-Elysees.

Keep in mind that even if Congress loosens the Height Act, DC’s Zoning Commission will need to hold their own hearings before the ban would be lifted. In fact, towards the end of the session, Rep. Issa wondered about the possibility of empowering the city to question the Height Act without having to go through Congress. Stay tuned.

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/will_dcs_buildings_grow_taller/5787


  1. Eugene Abravanel said at 10:12 pm on Thursday July 19, 2012:
    There are many reasons for preserving the current height limitations for buildings: one such has to do with maintaining D.C. as a city with adequate trees to reduce heat,smog,CO2, especially during summer when the town swelters. A second is to keep density under control, rather than adding to regions with heavy traffic and considerable resident impatience (to put it mildly). With respect to the thousands of people who visit the city annually, it is much more important to safeguard the Mall, the downtown area, and most residential areas of significance (Georgetown, Cleveland Park, Mass. Ave., Meridian Hill, 16th St., DuPont Circle, C.C. In D.C., and many more areas that are of interest because of their relatively low densities. The current 130 ft. height limits allow for considerable building development w/o losing more of D.C.'s special character, appeal around the world and unique position on the East coast where most cities are suffering from overcrowding. Just look at the devastation that has happened to Rossyln and parts of Arlington. A sad destruction of once very enjoyable suburbs.
  1. Josh Leland said at 12:32 am on Friday July 20, 2012:
    I disagree completely with Eugene. I was born and raised in DC and continue to live here, but having just spent a week in Chicago, I can attest to the fact that when zoned and managed effectively a city without a height limit can create a much more visually appealing skyline than the one DC has. In fact, in my opinion, DC's skyline is the least interesting skyline of any major city in the country. What is so interesting about a bunch of buildings that are all the same height? The fact that there are limitations to the use of rooftops only exacerbates the problem because you can't get high enough to get the view of the monuments that the 1910 Height Act purports to preserve! I agree that certain sight lines need to be maintained, especially on the Mall and around the monuments, but with some exclusions I would support an increase to the 1910 height limitations. Increased heights will only make DC a more vibrant and liveable city as more people will be able to live in the city, forgoing cars, using public transportation, and walking or biking to work. The current height limitations only exacerbate the suburban sprawl that congests our roadways as people are forced (by space or cost) to live well outside the city. I think we should raise the roof, so to speak, and be smart and thoughtful in how and where we do it.
  1. Isaiah Oliver said at 3:58 am on Friday July 20, 2012:
    Thank you, Josh. I am not originally from DC, but I think the height restriction (and low population density that results) is one of the worst features of the city and contributes to many reasons why I don't want to stay in DC forever. The low population density is a main reason there are almost no late night food options. It's a reason why a huge part of the city (from Foggy Bottom to Capital Hill) is a creepy ghost town after 7 pm and some of my favorite food joints are only open for 3 hours a day from Monday through Friday. It's a reason why real estate is so expensive and, as a result, every office building that isn't a historic landmark has been ripped down and re-built into a characterless box that maximizes revenue (which, honestly, I don't blame people for doing given the law). I also think it's a major reason that rent is so high. As a result, many neighborhoods are gentrifying quickly, the city's ethnic diversity suffers (compared to NYC, Boston, and other cities), and huge pockets of immigrants decide to live in Virginia and Maryland. These are just a few of the reasons why I think the 1910 Height Act needs to be amended. I never thought it would happen in my life time, so I'm thrilled to hear the discussion is moving in the right direction.
  1. jj said at 4:49 am on Friday July 20, 2012:
    A much as a love NYC, I prefer seeing the sky in DC to the closed in feeling tall buildings create. I would support some limited increases in height in certain sections of town, but nothing that would cast shadows on adjacent historic neighborhoods or other significant sights/sites. I'm also not so keen to drive home real estate down by increasing residential density.
  1. Les said at 1:35 pm on Friday July 20, 2012:
    I watched the proceedings on the internet. A study needs to be done on Gandhi's statements that increasing the height would mean more revenue for the District. More than likely more groups that don't have to pay taxes in the District (embassies, non-profits) will use this and the District will get minimal increased revenue. I am so glad DC is not a state. There are other ways to increase the revenue, and Gandhi knows that. So, don't increase the height.
  1. Ward 3 resident said at 4:34 pm on Friday July 20, 2012:
    Relaxing the Height Act is sound policy that will benefit the District. Relaxing the Height Act won’t turn DC into Dubai or Hong Kong. It will, however, bring the District more tax revenue, create jobs, allow more people to live within walking distance of metro-rail, and help reduce auto congestion and pollution. Tenley has 400 foot communications towers and DC seems to continue on fine and hardly any of the tourists that come here for views of the Capitol and monuments seem to notice one bit. There are areas such as Friendship Heights, Georgia Avenue, and the DC side of Silver Spring, right next to transit, where modestly higher buildings make a lot of sense. The DC side of Friendship Heights or Silver Spring should be allowed to have buildings as tall as those directly across the street in Maryland. This will not ruin the quality of life one bit. In fact, by allowing more residents to live and work here, paying more income and property taxes that will improve schools, libraries, parks, and other services, it will likely improve quality of life.
  1. Adam L said at 3:44 pm on Saturday July 21, 2012:
    I agree with the others that Height Act should be examined and likely changed; not to allow "skyscrapers" but to allow reasonable changes in height. The building height codes have been changed many times; even this particular act has been amended six times to grant exemptions to specific projects. Personally, I think it is more politically feasible to raise the overall limit to 160 feet because that's the height of the buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. If buildings along America's Main Street in the heart of the city's ceremonial core can rise to 160 feet, then I see no reason why the remainder of the city should not be allowed to rise to similar elevations. As for those from outside DC who love the city's current height limits, I would submit that an extra 30 feet would not change your experience. However, if the current height limit is to be kept, I would submit that the entire nation have to pay for it. DC residents and businesses are paying higher taxes and rents because of the supply constraints, which puts the city at an economic disadvantage, especially compared to the nearby suburbs. As such, local residents are quite literally subsidizing the maintenance of the height act that people from all over the country get to enjoy.

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