Should D.C. raise its height limit?
Washington's famous height limit has long defined our city's skyline, but is it time to rethink it? With office rents downtown eclipsing those of Manhattan to become the most expensive in the country, some people think so.
Raising the height limit would presumably allow downtown to accommodate more density, which would be great for the region because downtown is where our infrastructure converges. Thus, it is the most appropriate place in the region for more density.
That's a pretty good argument, and in general it makes sense. But Washington's height limit is also an important component of our city's unique character, and raising it might have unintended negative consequences. For example, with land at less of a premium, some developers might build skyscrapers and then surround them with surface parking lots, which would encourage driving and discourage walking, leading to a dramatic increase in traffic congestion. Few American downtowns are as pedestrian friendly as Washington's, and the lack of surface parking lots due to the height limit is a big reason why.
So while I don't think eliminating the height limit wholesale is a good idea, I do think we have some room for improvement. One size doesn't fit all, as everyone knows.
One problem connected to the height limit is that very few people live downtown, since office leases are generally more profitable than residential ones. Any developer who gave up valuable square footage for residential units would be throwing money away. A carefully crafted height bonus giving developers permission to build a few extra floors in exchange for filling them with residences might change that. People living downtown don't have to travel far to commute, so increasing the downtown population would decrease congestion.
Likewise, allowing skyscrapers in underdeveloped areas such as Anacostia might encourage investment there and would do so without impacting the character of the city's monumental core. After all, Anacostia is geographically similar to Arlington, which has used tall buildings very successfully.
These are just a few examples, but ultimately my point is this: While Washington's height limit is an important and deservedly well-loved attribute of our city, carefully crafted modifications to it could make our wonderful city even better. We ought not be afraid to discuss the possibility.
Dan Malouff is an Arlington County transportation planner who blogs independently at BeyondDC.com. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.
| October 20, 2010; 12:05 PM ET
Categories: D.C., HotTopic, Local blog network
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