On Washington, D.C. Building Height Restrictions
by Kaid Benfield
I've been procrastinating this one for a long time. I generally avoid taking stands on controversial local issues in Washington, where I have lived for over four decades, and I am especially uncomfortable being at odds with people I respect and consider friends.
That said, I can't sit on this any longer: the law that restricts the height of buildings in DC is under attack from all sorts of sources (many of them out-of-towners or relative newcomers to the city, probably not a coincidence). Some of the critics are indeed friends, but I disagree with them on this particular issue.
I'm here to say that, although there are pros and cons to the height restrictions, the city and its residents are better off with them than without them. In my opinion, the restrictions should stay, pretty much as they are. (Be warned that, having procrastinated writing this for so long, I now have a lot to say. I hope this will be persuasive, but it will not be brief.)
Before I get into the specifics, I want to state some caveats. First, I am not expressing an official position of the organization I work for, NRDC. As an organization we seldom get involved in local DC issues at all, and we haven't discussed this one. I'm speaking for myself only. Second, while I come out decidedly on one side of the issue, I think it is one on which reasonable people can differ according to their values and which values they weigh more heavily than others.
Putting the Issue in Context
The law governing building heights in Washington is somewhat more complex than many people realize. It restricts buildings to 20 feet (6 meters) taller than the adjacent street, up to a maximum of 90 feet (27 meters) on residential streets, 130 feet (40 meters) on commercial streets, and 160 feet (49 meters) on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown. (In many neighborhoods, zoning is more restrictive.)
The effect is that, in downtown and other highly-valued commercial areas, new buildings in the city generally rise to 10 or 11 stories; developers max out their allowance, with the result that most new buildings in the hottest commercial parts of the city have the same height.
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