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  • On Washington, D.C. Building Height Restrictions


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    On Washington, D.C. Building Height Restrictions


    Is There a Middle Ground?

    Almost no one, of course, is arguing that the building height restrictions should be repealed completely. Here are some of the partial-repeal suggestions that I have seen:

    • Keep the restrictions in the city's "monumental core" — basically the area around the National Mall — only.

    • Keep the restrictions only in the area covered by the city's original plan created by Pierre L'Enfant (bordered roughly by Rock Creek, the Potomac River, and the Anacostia River to the west, south and east, and by what is now Florida Avenue to the north).

    • Allow taller buildings only in designated newly redeveloping areas, such as the Southeast waterfront bordering the Anacostia River, the Southwest waterfront bordering the Potomac, and/or Poplar Point, east of the Anacostia in Ward 8, the city's poorest district. (This prompts the question, will white people who don't live nearby ever stop offering opinions about Anacostia?)

    • Raise the height limit everywhere to 160 feet (49 meters), as it now exists for Pennsylvania Avenue.

    • Allow building rooftops, where small utility penthouses now frequently stand as exceptions to the height limitations, to be developed as habitable indoor space.

    • Grant height "bonuses" above the current statutory limits in exchange for public benefits. (In David Alpert's article, this is articulated as when the increased height "allows a really interesting, attractive design, and if the building provides some amenities, like parks or daycares or libraries or something that won't otherwise be economically viable.")

    • Auction off a limited number of height waivers each year in designated areas outside of special places such as important viewsheds.

    • Allow taller buildings around Metro stations.

    There are actually endless variations, many of them thoughtful. As I said at the outset, this is an issue on which reasonable people can and do hold differing opinions.

    Let's Just Don't

    But my own preference is to leave the height limits as they are and enforce them. Once you've made a change, in any place or regard, it is essentially irrevocable. And, once you've made a change in any place or regard, you've stepped onto a slippery slope that makes other changes more likely.

    Let's just don't. While almost any of us, given the opportunity to create a new scheme, might come up with something that differs from current law in one respect or another (such as 120 or 140 feet (37 or 43 meters) instead of 130 (40 meters), or treating Pennsylvania Avenue the same as the rest of the city), the truth is that Washington has been doing better economically than at any other point in its lifetime, and we're doing great as a wonderful place to live, too. To the extent we have problems (diminishing affordability, substandard architecture here and there), raising the height limit won't help at all. It also won't help environmentally, compared to other ways of raising density in our region.

    Why the heck change, especially when, as McMahon and Beasley articulate so well, DC's mid-rise cityscape is one of its distinguishing, much-loved assets? Tinkering with a successful status quo is a solution in search of a problem.

    Some years — um, decades — ago, I attended a lecture and tour at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on the Washington Color School of painting. It was led by the late Gene Davis, a DC native and central figure in that bright, vivid style practiced by such additional luminaries of the 1960s-1970s art world as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland; its influence continues to the present day with, for example, the highly regarded DC artist Sam Gilliam. It is said to be "one of the greatest post-World War II art movements in the US," characterized by an abstract merger of order and flamboyance.

    The one thing I remember most from that very interesting event was Davis's assertion that the Color School was associated with Washington for a reason: it could not have happened in New York, he said, because the quality of light there wasn't the same.

    That's all I have.

    Kaid Benfield is a cofounder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system; cofounder of the Smart Growth America coalition; author of Once There Were Greenfields, Solving Sprawl, Smart Growth In a Changing World, and Green Community; and was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" in a 2009 poll at Planetizen.

    This article originally appeared as "Why I support the DC building height restrictions" by Kaid Benfield, copyright 2010, and is published with permission of the Natural Resources Defense Council.


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