Should DC have a skyline?
The conversation over the height of buildings in the District has been a contested issue since 1910 when the federal government issued the Height of Buildings Act, which limits the city’s vertical growth.
However, some argue that this law not only restricts the growth of DC’s skyline, it also limits DC’s potential economic growth.
March 5 Panel Discussion
On Tuesday, March 5, the National Capital Planning Commission is hosting a panel of international experts who will discuss the role governments play in managing building height in capital cities. The meeting at the National Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater (700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW) from 7 to 9 pm will also “examine strategies to balance city character and economic vitality.”
The panel includes:
- Jurgen Bruns-Berentelg, Berlin/Hamburg, CEO of HafenCity and former manager of Berlin’s Sony Center.
- François Dagnaud, Paris, Mayor of the 19th arrondissement and former deputy mayor.
- Robert Tavernor, London, Architect, urbanist, and historian involved with key London development sites.
- John Worthington, London, Principal, DEGW Architects, and visiting professor, University of Sheffield.
- Gary Hack, U.S., Professor emeritus of city & regional planning, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited to first-come, first-serve. For more information, visit the event’s website.
Recent debates on Capitol Hill have led us to believe that our vertically challenged city may gain a little height in the not-too-distant future.
Congress is considering a revision to the District’s building height restrictions, established over a century ago in the Height of Buildings Act. It seems that raising the roof on our city’s skyline could raise the city’s bottom line.
City officials say the District suffers a disadvantage because the federal government owns approximately 40 percent of its land, rendering it non-taxable. Therefore, adding additional real estate in the District (be it vertically or horizontally) would provide a new source of tax revenue for the city.
According to an article in the Washington Post, DC is growing at a rapid rate, thanks to a recent surge in population and a steady job market. The District boom has created an increased demand for downtown office and residential space — but DC is running out of room to expand.
In the Post article, Natwar M. Gandhi, District chief financial officer, reports that the city’s potential for growth is nowhere near exhausted, even though the city’s land is.
But have no fear – the proposed revisions will not transform DC’s signature stunted buildings and open views of the monuments into the next New York. In fact, the proposed revisions actually recommend minimal changes, leaving many city officials, architects and residents wondering if the debate is worth the trouble.
The proposed change would allow building developers to use the tops of buildings (which may currently house the building’s mechanical equipment) or roof space for interior office and residential purposes. Essentially, DC’s skyline could grow by one story.
According to the Post, Congress first approved the city’s current height restrictions in 1899, in response to the construction of the Cairo, a 160-foot-high apartment building on Q Street NW. Shortly after the Cairo controversy, Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act in 1910, which set height restrictions for buildings on both commercial and residential streets, based on the width of the street. (Buildings on commercial streets cannot exceed 130 feet and building heights on residential streets cannot exceed 90 feet.)
In addition to adding height to the city’s buildings, the potential change in legislation would give DC’s city government more authority on building height limits — a change that DC’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton calls a “breakthrough” in the Post article.
But on the heels of Mayor Gray’s recent scandal involving misreported campaign funds, is DC ready to handle such an economically and aesthetically important task? Are we ready to put the fate of our skyline into the hands of a notoriously corrupt government? And is one story even worth the trouble?
A seemingly arbitrary building law established in 1910 does not allow for our city’s current and future growth opportunities. But does it have the District’s best interests (and views) at heart?
According to the Post, it is unclear whether the Congressional committee will hold another hearing or propose legislation on the limits anytime soon.
From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.
Last week the Congressional Committee with oversight over the District’s affairs began considering a measure that would allow DC buildings to exceed their current height limit.
If it came to be, the change would be the first alteration of the federal Height of Buildings Act, which has limited the city’s vertical – and many say economic – growth since 1910.
As Wikipedia notes, “The original act restricted the heights of any type of building in the United States capital city of Washington, D.C., to be no higher than 110 feet (90 feet for residential buildings). In 1910, the 61st United States Congress enacted a new law limiting building heights to the width of the right-of-way of the street or avenue on which a building fronts, which is the main law presented by this act.”
Committee members were quick to reassure District officials and concerned residents that the change would not allow skyscrapers and condos to overshadow the monuments. If enacted, the bill would allow DC buildings to turn roof space into occupied space, essentially adding one story to much of the city skyline.
City officials say the District suffers a disadvantage because the federal government owns approximately 40 percent of its land, rendering it non-taxable. This additional real estate would provide a new source of tax revenue to counteract this disadvantage.
While many people think The Cairo residential building on the 1600 block of Q Street NW is the city’s tallest building (other than the Washington Monument), that honor actually belongs to The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, according to Wikipedia.