Congress Takes a New Look at Low-Slung Washington
||New York Times (NY)
||Friday, July 20, 2012
WASHINGTON — Change, if it comes to the nation’s capital, will evidently be measured in feet.
More than a century after Congress put a limit on the height of buildings in the District of Columbia, Washington is reprising a debate as to whether taller buildings should be allowed.
Supporters say easing the restriction would be an economic boon to the city. Opponents worry that taller buildings could compromise the District’s short-statured charm. And nearly everyone agrees that the height limits are completely arbitrary.
At a Congressional hearing this week, lawmakers hinted that the political climate might be ripe for things to look up in the District, structurally speaking.
“Over all the years that we’ve had an arbitrary height limit, has it served us well?” asked Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “Perhaps. But it’s served us without a plan.”
Washington falls back into its elevation sickness every few years, but the city itself has limited say in the matter because any change to the law must be approved by Congress. Although the Republicans leading the House largely resist federal-government intervention in their own districts, they have not shied away from intervening in Washington’s affairs.
“This committee has no desire to make D.C. into the next New York,” Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, affirmed as he opened the hearing, dismissing the concerns raised by some.
Indeed, it has been a debate given to hyperbole, and repetition. In 1988, as a change to the law was being discussed, Dorn C. McGrath Jr., then the chairman of the citizens’ planning group Committee of 100 on the Federal City, told The New York Times, “There is constant pressure to skyscraper this city.”
With the preponderance of its rooftops currently resting below triple-digit heights, Washington would be dwarfed not only by the monumental towers of New York or Chicago, some more than 1,000 feet tall, but also when measured against shorter buildings of smaller metropolises, like Atlanta or St. Louis.
The Height of Buildings Act became law in Washington first in 1899 and then, in its current form, in 1910, after residents complained about the construction of the Cairo Hotel, now an apartment building, at 160 feet tall. The limit imposed thereafter — which is measured relative to the width of a city street but comes out roughly to 90 feet for residences and 130 feet for commercial buildings — was agreed to arbitrarily. Were Congress to change the law, it would most likely consider raising the limit only by tens of feet, not hundreds.
If the original decision was largely aesthetic, the choice Washington now faces is steeped in economics.
From April 1, 2010, to July 1, 2011, the District of Columbia grew faster than any state, according to the Census Bureau, but height limits prevent development for businesses and residences, driving prices up and limiting taxable space.
Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that many existing buildings house the federal government and nonprofit organizations, which cannot be taxed.
“For a relatively small city that’s already constrained when it comes to its land, it seems to be a particular burden for Washington,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He added, “This is one of those things that does seem artificial, and is probably something that could stand some tweaking.”
Why the law has not been tweaked is the stuff of local lore. The popular belief that Washington’s buildings must be no taller than the Capitol dome (288 feet) or the Washington Monument (just over 555 feet), for example, has become widespread — and makes for a better yarn than the bureaucracy-steeped reality.
Bonita Richardson, a Washington resident, said she thought the law might be an anachronistic leftover from a time when the technology did not yet exist to build taller buildings, but did not really know. Regardless, she said she would support a change “as long as it stays in good taste.”
“It’s all part of progress,” Ms. Richardson, 51, said, “but sometimes when things get out of control it can become overwhelming, and then it’s not pretty anymore.”
The emotional attachment many Washingtonians have to the city’s unique aesthetic is perhaps the greatest obstacle to upward mobility of the physical kind. Laura M. Richards, who testified at the hearing, said walking among Washington’s diminutive buildings was a “joyful pleasure” and “about the frantic life of our modern world being made more bearable.”
“People want a horizontal city,” said Ms. Richards of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.
In many parts of the city, where zoning restrictions set the height of buildings lower than those dictated by the Height Act, the landscape could remain horizontal regardless of what Congress decides. But inertia might prevent even that.
“The Height Act is like a symbol,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting Democratic delegate in Congress. “It’s discussed, it’s even revered. But I don’t know many people, expert or not, in this city who know very much about the Height Act of have spent any considerable time understanding it.”