Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Bradley Truding, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s youthful-looking legislative director, didn’t quite know what he was getting into when he agreed to narrate the history of the District of Columbia Height Act at an early October event commemorating its centennial anniversary.

The Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a venerable group of civic worthies pledged to the preservation of Washington’s historic character, had convened its membership to discuss the past and present predicament of the 1910 law that limits D.C. buildings to a maximum height of 130 feet—and even less, in most parts of town. Truding was tasked with reciting the Act’s legislative origins, and began his talk by explaining that the limit had been enacted out of concern for fire safety.

In most contexts, the idea that fire-safety was a big deal back in 1910 would be unobjectionable. But as Truding uttered those words, necks stiffened in the Charles Sumner School’s second-floor meeting room; a sense of rebellion stirred the aging crowd. What about the preservation of Washington’s grand vistas, or its “human scale”? It wasn’t just fire safety that had prompted passage of the legislation, the preservationists bristled. Beauty played a role too.

“That can’t be, because what they would have done is say all buildings can go to the height of the fire ladders, so it would have been uniform,” protested an audience member. “The fact that there’s a formula means that it’s based on aesthetics.”

“You just cite the reports,” admonished another, arguing that Truding’s research must have been incomplete. “But you have to look at the newspapers.”

Why do they defend that rationale so fiercely? Simple: If the century-old rule were based on purely practical considerations that had gone out of date with the advent of sprinkler systems, its continued existence becomes difficult to defend. But defend it they do, year after year, decade after decade. Over the years, the notion of Washington as a vertically abbreviated city has moved from legislative edict to local custom to holy writ. Question the Height Act at your peril.

That’s still true today, even as practical considerations provide a strong case for overhauling the law. D.C. recently surpassed New York City to become the nation’s most expensive commercial office market. There’s not enough affordable housing for city employees to live in the District with their families. The federal government and its attendant industries have been expanding locally faster than any time since World War II, and high-rises are mushrooming in places outside the District like Rosslyn and Bethesda to accommodate it. Every high-rise in the suburbs means District tax dollars lost.

Notwithstanding the height limit’s hallowed reputation, calls for everything from drastic modification to outright repeal have been issued in almost every decade of its existence. And they haven’t always gone unheeded. Congress allowed apartment buildings to rise five feet higher in 1925, for example, at the urging of the American Institute of Architects. They also made exceptions for buildings like the National Press Club and the Harrington Hotel. But the law never crumbled.

It’s time for that to change.

The District desperately needs more capacity. The way to build it intelligently is to let the market and the city decide where tall buildings might or might not prove valuable. The idea of buildings puncturing D.C.’s squat skyline might seem unsettling at first—especially to those who absorb the terrifying rhetoric from the District’s preservationists. But even as scrapping the law would involve some tricky maneuvering around the District’s relationship with Congress, abandoning the Height Act and letting zoning rule would be worth it. Here’s why.

The District of Columbia had height limits even before it had the United States government. But the evolving justifications for those limits represent a study in changing ideas of how a city ought to function.

Back in the 1790s, President George Washington, who never actually governed from the city that would bear his name, first ordered that the new federal capital have a height limit at 40 feet. Washington wanted to avoid the rickety, dangerous tenement buildings already springing up in his chaotic temporary capital, New York. By contrast, the new metropolis was to be an oasis of serene elegance. Thomas Jefferson, the first chief executive to sit in the new capital for his entire term, greatly admired the scale of Paris; he supported a limit on height “to provide for the extinguishment of fires, and the openness and convenience of the town.” At any rate, the largely pastoral District hardly needed tall buildings at that point; home to a tiny federal government, the city wasn’t supposed to be a place where many people would need to spend much time.

By the end of the 19th century, that was starting to change. But the modern height limit wasn’t spurred by some towering bureaucratic edifice—it was a response to the 1894 construction of the 160-foot Cairo Hotel at 1615 Q St. NW. The Board of Commissioners that ran the District at the time was mightily disturbed by the soaring steel-framed structure. One issue was that the firehoses of the era couldn’t quench a blaze on the upper floors. Another would sound more familiar today: Its overshadowed neighbors were worrying about their property values.

The commissioners responded by limiting building heights at 90 feet on residential streets and 110 feet on commercial avenues. The regulations were reinforced by Congress in 1899, with permission for heights up to 130 feet on the broadest promenades—a number cribbed from Boston and Chicago’s safety-oriented limits at the time. The law was refined to its more-or-less final version in 1910. According to a 1976 legislative history of building height regulations done by the House Committee on the District of Columbia, safety was far and away the primary concern of lawmakers in their deliberations.

But even then, before modern skyscrapers began springing up around the country, the popular press was pushing an aesthetic argument, too. “It seems that these regulations are in line with the policy of making this city the handsomest in the world,” read a contemporary commentary in the Evening Star. “It has already obtained that enviable distinction, and it is believed that the tendency towards the erection of sky scrapers, if left unchecked, would mar rather than increase the beauty of the city.”

And so in one sense, the absolutists at the Committee of 100 are right: While aesthetic values didn’t factor into the actual passage of the regulations—and the height of the Capitol’s dome, contrary to popular myth, had absolutely nothing to do with it—they had their advocates from the act’s very inception. Over time, a low-slung conception of the nation’s capital became the act’s staunchest defense.

Some quibbled with the Height Act from its very inception, and several exemptions were obtained to get around the law. But broader opposition started to arise in the 1960s. In other cities around the country and around the globe, local restrictions were ditched as urban boosters sought to erect proud new monuments to their modernity. Locally, D.C. itself started to worry about losing businesses and residents to the suburbs. Aesthetes also disdained an unintended effect of the height limits on D.C.’s downtown—a proliferation of boxy buildings that architect Arthur Cotton Moore decried in a 1966 Washingtonian article as “short, fat, and sexless.” While elegant towers sprouted up in Chicago and New York, D.C. was doomed to build boring bureaucratic slabs.

In 1971, the D.C. Council completed an extensive review of building height regulations. Its conclusion: In order to “start a dramatic reversal of the continuing deterioration” of downtown Washington, height limits should be selectively raised to a maximum of 250 feet. Everybody got on board: Mayor Walter Washington, then-Del. Walter Fauntroy, the city’s Zoning Commission, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and a number of civic and industry groups supported the modifications. But the federal Commission on Fine Arts took strong exception. Chairman J. Carter Brown extolled the fact that President Washington’s “vision is unpolluted as yet by the pressures of economic greed,” and said the city’s proposal would allow “a few visible belches, towers allowed to spring up piggly-wiggly.” Bills offered in Congress fizzled before reaching a vote.

After that attempt, the issue died down for a few decades, perhaps because demand didn’t exist in downtrodden D.C. for much beyond the 12-story superblock. Meanwhile, construction of the Metrorail system ferried people efficiently between government jobs downtown and houses in the suburbs, and the city’s population dropped by 30 percent between 1950 and 2000.

Now, the debate crops up every few years, whenever some high-profile person—like architecture writer Witold Rybczynski or urbanist developer Christopher Leinberger—sees fit to launch a polemic one way or another. The discussion has become circular and wooden, and even worse, carries an air of futility. According to Truding, nobody has approached his boss in the last few years to try again with legislation that would relax the limits. Even the most vociferous advocates of allowing higher buildings offer little in the way of ideas for actually making it happen.

If Mayor Walter Washington thought it made sense to relax height limits back in 1971, it makes even more sense today. After decades of decline, the District is hot again, and it’s missing opportunities: At a time when capital and the demand exist to support controlled experiments with higher buildings—just look at the bulky new edifices planned for the Center Leg Freeway’s air rights, over Union Station’s rail yard, and even further up 14th Street NW—the 1910 law still sits there, entirely inert. The Office of Planning is again reviewing its zoning regulations. But to get a sense of how lame the conversation is, consider this: The most contentious question involves how to measure the height of a building that’s on top of a bridge. The organization is powerless to make more substantive alterations.

Why change now? There are three main arguments.

First, consider commercial space. Here, D.C. has a natural advantage over suburban locales, because of its proximity to an increasingly active federal government. Although the District isn’t a financial center, incoming Mayor Vince Gray has expressed a desire to turn it into one, by creating a special tax district akin to those in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. The point: Astronomic office rents are a testament to the fact that downtown is full to bursting. While allowing developers to build a few towers wouldn’t necessarily make a dent in those prices, it would allow the District to capitalize on the presence of new business (and compete with the suburbs by building the high ceilings that both office users and retailers increasingly want). The Office of Planning’s director, Harriet Tregoning—no Committee of 100 favoriteworries that raising the height limits might weaken interest in other areas around the city that cry out for investment. But isn’t it also possible that the ability to build a tall building to anchor a commercial zone in those districts might prove as attractive?

Next, residential character—ironically, one of the reasons preservations love to cite for maintaining the height rules. It’s obvious that we have a supply problem when it comes to housing: Residential prices, still stagnant in much of the country, continue to rise precipitously in D.C., which risks turning into a wealthy enclave as the proportion of units subject to rent control grows smaller and smaller. The best way to solve that problem is to create a variety of different kinds of new places for people to live.

Many argue that ample opportunities currently exist to add density, and that’s true: Walking around D.C., you’ll still see a fair number of empty lots and ramshackle houses that could be knocked down and rebuilt to fill the zoning envelope. But new buildings aren’t like water, simply flowing to low points and collecting there. Sometimes the buildable capacity on a given piece of land isn’t worth the price it would take to consolidate several parcels. Moreover, historic districts already place much of the city off-limits to large-scale development. It makes much more sense from a developer’s perspective to build a tall building where it’s financially feasible and where more people want to live, like around a Metrorail station. An empty lot in Shepherd Park may just never be an attractive enough prospect for anything higher than a single family home.

Right now, highly desirable areas—or ones that have the right ingredients for vibrance, but just lack the residential density to bring them to life—must be developed very densely from a horizontal perspective. In NoMa, that’s inadvertently led to a dearth of park space, since all the land has been taken up by 12-story glass blocks. The same tension is evident in the planning of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site redevelopment on North Capitol Street near the Washington Hospital Center: Residents want more park space, but developers need to build more square footage to make it worth their while—and the whole area needs a huge infusion of new people in order to support the kind of retail the neighborhood would like to see. The pattern will eventually repeat itself in Hill East and Poplar Point.

Now imagine if the city had been allowed to grant developers in NoMa or on North Capitol more height in exchange for keeping some land clear for grass and trees? Urban parks surrounded by tall buildings, like New York City’s Gramercy Park, can feel cozy and safe—and be a huge factor in drawing people to the neighborhood.

Finally, since opponents of raising height limits rest most of their arguments on aesthetics, let’s talk about that.

From a structural standpoint, D.C.’s height limits have given rise to immense creativity. Our buildings have some of the deepest parking garages in America, for example, and quite a bit of engineering has gone into squishing heating and cooling systems into the smallest amount of space so that more floors can be packed under the height caps. And sure, it’s not impossible to build handsome short buildings.

But if there are architecturally innovative buildings in D.C., it’s in spite of the Height Act, not because of it. More often than not, developers demand as much square footage on a site as the zoning will allow, leaving the wistful architect with only façade design to play with. The variety in height and form in the rowhouses of Mount Vernon Square, Georgetown, and Dupont Circle, is a tremendous asset to those neighborhoods. Allowing it on a larger scale in other neighborhoods and commercial districts would make for a much more architecturally exciting environment.

Plus, tall buildings need not be just anonymous, glassy shafts that are the same in every city: What if additional height were granted on a competitive basis, and awarded for the best design? When you stop thinking about height in terms of letting greedy developers pack more profit onto their land, and instead in terms of creating leverage to hold them to a higher standard, the aesthetic argument gets flipped on its head.

Part of the problem with the Height Act debate thus far is that it’s lacked a real sense of what the city would actually start to look like under revamped regulations. The discussion is ridden with the depiction of “concrete canyons” that will shut out all light from the sidewalk, and skyscrapers that will defile our national symbols. That’s absurd.

The only realistic way to change D.C.’s height limitations is as part of a strategic, comprehensive planning process that allows for higher development where it makes most sense: Downtown, around Metro stations, along the waterfront, and where wide inbound streets cross the District line and are bordered by much taller buildings, like the spot where Georgia Avenue crosses into Silver Spring. A few towers on the edge of Rock Creek Park would be tremendously valuable, and impede nobody’s view. Large residential buildings bordering Pennsylvania Avenue SE would add grandeur to that largely empty promenade.

Builders would take these opportunities, but slowly. Much of the time, their plans would still go through multiple layers of development review to ensure compatibility with their surroundings and allow for public input. Just look at Paris, which Thomas Jefferson so admired: Its city council just passed legislation that will allow commercial buildings up to 590 feet in the city’s 13th Arrondissement, while protecting the character of its other historic neighborhoods.

But guess what? You can’t do that kind of fine-tuning from a federal body. The House and the Senate aren’t involved in any other city’s land-use decisions, for good reason: They’re no good at it. D.C.’s own elected government is perfectly capable of making development decisions, and much better equipped to do so in collaboration with residents.

In defense of Congress’ continuing hegemony, over and over again, we hear from the Committee of 100 that Washington isn’t like other cities, it’s the nation’s capital. Fine. But how does it follow that said capital, in contrast to other growing cities, must remain a turn-of-the-century village in perpetuity? There is no sinister smart-growth agenda to transform D.C. into Manhattan overnight. Washington can still be Washington—it’s just that more people should be allowed to enjoy it.