Matt Yglesias has a proposal for how to fund the $6 billion expansion that Metro wants to undertake, and if you’ve ever read Matt Yglesias, you can probably guess what it is: Repeal the Height Act!
Restrictions on the height of buildings in the DC central business district cost the city billions per year in lost economic activity. Rescind the Height of Buildings Act—not just in a tweak around the edges way, but in an honest-to-god skyscrapers way—but charge a fee to get permission to build high. That direct revenue can pay for the new infrastructure, infrastructure that will conveniently support more density. The much increased levels of employment and retail activity that would be associated with a denser central business district, meanwhile, will replenish the District’s general coffers for years to come.
It’s a logical enough proposal (if you’re into the whole density thing), and I’ve often wondered why there hasn’t been more discussion of direct fees to the city from developers who want to build above the current height limits. I foresee just two problems:
1. If you’re really building enough “honest-to-god skyscrapers” to bring about “much increased levels of employment” and pay for a $6 billion Metro expansion, then you’re talking about a vastly bigger downtown population, which would in turn require even more Metro investment to get all those people around. Yglesias would probably counter that this is in fact a virtuous cycle, where more downtown population means more Metro, which enables more population, which can fund more Metro, etc. But the bottom line is that you don’t just allow skyscrapers, do a one-time expansion, and wash your hands of the matter.
2. It’ll never happen, at least not anytime soon. This is, of course, the bigger roadblock. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) recently commissioned a study on possible changes to the Height Act—-but Norton told me a few weeks ago that it’s simply a matter of exploring an issue that hasn’t been explored in too long, and that “neither Darrell nor I are anxious to change the Height Act.” Michael Brown, who chaired the D.C. Council’s economic development committee until his electoral defeat in November—-he’s attempting a comeback in the April special election—-and has been a leading advocate for amending the Height Act, maintains that he has no interest in raising the height limit downtown, but rather east of the Anacostia River, where it won’t impair sight lines. And Mayor Vince Gray told me recently that when he discussed the Height Act with Issa, they talked about tinkering with the issue of mechanical penthouses on building roofs, not more substantive changes. When I asked him if he’d support lifting height limits even just east of the river, he replied, “I’m in support right now of the mechanical penthouse legislation. Then we’ll see what happens after that.”
A height-for-Metro swap is a nice idea. It’s just not a feasible one for the time being.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery