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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton wasn’t happy at my impatience over her statement last week that her “support for the Height Act is as strong as ever.” We were talking about something else, and she launched into an explanation.
“The fact is it is true that what distinguishes a city is its scale. The scale has a whole lot more to do with the attractiveness of a city,” she said. “It also has to do with the only private sector business we have, which is tourism, which is 95 percent connected to the federal government. This is a tourist city because of the monuments, the museums. The scale reinforces that.”
I’ll just continue to respectfully disagree on that one. Saying that squat buildings are the District’s sole distinguishing characteristic is selling the us terribly short—-does she really think this city has nothing else to recommend it as a tourist destination? Furthermore, I’m fairly sure that people would still come visit the Holocaust Museum or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial if buildings were a few stories taller downtown, let alone east of the Anacostia. Finally, the idea that the “only private sector business we have is tourism” is patently ridiculous. Most of our private sector business is connected to the federal government, but it’s private nonetheless, and creating tremendous demand for office space in the downtown core. Besides, aren’t we supposed to be diversifying our economy? Stifling it to protect an industry we’re not even sure is truly threatened by the Height Act makes no sense at all.
However, Norton did say she’s willing to entertain a discussion about changing the law, because she understands the value of building tall near Metro stations. “If you’re a smart growth person, the way I am, then build to the sky,” she says. “That’s what I would like to do in the neighborhoods.”
The bottom line, as I mentioned when this all came to light, is that somebody’s got to do the numbers and make the case. “Nobody has anything but opinions,” Norton said. “I know of nobody who can lay out the arguments on the other side who could help us…If i were the city, I would look closely at this issue. One wants to avoid the unintended consequences that tend to come when you make changes without trying to think them through.”
And God damn it, she’s tired of all these people running around saying they want to scrap federal laws, which she’s learned the hard way is a rather difficult thing to do. “You don’t just decide that you want to change the Height Act. Nobody knows what they’re talking about,” Norton said. “These people are the idiots who think they already know everything.”
I’m trying to not do more than one Height Act post a week, by the way. If you want to listen to me argue with a British architect on the BBC about it, though, you can (starting at 36:00).