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Where heights could increase.

One of the things that’s been missing in this whole renewed round of chatter about the District’s height limit has been data—-or really any rigorous analysis of the available options. Turns out that back in 2009, a graduate student named Andrew Trueblood put something like that together for his Masters thesis in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Trueblood is now ensconced in the federal government, but sent over his paper, which is quite a read. Here are some interesting revelations:

  • While height restrictions were relaxed in cities around the country, they stayed in place in D.C. because the steady presence of the federal government offset the “growth machine“—-the part of any city’s economy that benefits from the exchange value of land, rather than the use value—-and pressed vertical development to the suburbs.
  • While buildings are shorter, D.C. actually has about the same amount of built space as other cities—-it’s just spread out evenly over a greater surface area (“like cake batter slowly filling up a pan”). That might encourage development in neighborhoods rather than just the downtown, but it also puts a damper on the kind of commercial vitality that comes with residential density. It also puts more development pressure on older buildings—-when you can’t build up, you demolish buildings in desirable areas that are shorter than they’re allowed to be, even if they’re still perfectly good structures.
  • Trueblood thinks we can reconcile the city’s historic character with the economic benefits of greater height: “Traditions, serving as a connection between the present and the past, are not immutable. Terming D.C.’s form a tradition does not relegate it to a future of exactly the same. Just as in Europe, where tall buildings have ben experimented with, so should D.C. work to adapt its regulations to create better places while maintaining a connection to the traditions of the past.”
  • How should we do it? By modifying the limits in certain locations outside the city’s monumental core and more iconic corridors, like 16th Street NW. Trueblood proposes an “urban bowl,” allowing heights to rise to 175 feet or about 14 stories in Mt. Vernon Square and Southwest, 190 feet in NoMa, 200 feet on the waterfront and east of the river. The area around Florida Avenue Market, Friendship Heights, and Buzzard Point should also be considered. The “secondary markets” have a better chance of achieving more balanced employment/residential ratios, better allowing people to live near their jobs.
  • He closes: “Additional height of three to four stories in Washington D.C. could serve to improve the downtown environment and contribute financially toward improving the city. As importantly, it would serve as a relief valve on development pressure, as the core reaches complete build out. Without such relief, the fiscal and urban vitality losses to the District and the metro area will start to become even more apparent, with more expensive space, increased dispersion and greater travel costs and distances…A few additional stories could be enough to address demand while preventing out-of-place skyscrapers in the core…The city can be a better place for visitors and residents alike, and small changes in its height regime could help to ensure that the District lives up to its unique potential.”

Infuriatingly, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has just issued a statement completely disregarding any such proposal.

My support for the Height Act remains as strong as ever. The discipline embedded in the Height Act accounts for the distinctive look that sets the District of Columbia apart from any other city in the world. Both the livable scale of our city and the vistas that feature its unique historic monuments and sites depend upon maintaining the Height Act discipline that flows naturally from L’Enfant’s original vision and the McMillan Plan. The common understanding that our identity as a city depends on the Height Act is so strong that no one has approached my office about changes in the heights of buildings permitted here.

That’s disappointing on a number of levels: That no advocate of raising height limits would think to reach out to her, that Norton would have such a reactionary attitude to change with no consideration of what small tweaks to the law could actually mean, that there could be such a presumption of unanimous support for the District’s squat skyline, which honestly does nobody any good.

A pox on all of you!