The redevelopment of downtown Washington was (and is) a political process, guided by political decisions made by elected officials, city planners, and zoning administrators. This statement is well-supported by the facts, and yet is continually denied by opinion pieces published in the Washington Post. (Also by its news articles, but that’s another story.) Instead, such essays usually advance magic narratives in which everything can be explained by a single alchemical force.
One such bewitchment is the city’s height limitation, which is the focus of a piece that appeared in Sunday’s Outlook section, “D.C.’s Fear of Heights.” According to author Michael Grunwald, the height limitation “has promoted suburban sprawl, boxified the city’s architecture, and deadened Washington’s downtown,” as well as “inflated office rents, deflated the municipal tax base, limited affordable housing, contributed to the region’s hideous traffic jams, and generally helped keep Washington a second-tier city.” This is some powerful voodoo.
The underlying thesis here is that there are two kinds of cities: sleepy low-rise ones like D.C., and vibrant high-rise ones like New York. In American terms, this might appear to be right. But it doesn’t explain why such cities as Rome (no skyscrapers), Paris (only one), and London and Tokyo (which have some high-rises, but are not dominated by them) are so active. Clearly, tall buildings are not essential to produce bustling high-density districts.
If they were, then the mostly three-to-four-story D.C. downtown that survived into the ’70s would have been deader than the 12-to-15-story one that exists today. In fact, it was much livelier, because it had more shops and more small buildings open to the street, rather than full-block white-collar fortresses that are oriented inwardly.
Grunwald writes that the downtown “shopping downtown is so lame” because under the height limitation, developers “can’t afford to sacrifice two stories of office space for one quality store.” This doesn’t quite make sense, since the rents for upscale retail space are higher than for office space. But the argument is irrelevant, since downtown’s redevelopers didn’t forgo top-rent shops for medium-rent offices—they sacrificed them for no-rent lobbies. It was the vogue for grand, multi-level atriums that eliminated most retail from the downtown office buildings erected since redevelopment began in earnest in the early ’80s.
Other cities don’t allow this, understanding the importance of a busy downtown shopping district to both urban vitality and the tax base. Indeed, D.C, understood it, too. For decades, its planners called for a “living downtown,” and in the early ’90s, the city’s zoning commission finally instituted regulations that would encourage that goal. But the city’s leading developers didn’t want to be bothered with the new zoning’s retail and housing requirements and lobbied heavily to overturn the regulations. That’s just what the D.C. Council did, and quickly.
There’s no question that D.C. would be a very different city without the height limitation. It’s even fair, if oversimplified, to say that the restriction has “boxified the city’s architecture.” (Zoning and inadequate design review are also factors in the rise of the downtown box.) But most of Grunwald’s other arguments can be refuted simply by comparison to that most high-rise of American cities, New York.
If the height limitation is responsible for suburban sprawl, high office rents, lack of affordable housing, and major traffic jams, then the New York region shouldn’t have any of those problems. But, of course, it has them all.
As for what makes “Washington a second-tier city,” there are many issues, most of them, again, political: D.C.’s lack of full home rule and congressional representation, the dearth of regional land-use and transportation planning, longstanding federal policies encouraging suburban development, and the fact that D.C. (unlike every other major American city) has never been allowed to grow by annexing territory.
And there’s one more thing: the way some local publications neglect to cover the politics of D.C. redevelopment, preferring instead to search for the magic beans that somehow sprouted into block upon block of downtown office cubes.