DC height limit: Trading beauty for 'vitality'

PHOTO: Street in DC

I recently visited Washington DC and I couldn’t help but be struck by how different it is from other major cities in the United States. A big component of that is the wide streets, the classical architecture and the relatively low height of the buildings. As a result, DC feels more open and warm than cities like Chicago or especially New York.

The low height of the buildings is actually mandated by a law that says buildings can’t be more than 20 feet taller than the width of the street in front of it – this replaced a prior law that said no building could be higher than the Capitol. The result has been an effective ban on skyscrapers.

The height limit on buildings carries an enormous economic cost. Space is artificially limited and as a result the cost of renting or owning space in DC is astronomical. This is great news for people lucky enough to own DC property:

… for developers who already own buildings, the restriction on height is really a restriction on new competition. That’s one reason downtown D.C.’s office rents are almost as exorbitant as downtown Manhattan’s; the government has artificially limited the supply of space. And that’s also a reason so many businesses that might have flourished downtown have drifted out to Tysons Corner and other car-dependent edge cities. The Washington area is teeming with the young professionals who gravitate to downtowns, but the ban on new Cairo-like buildings has dispersed residential development as well; when developers can’t build up, they tend to build out. The height limit is by no means the only reason the Washington region has the fifth-worst traffic congestion of any metropolitan area in the nation, but it’s one reason.’

Inflated prices will also push out smaller nonprofit agencies that simply can’t afford to operate in DC and force government workers to live further away from their offices than they might otherwise. That should be a big worry for an area that has notoriously bad traffic. It could also carry an enormous environmental cost in terms of wasted fuel.

Limited space also means limited population density, which makes it harder for businesses who rely on customer volume to survive:

By limiting downtown density, the height restriction also limits downtown vitality. Vibrant urban neighborhoods need enough residents to support street life after business hours; downtown Washington has struggled to maintain a critical mass. And if you’ve ever wondered why the shopping downtown is so lame, most top retailers insist on ground-floor stores with 12- to 20-foot-high ceilings, but Washington developers hemmed in by the height restriction are forced to limit each story to 10 feet or less. They can’t afford to sacrifice two stories of office space for one quality store. “There’s a real tradeoff with the height restriction,” says Ellen McCarthy, director of the city’s planning office. “We gain charm, but we lose vitality.”

One unintended consequence of all this could be that the economic center of DC ends up not actually in DC, but on the outskirts in Virginia or Maryland where the same restrictions don’t apply. Another problem is that less people and less business means less tax revenue, which means less public services and infrastructure projects.

Fixing these problems would be easy. Just get rid of the height limit. In order to preserve the flavor of the area, it should be done on a limited basis. Definitely keep the limit for National Mall area.

And while they’re fixing the height limit, Congress should get rid of the parking lot requirement

7 Comments

  1. Ted

    can you imagine what rent/housing costs would be in manhattan *with* a height limit?

  2. Chris

    I’d imagine they’d be a bit higher… and most of the economic development would occur across the water in NJ.

  3. Andrea

    Seriously!!! Ya’ll should know that this was a 20+ minute heated debate while in DC. I still hold that if the height restriction was removed, the city would be equivalent to all the other big cities w/o height restricitons in ~10 years once the market equalizes. You will find inflated rent in all densely populated areas as the supply of space is less than demand. And as you argued, Chris, the wages should compensate for the increased cost of living (although most times they don’t and thus people end up paying a premium for living in the city). We need the diversity of city and rural life and I don’t think your evidence of traffic, fuel waste, and shopping centers justifies altering the building codes; I don’t think it would make that much of a difference. Traffic is still bad in Chicago, LA, Atlanta, etc. We use fuel; until there is an alternative that’s a fact of life. And shopping centers are a result of population, not the cause. I agree it’s unfortunate paying government entities are at an advantage over non-profits but I do not think your argument is strong enough to warrent changing the architecture of a city to make it like all the others. That is why each city has a unique character and feel and some people find they “fit” in some areas and don’t in others. I appreciate DC the way it is.

  4. Chris

    We need the diversity of city and rural life and I don’t think your evidence of traffic, fuel waste, and shopping centers justifies altering the building codes; I don’t think it would make that much of a difference. Traffic is still bad in Chicago, LA, Atlanta, etc. We use fuel; until there is an alternative that’s a fact of life. And shopping centers are a result of population, not the cause. I agree it’s unfortunate paying government entities are at an advantage over non-profits but I do not think your argument is strong enough to warrent changing the architecture of a city to make it like all the others.

    We may want or desire the diversity of city and rural life, but the realities of a dwindling energy supply might make rural life a luxury and urban life necessary for those on lower incomes. By living closer together, more people can leverage infrastructure, which leads to higher efficiency.

    Traffic is bad in all those cities, you’re right, but why is it so particularly bad in DC, a city that’s so much smaller? If more people can avail themselves of public transportation and if people don’t have to travel as far, commuting times will come down. People will spend less of their life traveling and more of it actually living.

    I’m not really worried about government vs. non-profits. I’m more worried about non-profits vs. large lobbying firms. Do we want the limited space in DC monopolized by oil, pharmaceutical and telecommunication lobbyists?

  5. Andrea

    You’re going outside the scope of your argument that DC should not restrict the heights of buildings. So now your case is that it makes the city more efficient. So how are Atlanta, LA, Chicago and NY any more efficient than DC?

  6. Ian

    I don’t think it destroys the “feel” of a city to undo the height limit. Certainly DC has developed the way it has under the height restriction, but it doesn’t mean that if the height restriction were lifted that an equally unique city wouldn’t spring up. Not every city without a height limit is the same. NYC and Boston have completely different feels. I think cities develop a unique “feel” based on the cultures of the people who live there, the geography of the city, and the industry that springs up there. I’m not touching Chris’s whole efficiency deal though.

  7. Chris

    Andrea,
    All of those cities you mentioned have better traffic according to Forbes and a bigger population.

    My argument has a number of facets… we’ve got transportation issues, environmental issues, energy issues and economic issues that are all negatively effected by the height limit.