Earlier this week, Architect Robert K. Levy optimistically declared that the study which will evaluate the federal law limiting Washington building heights is a “win-win” situation for everyone involved. Writing for The Washington Post, Levy states: “By conducting a detailed, comprehensive city-wide study, the D.C. Office of Planning and the NCPC will produce analyses and recommendations leading to a fine-grain, strategic plan for building heights across the District. Ultimately this study is a win-win proposition for all stakeholders.” But can the situation really be so rosy? While Congress spends 10 months studying and debating the possibility of making alterations to the capital’s zoning policies, urbanists, planners and citizens have already begun weighing in on the matter – and opinions are decidedly divided. Many question the true motivations behind the possible changes, and whether those changes will truly improve the livability and sustainability of the city - or just alter it beyond recognition. We’ve gathered both sides of the argument so you can make your own informed decision – after the break…
What sets the United States’ capital apart from other large and economically successful cities in the US? Aside from its grand neoclassical government buildings and its ceremonial boulevards, what sets Washington, DC apart as one of the most powerful cities in the US is that its tallest structure is the Washington Monument, coming in at 555 feet. Aside from this structure, the tallest buildings are twelve – fourteen stories, hardly comparable to skyscrapers that dominate the skylines of NYC, San Francisco, Chicago or Atlanta. This is an intentional restriction set in 1910 by the Height Act, a measure to maintain the character of the city and provide an aerated urban landscape with unrestricted views of the most notable monuments.
Kaid Benfield, whose article appears in The Atlantic Cities Blog, writes in defense of the Height Act. He cites the particular advantages to keeping the height of the DC’s buildings below 160 feet and the advantages of keeping developers from building rampantly for profit. The fear of revoking the height restrictions is producing a landscape of skyscrapers that can transform the capital into “Anywhere, USA”. Imagine the downtowns of America – Houston, TX; New Haven, CT; Pittsburgh, PA – for example, that have a cluster of skyscrapers indistinguishable from each other.
Then consider the changes on the street level. For years, urbanists have been advocating for street life, low-rise residential buildings and a controlled density that keeps streets active and safe. Take, for example, a highly concentrated urban environment with abundant open space: Co-Op City in the Bronx, NYC that follows Le Corbusier’s concept of “Tower in the Park” housing. Conceptually it would make sense that these areas should be buzzing with activity: hundreds of people surrounded by parks, playgrounds, and shopping centers. But for the majority of the day, the parks and paths are deserted. By all accounts Co-Op City is a dense neighborhood, but its layout and landscape isolate residents. There is little opportunity for chance encounters and the likelihood of being acquainted with neighbors drops. Here, density is overpowered by the character of the architecture.
The economic side has its arguments as well. Proponents of altering the height restrictions argue that allowing developers to build taller will fulfill the demand for more housing, make rent more affordable and provide a higher density of people. But density has its limits – an oversaturated market is not sustainable either, and more housing does not necessarily lower the cost of living. Benfield makes some very strong points, but the other side of the argument is equally as convincing. He concludes with a list of compromises that loosen the stringent zoning laws and the Height Act, but protect aspects of the code that would retain the character of Washington, DC. David Schleicher, also on Atlantic Cities Blog, responds to the Height Act defenders with six questions that seek to elaborate on the economic and aesthetic issues presented by Benfield. He points out that with the repeal of the 1910 Height Act, DC would still have the authority to restrict building heights. This would allow local governments to set their own restrictions on height limits allowing particular neighborhoods to build taller and provide for the demand for housing and offices. Ultimately, it is a question of economics, growth and how heavily aesthetics weigh into the decision. For the full articles, check out the links below. via The Atlantic Cities; Does the Height Act Actually Cost D.C. Billions of Dollars? By Henry Grabar; The Urbanist Case for Keeping D.C.’s Height Restrictions By Kaid Benfield; Six Questions for Defenders of the Height Act by David Schleicher. Photos via Flickr users WallyG, tedeytan, NCinDC and Robert Shenk. Licensed by Creative Commons.