That is the question over the District’s famous building height limit, according to Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, who recently gave a presentation on the subject at the National Building Museum. Leinberger suggests that downtown Washington is running out of space and that raising the height limit would take redevelopment pressure off downtown-adjacent neighborhoods, make downtown more competitive with the cheaper suburbs, and lead to increased tax revenues for the city. The idea, naturally, was not a popular one.
At BeyondDC we actually like tall buildings. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them; most of the problems frequently cited are either due to other factors (such as width), or merely a form of greedy NIMBYism. That having been said, though, Washington is completely unique among major American cities. The height limit gives our fair city a distinctive and monumental character. Allowing skyscrapers downtown would drastically change what it means to be Washingtonian, and we’re not sure that’s a worthwhile end. Even a minor change downtown of 20 or 30 feet would probably cause a wave of destruction and rebuilding that would utterly transform downtown. Sooner or later we would have a whole new city. That’s a prospect worth thinking twice about.
Downtown ain’t the whole city, though. Is there any reason the same rules need be applied universally all across the District? Tall buildings in Arlington provide a beautiful “frame” for the central city, and help to extend quality urbanism to parts of the suburbs that would otherwise probably be strip malls. If skyscrapers work in Arlington, why shouldn’t they in Anacostia? Could Tenleytown and Brookland one day become uptown districts rivaling or surpassing near-District nodes like Bethesda? Would that really be so bad?
Raising the height limit downtown seems like a no-brainer: The answer is no. But outside the core we think it’s worth discussing, at the very least. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.