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Would a height bonus for residential development improve downtown?

Every so often the question of Washington’s height limit comes up. Someone suggests we raise it, and a debate ensues. I’m on record opposing raising the height limit in downtown Washington, but supporting much taller buildings in secondary nodes like Rosslyn.

I have opposed raising the limit downtown because:

  1. I don’t think concentrating any more office space downtown is necessarily in the region’s best interests. I’d rather we have a bunch of mixed-use neighborhoods than an office ghetto surrounded by bedroom communities.
  2. There’s so much available land near downtown in places like Southwest and NoMa that we have ample room to expand the central office district without needing to raise the height limit.
  3. I fear that eliminating the height limit downtown would result in a push to tear down and redevelop too many historic buildings that are culturally valuable.

However, there is one good reason why raising the height limit downtown could be beneficial: It could make downtown a better neighborhood.

Downtown Washington may be the most intensely built part of the region, but it is almost completely commercial. There are so few residential units that vast swaths of downtown are almost completely devoid of people outside the hours of 9-5. If I want Washington to be a city of mixed-use neighborhoods, then downtown is failing. Even the downtown BID thinks this is a problem.

Getting more residents downtown is hard, however. For one, the parts of downtown that are most in need of it are already built out with office buildings. For two, commercial square footage generally rents at a higher rate than residential square footage, so any developer that can build office is more likely to do so than residential. Even if we change the zoning to require new buildings be residential, developers won’t be likely to tear down older office buildings in order to replace them with lower-renting residential ones.

The only answer is probably to up the density for residential projects, but not commercial ones.

But by how much? We need there to be some redevelopment of existing buildings, just not too much.

We could simply allow residential skyscrapers at unlimited height, but that would defeat the aesthetic reasons for having any height limit at all, and it might lead to the sort of land rush from point number 3, above.

What about a smaller rise?

The height limit is currently defined as the width of the street plus 20 feet. It would be possible to rewrite the regulation to provide a height bonus in exchange for incorporating residential square footage, say 20 additional feet of height in exchange for three floors of residential.

For example, let’s say you own a piece of land on a 90 foot wide street. You would currently have the right to build a 110 foot tall building with 10 floors of office space. With my suggested bonus option, you’d instead have the right to build a 130 foot tall building with nine floors of office and three floors of residential.

That would be enough of a windfall for most developers of new buildings to take advantage, but it wouldn’t be so much that redeveloping existing buildlings would be worth the cost to do so, unless you were going to redevelop anyway. We wouldn’t see wholesale demolition of historic properties, but we would see a substantial residential component anywhere a new building went up for other reasons, which happens often enough (as the empty lot at the corner of K Street and Connecticut illustrates).

I still don’t think there is any reason to allow skyscrapers downtown, or to raise the limit for more offices, but a modest height bonus for residential development along these lines would add people to downtown’s streets without significantly altering the city’s midrise character. It would incrementally improve downtown as a neighborhood, while allowing it to retain its role as regional commercial center.

I think the idea is a winner.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 28th, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: proposal, urbandesign



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