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The height limit calls for a scalpel not a hatchet

Washington’s height limit has always been a subject of much debate. The question of whether or not we should keep it or allow taller buildings seems to come up in the local blogosphere about once per year. So I was not surprised to find Matt Yglesias saying:

“Office rents in downtown Washington, DC are now higher than in Manhattan. Normally what happens when you get high rents is that people respond with bigger buildings. Which is why Manhattan has such big office buildings. DC office buildings, by contrast, are quite short. So are developers working on responding to the high demand by building taller buildings? Of course not! Taller buildings are illegal in Washington DC. Consequently, instead of building up real estate developers in the DC area build “out,” putting more and more jobs in the suburbs.”

A few points:

  1. Actually, developers are working on responding to the high demand by building taller buildings. What will become the tallest building in the Washington region is under construction right now in Rosslyn, and the second and third tallest are planned nearby. Two of those three are office buildings.
  2. While true that Rosslyn is not technically part of “downtown Washington”, it is hardly a suburb in the traditional sense. It’s as close to the White House as Capitol Hill, and is fully urban. Functionally speaking it is part of the regional core in every way that matters, regardless of which side of a map’s line it sits on. Ballston, Crystal City, Alexandria, Bethesda and Silver Spring are much the same, although you might call them “uptowns” since they are a little more distant.
  3. The sort of businesses likely to pick genuinely suburban locations such as Reston or Gaithersburg over the region’s myriad urban options would likely do so even if Washington had no height limit. Even New York and Chicago have expansive suburban office centers.
  4. While it may be true that Farragut Square is built out, there are large areas of downtown Washington that are not. The NoMa Triangle and what you might call the greater Ballpark area are woefully underbuilt, and are capable of accommodating scores of millions of square feet of new development, if only developers would build. It is not the height limit that keeps these areas underbuilt.

Speaking on the same topic, Ryan Avent adds:

“But the bigger cost is in terms of dynamism. Industry towns are dull places, especially when the industry in question is as dull as government. Washington’s height limit means that there is room in the city for little other than the rich corporate interests and the kinds of cultural amenities favored by rich corporate interests. With the height limit in place, there is little risk of Washington becoming as vibrant or as innovative as rival cities to which it so regularly compares itself.”

Interesting point. I don’t think adding office workers from slightly different industries in somewhat taller buildings would have much effect on downtown’s vibrancy. After all, downtown is already plenty vibrant from nine to five. I do however think downtown’s lack of residents is a big problem, and is why it empties out after five p.m. That’s why I support the idea of a height bonus for residential uses downtown, which I think would do more for downtown’s vibrancy than filling it with even more people who leave at 5:00.

But since we’re talking about vibrancy, I want to bring up another point I’ve discussed before: That spreading office growth around the city’s neighborhoods would increase their vibrancy. If it is true that mixed land uses create urban vibrancy, and certainly that is true, then it works both ways. Residential uses add vibrancy to commercial areas AND commercial uses add vibrancy to residential areas. If indeed increased vibrancy and local diversity is a goal for our city, and I think it should be, that argues very strongly for not concentrating all of our office growth downtown, and for instead establishing a regulatory environment that spreads office uses around to create the maximum number of mixed-use neighborhoods.

If that means more people can live and work in the same neighborhood without lengthy and costly commutes, then hey, bonus.

Raising Washington’s height limit is a favorite topic of area economists, and a top fear of preservationists. I count myself as a moderate on the issue. I see real value in keeping the height limit that is not necessarily reflected in the numbers approach Yglesias and Avent favor. On the other hand, I think tall buildings can be an important part of the built environment, and are completely appropriate for many urban contexts.

I think the issue calls for a scalpel rather than a hatchet. Yes, let’s allow taller buildings, but rather than applying a one-size fits all solution to the whole downtown, let’s raise the limit carefully in the places where and the ways in which it will do us the most good. Use a height bonus to increase residential diversity downtown, or to encourage investment in Anacostia, or to find a developer who will build air rights buildings over I-395. Let’s absolutely do those things. But let’s not needlessly erase one of the most unique and interesting things about Washington in a misguided quest to make sure all office space is located within a single two-mile diameter circle.

October 19th, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: economy, preservation, urbandesign



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