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Nothing more poetic and terrible

Should this be our future? There are good arguments for and against.

As it seems to about once a year, the question of Washington’s height limit has once again come up. Should we keep it? Eliminate it? Raise it just a little? Is there a place in DC for what Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca called both poetic and terrible? BeyondDC has opined already, but why not again?

Tall building pros:

  • More density downtown, which helps Smart Growth, makes future investments in infrastructure more efficient by centralizing destinations, and increases the amount of retail that downtown can support.
  • Downtown would transition from office-ghetto to mixed-use neighborhood. With the height limit restricting supply unnaturally, the overwhelming majority of buildable square footage downtown is used for office space since that’s what’s in highest demand. Residential is less profitable, so it is rarely built. Eliminating the height limit would allow the market to provide many more residential units downtown, turning it into more of a 24 hour environment.
  • More tax revenue for the District (less for the suburbs).

Tall building cons:

  • Washington’s skyline, currently unique among American cities, becomes less distinct.
  • Downtown’s existing canopy of 12-story buildings will face tremendous and potentially wholesale pressure to redevelop. Right now downtown’s stock of buildings is architecturally diverse, since downtown has been constructed incrementally over the course of the last century or so. Architectural diversity is a good thing for a number of reasons, not the least of which are that pedestrians need diverse things to look at, and because diverse buildings breed diverse users, which breed a diverse economy. If the height limit is eliminated or raised there will be pressure to tear down existing buildings and replace them with taller new ones. Eliminate the height limit and pressure will mount to completely replace downtown’s core near Metro Center, home to the densest collection of old buildings, with new skyscrapers. Raise the height limit a few stories (but don’t eliminate it) and that pressure will extend to every building downtown, since property owners will seek to maximize leasable square footage. Any way you look at it, changing the height limit downtown will result in radical and large-scale changes to downtown’s existing building stock.
  • There will be more surface parking lots. The big urban design benefit we get from the height limit is that it makes land a premium commodity, which makes it unprofitable to consume land for less-than-premium uses. New York aside, there is no American city with less land given over to parking than Washington. San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia all have large surface parking lots downtown, and all have many above-ground parking garages. Save some Federally-owned parking lots near the Capitol that aren’t subject to market pressures, downtown Washington has virtually no above-ground parking. The urban design benefits of that to pedestrians cannot be understated. If land is at less of a premium, then developers will have no reason to incur the added cost of putting parking underground, and land banking will become more common. Without a height limit, there is a very real chance downtown will start to look like this.

So what should we do? How can we obtain the benefits of added central city density, better neighborhoods, and more money without incurring the costs of homogeneity, wholesale redevelopment of historic buildings, and more land being used for urbanistically negative purposes?

The answer, to BeyondDC, seems obvious: Keep the height limit in the historic / monumental core, but lose it elsewhere in the District. Allow the likes of Tenleytown and Brookland to develop into true uptowns such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, and give Anacostia the chance to become the new Arlington. Doing so would protect the character of the L’Enfant city, and would at the same time extend efficient land use practices across the District. We’d get a more mixed-use and walkable city across the boards, without sacrificing any of the things that make Washington special, and without gambling downtown’s urbanity.

October 14th, 2008 | Permalink
Tags: law, preservation, urbandesign



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