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Can urbanists learn to love DC's height limit?

Flat, flat, flat: D.C.'s skyline as it is now

David Schleicher, GMU professor, height-limit skeptic

Ed McMahon, senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, height limit advocate

The Height of Buildings Act, passed by Congress in 1910, prohibits buildings in Washington, D.C. from being more than 20 feet taller than the width of the adjacent street. The resulting low skyline is the city’s most distinctive visual characteristic, and defenders of the Height Act usually focus on the aesthetic benefits it provides, such as more light penetration and a less overwhelming atmosphere than the average American city. In other words, it makes the city feel less like a city.
Of course, those of us who actually like the feeling of being in a city may find this argument unconvincing. So we got to wondering: Can D.C.’s height limit be defended on urbanist grounds? Rather than praise it for the peace and quiet it provides, can city planners argue that it makes the city a more culturally and economically dynamic, well-rounded, energetic place?  In other words, does it actually help the city succeed as a city?

As the D.C. Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission study the impact of changing D.C.'s height limit, ElevationDC spoke to two experts on the issue. Ed McMahon is a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute who has championed sustainable development and historic preservation throughout his career and is in favor of maintaining the limit; and David Schleicher, a professor at George Mason University who focuses on election law and local land-use law and is a height limit skeptic.

The height-limit debate brings two urbanist principles, density and a sense of place, into conflict. How would you balance these principles?
David Schleicher (anti-height limit): Of all places to make the “city needs a character” argument, in Washington it strikes me as the exact wrong question. Washington’s character is a given. We’re a capital city. When you look at the mix of businesses…almost everyone in Washington is here because the government is here.
"If you can�t differentiate your city from any other city, you have no competitive advantage in the world today."
Ed McMahon (pro-height limit): I think if you can’t differentiate your city from any other city, you have no competitive advantage in the world today. Washington, D.C. is the only major city in the U.S. that has no major high-rises. The distinctiveness has economic value, and the fact that we’re flourishing right now has something to do with that. We can accommodate enormous density in this city without high-rises.

David, could you respond to that point? D.C. is often compared to a European city because of its low heights and wide avenues, but even if you think the similarities end there, the point remains: Can’t you have low-rise cities that are still dense, interesting, and undeniably urbane?
DS (con): Is it theoretically possible to have a dense city without tall buildings? Yes. Paris is six times denser than Washington. It is possible, except no American city built after the rise of zoning [New York City passed the country's first comprehensive zoning law, in 1916] can be as dense as a European city. We have a zoning system that gives local governments the power to limit heights of buildings. Do you think it’s even plausible that we could build D.C. to look like Paris? You’re talking about putting six-story buildings throughout all of Georgetown.

Ed, a question for you. In one of your pieces, you contrasted neighborhood integrity with what you characterized as Donald Trump-style development of high-rises. What’s to say D.C. wouldn’t instead go through a general process of inching upward?
EM (pro): Part of the problem is that density is being pursued as an end in itself, rather than as one means to build better cities. We need to build better, not just bigger. Fine-grained urban fabric, the kind of fabric found in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, is much more likely to foster entrepreneurship and the creative economy than monolithic office buildings and office towers. Instead of just looking at the quantity of space, maybe we ought to consider the 24/7 intensity of use [i.e. whether a neighborhood is used for a diversity of purposes and active outside normal working hours]. I would argue that the economic expansion of the city beyond downtown has in fact been driven in part by the height limit, which means you can’t build an 80-story building which sucks up all the demand.
DS (con): While I agree with Ed about a lot of things here, if they repealed the Height of Buildings Act, you would not instantly turn D.C. into Singapore. It’s not what people would want to happen. People would be willing to see some taller buildings around K Street and urban hubs. It’s very, very hard for me to see that this would affect D.C.’s character.

Even if you’re not convinced by the vistas down Pennsylvania Avenue, that’s not the only aesthetic concern. There’s the quality of sunlight, the tree cover, the feeling of being more manageable. It’s hard to argue that they don’t matter at all.
DS (con): If D.C. residents get psychic income from the absence of a 25-story building on K Street, that’s important. The question is, is the method of achieving that worth the cost?
EM (pro): We do a study at ULI called Emerging Trends in Real Estate. In recent years Washington, D.C. has almost always topped the list of the best cities to invest in, despite the fact that it has this limit. Sense of place is what makes Washington different from other cities. D.C. has got something that — if it lets tall buildings in, it’s giving up something that it has a competitive advantage in.
"If D.C. residents get psychic income from the absence of a 25-story building on K Street, that�s important. The question is, is the method of achieving that worth the cost?"

DS (con): I think Washington happens to be situated on assets that make it unique regardless of what we do with the height limit. … I think that strategically increasing the height along commercial corridors would make more people happy with their housing units, it would make office space cheaper, and the cost would be relatively limited or zero. And I think D.C. is cheating its residents by making them pay too much in rent.
EM (pro): There’s two points I want to make. If you change the limit, there’s basically no limit, because any limit becomes subjective. Look at what happened in Philadelphia and London. And I want to ask your readers, do you think new development should shape the character of the nation’s capital, or should the character of the nation’s capital shape new development?
DS (con): I feel like that’s a great question to end on.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more articles by Jordan Fraade.

Jordan Fraade is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. who covers topics including urbanism and generational politics. His work has been featured by Dissent Magazine and the Roosevelt Institute, and he can be found on Twitter at @schadenfraade.
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