Washington DC Considers Modifying Height Limit On New Buildings

The 1910 law, responsible for preserving views of the capitol from most roof decks, is being challenged by a small group of architects and developers who believe a modest change would inject vitality, sustainability and revenue into the urban fabric.

Preservationists view any alteration to the height limit will only open the door to more development. "I don't think you get it - it's a very special place," said Ann Hargrove, a resident and ardent defender of the limit. "Our capital was designed in such a special way to be different. One great feature is its height." She admitted that new buildings do get boxy, but said profit-minded developers, if left unchecked, would destroy the graceful parts of Washington's skyline.

Shalom Baranes, a Washington-based architect who wrote two articles this year promoting changes, argued that a modest relaxation in areas outside downtown would allow for a more modern city with greener construction, what developers sometimes refer to as "smart growth."

Dorn C. McGrath Jr., professor emeritus of city and regional planning at George Washington University, and a supporter of the limit, recolonized the need to evolve, but said that just because developers called growth smart did not mean it was.

Full Story: In The Capital, Rethinking Old Limits On Buildings



Vibrant Cities and Highrises

"Its original designer and planner, Pierre L’Enfant, came from Paris, another low-built city, and Washington residents say they love its light, airy quality, contributing to the city’s 'livable' feel. For some, that is a dubious distinction, not unlike calling a woman you went out with for one date, and one date only, “nice.” Without high-rise residential buildings to sustain a vibrant shopping and restaurant scene, downtown D.C. tends to empty out at night and on weekends."

So, I guess Paris never had a "vibrant shopping and restaurant scene" before it had high-rises. Ernest Hemingway was mistaken to think it was an exciting place to live in the 1920s. And today, the most "vibrant" part of Paris must be La Defence, where the highrises are, and not the older, traditional-scale neighborhoods.

In reality, Washington DC is boring because it is a one-company town, with the federal government as the company, but it is physically attractive. Add highrises, and it becomes a boring one-company town that is also ugly.

Charles Siegel.

Irvin Dawid's picture

Paris appears to be changing its skyline.....

or MAY BE, per Planetizen:
Height Restrictions May Be Lifted In Paris, 29 December 2007

I haven't kept up on it - anyone have anything to report on it - article is almost 3 years old.

Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

Paris Skyline

It is, and the new buildings are so ugly that they might have stopped Ernest Hemingway from coming if they had been there a century ago.

The first one, the pyramid, may be such an eyesore that it stops the rest of the project. Otherwise, get ready for Paris to lose its character and to stop attracting writers and artists. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, bohemians went to Paris. In the twenty-first century, they may have to go to Bohemia, where Prague retains its traditional scale.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Paris was vibrant, vital, and attractive in the 1920s, before it had any highrises. The article's suggestion that highrises are needed to created a vibrant city is clearly false.

Charles Siegel

Paris and DC

It should also be noted that the 'light, airy quality' of Paris came about due to some 'rather' significant urban renewal projects that got underway a few decades after L'Enfant's work. It also predated Elisha Otis, if I'm not mistaken, but I think the L'Enfant cite was more an attempt to shoehorn in a name rather than say anything insightful.

That said, while I'm rather agnostic on the height limit question (I do think the architectural criticisms of downtown D.C. are pretty on-the-mark and some discussion of the effects of height limits is healthy), the operative word from the quote above seems not to be 'high-rise' but rather 'residential.' It also seems to be a critique only tenuously related to the reality of what's going on in downtown D.C. The Chinatown/Penn Quarter (whatever you want to call it) area has done quite well on the vibrancy front in recent years, so I'd also be careful about buying into the article's contention that the city is 'boring' in the first place.

Washington isn't considering anything

This is an interesting story, but it's strictly academic; the city is NOT considering changing anything. In fact, the city is legally prohibited from doing so. The title of the post is blatant sensationalism.

And in regards to the other replies...

Anyone who thinks Washington is boring has probably never left the National Mall. The actual neighborhoods of the actual city where actual people live are among the most interesting mixed-use places in the country.

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