D.C. Ponders Density

Washington, D.C. is almost out of space, and planners are now considering building upward to combat sprawl.

"As vacant land disappears in Washington, concerns about high real-estate prices are fueling debate over whether developers should be allowed to build taller, which is prevented under a century-old law."

"Christopher Leinberger, a land-use strategist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, warns that unless more room is found, the artificial cap on space will inflate already soaring downtown real-estate prices, which rank second behind Manhattan.

Contrary to popular lore, the low-lying skyline has nothing to do with preserving the prominence of the Washington Monument's 555-foot stone obelisk.

Congress - which has oversight over the capital - passed the Height Act of 1910 in response to residents' outrage over the 14-story Cairo apartment building erected in 1894 near Dupont Circle, towering over nearby row houses. Besides concerns about aesthetics, there was a desire to prevent buildings from becoming too tall for fire-engine ladders."

Full Story: Low-rise D.C. skyline under pressure to look upward



Austinizing DC's Skyline

I was recently in Austin, where you can see very clearly how highrises blighted a meaningful skyline.

Decades ago, Austin's skyline was dominated by the dome of the state capitol building and by the 28-story neo-classical Main Building of the University of Texas. This was a symbolically meaningful skyline that showed you at a glance what were the most important institutions in Austin - the state government and the university.

Now these buildings are dwarfed by huge highrises (including one or two artsy modern highrises) that symbolize nothing. You can't even tell which of the highrises are condos and which are office buildings. It is a generic skyline that could be in most any city in the world.

Do we want to do the same thing to Washington DC? Now its skyline, dominated by the dome of the capitol and by the Washington monument, symbolizes our national government. If we highrise DC, as we did Austin, we will give it a skyline of condo and office towers that symbolize real estate development.

Incidentally, this article is certainly wrong to claim "Contrary to popular lore, the low-lying skyline has nothing to do with preserving the prominence of the Washington Monument's 555-foot stone obelisk." The height limit may have originally been passed for other reasons, but it has survived so long (while other cities have abandoned their height limits) because everyone knows that DC's skyline is symbolically important.

Here is a picture of the area around the capitol in Austin, where you can see the capitol dome lost in a forest of bulky, boxy highrises:

Here is a picture of Austin's skyline, and the capitol is not visible at all, creating a generic skyline that could be most any city in North America:

Do we want to do the same to Washington DC?

Charles Siegel

PS: For those who don't know me, I will add that I am a long-term supporter of smart growth and that I have been fighting against NIMBYs in Berkeley for decades (starting before the term smart growth was invented). But I am afraid we have a tendency to go to extremes. In the early and mid twentieth century, planners overreacted against the high densities of the slums and gave us sprawl. Now, some planners are overreacting against the low densities of sprawl and giving us overbearing, impersonal highrise neighborhoods. I think we should avoid these extreme pendulum swings and build traditional walkable neighborhoods.

In DC area, taller buildings have lower density

I recommend this paper
by Terry Holzheimer, Director of Arlington Economic Development. He discovered and published the fact that 18th century low-rise DC has much higher density than all surrounding areas. It has 3-4 times the density of the mostly high-rise Tyson's Corner.

Building upward to combat sprawl? The famous Who Sprawls Most publication at the Brookings Institution showed that cities with denser cores tend to sprawl more, not less.

Higher density of jobs tends to increase transit use, especially in cities with mature subways systems like the DC area, but you can't presume that building higher will achieve this.

The mixed-use, walkable, and

The mixed-use, walkable, and transit accessible parts of the DC region, including both in the city and suburbs, have already helped preserve a substantial amount of urban footprint, when one considers the amount of conventional sprawl development that would have otherwise been constructed on the suburban fringe to accommodate that growth over the last 30 years.

As a native of the DC area I have mixed feelings about allowing skyscrapers to mar the iconic DC skyline. But I acknowledge that there would almost certainly be a benefit to the city as well - by increasing the supply of available real estate downtown, prices would moderate, which would attract firms who may have otherwise considered locating in new office parks in Loudoun or Montgomery.

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