Plenty of Reasons Not to Raise the Roofline in D.C.

Drawing inspiration from Paris and Barcelona, Kaid Benfield offers his take on the recent controversy surrounding height limits in the nation's capital, enumerated point-by-point against arguments over capacity, density, affordability, and beyond.

Established over a century ago, height limits on development in Washington, D.C. have recently come under fire by not a few prominent pundits, from Ed Glaeser to Matt Yglesias to Ryan Avent. But longtime D.C. resident and National Resources Defense Council blogger Kaid Benfield is skeptical of the criticisms leveled against existing laws, arguing (among other things) that the absence of skyscrapers lends D.C. an aesthetic sensibility otherwise seen only in European cities like Paris or Barcelona.

"Paris is more like Washington," writes Benfield. "One of the world’s most beautiful and beloved cities, the French capital has generally restricted building heights in the city center in relation to the streets the structures border, with a maximum height of 121 feet for new structures.  As a result, when one stands on top of the hill in Montmartre, the vista reveals a mid-rise central city, with buildings of six or seven stories."

But his position extends beyond the visual character of the city. Benfield offers the following responses to the most common criticisms of existing heigh limits:

  • D.C. is running out of room.

"In 1950, with the height restrictions fully in effect, the city’s population was 802,178.  In 2011, its estimated population was 617,996.  The truth is that we were a “shrinking city” until about a decade ago, and we are nowhere near full capacity today."

  • Height limits inflate the cost of housing.

"If affordability were closely related to building height and density, New York City and San Francisco would be the two most affordable big cities in America."

  • Density makes for a better urban environment.

"The key is to increase average density all across a metro area so that the region’s footprint doesn’t expand; parts of the region that are already relatively dense, such as downtown Washington, are fine as they are."

  • Height limits are an obstacle to good architecture.

"Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but to my eyes the unrestricted high-rise architecture of the denser suburban centers near our area’s Metro stations – probably a decent approximation of what we might get downtown without the height limit – is worse, ranging from boring to awful."

For Benfield, it boils down to an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it scenario: "Why the heck change, especially when... DC’s mid-rise cityscape is one of its distinguishing, much-loved assets? Tinkering with a successful status quo is a solution in search of a problem."

Full Story: Why I support the DC building height restrictions



One More Reason For Height Limits

One point Benfield doesn't mention is that you create a meaningful skyline when you have height limits for fabric buildings (utilitarian buildings, such as housing and offices) and allow important public buildings and symbolic structures to rise above the fabric.

Washington's skyline is dominated by the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument, symbolizing the civic values that the national capital is supposed to embody.

Paris's skyline is dominated by Invalides, Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, and other major public buildings, showing the different things that Parisians considered most important during the city's history. By contrast, Tour Montparnasse is not just ugly architecture; it is a meaningless addition to the skyline because it is housing and has no symbolic function.

This is a basic principle of New Urbanist design. New Urbanists create design codes and urban codes that apply to fabric buildings, but they exempt important public buildings from these codes, so they stand out from the fabric, emphasizing their symbolic importance.

The New Urbanists came up with this principle by looking at traditional urban design. In Vermont towns, for example, the fabric of the main street is made up of rows of two or three story buildings with storefronts facing the sidewalk, but the town hall is set back from the sidewalk with a lawn in front, and it rises above the fabric buildings; the residential streets are made up of two-story houses, but the churches in residential neighborhoods rise above the fabric buildings; when you look at the town from a distance, there is a meaningful skyline, with the spires of the churches and the cupola of town hall rising above the ordinary buildings. The same design principle applies in traditional European cities: ordinary buildings are five or six stories tall, and the cathedral rises and other important buildings rise above the fabric buildings, giving the city a meaningful skyline.

The critics Benfield quotes have got it exactly backward when they say "The height limit leads to mediocre architecture and city design."

They are making the characteristic error of today's avant garde establishment, thinking of architecture and urban design as a matter of creating sculptural objects. They think that height limits prevent them from creating striking abstract sculptures - but that is a dehumanizing idea of good design.

The goal of architecture and urban design should be to create good places for people, and that includes meaningful places. The essence of good urban design is to have height limits for fabric buildings and to have important public buildings rising above them.

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