D.c. Debates Changes To Building-Height Limits (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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D.C. Debates Changes To Building-Height Limits

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:10
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week, we're devoting our show to ups and downs. From the roller coaster ride of the government shutdown in D.C. to the often dizzying ups and downs of life as an aerobatics instructor in Maryland. Now, we'll look at an issue that has people across the District looking up toward the sky. Or toward the skyline, rather.

MS. HARRIET TREGONING

00:00:31
We were not unlike most other cities at the end of the 19th century when building technology, largely, didn't allow you to have a building much more than 10 or so stories. It was relatively rare.

SHEIR

00:00:44
Because, after all, says Harriet Tregoning, who directs D.C.'s Office of Planning, back then, we didn't have, you know, buildings with sprinklers...

TREGONING

00:00:51
We didn't necessarily have fire proof construction materials. We certainly didn't have the ability that we have now to fight fires in taller buildings.

SHEIR

00:00:59
So, many big cities round an acting height limit laws, including, of course, Washington, D.C.

TREGONING

00:01:04
Our building heights are based on an urban design principle that scales the height of the building to the width of the street. That ratio is one to one on residential streets. By Congress, it was limited to the width of the street, plus 20 feet. For commercial buildings, but that relationship was truncated by the cap of 130 feet for fire suppression reasons.

SHEIR

00:01:27
Now, most cities have long since ditched those height limits, but not Washington. Back in November, Congress asked the National Capital Planning Commission and the city to explore revisions to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. Tregoning's office recently released its recommendations, which involve changing height limits inside what's known as the "L'Enfant City."

TREGONING

00:01:47
It's the part of the city that was originally laid out by Pierre L'Enfant. Then that city, on the north, is bounded by what used to be called Boundary Street, which is now Florida Avenue. So, it's a relatively small area, and it's where, today, you find most of the federal monuments and most of the apparatus of the federal government.

SHEIR

00:02:04
I met with Tregoning in a portion of the L'Enfant City, DuPont Circle, not far actually from the site where architect Frank Lloyd Wright once proposed a massive skyscraper called Crystal Heights, or Crystal City. Anyway, she began by explaining the positive effects the original height restrictions have had on Washington.

TREGONING

00:02:21
What that 1899 and then 1910 high deck did for us is something that we really actually love about our city. It is very pedestrian scaled. It means a lot of air, it means a lot of light. It means an openness, so you can always see the sky, but it also means a sense of enclosure, you know? The buildings kind of form an outdoor room with the street. So, it's something, absolutely to love. So, what we're proposing now, in the L'Enfant City, is you could have buildings as high as 200 feet.

TREGONING

00:02:53
For many of our streets, there wouldn't be any change at all, because the street is narrow and the building height already represents that ratio that we're trying to achieve. But for some other streets, you would be able to potentially have more height.

SHEIR

00:03:05
But given how much cities change, and how much our city has changed, how can you really reconcile the needs back in 1910 with the needs we have in 2013 in this growing town?

TREGONING

00:03:15
Well, I mean, that's exactly the point, and why, I think, Congressman Issa asked us to consider whether or not the Height of Buildings Act continued to serve the city well, looking into the future. It certainly has served the city well over the last hundred years, but more than 50 of those years were years when we were a shrinking city, where we lost hundreds of thousands of people. Middle class households fled the city over the last four decades. So much so that we never found it necessary, as a city, to even measure the capacity we had left to grow.

TREGONING

00:03:47
Because we were never growing, since the time we had home rule. So, fast forward to today and we're growing at a pretty torrid pace. In the time between the last census, which was the -- the 2010 census was the first time we'd had a real increase in population since World War 2. So, it had been really a long time, and since the 2010 census, you know, we've had a pretty torrid pace of growth. The next year was 2.7 percent a year. The year after that was 2.1 percent.

TREGONING

00:04:15
So, if we looked at how we might grow in the future, our pace of growth, it's clear that we don't have another hundred years where the capacity, under our current height limits, unless we wanted to do something that our citizens have said they weren't interested in. Which is changing the character of our residential neighborhoods, you know? We really cherish our row house neighborhoods, our single family neighborhoods. So, our own comprehensive plan only designates about 10 percent of the land area for the city as high density, or medium density development.

TREGONING

00:04:47
And it's mostly places that are along major commercial corridors and near Metro. So, you know, if we were gonna use that 10 percent of the land to really try to accommodate our future growth, that means we have to go up. So, you know, we agree that outside the L'Enfant City where the federal interests are much more diffuse, and where there would remain a lot of federal control, even federal veto power over our plans to raise heights in different parts of the city, we think that that's sufficient to basically allow us to eliminate federal height limits outside the L'Enfant City.

TREGONING

00:05:20
It would almost double the capacity we have left in the L'Enfant City to accommodate future growth.

SHEIR

00:05:25
So, Harriet, what happens if we don't change the height limits, if we just don't do this?

TREGONING

00:05:30
Well, that's a good question. It's absolutely true that this is not the only way to accommodate future growth in this city. And that there are other places where growth could go, but it does mean effecting the character of other neighborhoods, of largely residential neighborhoods. So, we have three paths forward. We either become a city that only the very wealthy can live in, where the demand is extremely high and prices for housing are so exorbitant that not only moderate income families can't live here, but even middle income families would have to be gone with their children.

TREGONING

00:06:04
Or, we are a city where we use less than 10 percent of the land to judiciously place some taller buildings and accommodate that growth and development. Or, we change the character of a lot of our neighborhoods. Paris is a place that's often thrown up as a, you know, why can't we be more like Paris? Well, Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them, essentially, block after block of small apartment buildings. And if we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate, easily, 100 years worth of residential growth. But they would be very different neighborhoods.

SHEIR

00:06:45
Harriet Tregoning is the Director of D.C.'s Office of Planning. For a link to the office's proposed recommendations on the Height of Buildings Act is at our website, metroconnection.org.
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