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D.C. Debates Changes To Building-Height Limits

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In response to the construction of the 164-foot Cairo Hotel in 1894, D.C. Commissioners issued height regulations for buildings in D.C.
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In response to the construction of the 164-foot Cairo Hotel in 1894, D.C. Commissioners issued height regulations for buildings in D.C.

At the end of the 19th century, many cities enacted building height limits, due to technological constraints in the construction field, such as lack of sprinkler systems and fireproof materials.

Washington, D.C.'s original height limits were based on an urban design principle that scales the height of the building to the width of the street, with a 1:1 ratio. For commercial buildings, Congress limited the scale to the width of the street plus 20 feet. That relationship was truncated by the overall cap of 130 feet for fire suppression reasons.

Fast forward to today, and of course most cities have long since ditched those height limits — but not Washington, D.C.

Back in November, Congress asked the National Capital Planning Commission and the city to explore revisions to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. The D.C. Office of Planning recently released its recommendations, which involve changing height limits inside what's known as the L'Enfant City.

"It's the part of the city that was originally laid out by Pierre L'Enfant," explains D.C. Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning. "And that city is bounded on the north 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."

Tregoning says D.C.'s original height restrictions actually had a very positive effect on Washington, D.C. — one we can still experience today.

"It is very pedestrian-scaled," she says. "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. The buildings form an outdoor room with the street, so it's something absolutely to love." What Tregoning's office is proposing now in the L'Enfant City is that building can be as high as 200 feet.

"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," Tregoning says. "But for some other streets you would be able to potentially have more height."

The height-limit issue has led many people to ask how D.C. can reconcile the needs back in 1910 with the needs the growing city has today. And Tregoning says that's exactly the point.

"That's why I think Rep. [Darrell] Issa asked us to consider whether or not the Height of Buildings Act continues to serve the city well looking into the future," she says. "It certainly served the city well over the last 100 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 that we had left to grow, because we were never growing since the time we had home rule."

But fast-forward to today, she says, and "we're growing at a pretty torrid pace. The 2010 census was the first time we'd had a real increase in population since World War II, so it had been really a long time.

"And since the 2010 census, 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. 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 100 years 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.

Tregoning says because Washington cherishes its row-house neighborhoods, her office's comprehensive plan only designates about 10 percent of the city's land as eligible for taller heights. And that land is mainly along major commercial corridors and near Metrorail stations.

"So if we're going to use that 10 percent of the land to really try to accommodate our future growth, we have to go up," Tregoning says. "It would almost double the capacity we have left in the L'Enfant city to accommodate future growth."

Tregoning grants that there are many ways to accommodate future growth in a city like Washington, D.C. But, she says, those ways may very well involve affecting the character of largely residential neighborhoods.

"So we have three paths forward," Tregoning explains. "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 [leave] with their children."

Or, she says, we can be "a city where we use less than 10 percent of the land to judiciously place some taller buildings and accommodate that growth and development."

The third alternative, she says, would inevitably change the character of a lot of our neighborhoods.

"Paris is a place that's often thrown up as 'well, why can't we be more like Paris?'" Tregoning says. "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."


[Music: "Such Great Heights" by Antiphony from Point in Space - EP]

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