DC to Relax its Height Limits?

The Independent has a piece about recent efforts to revise the DC building height limit of 130 feet (39.6 m). As Washington grows, its century-old height limit becomes a natural experiment in massing regulations and their impact on metropolitan land markets. After providing a brief history of the (aesthetics-driven) massing regulation, the author, Rupert Cornwell, notes:

[T]he price of a European feel is not only to be measured in commuter misery. The ban on tall buildings curbs the supply of space when demand is soaring; the result, naturally, is higher prices, across the board. DC has a chronic hotel shortage, while the cost of office space has hit Manhattan levels, and Washington’s [poor] residents find it ever tougher to make ends meet as . . . gentrification pushes rents remorselessly higher. The city, meanwhile, loses much potential tax revenue.

Washington is an unusually beautiful American city, in the sense that it actually has a classically-proportioned plan. And part of its proportioning lies in the scale of its buildings, which complement the city’s layout. L’Enfant’s 1791 plan predated tall buildings by a century, and in that sense it was silent about building heights. But it was also the blueprint for an airy city of wide boulevards, open spaces, and preeminent public buildings. The 130-foot building limit, imposed in 1899, has been consistent with the original blueprint and its Enlightenment-era political symbolism for America’s capital.

It would be a shame to see L’Enfant’s aesthetic suddenly disrupted; it would also be a loss to market-driven planning innovation to end the city’s role as one of the last American places where old-fashioned land-use efficiency (including the use of courtyards and alleys) is a serious consideration for individual projects. But there are certainly both practical and equitable arguments for relaxing the current height limits. Washington’s recent experience illustrates, starkly (I think), the costs of strictly regulating the massing of buildings in growing real estate markets. Even in cities without such purposive policies, the aggregation of land use regulations is presumably having similar impacts.

L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, DC.

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