Washington’s Skyline Could Get Some Renovations

Some lawmakers are considering amending D.C. laws to allow developers to build taller structures.

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The Washington skyline is a picture familiar to most people: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Dome. Now imagine some skyscrapers in the mix. Kind of changes the effect, doesn’t it?

But the economic good that taller buildings could bring to D.C. has officials contemplating strategies to amend longstanding regulations.

The Washington Post reported that Mayor Vincent Gray, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)—chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—have been discussing possible ways Congress can change the height regulations that limit most buildings to 130 feet.

The officials are toying around with two different ideas; one would loosen the height restrictions just a bit, allowing an additional story or two to some buildings, and raising ceiling heights. The second idea is to allow for taller buildings to be built away from downtown, which would boost economic development in the northeast and southeast areas.

The Height Act has prevented buildings on commercial streets from exceeding 20 feet greater than the width of the facing street, to a maximum of 130 feet, the Post explains.

The height restrictions are a source of particular frustration for developers, who complain that the limit gives commercial streets an especially unpleasing, boxy look. The Washington Business Journal reports developer Jim Abdo likening the streets to “the refrigerator aisle at Lowe’s home store.”

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But more important than pure aesthetics, the problem is an economic one. The Post writes that officials are discussing “the reality that the city may soon only be able to grow vertically because of scarcity of land and projected population growth.”

Washington-based blogs are chiming in and seem to be in general support with the move to tweak the federal rules.

“Sure, the Height Act might preserve sight lines of the Washington Monument and Capitol Building, but to the city’s developers, it’s a severe limitation that pushes commercial development farther away from downtown and into residential neighborhoods,” wrote Benjamin Freed of DCist.

“If only a bunch of nattering Dupont Circle residents hadn’t flipped out over the construction of the 160-foot-tall Cairo apartment building at 1615 Q Street NW at the end of the 19th century, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” Freed wrote.

He has a point. The height limit wasn’t actually imposed to make sure that no buildings overpower the national monuments, but because of the complaints from the community in regard to one particular apartment building.

Slate’s Matt Yglesias wrote that he wants “to encourage policymakers to think even bigger.” Yglesias sketches out the central business district, pointing out its accessibility. “Building true skyscrapers in that Central Business District would unlock value in a way that simply can’t be replaced elsewhere,” he wrote. “Anything that allows for more business activity will create a lot of additional prosperity both for the people who live in the area and also from the incremental additional people who’d move here and find jobs.”

But, of course, there are many preservationists and residents who will be vehemently opposed to any changes to the D.C. skyline, maintaining that it is a priority to protect the national monuments. “One story will block somebody’s view, and that is wrong,” William P. Lightfoot, a former D.C. council member, told the Post.

Issa affirmed that the Congress’ “architectural interest” is focused on only a small area of the capital. “When you get to the edges of the city, you have to ask yourself: What harm would it be if those buildings were taller?”

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