When Paul Goldberger gave the Vincent Scully Prize lecture in mid-November at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., he was pressed, during a question and answer session, for his opinion on a hotly debated local matter: Should the “Height of Buildings Act,” which limits D.C. building heights to 90 feet on residential streets and 130 feet on commercial streets (160 feet along one stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue), be relaxed?
“Probably not a good idea,” Goldberger said, to considerable applause. “There’s something very nice about an American city in which you do not have skyscrapers.”
The Height Act, passed by Congress in 1910, following a public outcry over construction of the 12-story Cairo Hotel, came to be viewed as politically sacrosanct protection against over-development near the National Mall. But that changed last July, when U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, joined with D.C.’s non-voting congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, to lead a hearing on the Height Act’s costs.
In early November, Issa and Norton announced a study of the act, by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the District of Columbia Office of Planning (OP), to focus on areas of federal government interest, including the topographic bowl of L’Enfant’s plan for the city.
The future of the Height Act has provoked intense argument among urbanists. Some argue that the limits restrict the supply of built space, driving up already-high D.C. rent prices. Others contend that D.C. isn’t as built-out as people assume.
Present for Goldberger’s talk was Harriet Tregoning, D.C. planning director, who will lead the District’s work on the study. Dismayed by Goldberger’s comments, she posted on Twitter: “Why [is the Height Act] framed always as this ‘limit vs. no limit’?” She added, by email: “The alternatives in reconsidering the federal interest in the height of buildings are not just to retain the current limits or eliminate height restrictions. In much of the city, we expect to continue to have a federal limit on building heights, albeit a possibly different or more varied limit.”
In other words, people shouldn’t worry that downtown Washington will become a skyscraper canyon if the Height Act is amended. Tregoning’s boss, Mayor Vincent Gray, has proposed relaxing the limits well outside the monumental core, across the Anacostia River, in Wards 7 and 8.
Because the Height Act is a federal law, changing it would not obviate the need for D.C.’s local government to change zoning to allow taller buildings.
Freedom to build tall could lure developers to the city’s poorer precincts. Others have proposed that building heights be raised along the already prosperous corridors of Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues, which climb hills hundreds of feet above the Mall.
Another complaint lodged against the Height Act is that it cramps the form of the city’s new buildings, giving D.C. architecture its boxy, squat appearance. Architect Shalom Baranes, who has designed countless District buildings, agrees with that assessment. The basic problem, he explains, is that to achieve the maximum density on a commercial site in D.C., architects must locate a building’s exterior walls at the site edges and have them rise vertically without interruption.
Raising the limit as little as 12 or 14 feet, Baranes believes, could allow more variety in massing. “Raising the height limit by one or two stories across the District would not adversely affect the city’s horizontal character,” Baranes wrote in an email, “but would allow buildings to have more variety three-dimensionally.”