Washington, D.C., Building Height: The D.C. Skyline Should Look Like Manhattan's


A century-old Washington, D.C. law may be in its twilight hours. This September, a National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) study on the archaic Height of Buildings Act of 1910 is set to conclude. A limit on building heights is a de facto limit on the city’s growth. It restricts housing supply, raises prices, and eventually crowds out many city dwellers and businesses. While the study arose over the need to generate more tax revenue for the District, it will help shape the future of the nation’s capital and possibly represent a shift of power to the people who call the city home.

The 1910 Act limits buildings to no more than 20 feet taller than the width of the adjacent street or a maximum of 90 feet for residential buildings and 130 feet for commercial buildings. A stretch along Pennsylvania Avenue is granted a 160-foot height limit. Last July, Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), along with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Vincent Gray, raised a bipartisan call to reexamine the act and “evaluate the case for expanding existing boundaries for vertical growth.” From an economic standpoint, the case appears to be strong.

It is not surprising that many of the office buildings springing up in the greater D.C. metro area are not in D.C. at all, but in the “urban villages” surrounding it. Perhaps most notably is Rosslyn, with its growing skyline serving as a stark contrast to downtown D.C. Moreover, the resulting suburban sprawl is not conducive to an optimally functioning and cost effective rail-oriented public transit system.

For those able to afford living in the District, the Act is a reassuring protection against irregular skylines and crowded streets. But for others who might want to live here, the Act serves as a barrier to entry. These people do not have a say about the city’s potential growth.

Long before the Act, building height control was a major component of the capital city’s planning. George Washington regulated building heights partly over concerns of structural and fire safety, and Thomas Jefferson supported low-rises for aesthetic reasons. Technological advancements have solved the former’s concerns, but aesthetics are still a persistent and valid part of the discussion.

Beauty lovers need not worry. The NCPC acknowledges that D.C.’s skyline, historic vistas, and widely visible national monuments are distinct parts of the city’s appeal and embodies these in the study’s core principles. Mayor Gray has expressed his desire to minimize vertical growth to only an extra story or two and the new proposal could be as simple as letting buildings convert their rooftop currently used for utility storage into residential units. Allowing for more development around metro hubs would sensibly promote urban transit and flourishing cultural centers. In any case, areas around the national mall are likely to be conserved.

Changes to the Act could also have major implications for relationship between the Federal government and the District government. The balance between federal and local control over District affairs is a tricky one, as both interests need to be served. With so many bumper stickers against “Taxation Without Representation”- also proudly displayed on the presidential limos- D.C. residents should welcome this initiative as a step towards increased autonomy.

The public has a chance to voice their opinions in the study’s open hearings in September. Hopefully, supporters of voluntary action and a dynamic, growing D.C. propose some much needed reform to the outdated regulations.