Friday, May 4, 2007
Is the beauty and grandeur of the Washington, D.C., skyline such that it shouldn’t be punctuated by tall buildings? From time to time, there are proposals to ease the federal government’s land use law that in effect limits buildings to about a dozen stories in the nation’s capital. Remarkably, the tallest building in the city remains, except for the Capitol and various spires and columns, the Cairo apartment building, which was constructed to a then-monstrous 16 stories in 1894 (a fact almost as remarkable as the fact that New York’s tallest building was finished in 1931), at the dawn of the elevator age. For decades, critics of the Washington law have suggested that it makes D.C.’s office architecture bland.
Today, sprawl and pollution are added to the list of the unwanted effects of the height restriction. By limiting the supply of office space downtown (the famous K Street area is packed with back-to-back dozen-storey buildings, with hardly a single gap), the law pushes offices to the outskirts, most famously Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, an “edge city” that is one of America’s largest in terms of office space. The Washington Post published this week an article about the renewed debate over whether to amend the height restrictions. Advocates of change point out that the de-centralizing effect of the law exacerbates traffic and greenhouse gas emissions in the Washington area. Supporters of the height restriction, such as architectural critic Witold Rybczynski, argue that allowing tall buildings in Washington would destroy its unique character and make it look like anyplace else, just as tall buildings in Rybczynski’s Philadelphia make it look like a smaller version of New York.
European cities have also struggled with height limits, of course. The most famous compromise solution is that in Paris, where high-rises cannot be built in the old city, but are encouraged in La Defense, just northwest of the city, on the line of Champs-Elysees. Washington’s law has created its own versions of La Defense, the closest of which is Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac River. (I’ve often wondered whether tourists flying down the river to National Airport are confused as to which side of the river the “downtown” sits). Changing the law to allow tall buildings in certain areas would create a windfall for those favored sectors. Nonetheless, I think Washington would be better off to allow tall buildings that do not impede the visual vistas of the monumental core.