November 14, 2010
NY Times on DC Building Height Limits
The New York Times has an interesting article on the current discussion about the building height limits in Washington DC: In the Capital, Rethinking Old Limits on Buildings. From the intro:
Its low-slung architecture is no accident. In 1910, Congress passed an act limiting the heights of buildings in the capital. The first residential skyscraper, the Cairo, had been built, and at 12 stories, it was higher than fire ladders could reach and scandalously out of sync with its smaller neighbors.
One hundred years later, most Washingtonians see the act as a good thing. Their sidewalks are shadowed by the outlines of trees, and the dome of the Capitol can be seen from most roof decks. The act, they say, preserves the unique nature of their city, whose landmarks draw millions of visitors each year.
Now, on the act’s centennial, a small tribe of developers, architects and urban experts are questioning the orthodoxy of the rule’s application. A modest change, they argue, would inject some vitality into the urban scene, would allow for greener construction, and could eventually deliver bigger tax receipts for the badly pinched city budget, currently in a hole of about $175 million.
But raising the limit is nothing short of sacrilege for preservationists here, who fear that any change, however slight, will open the door to more.
The DC building height limit controversy is a crystallization of many of the most significant and perplexing contemporary land use issues. On the one hand, the height limit was one of the earliest and longest-standing land use regulations; it invokes the Enfant/Parisian heritage of the historical DC plan; and it has undoubtedly led to the very pleasant streetscapes and visuals in much of DC today. On the other hand, it has mandated a density limit that has exacerbated the scarcity of urban land, inflated real estate prices, and helped cause the serious sprawl that has plagued the DC region over the past generation. It is also an interesting debate, considering that many leading urban theorists call for greater density and vertical development, while in the nation's capital it will literally take an Act of Congress to move in that direction.
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