For more than 100 years, the federal government has restricted building heights in Washington, D.C. But those limits may soon be relaxed, according to the Washington Post. A number of leaders from both sides of the aisle, including Mayor Vincent Gray, Congressman Darrell Issa, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, are discussing changes to how building heights are regulated.
There seems to be a common interest in preserving views toward major monuments, and height limits downtown would probably only increase a little, the leaders say. But Issa tells the Post he’s interested in exploring taller buildings in areas outside the historic core—such as Southeast D.C.
The Post talked to people on both sides of the debate but didn’t really get into the issues surrounding height restrictions that I find most intriguing:
On one side, there is a growing movement that argues lifting height restrictions in D.C. would help the city provide more affordable housing. Matthew Yglesias at Slate recently released a book titled The Rent Is Too Damn High, which argues zoning limitations that restrict the supply of housing in places like Washington and New York are responsible for the outlandish rents there. (He celebrated yesterday’s news by calling Issa his “new favorite House Republican.”)
On the other side, it’s worth considering one of the major reasons that height restrictions were implemented in D.C. and many other places in the first place. Reading today’s story, you might be left with the impression that the main reason these restrictions were created was to preserve views toward the national monuments, but for many of the people advocating for height restrictions in the early 20th century, it was about access to natural light.
In the October 1912 issue of this magazine, the landscape architect Arthur C. Comey laid out his arguments for height restrictions, and the need to preserve sunlight was at the top of the list. “Insufficient regulation permits a property holder to usurp his neighbor’s ‘ancient lights,’” Comey wrote.
Concerns about natural lighting were front and center in the debate over Washington’s height restrictions in 1899 too. “In addition to the uncertainty of structural conditions, serious objections can be urged on the grounds of light and ventilation and danger from fire,” noted a congressional committee’s report from that year. “Of course, the higher the building the more light and air is shut out from the street and the adjacent premises on all sides.”
Surely we don’t want to develop places like the corner of South 16th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, where you can barely see the sky while standing in the street. But are blanket height restrictions the best way to promote natural lighting and ventilation in the city? Alternately, is lifting the height restrictions the best tool for lowering rents in D.C.? While downtown may be reaching capacity, there are lots of places with easy Metro access that are ripe for more dense development. Could these places serve the expected housing needs of D.C. residents under the current height limits?
These are the questions our leaders should be asking. It would be nice if planning debates in D.C. focused less on monuments and more on the people who live in this city.