Excellent news for Washingtonians and fans of good sense generally, as word comes out that House Republican Darrell Issa is working with D.C.’s Democratic mayor and member of Congress on the idea of revising the extremely strict century-old Height of Buildings Act that severely curtails the size of our downtown structures. They seem to be contemplating two different ideas, either or both of which could be implemented. One is to tinker at the margins with the restrictions on downtown structures to allow an additional floor or two of leasable office space. The other is to allow for substantially taller buildings in a few outlying areas, with the thinking being that if we can have tall buildings right across the Potomac in Arlington County there’s no reason peripheral parts of D.C. shouldn’t have them too.
Both of these ideas benefit from the fact that the impact on the overall “look and feel” of the city would be minimized, and both could lead to substantial benefits. I do, however, want to encourage policymakers to think even bigger. If you look at it, the trapezoid between 19th Street, I-395, Massachusetts Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue is much more transit accessible than the rest in the city. That’s in terms of Metro nodes at Metro Center, Gallery Place, and Farragut Square but also in terms of frequent north-south bus service on 7th, 11th, 14th, and 16th streets and the key east-west Circulator bus line. The land in that central business district area has unique value and attributes that cannot be replicated elsewhere but is broadly accessible to people living in different neighborhoods all throughout the area. Building true skyscrapers in that Central Business District would unlock value in a way that simply can’t be replaced elsewhere. As my concession to reasonableness, I’ll suggest that the wedge between Connecticut Avenue and Vermont Avenue could be exempted from skyscraperification in order to preserve a viewshed for the White House.
That’s not to say that the more modest ideas being contemplated by Issa and Gray aren’t worth pursuing. The Washington, D.C. metropolitan area is the highest income region of the United States, but also features the highest office rents and hotel rates in America. Anything that allows for more business activity will create a lot of additional prosperity both for the people who live in the area and also from the incremental additional people who’d move here and find jobs.