D.C. Should Build Skyscrapers Where the Demand Is—Downtown

Washington, D.C. Mayor Vince Gray.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

In contrast to the National Capital Planning Commission, the D.C. government came out today with proposals for meaningful alterations of the Height of Buildings Act. There are two main planks to this:

First, inside the “L’Enfant City” (between Florida Avenue and the Potomac and Anacostia rivers) they want to cap buildings at 1.25 times the height of the street they face. That would allow for commercial buildings of up to 200 feet on the widest streets.

Second, outside the L’Enfant City they want to repeal the Height Act entirely and leave building height up to the D.C. zoning and planning process.

The proposal to scrap the Height Act outside of the historic core is a bold stance in favor of home rule and local autonomy, and as a D.C. resident I’m all for it. But unfortunately this isn’t a very bold step as a matter of city planning. We’re talking about parts of the city here where the current zoning generally mandates smaller buildings than the Height Act allows, and where there are plenty of noisy neighborhood groups around to complain about any possible upzonings. Claiming full control over the decision-making process for the city government is fine. But really what the city needs are much taller buildings in the portions of the city where there’s the most demand for them—downtown.

Downtown is where office rents and hotel prices are the highest. And Downtown is also where if the office market gets somehow saturated, it’d make lots of sense to build new apartment buildings for people to live in. And right now, downtown doesn’t have a lot of NIMBYs living there to complain about construction noise or loss of light. Downtown is also the part of the city that the infrastructure is built to make accessible. The major auto routes from the suburbs funnel people downtown. The Metro lines converge downtown. The bus access is best downtown. Downtown is the place that the largest number of people can comfortably walk or bike to. Downtown is the logical place for tall buildings, and that’s why downtown is where you’ll find the tallest buildings in most cities.