Washington D.C. CFO: Bring on the Skyscrapers

Could Washington, D.C. ever get skyscrapers?


Look off into the distance from nearly anywhere in Washington, D.C. and you'll see something you can't gaze upon in most cities—the horizon. But key district officials support repealing or significantly altering the key piece of legislation that keeps buildings in the city relatively short, the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910.

"Relaxing or eliminating the Heights of Buildings Act could eventually have a positive effect and could be especially important for the city's continued growth," Natwar Gandhi, Chief Financial Officer of Washington, D.C., told members of the House subcommittee in charge of the District Thursday. "It could be an important step towards maintaining the city's long-term ability to keeping property and jobs."

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Contrary to popular belief, the height act doesn't restrict buildings from being taller than the Capitol, it (with certain exceptions) restricts the height of buildings according to the width of the road it's built on. But several buildings were grandfathered in, and several buildings have gotten special permission to violate the law.

California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said he believes the act needs to be altered.

"The arbitraryness of the height act is just that, it's arbitrary. There's places it's too high for the city, there's places where we go above it by our own choosing, and there's places in which adding [stories] to [a building] could be economic boon to the city," he said.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s congressional representative, said she believes control over the height act should be returned to the city's residents.

"I trust the city and its citizens," she said. "I think the city would be hard pressed to refuse to accept the ability to responsibly handle its own height act decisions," noting that local zoning laws have even stricter provisions than the federal law.

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The crux of Gandhi's argument is, unsurprisingly, an economic one: D.C. can't collect taxes on many of its buildings because they are owned by the federal government. By allowing commercial buildings to get taller, the city could collect more taxes."All central cities of America are subsidized by their suburbs. Our problem here is our suburbs here subsidizing Baltimore and Richmond, not the district," he said. "We need a tax base that is enough to take care of the profound needs we have."

Gandhi's opinion to completely abolish the height act isn't shared by many in the district, who think there should be at least some sort of limit in place. But speakers at Thursday's hearing seemed to overwhelmingly support a compromise that would allow building rooftops that currently house air conditioning units, smokestacks, and other mechanical equipment to have "human occupancy" areas such as a pools, gardens, gyms, or commercial space.

"We'd like to do something more surgical than blanket," said Harriet Tregoning, director of the District of Columbia Office of Planning. "I believe that the District of Columbia will always limit the height of buildings, whatever the ultimate fate of a federal Height Act."

Changing or repealing the act has come up several times before, but the law has remained largely unchanged since it was passed.

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In recent years, with Washington experiencing population growth and a space crunch, the "habitable spaces" compromise seems to be gaining steam.

But others have supported a controversial plan that would allow taller buildings outside of Washington's "historic core," near downtown and the National Mall.

Roger Lewis, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, believes that the "habitable space" idea doesn't go far enough.

"I'm worried if we add a story here, a story there, it'll be a death [of the skyline] by a thousand cuts," he said. "I believe there are places in this city—distant from the monumental core—where we can put taller buildings, not skyscrapers. People shouldn't be envisioning Chicago or New York."