The Height of D.C. Folly

Senseless building restrictions make our capital city more expensive.

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Oppressive heat and high humidity settle in over the Washington skyline as record-breaking temperatures and ozone-laden haze prompt air-quality alerts for the coming days in the nation's capital, Friday, July 23, 2010. Viewed from an overlook in Virginia above the Potomac River are, from left to right, the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Smithsonian Castle and the Library of Congress.

Washington, D.C., is the sixth most expensive city in the country, according to a recent Kiplinger report. The cost of living is 44.7 percent above the national average, placing us ahead of, among others, Los Angeles, San Diego and Boston.

More and more, this reality is calling into question for people the wisdom of the city's height restrictions. With an upper limit of just 130 feet (for comparison, the new World Trade Center building has been measured at a symbolic 1,776 feet, or more than 13 times the height of the tallest allowable new structures here), these observers are right to think loosening or eliminating the height of buildings law could go a long way toward making the nation's capital a more affordable place to live and work.

Building up instead of out increases urban density, allowing more people to fit into the most desirable downtown neighborhoods and, yes, pushing down the cost of renting living and office space. But some question the economics of that claim. Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council expressed disbelief in a piece for the Atlanticlast year when he argued that "if affordability were closely related to building height and density, New York City and San Francisco would be the two most affordable big cities in America."

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This, of course, misunderstands the nature of prices, which result from the interaction between supply and demand. The reason New York and San Francisco are such expensive places to rent space is that the number of people wishing to live and work there is so enormous that the additional rental space available in the cities' tall buildings still isn't enough to fulfill all the demand. Don't think supply has an effect on prices? Ask yourself what an apartment in Manhattan would cost if all the buildings in the area were all limited to twelve stories. (Hint: We wouldn't want to find out.)

There is another really good reason to support doing away with Washington's height restrictions, though, one that people concerned about the environment should find particularly persuasive. As architect Gregg Pasquarelli told DesignBuild Source, "Quite frankly, the most sustainable thing you can do is build tall and dense and leave the rest to nature … I know people love to think about solar panels, photovoltaics and other types of technology to be green, but no… building a tall building is a thousand times more important."

This revelation taps into an important truth: height and other zoning restrictions that make it difficult to construct dense downtown neighborhoods are major contributors to environmental degradation. When more people can afford to live within walking distance of their offices, fewer cars will need to spend 60 or 90 minutes idling their way in and out of the city in the mornings and afternoons. Larger populations can give up their personal automobiles, instead conducting the business of life by foot or public transit. Delivery trucks will be able to traverse shorter distances while servicing the same number of households. And because more people will be residing downtown, the demand for urban green spaces will increase.

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Not everyone wants to live in a dense inner city. But many people are more or less indifferent and will go where the cost-benefit calculation points. Think of the many lawyers, consultants and congressional staffers who live in Silver Spring, Md., or Alexandria, Va., – or worse, Gaithersburg, Md., or Woodbridge, Va. – and drive back and forth into the District because it just doesn't make sense financially for them to live here. Many of these young people would be at least as happy in Chinatown or Foggy Bottom, around the corner from theaters, restaurants and all their friends. The height restrictions are what's keeping them away, and turning them from pedestrians into commuters.

It is absolutely the case that allowing the construction of taller buildings in Washington would make rental spaces in the city less expensive. But to stop the analysis there is to miss most of the advantages of such a policy change. Once more people can afford to live here, fewer will be forced to participate in the daily long-distance commute and attendant car-centric, suburban lifestyle.

We'll all be better for it.

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