Help Support Our City's Height Limit!

Protect The L'Enfant Plan

The DC Office of Planning has studied the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 and is recommending a 125% increase in height limits in the L'Enfant City. This would endanger our iconic views, the integrity of the L'Enfant Plan, and the city's unique character. From a financial perspective it could raise housing costs and discourage tourism, which brings in 50% of our sales tax revenue and creates tens of thousands of jobs.

In November Mayor Gray will forward this recommendation to Congressman Darrell Issa, chair of the committee that oversees the District of Columbia. City Council is holding a hearing on the matter this Monday, October 28.

If you value our broad avenues, wide views and horizontal skyline, please take a minute to let City Council and the Mayor know that you support continuation of the Height Act and oppose the Office of Planning's proposal to raise height limits.

  • Washington is a thriving, successful city. It does not need taller development, and in fact would be diminished by it.

  • The L'Enfant Plan is a national landmark and should be protected.

  • The height increase would concentrate the benefits of development downtown instead of sharing them across the city.

  • The study is incomplete. If infrastructure and transportation costs were counted, taller buildings would be a net drain on city resources.

  • DC citizens deserve a world class city.

Thanks in advance for your support of this important issue.

More information can be found at Capitol Hill Restoration Society.


Ridiculous. Hysterical. How

Ridiculous. Hysterical.
How is this going to "endanger the integrity of the L'Enfant Plan" at all?
Or 'increase housing costs' or 'discourage tourism'? Silly lobs and accusations. Why not just claim it will further global warming and the killing of baby seals too?

I understand the desire to

I understand the desire to preserve the current height limit, but this article seems over the top. It isn’t really addressing the specific proposal as put forward by the Office of Planning (OP).
This obviously wasn’t meant as a detailed counter response to the OP plan, but the opposition seems to be based largely on subjective opinions and unsubstantiated claims.

Claim 1: The DC Office of Planning has studied the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 and is recommending a 125% increase in height limits in the L'Enfant City.

The OP plan calls for modestly raising the height limit in the downtown core. The 125% figures is either factually wrong or a wild distortion. Perhaps they are referring the increase in height from a 1:1 ratio between building height and street width to a 1:1.25 ratio. In most of downtown, this would allow buildings to be 160 ft. instead of 130 feet. That would be a 25% increase in height. Not 125%. There are some areas where it would work out to greater than 25%, but nowhere near a 125% increase.

Claim 2: This would endanger our iconic views, the integrity of the L'Enfant Plan, and the city's unique character

The proposal to allow modestly taller buildings is specifically designed to be in keeping with the horizontal spirit of the city. The proposal isn’t calling for 500-800 ft skyscrapers towering over the national landmarks. The absolute tallest allowed downtown would be 200 ft (up from 160 feet), with most areas being 160 feet. The current limit is completely arbitrary. What is so magical about the current max of 160 feet? If low heights make DC world class, why not reduce the height limit even further? Why not a 90 ft limit?

The OP proposal includes measures specifically designed to protect views of the White House, Capitol, and Washington Monument. A modestly higher height limit would have a slight visual impact, but to say it would endanger the character of the city is an exaggeration. You would still be able to see the White House down 16th and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Ave.

Claim 3: From a financial perspective it could raise housing costs and discourage tourism, which brings in 50% of our sales tax revenue and creates tens of thousands of jobs.

Is there any evidence that tourist would stay away from DC because the downtown height limit is raised by on average 30-40 feet? London tourism hasn’t been harmed by their recent (actual) skyscraper boom. If anything relaxing the height limit could help to create a more active mixed-use downtown. The revitalization of Downtown has been a positive for tourism; it has become a more interesting place to visit as it has added shops, restaurants, and residential space. Despite this progress, the city core is still somewhat lacking in urban amenities (cafes, restaurants, shops, markets, and vibrant street life) compared to other world class cities. Allowing a little more density at the core will allow the enlivening of DT to continue.

The argument that raising the height limit will raise housing prices also seems baseless. Yes, new residential construction in downtown would by necessity be mostly expensive “luxury” housing. But, that would be adding additional housing to the District’s housing base. If additional housing isn’t built downtown, the people who would have lived there will compete for housing (and hence raise prices) in the rest of the city. Yes, some people may choose Bethesda/Arlington over DT DC instead. But, isn’t attracting affluent residents to the District without displacing people in existing neighborhoods a useful goal? Especially since District taxpayer’s fund a disproportionate share of the region’s social services. At the end of the day, the proposal put forth by the OP seem unlikely to dramatically impact housing prices one way or another. However, it will potentially create more mixed-use activity at the core.

Claim 4: Washington is a thriving, successful city. It does not need taller development, and in fact would be diminished by it. The L'Enfant Plan is a national landmark and should be protected.

These are mostly subjective arguments to which people can agree or disagree. However, DC is thriving largely due to its role as the seat of the federal government. Not because of the Height Limit. This prosperity is likely to be tested in coming years by government austerity. To continue thriving the city will have to rely more on private sector development. An increasingly vibrant mixed use downtown will strengthen the District’s competitive advantage relative to other metropolitan areas and cheaper suburban jurisdictions.

Claim 5: The height increase would concentrate the benefits of development downtown instead of sharing them across the city.

This argument probably has some merit in the near term. Initially, up and coming areas like NoMa and Capital Riverfront would probably lose some development to the more traditional urban core. But, the proposed increases in developable space are small enough they won’t meaningfully change regional development patterns. The District still has a massive long-term undersupply of transit-adjacent, urban housing. Development isn’t an either or proposition, do both. Enliven and expand the core.

Claim 6: The study is incomplete. If infrastructure and transportation costs were counted, taller buildings would be a net drain on city resources.

Is there data to support this claim? If the new development is skewed toward non-office uses this seems unlikely. New downtown residents (and taxpayers) will be more likely to walk/live care free than new residents added in the outlying areas. Additionally, they will be taking advantage of the existing downtown infrastructure that is currently underutilized outside office hours. If the development is more focused on office space, this might create some problems. This issue needs to be studied. But, this isn’t an insurmountable issue. The District could tie development rights to infrastructure funding.

Claim 7: DC citizens deserve a world class city.

This is one thing that both sides agree on. Those who wish to amend the height limits think the proposal preserves the low rise nature of DC while allowing for a more lively city center. Those who wish to preserve the height limit also want the same for the District. Hopefully, there can be a civil, reasonable debate, rooted in fact.

Claim 8: Paris proves DC doesn’t need height limit to grow

This argument was not made here. But, it is often cited by those who oppose modifying the height limit. Yes, in theory DC could be radically denser without raising the height limit. Paris is over 5x as dense. However, Paris is solidly built with 5-7 story apartment buildings throughout the city. DC, by contrast, is largely composed of 2-3 story row houses and single family homes. Nobody wants to radically redevelop the existing row house streets and there is only a limited amount of undeveloped space left to build on. Plus currently, new 5-7 story Parisian-scale developments are often criticized as being too dense for existing residential neighborhoods. (Witness the controversy over the Hines development, as well as similar fights in Upper NW and Anacostia).

Claim 9: Low rise neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Georgetown have more character than high rise neighborhoods.

This is undoubtedly true. But, it is irrelevant to the debate here. Nobody is calling for replacing Capitol Hill and Georgetown with high or even mid rises. These areas would (and should) be unaffected by any plan. At heart, the OP proposal is primarily focused on the downtown core. Currently it is largely developed as a bland 12-story office district filled with largely mediocre architecture. It’s true we probably won’t gain much architecturally by modestly raising building heights, but we won’t be losing much either. Downtown is the perfect places to focus additional development, particularly non-office development. It’s at the heart of the public transit system, is ideal for car-free urban living, won’t displace or disturb existing residents, is underutilized outside office hours, AND it won’t damage historic neighborhoods.

Oddly enough, the Committee of 100 on their website put out a statement opposing the OP plan. They cite two links that lay out detailed arguments for preserving the existing height limit. The articles were written before the OP released it proposal. Therefore, the writers argue against high rises in general not the specifics of the plan as proposed by the OP. Interestingly, one of the “height limit supporters” the Committee of 100 cites calls for a “middle way.” The middle way recommendations include:

1) Raise the height limit everywhere to 160 feet, as it now exists for Pennsylvania Avenue.
2) Grant height “bonuses” above the current statutory limits in exchange for public benefits.
3) Allow taller buildings around Metro stations.

These middle way polices sound very close to the plan as proposed by the Office of Planning. Although not perfect, the OP seems to have crafted the outlines of a plan that will preserve the horizontal nature of the city, while allowing the city to grow and adapt as an evolving world city.

How would an increase in the

How would an increase in the height limit increase housing costs? If anything the increase in height would allow for more housing capacity, which would allow builders to include more below market rate units without sacrificing the financial viability of projects. I'm an affordable housing advocate (and by no means a developer shill), but I fail to see the merits of your argument for keeping the height limit based on affordability.

Further, as the Office of Planning study discusses, raising the height by 25% would not substantially affect views, and setbacks from the street would further reduce the pedestrian impact. Current floor area ratio regulations have encouraged the hulking square glass box developments that we see all around DC's central core. If anything, the current Height Act encourages boring square development with little character or artistic interest.

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