D.C.’s Monumental Change: How Amendments to the Historic Anti-Skyscraper Act May Transform the Nation’s Capital

D.C.’s Monumental Change: How Amendments to the Historic Anti-Skyscraper Act May Transform the Nation’s Capital
Washington D.C.
(Courtesy wbeem via Flickr)

Earlier this month, news of possible amendments to Washington D.C.'s 1910 Heights of Buildings Act spread across local news outlets, inciting mixed responses, from preservationist war cries to shouts of joy to cautionary op-eds. Rumors of discourse were confirmed in the following weeks, with district mayor Vincent Gray pairing up with California Republican representative Darrell Issa to discuss the initiative, which would address zoning regulations that limit most D.C. buildings to a modest 130 feet.

If there is any consensus among critics, it is the perception that any amendment bears the potential to drastically change the face of a growing urbanity that also happens to be the built manifestation of American government. The question then is whether such a change stands a chance to better serve this distinct population, or whether it will compromise a century-old attempt at keeping the nation's capital at a purportedly human scale.

D.C.'s current Heights Act was ratified in response to the construction of an unspectacular 12-story skyscraper then known as the Cairo Hotel. Standing at 164-feet tall, the 1894 Cairo Hotel spurred D.C. Commissioners to put a cap on building heights, stunting all future residential buildings at 90 feet and all commercial buildings at 110 feet. Only buildings constructed on exceptionally wide streets were permitted to peak at a still unexceptional 130 feet. To crack down even more, the act also specifies the maximum allowable floor areas for new constructions.

At the time, the 1910 Heights of Buildings Act carried a noble purpose, highlighting the efforts of Congress to maintain its immediate real estate at a humanist scale. Many continue to value the legislation for its symbolic value, believing that only through such rigorous parameters has D.C. avoided being overrun by development. To proponents, the District eschews the menacing, high-density skyscrapers of New York and Chicago and touts a more or less homogenous landscape of accessible low-rises, punctuated by federally protected monuments. But whether or not this outcome equates to a well preserved, historically rich, humanist city lends itself to debate.

Back in November, Forbes contributing author Stephen Smith wrote an op-ed entitled "Why DC’s Architecture Is So Boring." His article was written in response to another piece in the Washington City Paper, in which Lydia DePillis profiled D.C. architect Eric Colbert. Colbert’s portfolio of conservatively lackluster buildings has been notorious for landing his firm with commissions. Colbert has even served as a consultant for younger firms, imparting his wisdom on how to dodge any subjective criticism. Both authors agreed that the architect's formulaic designs are tried-and-true tactics to appease the District's controlling developers, neighborhood associations, and appointed boards. But while DePillis almost accepts the outcome as the reflection of a city brimming with influential decision-makers, Smith is less complacent, urging architects, developers, and boards to consider their responsibility to innovate.

There is no argument that D.C. is in desperate need for some sort of innovation. Not only has the dated Heights Act facilitated a steady trend of bland, boxy designs since its implementation, but the growing East Coast municipality also faces a shortage of inhabitable square footage. With D.C. laying claim to the second highest office rents in the nation, it’s easy to appreciate how an amendment to the Heights Act can potentially grow the city both physically and economically. Taller buildings mean more space, more jobs, and more people.

But an equally predictable outcome would be the monopolization of the city by profit-hungry developers. For one, developers have already sidestepped some existing zoning regulations by constructing buildings with private atriums inaccessible to the public. In allowing developers to climb to new heights, any amendment to the 1910 Heights Act can easily signal a green light for developers to squeeze out more profits while forsaking the needs of the public, crushing the efforts of our 1910 legislators.

The real issue then harks back to Smith's point, that developers, like architects, need incentive to innovate. Before new arbitrary height restrictions are set in place, the District needs to evaluate the demands of the city and translate that into a clearer image of what the city can and should be, including exactly what aspects need to be preserved. Our feeling is that diminutive height is not the answer here. The District may want to consider—as it likely already has—designating certain zones for taller buildings, and perhaps finding ways to encourage developers in these areas to give back to the city at the street level with devices such as privately-owned public spaces. Developers and architects should also be encouraged to work with transportation commissioners to ensure certain standards of pedestrian circulation within the city. Revisting the Heights of Buildings Act is merely a catalyst. Now is the time to really unpack the urban issues D.C. faces and target them with great care.