Monday, May 7, 2007

DC Building Height Limit

There’s been some talk recently about raising DC’s building height limit. In a recent Washington Post article, an architect speaking at a development conference is quoted as saying: "We have a moral imperative to increase density, to get us out of our cars." This is a laudable goal: as population density increases, retail businesses move in creating a busy, thriving neighborhood; the busier the neighborhood, the safer the neighborhood. Since DC is well served by both subway and bus, and plus is a very walkable city, new residents won’t necessarily increase car traffic. Higher density is green by its very nature. Higher density is a good thing. But we don’t need 30 or 40 story buildings to achieve it.

The premise is that DC is running out of vacant land on which to build, and soon there will be no sites to develop from Florida Avenue south to the waterfront, and from Capitol Hill to Georgetown.

Right now, there is an awful lot of vacant land and under-developed real estate in those areas, and adjoining neighborhoods. Once those are all built out, perhaps the city should consider raising the building height limit.

But even then, there is really no reason to.

A critic of the plan to raise the building height limit said that “…high-rise buildings would spoil a low-lying, Parisian-style city.” Paris is an interesting comparison. If only DC were like Paris! Paris has a population density over 6 times higher than DC’s. (Paris: approximately 64,000 people per square mile; DC: approximately 9,000.) How is that possible?

There are very few buildings in Paris that are higher than 6 or 7 stories. But there are also very few buildings that are lower than 6 or 7 stories.

I’m not suggesting that DC should strive to have that kind of population density. But a little more density would be nice. To increase density, we don’t have to get rid of the building height limit; we simply have to use our real estate more efficiently. Most of residential DC consists of neighborhoods filled with 2 – 4 story row houses. In Paris, these neighborhoods would be fill with 6 and 7 story apartment houses. We don’t need to destroy DC’s huge stock of wonderful row houses. But I am suggesting that places that are blighted with bad mid-20th century development be transformed into something more urban.

All over the city, there are examples of 1950s – 1990s one and two story buildings that are a waste of real estate. Look at 14th Street NW between, say, R and W streets. Or consider the building across the street from The Ellington on U Street: Crème is located there, and a dollar store, and the Rite Aid on the corner, among other businesses. Great uses, but the building itself is only a single story. Ten or 20 years ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to build what amounts to a strip mall there. Four or five more stories on top of it, which is in character with the rest of the neighborhood, and you’ve just increased density. Twenty years ago, a one story building may have made economic sense; today, the owner of that building is losing money (or at least not making money) every day that he can only rent out one floor. Development like this could happen all over DC’s central core.

There are many ways to achieve a good density. Getting rid of the over-all height limit in DC is not one of them. Encouraging the kind of in-fill development I described above could help.

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