March 18 2014

The Reasoning Behind the Washington, D.C. Height Act

Washington, DC, looking south from Meridian Hill Park

There is a piece of local lore circulating around Washington, D.C., attempting to explain why the city is so short. The myth claims that developers have been prevented from building up because it is inscribed somewhere that the Washington Monument and US Capitol must be the tallest structures in the city. However, the real reasoning behind the establishment of a height limit in the Capital was much more pragmatic – when it was enacted, fire-fighting equipment could only reach so high.

This is the reason behind the 1899 US Congress Height of Buildings Act, which was revised again in 1910. The legislation stipulates a strict 130 foot height limit for buildings with frontage on business streets, the only exception being the section of Pennsylvania Ave NW that runs between the Capitol and the White House, which is permitted to be 160 feet in height. A limit of ninety feet is imposed on buildings whose frontage faces residential streets. Now, more than one-hundred years later, the residents of the city still live with that legacy. It has shaped the character of the city in a way no one could have foreseen. Its architecture has been forced to conform, resulting in the District’s distinct horizontal skyline. But the impact reaches far further than the city’s aesthetics.

By preventing the city from reaching a more natural density by growing up, it has been forced to grow out – a consequence that carries cascading effects. The issue of housing affordability is one that immediately comes to mind. The Height Act places an artificial limit on housing supply, which amplifies the supply and demand problem driving gentrification. But it has also resulted in a litany of sub-centers that have sprouted up in surrounding areas, like Rosslyn, Virginia and Silver Spring, Maryland. And with so many jobs in the District, and so few places to live, it has helped turn D.C. into the country’s top commuter city, with population swelling by 79% during the day.

Cluster of eight to ten story buildings in southwest washington DC

And so the question is begged, what should be done with the height limit? Clearly a great deal has changed since the Height Act was enacted; the District has gone through two post-war booms, the Great Depression, decades of decline, and now has made a comeback as one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States. But a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post shows that most residents oppose raising the building height limit. The poll is misleading, though, because the real question is should an act of Congress passed 104 years ago really govern what happens to DC’s skyline, or should urban planners and the city’s residents have their say?

Credits: Images by Chase Keenan. Data linked to sources.

Chase Keenan

Growing up in Tampa, Florida, Chase Keenan learned first hand what it means to live in a city that is built for cars rather than people. The influence of this experience, and his recognition of the urgent threat climate change poses, led him to pursue a career in urban planning. Now he enjoys the vibrancy that comes with life in Washington, DC as he completes his final semester of study at the George Washington University, where he is working towards a Master's degree in Sustainable Urban Planning. His focus throughout his studies has been aimed at understanding urban resilience, and how our cities can be better prepared to face the challenges of the future. But while he may be an urbanist by trade, he’s really a jack of all trades at heart, dabbling in hobbies as varied as snowboarding, muay thai, creative writing, and the piano.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 at 9:30 am and is filed under Architecture, Community/Economic Development, Government/Politics, History/Preservation, Land Use, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


One Response to “The Reasoning Behind the Washington, D.C. Height Act”

  1. Raghu Krishnan Says:

    Although Philly did this in the mid 80′s I think it still applies today that to encourage a stronger economy for a city it needs to build vertical. If City Hall in Philly was still the limit for height I’m pretty sure the city wouldn’t have come as far as it has. Comcast is helping to create a brain trust in Philly but that’s another story. The company is also producing an incredible skyline that is not meant to represent just corporate America but also stronger urban planning and efficient use of space. DC is in a tough situation. A fully established and vascularized sprawl connecting Maryland and Virginia with roads and a decent rail network. If they go vertical they’ll ruin their landscape view and attract another 30-40% increase in population. The city might get more congested and hurts everyone. The rail system has to develop and the tram or high speed buses have to be set up to help the boom in population. I will stand on the side of the YIMBYs and say that going vertical is always a better option. A lot of work upfront but a lot of payoff in long term use of resources.

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