Thanks to a decade-long economic boom in Washington, D.C., the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the nation’s capital is now $2,190, making it the fourth-most expensive American city for renters, behind New York, San Francisco, and Boston. Commercial tenants are also feeling the pinch. Asking rents for D.C. office space are second only to those in the Big Apple. Meanwhile, after decades of stagnation and decline, Washington’s population is growing steadily, promising a tighter housing market and even higher rents in the future.
An increase in the supply of leasable square footage in the district would solve the problem. But D.C. real-estate developers are constrained by a 113-year-old federal law, the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, under which no city building can be taller than the width of the street it faces plus an additional 20 feet. The maximum building height on a commercial thoroughfare—with a few minor exceptions—is 130 feet. The maximum height in a residential neighborhood is 90 feet. The district also has its own municipal height limits; and in many neighborhoods, the local limit is actually lower than the federal one.
As anyone who has ever flown into Reagan National Airport can attest, Washington has an unusual architectural character for a major American city: its skyline is essentially horizontal. But, contrary to urban legend, it was not the Height of Buildings Act’s purpose to prevent the Capitol and the Washington Monument from being visually eclipsed by taller buildings. Instead, the limits were imposed in response to the 1894 construction of the Cairo, a 12-story, 160-foot-high hotel near Dupont Circle. The Cairo towered over the neighborhood, much to the chagrin of many local residents. A coalition described in the American Institute of Architecture’s Guide to the Architecture of Washington as a “strange alliance of architectural sophisticates appalled by its ungainly design, and Luddites who ignorantly feared that . . . such a ‘skyscraper’ would topple,” appealed to their local government, which just so happened to be the United States Congress (Washington had almost no local government at the time). By 1899, the law mandated that no building in D.C. be taller than 130 feet. A 1910 amendment reduced the maximum allowed height to 90 feet. The law hasn’t changed since.
Change may be coming, however. Last summer, Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has legislative jurisdiction over the district, asked D.C.’s municipal government to study the issue. The local government, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the D.C. Office of Planning are expected to make their recommendations to Congress later this fall. Regardless of the outcome, Washington’s skyline will remain more horizontal than vertical—more Paris than Hong Kong. Indeed, the Planning Commission’s master plan states that “maintain[ing] the horizontality of the monumental city skyline” is one of the project’s “core principles.” City officials have looked at four modest changes to the height limit. The first option would simply leave the limit in place. The second would “reinforce the relationship between street width and building height,” meaning that the 130-foot cap would be lifted, but the regulation regarding street width would remain. The third option would raise the height limit in selected areas, creating a smattering of “illustrative clusters” throughout the city, while the fourth would raise the height limit citywide.
Even under the last scenario, Washington’s most storied sights would not be affected; vast swaths of the city, including areas that offer views of landmarks such as the Capitol and the White House, would remain under strict height limits. What’s more, the maximum height being considered is just 200 feet—still well below the typical building height in an American downtown. (Nearby Baltimore has two dozen buildings taller than 200 feet.) It’s worth noting that the integrity of the horizontal skyline has already been eroded, and not just by the Cairo. In the 1950s, the District Board of Zoning Adjustment granted a waiver to the Catholic University of America for the construction of the 329-foot Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
A district-commissioned analysis suggests that the economic benefits from relaxing the height limit could be considerable; it projects the creation of thousands of jobs from even a small height increase. Nonetheless, many still oppose changes to the law, and the debate has scrambled traditional ideological lines. Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution argues that lifting the limit will help in the fight against global warming (he holds the height limit responsible for the region’s suburban sprawl and, consequently, increased traffic-related emissions). Kaid Benfield, director of the Sustainable Communities program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, opposes lifting the height limit because, he says, “[D.C.] suburbs look like everywhere, USA. Let’s not let that happen in our central city.” Public meetings have spawned similar debates. Many argue that repeal of the height limit will spur development and help drive down rents. Some longtime residents oppose altering the limits because, in their view, Washington is too crowded already.
In truth, even if Congress repealed the Height of Buildings Act tomorrow, some local restrictions on building heights would remain in force. So this whole battle, which is ostensibly about architecture and development, rent and horizontal skylines, may be about something else: how sovereign the nation’s capital city should be. Like so much of what happens inside the Washington beltway, the skyline battle may really be a fight over who decides.