Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Skyline of Washington.

One of the many distinct features of Washington D.C. is its limit on the heights of buildings. The purpose of this 100-year old law is to keep the national monuments from being shrouded by skyscrapers and towering residential buildings. However, it has grown to be a particular outstanding aspect of the city, and thus Washington is analogous to many European cities, a rarity among so many of our American cities.

As Washington has grown, planners are running out of area and currently the law hangs in the balance.

As vacant land disappears in Washington, concerns about high real-estate prices are fueling debate over whether developers should be allowed to build taller, which is prevented under a century-old law.

Land scarcity and attempts to curb suburban sprawl have spawned talk of bringing office towers to a city long known for its picturesque views, sunlit streets and compact buildings. Within 15 years, according to one analysis, no more space will be available in a 3.5-mile stretch from Georgetown to Capitol Hill.

Christopher Leinberger, a land-use strategist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, warns that unless more room is found, the artificial cap on space will inflate already soaring downtown real-estate prices, which rank second behind Manhattan.

Contrary to popular lore, the low-lying skyline has nothing to do with preserving the prominence of the Washington Monument's 555-foot stone obelisk.

Congress — which has oversight over the capital — passed the Height Act of 1910 in response to residents' outrage over the 14-story Cairo apartment building erected in 1894 near Dupont Circle, towering over nearby row houses. Besides concerns about aesthetics, there was a desire to prevent buildings from becoming too tall for fire-engine ladders.

The law limits building heights to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet. There have been several exceptions to allow for construction of the National Cathedral and Georgetown University Hospital. Otherwise, the law has capped most buildings at 130 feet, though heights of 160 feet are permitted on certain areas of Pennsylvania Avenue.

For many influential Washington planners, the idea of altering the city's skyline borders on blasphemy.

I'm with the planners. Washington just booms prestige. Sure, their education system sucks and it once was dubbed "murder capital of the world". But, still, the city is a pearl among planning, especially considering travesties such as Tyson's Corner. To remove its iconic character to reduce the price of housing seems like an unequal sacrifice of costs/benefits. Plus, it's not like there isn't plenty of room in the surrounding area.