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Examining the Dark Side of Washington, D.C.'s Height Act

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The reasoning behind Washington, D.C.’s Height Act of 1899 must have seemed vaild at the time despite its naïveté. After the construction of the 164-foot Cairo Hotel in 1894, Congress became concerned about the safety risks of skyscrapers. Iron- and steel-framed structures were still new, and fire chiefs were uncertain if they would be able to effectively fight flames in buildings over 85 feet.

The purpose of limiting the height of buildings in the city to no higher than 110 feet was meant to keep the residents of Washington, D.C. safe, but it may be doing more harm 100 years later than good. While 61 percent of D.C. residents approve of the Height Act, Vox Executive Editor Matthew Yglesias argues that the Height Act is stunting Washington, D.C. by limiting the amount of office space in the city and raising rent and hotel prices. In an op-ed published on Dezeen, Yglesias writes, “A taller Washington D.C. would be a much healthier city.”

Yglesias’s essay first appeared in "The Future of the Skyscraper," a 2015 publication that analyzes the possible futures of towers with essays from writers like Tom Vanderbilt and Philip Nobel. Yglesias is also the author of, "The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think," a 2012 publication that provides practical solutions to the limited availability of affordable housing. Curbed recently spoke with Yglesias about the negative effects the Height Act has on Washington, D.C.'s economic and social communities. He also shared information on how California Rep. Darrell Issa is hoping to revise the Height Act.

Can you paint a picture of what the D.C. of the Height Act era was like, and why it made sense then?
The original version of the Height Act passed way back in 1899 (it was modified a little in 1910) at a time when the technology to build tall buildings was really new. And it's natural that whenever you have something new, you have a mix of legitimate and illegitimate fears and people expect to see the government address their concerns. The Senator who was the main driving force behind the law was apparently concerned that very tall buildings would overtax the capacity of existing fire-hoses and create a safety problem. And if you look at the actual legislation you'll see that along with the height restriction there are various provisions about fireproofing and limits about making buildings out of wood. I'm not an expert on 19th century urban firefighting, so they may have been a good idea back then but it's pretty clear that in 2015 we can have tall buildings in a city without the whole city burning down.

At the time when the Height Act began, was there enough space for everyone who lived there or wanted to?
There were fewer than 240,000 people living in D.C. at this time and people had larger families so the number of houses you needed to fit everyone was much smaller. On top of that, this is way back before the Great Society, before World War II, and before the New Deal so the actual federal government and associated office district was much smaller and more downtown space was used for housing.

Could people have foreseen the issues the Height Act would bring to D.C.?
I don't think it would be reasonable to expect people over 100 years ago to understand how much urban landscapes would change. They were also genuinely worried, as best I can tell, that tall buildings would be unsafe. From today's viewpoint that's clearly not true but they had no way of knowing what modern sprinkler systems and such would look like.

You wrote that if Washington was built with "proper [office] buildings," that would lessen the amount of office space by "a quarter or less." Where did you get this number?
This was a highly technical calculation based on the fact that 40-50 story office buildings seem pretty commonplace whereas in D.C. they're generally in the 8-12 story range.

Your piece seems to be focusing only on downtown office space, but you're advocating for D.C. to be open to more people and livable for more classes. Do you think building taller office towers will solve this?
Two things. One is that I think we should have taller residential buildings in the neighborhoods, too. If you look at rents in the apartments right by the Columbia Heights Metro station or the prices they're charging for new condos along 14th Street between P and U, for example, it's obvious that there's plenty of demand for multi-family living in these areas. Making sure that when parcels like that get redeveloped we really max out the potential would help reduce gentrification pressure on the older stock of rowhouses. But in terms of downtown, one of my thoughts is simply that the "downtown" office district in D.C. is unnaturally large because it's so full of squad, wide buildings. With taller structures, employment would be more concentrated and more of that downtown land would be available for residential uses. Instead, D.C. is doing the opposite and trying to promote these weird secondary office districts out in NoMa and even the Southwest Waterfront.

You wrote, "If the national government is going to meddle in a city's affairs it should be to force a broader view of the national interest, not to play NIMBY from afar." Because of the Housing Act set in place, do you think the national government should be held accountable for the lack of housing in the District?
I started work on this piece a while back, and in the intervening period we actual had a bizarre sequence of events. Rep Darryl Issa, who chairs the relevant committee in the House, decided that he wanted Congress to take a look at repealing the Height Act and virtually every member of the D.C. council signed onto a letter urging him not to do it! I think Congressional meddling in D.C. business has often been a problem, but housing policy is really one where we mostly have to blame our own elected officials and fellow citizens.

Do you think the federal government is aware of the negative effects of the Height Act?
Representative Issa is certainly aware. And I know I've had some conversations with people in the General Services Administration who deal with the federal real estate portfolio and who think there's a problem here. But I do think there's a remarkable amount of complacency around a regulation that's just extremely odd compared to every other city in America of any substantial size.

Is this the only instance where Congress interfered with the built environment in D.C., or are there other examples?
The federal government is involved in D.C. planning in a surprisingly extensive way. The Zoning Commission has five members, one of whom is picked by the Architect of the Capitol and another of whom comes from the National Parks Service (which, of course, operates many of the parks in our city, generally in an anti-urban way, but that's another story). Then there's the Board of Zoning Adjustment, one of whose members is a National Capital Planning Commission appointee. WMATA is also significantly influenced by federal policymaking. Last but by no means least, an awful lot of land and buildings in the city are owned by the federal government—it's a much larger share of the built environment directly under federal control than you would see in a typical city.

If D.C. residents suddenly all agreed that they wanted skyscrapers downtown, how easy would it be to change the Height Act?
This is a great question. We never really got to test it in Congress because of the backlash against reform from the D.C. Council. My guess is that between Issa's patronage and the clearly expressed will of the city, that Congress would be willing to make the change. But it's possible that they wouldn't be. Plenty of people I know who live in the suburbs—some of them federal officials or Hill staffers—say they like the absence of tall buildings, so if there were strong suburban sentiment against reform that might block it. You could imagine the congressional delegations from Virginia and Maryland worrying that skyscrapers in D.C. would shift jobs out of places like Tyson's Corner and Silver Spring and into downtown.
· Washington DC's aversion to skyscrapers has turned it into an American Versailles [Dezeen]
· Curbed Interviews archive [Curbed DC]