If you haven’t yet read Lydia DePillis’s WCP cover story on DC’s Height Act, it’s worth a look. She makes some good arguments in favor of ending the Act, though probably none that a person versed on the topic hasn’t already come across.

(from Rob Shenk on Flickr)

I wasn’t initially going to blog about it because I’ve already said my piece on the topic, but then I unfortunately started looking at the comments at the bottom of Lydia’s article. Many of them are frustrating, because so much of this debate is emotional and boils down to an argument about personal preference rather than a discussion about what would be best, in aggregate, for the city.

For example, one of the primary arguments against the Height Act can be summed up like this:
Short buildings are what make Washington, our nation’s capital, a truly unique city. If you want skyscrapers, go live in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. People love iconic views of the capital, and tall buildings will cast shadows over neighborhoods and make DC just like any other big American city. People don’t want that
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a city that’s going through a really tough time. Unemployment is high and companies and jobs are leaving for greener pastures. There is a really outdated law on the books that forbids the local government from attracting jobs. But people like the status quo too much, so they say “high unemployment is what makes our city unique. If you want jobs, go move to Dallas or Houston or some other city that has them.”

Seems absurd, right?

When it comes to the Height Act, it’s really difficult to think about cause and effect, because so much of it is speculative and counter-factual. Do people like nice views of the Capitol dome? Sure. Do people like paying absurd prices for housing? I doubt it. These considerations don’t exist independently in vacuums. What we do about one will have an impact on the other. But it's hard, if not impossible, to know exactly how.

I’ll admit, I love the character of neighborhoods like Georgetown and Capitol Hill. They’re beautiful, dense, lively, vibrant, and entirely without tall buildings. Yet, it also makes me sad to think about how expensive these places have become, and how out-of-reach they are for many of even the city’s professionals. It makes me think that there’s got to be a better way.


    If I own the building that now towers over the Capitol, and I'm making money from that, I'm happy. If I'm the tourist who -- as when I was astounded to see that the Alamo is in downtown San Antonio -- finds that the Capitol is now literally in the shadow of MegaBankCorp's headquarters...not so much. If you - or anyone credible - could promise me to sustain the spirit of the law without the substance, I'd believe it. But in a city built on compromise and politics, where would one find such a person?


    It makes me think that there’s got to be a better way.

    And if there's not?

    I don't think that "destroy, and then see what grows up afterward...maybe it'll be great" is a viable path.