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Capital Heights

DC Buildings May Be Getting a Little Taller

Econ Focus
First Quarter 2014
EF Q12014

Photo from DC Office of Planning

The DC Office of Planning conducted a modeling study in 2013 to help visualize the impact of easing building height restrictions in Washington, D.C.

If you've driven through Washington, D.C., you might have noticed how easy it is to spot landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Capitol along the skyline. That’s thanks to the lack of something else you might expect to find in a booming metropolis: skyscrapers. With few exceptions, no building in the city stands taller than 130 feet, or 10 stories. The source of the limit is a 120-year-old apartment building. At the time of its construction, locals feared that the 164-foot Cairo building would spark a trend of ever-higher structures that would blot out Washington’s airy feel and iconic vistas. In response, Congress passed the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, still in place today.

Some buildings could be shifting up soon — though not by much. In May, President Obama signed an amendment to the Height Act that allows occupancy of penthouses up to one story above the current top floor of buildings in Washington — space previously reserved for mechanical equipment. The road to that modest change involved nearly two years of debate and study that began in July 2012 with hearings by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has jurisdiction over the city.

Economists and local politicians have long argued that the Act may inhibit the city’s capacity for growth. Between 2010 and 2013, Washington, D.C., added nearly 50,000 people, an increase of 7.4 percent, compared with an average of 2.4 percent for the nation as a whole during the same period. If trends continue, Washington’s Office of Planning estimates that by 2040, the city could need between 157 million and 317 million square feet of new building space. Increasing demand and constrained supply have already pushed residential prices to more than double the national average.

Harvard University urban economist Edward Glaeser has championed “building up” as a solution to rising costs of living in crowded cities. He noted in a 2011 Atlantic article, “Simply put, the places that are expensive don’t build a lot, and the places that build a lot aren't expensive.”

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the Office of Planning released a study in September 2013 estimating the effect of raising the height limit by as much as 120 feet. The study concluded that high-rise construction could lower rents around the city and increase the tax base. But public response to changing the Height Act is overwhelmingly negative. A Washington Post poll found that 61 percent of D.C. residents opposed changing the height restrictions — a sentiment that cut across income and demographic lines. In hearings held by the Office of Planning and the NCPC, many residents said that raising the height limit would harm the city's unique character.

In its final recommendations, the Office of Planning proposed increasing the building height limit at the core of the city to 200 feet and granting city lawmakers more autonomy to modify the restrictions in the future without going through Congress. But in a resolution passed 12 to 1, the D.C. Council voiced opposition to making any changes.

In response, Congress passed the amendment allowing occupancy of penthouses, a measure supported by both the Office of Planning and the NCPC. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa has said he is not finished exploring the issue, but D.C. residents seem largely set against moving the city’s century-old ceiling.

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