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Fri May 30, 2014

How D.C.'s Height Limit Has Shaped The Capital

Originally published on Fri May 30, 2014 12:48 pm

One of Washington, D.C.’s signatures is its low buildings and wide, sunny streets. It’s one of the things many residents love about the city, and that often strikes first-time visitors.

There’s a popular conception about why the buildings are so low: that a law says they either can’t be taller than the Capitol or the Washington Monument.

But that’s a myth. In reality, the height limit has to do with the building height-street width relationship.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson talks to Lucy Kempf of the National Capital Planning Commission about the history of the building height limit, and how it’s shaped the look and feel of the city.

Guest

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And Robin, you know, I'm in Washington today. And one of the things that I always notice is Washington and Boston feel sort of similar. They're about the same size - the metro areas. They're about equidistance from New York. But there is one big difference that you notice, which is...

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

L'Enfant laid out a lot of the roads and everything, but we have bigger buildings.

HOBSON: That's right. Boston has tall buildings and Washington, D.C., does not. That's because there is a height restriction here in Washington. It's been in place since 1910, which is why you can see the Capitol Dome or the National Cathedral from very far away.

And joining us now to talk about that height limit is Lucy Kempf, a senior city urban planner at the National Capital Planning Commission. Lucy, welcome.

LUCY KEMPF: Hi. Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: So a lot of people think that the rule is that no building can be taller than the Capitol Dome, which is up on a hill, or no building can be taller than the Washington Monument. That is not the rule, right?

KEMPF: Absolutely, that's actually a myth. In Washington, D.C., the 1910 Height of Buildings Act actually takes height from the width of the street on which a building is situated. So it's an urban design principle. We also have a maximum cap of 130 in commercial areas, which is roughly...

HOBSON: 130 feet.

KEMPF: 130 feet. Excuse me, yeah, which is roughly 11 stories.

HOBSON: And so that means if it's the width of the street in front, that a street like Pennsylvania Avenue, a big boulevard that's very wide, could have taller buildings than a smaller street, let's say, you know, 18th Street or something like that.

KEMPF: Right, Pennsylvania Avenue is the one exception. You can go up to 160 feet in parts of Pennsylvania Avenue. But the Height Act is one of the most significant contributors to our form and character because it does give us those broad, sunlit streets with those incredible views of the U.S. Capitol, which you mentioned in your opening. And that's one of the things that makes it such a special part of the city.

HOBSON: Now, Congress recently considered raising the height limit and decided not to. You advocated that they should not raise the height limit. Why? What is so great about it?

KEMPF: That's right. We - my agency, National Capital Planning Commission, is a federal agency. We worked with our counterparts over in the district government, and we conducted a year-long study and asked a couple of basic questions - is the Height Act still relevant today? Is it serving both the needs of district residents as well as the federal establishment? And we heard a resounding reaffirmation of the Height Act today, not only from those constituencies you might imagine would be passionate about the historic form of our character, but also from residents in all eight wards of the city.

HOBSON: Why? What were they saying that they love about it so much?

KEMPF: They basically love - if you come to Washington, D.C., you have a closer sense of the open sky, the expanse of the trees. You have these extraordinary views. And we have an unmistakable skyline that is recognized around the world and is part of sort of the authentic experience of our nation's capital and that civic character, which is part of who we are and what we aspire to as a country.

HOBSON: Well, and you also think about how odd it might be if, let's say, Pfizer or some huge company built 100-story sky scraper right next to the Capitol. That could look a little bit weird that, you know, the federal government is so much lower than this building next door.

But some people don't like it. They say that Washington has held back it's boom as a result of this and that there's not enough affordable housing, in part, because people can't build up.

KEMPF: Well, you know, I think that that's fair. Affordable housing is a really important issue in almost every major city in the country. And affordable housing questions - we've got a recent population growth in D.C., great opportunities there. But that requires a really integrated solution - a holistic approach. And height is not the answer to those fundamental questions. Height's maybe one piece of an overall strategy, but it's certainly not the solution.

HOBSON: You like your buildings nice and low.

KEMPF: I think it's an authentic part of this city, and every city wants to be unique. Every city wants to have an authentic character, and this is one thing that contributes to the character of our city.

HOBSON: Lucy Kempf, senior urban planner at the National Capital Planning Commission, and you can see images of what D.C. would look like if the height limit were raised at our website hereandnow.org. Lucy, thanks so much for coming in.

KEMPF: Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.