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Makeover USA: Short, 'Dowdy' D.C. Considers High Heels

The skyline of Washington, D.C., including the Capitol building, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and National Mall. The tall buildings in the distance are in Virginia.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
The skyline of Washington, D.C., including the Capitol building, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and National Mall. The tall buildings in the distance are in Virginia.

The powers that be in Washington are typically, though certainly not always, wrestling with weighty issues.

Recently, they've also been debating height, and whether they prefer a stout, familiar dowager, or a taller, sleeker model.

Building heights, people: We're talking building heights in your nation's capital, where for more than a century the 1910 Building Height Act has kept the city's profile low.

Now, with the city's population expanding and space to build becoming increasingly scarce, discussion has intensified over whether to allow the city to soar higher.

Why Should You Care?

If you're one of the millions of Americans who have visited Washington — more than 16.8 million of you made the trek last year alone, a record — you've encountered a city that still looks a lot like the one envisioned by Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant in the late 1700s.

Office buildings with uniform heights are seen on 13th Street NW in downtown Washington.  A 1910 law limits their heights.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
Office buildings with uniform heights are seen on 13th Street NW in downtown Washington. A 1910 law limits their heights.

L'Enfant's "great plan," says the National Capital Planning Commission, "was conceived on a grand scale, and was influenced by the plans for Paris and Versailles" that emphasized broad avenues providing "long vistas with monumental focal points."

The vacation photos on your smartphones testify to the resilience of that plan, which allows the U.S. Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments to shine. And it's the Congress-approved Height Act, which with some exceptions limits building heights to around 130 feet, that has been key to preserving Washington's unique, ground-hugging skyline.

But critics of the limits say it has wrapped a vibrant, growing city in an 18th century straightjacket. They argue that higher structures, strategically built to preserve historic sightlines, would help accommodate the city's growing residential and business population, and help feed the city's coffers by increasing the tax base.

It has also been noted that politically powerful development and contracting interests would also be served.

But At What Cost?

Congress, through the Height Act, and the city, through its own zoning regulations, both have a say in what happens to the restrictions, so the debate has been predictably complicated.

Last year, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asked the city to look into changes to the restrictions. City planners, with Mayor Vincent Gray's endorsement, came up with a variety of proposals to allow higher buildings, particularly outside the heart of the capital known as "L'Enfant City."

The Washington Post developed a graphic to show what the various proposals, from minimal changes to significant ones, would look like. Fast Company has a more whimsical take; it asked artists to imagine Washington with skyscrapers.

But the powerful National Capital Planning Commission recently nixed the city's proposals, arguing instead that the issue merited further study.

"The character of Washington's historic L'Enfant City — particularly the Monumental Core — establishes the city's iconic image as our capital," change opponents wrote, advocating preservation of the "iconic, horizontal skyline."

Not The Last Of It

During a congressional hearing earlier this month on the proposed Height Act changes, Issa noted the divergence of opinions between city planners and the commission, and indicated the debate is not over.

"I'm not done looking at this," he said, "or listening, or reading."

Architecture critic Phil Kennicott summed up the mixed feelings many have about the height restrictions, and whether they should be eased.

He argued in a Washington Post column last year when the issue began to bubble that the limits have resulted in a downtown that looks "boxy and dull" and features "long, monotonous" city center corridors with little architectural interest.

Given ethical issues that have plagued city leaders in recent years, he and others have been loath to take Issa up on his offer to turn over some of the height decisions to the city exclusively.

"Theoretically," Kennicott wrote, "small changes to the Height Act could be good for urban density, development, smart growth and transit — if we make them responsibly."

But Washington, he said, where council members' relationships with developers have been the subject of scrutiny, "is not mature enough to step onto this slippery slope without slipping."

So, a dowager D.C. will remain, both beloved and criticized, at least for now.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.

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