Panel: keep Washington D.C. building height restrictions, preserving height to street-width ratios

A panel recently suggested height restrictions for buildings should remain in the older areas of Washington D.C.:

Building heights in the 68-square-mile (176-square-km) area are determined by the width of the street on which a structure fronts. The maximum height is 130 feet (40 meters), with some exceptions.The result is a distinctive low-lying skyline that showcases historic monuments and distinctive landmarks such as the U.S. Capitol, National Cathedral and the Old Post Office. The tallest structure is the Washington Monument, which stands at the center of the Mall and is about 555 feet (169 meters) high.

The National Capital Planning Commission recommended leaving intact the federal height rules for the part laid out in the 18th century. The area of wide avenues and traffic circles is home to the White House, National Mall and museums.

The commission left open the possibility that buildings in the area developed beyond the city’s original layout can be higher – but only after additional study and as long as they did not interfere with federal interests.

Another article I saw about this suggested this would restrict growth in Washington, a city whose suburban counties are growing in both population and wealth. Without opportunities for taller buildings in the city, money that could go to the city through property and sales taxes will instead go elsewhere.

But, taller buildings in or near the National Mall would change it quite a bit. These height restrictions are reminiscent of a more traditional kind of architecture. For example, New Urbanists often suggest linking building heights to a particular ratio compared to the width of the streets to create a more comfortable feeling. Contrast the National Mall with the experience of midtown Manhattan, a place busy and interesting but also full of concrete canyons and structures that tower over anything going on in the streets. These two areas serve different purposes but the experiences are quite different.

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