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DC Density: Bigger, Broader, or Faster?
One of these things is taller than the others. Flickr photo by dionhinchliffe.

One of these things is taller than the others. Flickr photo by dionhinchliffe.

There’s an absolutely great debate going on about the height limit in DC right now, which I’ll provide a quick summary of before entering into.

Matt Yglesias started it in this post, where he argued that the best way to make the region greener is to put more stuff in the District and that one of the most obvious ways to do this would be “to permit the construction of taller buildings in the central business district and near Metro stations.”

Ryan Avent then agrees, with the absolutely awesome line “The point is this, those who heedlessly support the city’s height limit or fight a development near metro are basically on the same side as coal executives, and it isn’t the right one.”

BeyondDC, though, hits back hard, calling out Yglesias and Avent for confusing dense and tall. In particular, BeyondDC thinks we should look more like Dupont and less like Ballston – filling all the ground footprint, but not going up until we’ve gone all the way out into some of the many undeveloped areas and plots in the District.

Avent responds, arguing that many neighborhoods, such as Brookland where he lives, are not good sites for densification, as they have a residential character.

BeyondDC then points out that there are many non-residential neighborhoods that could be redeveloped for density and that if we are thinking about increasing density at the same time as improving our transit system, we may not want to be reinforcing the single-hub Metro system.

Finally, Avent writes that his point about residential neighborhoods is a practical one and makes the very good point that “DC believes that growth in one part of the city necessarily comes at the expense of growth in another part of the city, but there is quite simply no evidence that this is the case.”

I must say, I’m torn. My instinctive reaction is to say that the height limitation is a complete blight on the city. But I recognize that that’s because I like tall buildings. There are as many, and probably more, who say that DC’s lack of tall buildings is one of its strongest architectural features. While I’m not sure why they like repetitive block-filling boxes as far as the eye can see, they’re certainly entitled.

So taking away my aesthetic preference, what is the better policy?

I think that the strongest argument for repealing the height restriction is that it will probably be the fastest way of building density. There is more demand for density in certain neighborhoods, for both good and bad reasons, one of which is that developers are often very risk-averse. It may be very hard to try and spread density of any kind to neighborhoods that developers don’t yet want to, or know how to, work in. So if it’s a question of gaining height quickly or spreading density at a slower rate, I think you take what you can get first. GHG emissions are a crisis and very high density can drive further density around it, a point that I think BeyondDC acknowledges but underappreciates in this exchange.

On the other hand, BeyondDC is completely right that the creation of a larger sterile downtown for commuters isn’t exactly the best goal and that creating more dense neighborhoods has real value over creating fewer, denser neighborhoods. This is also true for equity reasons; there are neighborhoods that really could use the economic benefits of new, dense development.

The right policy, I think, is one that BeyondDC just gives brief mention to, namely repealing the height restriction in areas that are currently developing, but not developed. I’m thinking of a NoMa or a Navy Yard. These areas are clearly attractive to developers and could be made significantly more so by the elimination of height restrictions, as there are surely some clients who would prefer a taller building (even a taller building with the same total square footage just arranged differently). They also would sidestep much of the griping about the hallowed DC downtown, which so often takes the form of repeatedly yelling “L’Enfant! L’Enfant!” It probably matches the political palatability that Avent is right to focus on (no use in having the best plan that never happened) with BeyondDC’s more appealing vision for what DC might look like 20 years from now and adds in the crucially important element of speed, as these areas have space to develop without massive resistance against it.

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