Building Heights in the Nation's Capital

 

For the past century the federal Height Act has been the subject of perpetual debate in the nation’s capital. Since its inception 100 years ago on June 1, 1910 the Act has limited the height of buildings throughout Washington.

While many people enjoy the scale of the city, its views, light, and openness, others believe that the Act restricts economic development and that it limits opportunities for creating and maintaining sustainable communities. Is either side of the debate right?

View of the Monumental Core
There is a correct answer according to Larry Beasley, a world renowned expert in the field of building skyscrapers. Mr. Beasley is the former planning director of Vancouver, a city known for its high-density urbanism. He also is a planning and development consultant to cities world-wide. He spoke in Washington during a lecture hosted by the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in recognition of the centennial of the Height Act. During his address at the Naval Heritage Center on May 18, Mr. Beasley lauded the Act as perhaps the single most powerful thing that has made Washington the world treasure that it is.
 
Larry Beasley
"The city is just so comfortable, so livable, and so humane. If you stay with the historic height limits, you will continue to enjoy the increasing uniqueness of the city that has been deliberately in place for 100 years."

Larry Beasley

"It is hard to believe that for 100 years you have had a clear and distinct height policy – in fact a very simple height limit – and it has fundamentally shaped your city. I’ve heard this was originally about safety but I think we all see that it is first and foremost about symbolism. Your achievement at the symbolic level is profound,” Mr. Beasley told the audience.
Mr. Beasley shared several of his observations from Vancouver. First, that the economic performance of any one project is not affected in a meaningful way by the manipulation of heights. Land values simply adjust he said. Also, you can accomplish transit-oriented clustering of development in both a high scale and a lower scale format with equal success. “Height changes, unless they are dramatic, are not going to make too much of a difference in the economic performance of Washington,” said Mr. Beasley. “Your city’s very uniqueness makes it inherently more valuable than other places.”

Mr. Beasley urged Washingtonians to hold their ground and keep height limits intact, particularly within the areas of the monumental core. Any change in height in the core would be a sacrilege he said.

“Not only does the height limit allow the capital’s national symbols to stand out and prevail, but it so vividly sets the city apart from all others,” proclaimed Mr. Beasley. “Does anyone want tall buildings to go up just anywhere? I do not think Washington wants to find itself in the confusing situation of Buenos Aires. Don’t think that in some way you are going to open up a magic bullet for green construction or better architecture. Perhaps you gain a bit of economic opportunity for an individual, but you might lose the experiential qualities for many others.

"How do you begin to put an economic number to your experience of walking comfortably down a gracious street?"
  Sightline toward Lincoln Memorial
Noting that he's the vice president of a development company in Vancouver, he closed by warning the audience about the inherent risks. “Be very careful as you gamble with the 100-year-old legacy of the Height Act. The city is just so comfortable, so livable, and so humane. If you stay with the historic height limits, you will continue to enjoy the increasing uniqueness of the city that has been deliberately in place for 100 years,” declared Mr. Beasley. “While I began my talk singing the praises of tall buildings, I want to close by loudly singing the praises of the existing height limits in Washington. Relish your gently scaled streets, your gracious green space, and the beauty of your city that is so uniquely Washington.”


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