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After a Century, Politicians Look at Allowing Skyscrapers in Washington, D.C.

If you grow up in the Washington, D.C., area, one of the things you eventually learn is that the reason there are no skyscrapers in the city is because under some old law, no building can be taller than the dome of the Capitol. Everyone knows this. I have known it for my four-plus decades living on the East Coast. Except I learned today that this bit of D.C. history has not been true for over a century.

It is true that the 1899 Height of Buildings Act mandated that no building could be taller than the Capitol (289 feet). As discussed in this article, why, then, is D.C. not full of 28-story buildings? The answer is that in 1910, the act was amended to further limit building heights to no more than 13 stories (or 16 stories in some areas on Pennsylvania Ave.), and this limitation remains in effect today.

The Washington Post reports that after 102 years under this 130-foot limit, there is now growing momentum to relax building height limits in D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton have begun discussions on ways Congress could amend height limits to allow minor modifications in some parts of town, with more significant changes in building heights further away from the downtown area. Architects say that even small changes to the law could make the city's buildings "sleeker, raise ceiling heights and provide more opportunity for green space." Issa adds that possible dramatic changes away from downtown could help remake parts of the city and help absorb new residents and businesses.

In an article last week on Slate, Matthew Yglesias argued that the current height limits in D.C. are "bad for the nation's capital and terrible for America." Yglesias says that the height limits lead to unduly expensive hotels in D.C., hurting tourism; sky-high office rents and home prices; and fewer jobs in the city. Looking at the city of Richmond, Va., which is just two hours south of D.C., Yglesias adds that Richmond has 21 buildings over 200 feet, "the tallest of which is almost 450 feet. Richmond is the capital of a medium-sized state. D.C. is the capital of the mightiest empire in human history. In no universe should Richmond have more tall buildings than the District of Columbia."

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Posted by Bruce Carton on April 25, 2012 at 01:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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