Should Washington D.C. Build Taller?

Maintaining the D.C. Height Limit

I have spent a long time relatively split on this topic and only recently have made up my mind. When I think of D.C. I think of a beautiful medium density city that in many ways resembles European cities like Paris. But it is also easy to think that the city has nowhere left to grow, that the height restriction will prevent further development of the city. There are points to be made on both sides of the argument, but I believe that D.C. should not lift it's height limit, at least not significantly.

As you can see, many of the buildings in commercial areas of D.C. end up being exactly the same height. It is often remarked that buildings in this area feel rather wide and grand. But looking at the city, one cannot help but look up. Wouldn't building taller make the city more competitive and affordable?

No. And here are some reasons why.

D.C. Has Great Density Already

Looking at D.C. many people simply see a city without skyscrapers. A common argument is that building taller would allow the city to increase in density. But D.C. is already very dense compared to many American cities. In fact, it's density is about 10,000 people per square mile. Boston, New York and San Francisco exceed this number, but most American cities with skyscrapers do not. Building up may increase density further, but D.C. has already reached a point where public transportation and services are well spread. Too much density can lead to simple overcrowding, think Manhattan.

Room to Grow

Another argument for increasing building height in the District is that the city cannot support any more people and so housing is extremely expensive. While it is true that housing is expensive, it is because D.C. has recently become an extremely desirable place to live, not because it's population has reached some sort of limit. Right now the city has about 630,000 residents. In 1950 the number was about 800,000. There is much more housing stock available now than there was 60 years ago so the city can support at least 150,000 - 200,000 more residents without argument. Furthermore, many parts of the city are still low density and fall below the current building code. I would argue that in NW D.C. anything north of Georgetown has room to grow and anywhere north of U Street in NE D.C.

Taller Isn't Necessarily Cheaper

Many people believe that real estate prices will come down if there is a building boom. Simple supply and demand you might say; increasing the housing and commercial stock available will increase supply and so prices will fall. I have to disagree. If the entire city was torn down at once and replaced with huge buildings, there probably would be a temporary price depression. But as these new spaces filled (quickly), prices would come right back up and probably surpass current levels. There is no evidence that taller cities are cheaper. If this were true, New York and Boston would be very affordable! Many things affect prices of cities, not simply building codes.

Washington D.C. is a beautiful city. Few can argue with that. It is one of the most unique places in the United States and has a feeling that no other city can replicate. The building restriction is one of the things that really helps to define the city as it stands today. Lifting the limit could undermine the character of the city itself and change it's significance in the eyes of America.