Clouding NoVa’s Planning Horizon: A Higher Washington Skyline?

The Gothic tower of the National Cathedral, which stands atop Mount St. Alban, is the highest point in Washington, D.C…. But maybe not for long.

by James A. Bacon

One of the most important decisions affecting human settlement patterns in Northern Virginia is under review by the Washington, D.C., city council and Congress — and there is absolutely nothing anyone in Virginia can do about it.

I’m not talking about the future of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) or the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), in which Virginia and D.C., are bound together by interstate compacts. I’m talking about a study of the Height of Buildings Act of 1910. That century-old federal legislation restricted buildings on commercial streets in the nation’s capital to a maximum height of 130 feet. On residential streets, building heights cannot soar higher than 90 feet.

That law is directly responsible for the distinctive human settlement patterns in the federal district. With the exceptions of the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, there are no tall buildings there. By banning skyscrapers, the height restrictions have preserved a human scale of development in a location that otherwise, given the massive power that resides in Washington, would gravitate to the gargantuan.

Growth that might have occurred vertically, as it has in, say Manhattan, was pushed outside the district, feeding the growth of the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Northern Virginia has been the primary beneficiary.

Here’s what’s going on: The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) has announced a joint Height Master Plan with the District of Columbia to explore “the impact of strategic changes” to the federal Height of Buildings Act. The goal is to update the legislation while ensuring the prominence of federal landmarks, maintaining the “horizontality” of the city skyline and minimizing negative impacts to historic resources, including the L’Enfant Plan. Any changes to the law must require joint action by City Council and Congress. (Read the press release.)

The studies and legislative process could take years, and it is unlikely that Washingtonians will approve changes that will dramatically alter the character of the city. However, you can be sure that Washington developers and contractors will lobby hard to loosen the restrictions, and city officials will support anything that bolsters the tax base.

As many (including me) have argued, the Post World War II era of suburban sprawl has largely spent itself. We are moving into a new era of urban development marked by infill, densification and revitalization. If revisions of the Height of Buildings Act relax the limits on vertical growth, Washington, D.C., will be one of the favored hot spots for future development and re-development by virtue of its location at the center of the metropolitan region. Meanwhile, because the federal government cannot possibly continue growing as it has in the past five decades, economic growth in the region will be slower. Thus, Northern Virginia business centers such as Arlington/Alexandria, Tysons, the Dulles Corridor, whose comprehensive plans assume continued growth, could find themselves competing with Washington for a piece of a much more modest-sized pie.

Virginians have not begun to absorb the implications of taller buildings in Washington, D.C., and it is foolhardy to draw firm conclusions before the NCPC finishes its work. But it’s safe to say one thing: Assuming that past trends in growth and development will continue on the same trajectory as in the past 50 years — and investing billions of dollars in transportation and infrastructure improvements based on those assumptions — is lunacy.

Hat tip: Rob Whitfield

16 Responses to Clouding NoVa’s Planning Horizon: A Higher Washington Skyline?

  1. This is classic Jim Bacon. First, he meanders through the topic hedging his bets with comments like, ” The studies and legislative process could take years, and it is unlikely that Washingtonians will approve changes that will dramatically alter the character of the city. “. Then, he concludes by declaring investments in infrastructure using past trends in growth and development “lunacy”.

    What is your point, Jim? DC’s building code will be changed to allow higher buildings or it won’t? Higher buildings will draw people (and traffic) away from NoVa or they won’t?

    Jim’s logic is like seeing a deer frozen in the headlights. The deer (like Jim) knows that perpetuating the status quo is a hopelessly bad idea. However, Jim (like the deer) just can’t force himself to move out of the way of the inevitable collision with the car. He’ll be still standing in the road wondering whether halogen headlights really prevent accidents when the car runs him over.

    There is a review of a 102 year old law going on. Jim says “Freeze!” until the DC City Council and Congress get done thinking about that law. Really? Those two outfits could be still thinking about that law for another 102 years.

    Or, maybe the fiscal cliff will happen. Or, maybe it won’t. Better “Freeze!”. Maybe Obama and Congress will read Boomergeddon and cut federal spending. Or, maybe not. Better “Freeze!”.

    Does Jim Bacon secretly want to see NoVa de-populate for political reasons? Does he think that the Democratic voters in NoVa are well on their way to turning Virginia into Maryland? Maybe freezing all progress in NoVa will encourage so many voters to leave that Virginia will become overall Republican again?

    It’s increasingly hard to understand Jim’s twin love of Dillon’s Rule and a halt to progress in NoVa. If fiscal issues were his main concern you’d think Jim would be an aggressive advocate for home rule in NoVa. Let NoVa tax themselves and spend themselves into oblivion. Seal off NoVa from the rest of the state. But that’s not his position. Jim wants dictatorial control in Richmond and a halt to progress in NoVa? Why? Could it be that he wants to see those largely Democratic, liberal Northern Virginians finally get fed up with the transportation chaos and leave?

    One imagines that Jim might find it very frustrating if the federal government did slow spending but NoVa succeeded anyway. Oh the horror! Virginia might become a permanent twin of Maryland.

    You better move quickly, Jim. It’s not just NoVa. Sneak a peak at Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. What color was it on the electoral map? Uh oh! Brunswick County? Prince Edward County? Buckingham county? Hey Jim, which way did Henrico County vote?

    It’s almost beginning to look more like Western Virginia vs Eastern Virginia is the issue, not NoVa vs RoVa. Oh dear, Jim – the contagion is spreading. Will killing off NoVa be enough?

    Fess up, Jim – what are your larger motives here? Wouldn’t the Republicans do better running candidates that people liked rather than trying to kill off Democratic strongholds in the state?

    Force the liberals into the “coming soon” skyscrapers in DC! Get them out of Virginia!

    • Wow, Don, what can I say? You sound like the people who think the outing of David Petraeus’ affair is secretly linked to an Obama administration plot to discredit/silence his testimony about the Benghazi fiasco. Plots within plots, circles within circles, indeed.

      No, my aims are much simpler — to function as an early warning system. State and NoVa politicians and planners need to follow the D.C. development closely, as it could — operative word “could” — have a significant impact on growth and development trends on Northern Virginia. Forewarned is forearmed.

      As simple as that.

      • I’m glad you caught that Jim! DJ walks and talks like he boiled in the FAUX News VAT!

        no doubt..as this plays out.. the reason Petraus could not keep his pants zipped was Obama’s fault.

  2. Lord O’Mighty. I did not get the same meaning out of JB’s tome.

    would this be a good time to talk about the outdated electric grid and what happens to urban settlement patterns when storms hit these days?

    • You have to watch Jim like a hawk. He’s like a Russian master chessplayer / spy master. Circles within circles, plots within plans. The intrigue never ends. don’t be fooled, LarryG – Bacon has a plan to force you Democrats out of Fredricksburg too. If you get an anonymous Maryland flag in the mail, look to Bacon!

    • Outdated electric grid — good issue. Someone needs to look into that. Are we better off after a hurricane or some other natural disaster having a highly integrated, high-tech super-grid that relies upon a handful of large, efficient power sources, or are we better off with a decentralized power grid with more diverse, dispersed independent sources?

      • obviously, you need a decentralized SMART grid that can automatically load-balance from any/all available sources but a bigger question is if you have a solid base load plant somewhere – how did NJ and NYC get knocked off the grid?

        Was it the same problem as the Drecho in NoVa or something else?

      • I posted this in the comments of the carbon tax article, but I don’t think any one looks back that far. My thoughts:

        “Above-ground power lines is why it takes days to get your power back. If your lines are underground, barring someone cutting the line or an earthquake (not impossible any more), the only way you’re going to lose power is if something happens to one of the stations.

        The reason they’re not all underground? Surely you don’t need me to tell you…

        As for generators and the like, each individual will do a C/B analysis of whether a generator is necessary. If you live in NY, where this type of storm is infrequent, it doesn’t seem necessary, but a number of people (whole neighborhoods, in fact that are subject to frequent losses of power) here in HR have generators.”

  3. Democrat? FWIW DJ, I voted FOR Ronald Reagan and Bush1 but could not bring myself to vote for his clueless cowboy son.

    I’m not worried about being herded into a high-rise collective at all.

    What struck me about the disaster in New York and New Jersey is how many simple conventional one and two story houses make up a major part of the housing stock of that region…

    In other words, the non-wealthy.. lower/middle ..middle class lives in the thousands and thousands of houses that sit in the defacto flood plain of NYC and New Jersey.

    that’s not really the “efficient” settlement pattern that it’s promoted to be – when the settlement pattern itself is so vulnerable to coastal storms.

    They’re already saying that the subsidized FEMA flood control program is going to take an enormous hit and both Dems and GOP in Washington are saying that FEMA needs to get out of the insurance business in these low lying areas. When FEMA leaves, you can bet the private insurers will not be far behind and once that happens whats going to happen to those neighborhoods?

    Are they going to end up like Detroit or are they going to be rebuilt into high-rises with basement/lower levels expected to flood …at times?

  4. At some point – the Army Corp is going to draw new lines on a map and on one side will be areas that are going to be at risk during coastal storms … and FEMA will no longer insure.

    When the Army Corp draws those lines – they’re going to be consulting with Climate Scientists to determine where and how far future tidal surges might likely come inland.

    The climate deniers will likely come unglued.

    what role should all of this play in the development of future settlement patterns?

    Should a key criteria of settlement patterns be that only high rises be located in flood plains – or no buildings at all?

    what about subways and tunnels ? should we not build any more and slowly abandon the ones we have?

    what effect will that have on transit?

    I’d say there are a LOT of juicy issues on the settlement planning table right now.

  5. Stupid question, I know, but isn’t the Washington Monument higher? Or maybe no building can go higher than the Washington Monument?

    • The Washington Monument and National Cathedral are both exempted. I think there’s some kind of exemption for non-commercial, non-residential, non-governmental buildings… but I don’t know for sure.

      • There is no exemption for all those nons Jim listed. The true story as I can piece it together is far more interesting.

        The cathedral was approved by an act of Congress in 1893 although building did not begin immediately. The following year, in response to the proposed construction of the Cairo Hotel (set to be 164′), the D.C. City Council passed a resolution to limit the heights of buildings to 90′ for residential and 110′ for business, or the width of the frontage, whichever was less. This was passed by Congress in 1899 and amended in 1910 with a bunch of arbitrary rules that I don’t think anyone wants me to list. In any case, the National Cathedral was effectively grandfathered in (since it had been approved before the Heights of Buildings Act, even though construction hadn’t begun) and was allowed to build effectively as high as it wanted.

        As it is now the National Cathedral stands 301′ above the ground. Shorter than the Washington Monument at 555′. The top of the National Cathedral lies at a point higher above sea level, as such it is the highest point in D.C.

  6. Had a meeting in San Antonia once and a few extra hours and decided to visit the Alamo.

    What a SHOCK!

    You think of it as a not-small “fort” but it’s totally surrounded and dwarfed by large structures..on all sides.

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