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