John Kennedy once said that Washington, DC was a city “of Northern charm and Southern efficiency”. There’s now a discussion going on about relaxing the height restrictions on buildings in the District to allow the construction of skyscrapers. The proponents of taller buildings are arguing that this will improve its efficiency. The opponents should be arguing that taller buildings will destroy what charm it now has.
The DC regulations are fairly stringent, and restrict building height to about 130ft. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias has weighed in on the side of the skyscrapers, taking issue with an article in the Washington Examiner by Harry Jaffe.
In my opinion, both sides get it wrong, but Yglesias is egregiously more wrong than Jaffe. Both are arguing the economic side of things, with Yglesias claiming that taller buildings will create more jobs and lower land costs, while Jaffee argues, weakly, that no jobs will be created and that it’s healthier that firms are forced to move to the suburbs. Yglesias brings in all sorts of absurd extraneous arguments, making it look as if the law is trying to keep out steel frame construction, and pointing out that Fargo, ND, has more tall buildings than does DC (as if that matters — we’re not talking about erectile dysfunction here).
Throwing DC open to skyscraper development will turn it into another collection of soulless canyons, indistinguishable from dozens of similar places around the world. Jaffee nails it when he says that only reason it’s even a topic of discussion is pure greed. DC doesn’t need an economic boost. It’s the one true recession-proof city, with this thing called the national government providing a constant outpouring of local jobs, everything from janitorial to judicial. In this modern day and Internet age, it doesn’t need people living and working stacked up on top of one another. Anyone who lives in the (ever more expensive) suburbs, and makes the (ever longer) commute to work in the District will tell you that we don’t need to pack more office workers into DC’s 60 square miles. The only beneficiaries will be the real estate agents and the building contractors.
However weak Jaffe’s economic arguments are, he gets it very right when he talks about the architectural and cultural aspects:
Thomas Jefferson set the tone for building heights in our town. He admired the low-lying architecture of Paris. Pierre L’Enfant laid out the city in European scale and design. When skyscrapers started to rise and dominate skylines in New York and Chicago, Congress in 1910 enacted a law to limit building heights and maintain D.C.’s European feel, which also served the purpose of allowing the U.S. Capitol to dominate the skyline.
Because of those height restrictions, the District is more visible, has a more human feel, is more European, if you must put it that way. But that’s because DC and Paris are both reaching for the same goal: a city at human scale, with a few towering landmarks to give it character.
Click on the picture above to get a closer look. Use your [+] key to zoom your browser in a bit. Notice how the otherwise pleasant landscape is marred by the collection of buildings across the bottom. Now imagine those same buildings, only thirty or fifty stories higher.
Yglesias complains that Jaffe doesn’t understand the purpose of a city. Yglesias doesn’t understand the purpose of a capitol city.