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The Reasoning Behind the Washington, D.C. Height Act

Washington, DC, looking south from Meridian Hill Park

There is a piece of local lore circulating around Washington, D.C., attempting to explain why the city is so short. The myth claims that developers have been prevented from building up because it is inscribed somewhere that the Washington Monument and US Capitol must be the tallest structures in the city. However, the real reasoning behind the establishment of a height limit in the Capital was much more pragmatic – when it was enacted, fire-fighting equipment could only reach so high.

This is the reason behind the 1899 US Congress Height of Buildings Act, which was revised again in 1910. The legislation stipulates a strict 130 foot height limit for buildings with frontage on business streets, the only exception being the section of Pennsylvania Ave NW that runs between the Capitol and the White House, which is permitted to be 160 feet in height. A limit of ninety feet is imposed on buildings whose frontage faces residential streets. Now, more than one-hundred years later, the residents of the city still live with that legacy. It has shaped the character of the city in a way no one could have foreseen. Its architecture has been forced to conform, resulting in the District's distinct horizontal skyline. But the impact reaches far further than the city's aesthetics.

By preventing the city from reaching a more natural density by growing up, it has been forced to grow out – a consequence that carries cascading effects. The issue of housing affordability is one that immediately comes to mind. The Height Act places an artificial limit on housing supply, which amplifies the supply and demand problem driving gentrification. But it has also resulted in a litany of sub-centers that have sprouted up in surrounding areas, like Rosslyn, Virginia and Silver Spring, Maryland. And with so many jobs in the District, and so few places to live, it has helped turn D.C. into the country's top commuter city, with population swelling by 79% during the day.

Cluster of eight to ten story buildings in southwest washington DC

And so the question is begged, what should be done with the height limit? Clearly a great deal has changed since the Height Act was enacted; the District has gone through two post-war booms, the Great Depression, decades of decline, and now has made a comeback as one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States. But a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post shows that most residents oppose raising the building height limit. The poll is misleading, though, because the real question is should an act of Congress passed 104 years ago really govern what happens to DC's skyline, or should urban planners and the city's residents have their say?

Credits: Images by Chase Keenan. Data linked to sources.