It’s Time To Legalize Skyscrapers in the Nation’s Capital

Commentary about business and finance.
April 18 2012 4:26 PM

Legalize Skyscrapers

Washington, D.C.’s height restrictions are bad for the nation’s capital and terrible for America.

Does Washington, D.C., need more skyscrapers?
Does Washington, D.C., need more skyscrapers?

Photograph by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

Bipartisanship is rare in these polarized days. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is breaking from the mold by working with Washington, D.C.’s long-suffering semi-representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Vince Gray on relaxing Congress’ strict curtailment of tall buildings in the nation’s capital. It’s an excellent idea. Indeed, if there’s a problem with Issa’s proposal to add a floor or two to downtown buildings, it is that it’s much too mild. The District of Columbia, the larger region, and the country as a whole would be better off with an even bolder plan that brought true skyscrapers to D.C.’s central business district.

The rule at issue is not your ordinary zoning code, but instead the badly outdated Height of Buildings Act. The original Height Act was passed by Congress in 1899 in response to the construction of the otherwise unremarkable Cairo Hotel (now a condo building), which stands at a not-particularly-tall 12 floors and 164 feet. The Height Act, which was amended in 1910, forces the vast majority of D.C. structures to be much smaller than that. The basics are that no residential building can be erected that’s taller than 90 feet and no commercial building can be taller than 130 feet, “except on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st and 15th Streets Northwest, where an extreme height of 160 feet” is allowed.

This is really short. When I argue that D.C. needs taller buildings, I’ll inevitably get someone accusing me of wanting to turn the city into Manhattan. But D.C. buildings aren’t just short by Manhattan terms. Tulsa, Okla., where land is not particularly scarce or expensive and there are few compelling reasons to build densely, has 17 buildings taller than 200 feet, with the tallest standing at 667 feet. Fargo, N.D., has two buildings over 200 feet tall. Savannah, Ga., has four. Two hours south of D.C. on I-95 in Richmond, Va., there are 21 such buildings, the tallest of which is almost 450 feet. Richmond is the capital of a medium-sized state. D.C. is the capital of the mightiest empire in human history. In no universe should Richmond have more tall buildings than the District of Columbia.

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The fundamental issue here is that steel-frame construction and elevators are very useful technologies, and refusing to employ them properly in the center of a major city is extremely costly. Consider that the average hotel room in D.C. cost $206 per night in 2011, more than double the national average of $102 per night. Under the circumstances, building more hotels is a no-brainer investment. And, indeed, hotels will be built on the last two undeveloped parcels in the central business district. But those projects are under way already and won’t come close to halving the prices in the city. Those high prices raise the costs to taxpayers for government-related travel and make it unduly expensive for American families to visit the taxpayer-financed tourist attractions on the National Mall. It also means that those who do visit the city have less money to spend on meals and entertainment, hurting the broader municipal economy.

Skyscraper Gallery

According to research firm Cassidy-Turley, D.C. also has the second-highest office rents in America at $49.40 per square foot. That, again, is more than double the $21.60 U.S. average. This strongly suggests that in the absence of anti-skyscraper rules, thousands of short-term construction jobs would be created to build the square footage that the market demands. This stimulus would come at zero taxpayer expense. Indeed, it would reduce the federal government’s office costs over the long run. What’s more, the new offices would be filled with workers, leading to a permanent boost in employment.

Contrary to stereotype, there’s more to D.C. than just the federal government. Building off the core focus on public-sector activities, the city has built a strong nationwide presence in industries like media (Slate for example), legal services, and information technology. But high rents mean D.C. firms need to bear an unusually high level of per-employee overhead, which stifles hiring. More plentiful office space would mean more jobs. And crucially, these are good jobs. The median household income in the D.C. metro area is $85,000—the highest in the nation and way above the country’s $55,000 average. The median hourly wage in the area is also more than 20 percent above the national average.

More buildings would mean more jobs, and would also mean more people would be able to move to the District and take advantage of the strong economy. After greater New York City and the California coast, the D.C. area is the most expensive place in the country to live. In the district itself, even “cheap” low-income neighborhoods are expensive compared with those in most American cities. This problem, like the high price of office space and hotel rooms, could be ameliorated by building more units where the land is most valuable. Taller buildings, in other words.

Opponents like the Washington Examiner’s Harry Jaffe contend that restricting building height is healthy because it “has forced development out of downtown and into the neighborhoods.” This view fundamentally misunderstands why cities exist. If one place were just as good as the next, houses and businesses would spread evenly across the country and we’d all have abundant land and no traffic jams. Firms cluster together because proximity matters. In the most banal sense, a downtown office close to a Metro stop is easy for workers to commute to. And because offices are located in a clump, downtown has good options for lunch or happy hour. It’s also more convenient to hold meetings with colleagues in the same field, or with potential suppliers or customers. A hotel room downtown is valuable thanks to its proximity to places of business, and places of business derive value from their proximity to hotels. On the residential side, not everyone likes dense living but everyone does enjoy convenient access to downtown amenities. Ultimately, everyone wins when those who prefer an urban lifestyle are packed into a relatively small area, pulling the suburbs closer in.

Politicians eager to ensure the existence of high-paying jobs need to pay more attention to where good jobs are right now and how more people can gain access to those vibrant labor markets. The D.C. area fits the bill. And unlike in the Bay Area or Boston, one of the key limits to population and employment growth in the nation’s capital was set by the U.S. Congress. It’s time to get smart and bring skyscrapers to Washington and prosperity to America.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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