Taller Buildings for Washington

A blog about business and economics.
July 23 2012 5:05 PM

Taller Buildings for Washington

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Washington Mayor Vince Gray in 2011

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

I didn't vote for Washington Mayor Vince Gray, but I'm sad to see him enmeshed in a growing series of scandals that have rendered him increasingly unpopular because he's actually made considerable headway in addressing one of the city's biggest problems—forcing a partnership with Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to garner real examination of the merits of the city's ban on tall buildings.*

To repeat the basic case here, what Laura Richards of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City has to say about this simply makes no sense: "Washington can grow its economy and house its residents without raising its Height Act."

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Can we? Well certainly not to the extent that we could if we did raise the Height Act. We have, for example, an existing network of highways, Metro trains, MTA and VRE commuter rail lines, and buses—all of which are built with the presumption of serving a downtown-focused commuter base. You of course could try to add new jobs someplace that's not properly served by the existing transportation infrastructure, but it's going to be a lot harder. But more broadly the question is how much growth in jobs and population do we want? A city that's willing to settle for very slow employment and population growth can easily afford lots of restrictions on construction. But a city that wants to see rapid employment and population growth needs to build lots of buildings for people to live and work in. If you don't want the city to grow, then that's fine. But we shouldn't be in denial where somehow halting development doesn't have consequences.

Meanwhile for Congress this should be a no-brainer. A denser Washington with taller buildings would have a larger tax base and less need for federal subsidies. What's more, restricting the supply of structures in the nation's capital raises the federal government's cost of doing business by increasing the wage people demand to move here. It's a terrible deal for the taxpayers in both directions.

Correction, July 23, 2012: This post originally implied that Vince Gray was Washington's incumbent mayor in the last election. Adrian Fenty was the incumbent candidate in the 2010 mayoral election.

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

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