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A blog about business and economics.
Sept. 12 2013 9:46 AM

NCPC's Lame Timidity on the DC Height Act

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The skyline of Washington, DC, including the US Capitol building, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and National Mall, is seen from the air, January 29, 2010.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The process of revising the Height Act that keeps all buildings out of Washington, DC's central business district started with assumptions that I thought were unnecessarily timid. Now National Capital Planning Commission Executive Director Marcel Acosta is looking to totally denude the idea of promise with some incredibly lame recommendations and poor analysis.

His basic recommendation is this. Right now some downtown buildings have "mechanical penthouses"—rooftop structures that house HVAC systems and such. Acosta wants to revise the Height Act to allow for human habitation in such structures, but not for the actual construction of any taller buildings.

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For example, Acosta writes that "[i]n the short term, agencies anticipate a flatline in demand for office space and will be seeking to use existing federal assets more effectively to meet future needs" which bolsters his analysis that "[t]here is no specific federal interest in raising heights to meet future federal space needs." This is a little bit of a chicken and egg question if you ask me. The DC Central Business District is arguably the most expensive office rental market in the country, and it no longer contains any buildable land. Under the circumstances, it's great that federal agencies are not looking to occupy more space. But if cheaper space were available and agencies could expand their footprint without expand their budget, perhaps they would want to? Alternatively, they could maintain a constant office footprint and shrink the amount of money they spend on real estate. That'd be nice.

Expensive DC real estate is also an indirect cost to the federal government in other ways. High housing costs lower the real wages of federal employees. Change that and you could either recruit equal-quality people with less money, or higher-quality people with the same money. High office rental prices raise the cost structure for federal contractors, and since government contractors largely compete with other local firms for the same contracts those costs get passed on to the agencies. Last the high price of hotel rooms in the national capital region both raises agencies cost of doing business (when people come here to stay) and also degrades the value of the taxpayer-financed tourist amenities in the city.

Obviously as someone who lives in this city, I'm interested in a broader set of issues than just the narrow "federal interest" in DC building regulation. But even in these terms, the NCPC is totally bungling the issue.

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

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