Two serious misconceptions about land-use regulation in DC

Congress may consider revising the longstanding Heights of Buildings Act of 1910, as I noted earlier:

The National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning have been working on a three-phase study of potential economic and aesthetic changes that would result if Congress were to allow slightly-taller buildings in some areas of the district. One part of the study focuses on the economic feasibility of building taller buildings, while another, conducted by DCOP, focuses on visually modeling changes to the D.C. skyline and views from important vantage points from around the region.

As part of this process, the District Council recently held a hearing about the potential amendments to the Height Act in which nearly every witness spoke against it.

Witnesses’ rationales for supporting the current height restrictions ranged from the boring (tall buildings bad, views blocked) to the strange (Fukushima?, SimCity?) This wasn’t particularly surprising. The concentrated benefit/dispersed cost dynamic of NIMBY politics usually means that small groups of older people who really care about stopping development attending hours-long daytime meetings while everyone else goes to work.

Director of the Washington DC Office of Planning Harriet Tregonings’ testimony and the subsequent back and forth  with the councilmembers, was much more notable.  The discussion revealed two major misconceptions about land-use regulation and the Height Act itself held by both Councilmembers Mendelson and Bowser:

1. Location doesn’t really matter

This may seem like a ridiculous statement, but it I often hear it from politicians and laypeople alike.  “Who cares if people can’t build downtown? The height limit spreads out development.” Both Bowser and Mendelson seemed to agree with some variation of this sentiment.

People choose to locate their offices in specific locations for real reasons. That’s why people pay for office space on K Street, where it is amongst the most expensive in the country, even though they could rent a larger office in Manassas for less than half the price. Even if someone could build a 15-story office building in the Atlas district, it wouldn’t serve the same set of needs as a building on K Street.

Restricting building heights where businesses actually want to locate greatly increases the footprint of the commercial district downtown, which limits the availability of space for retail and residential uses. This in turn increases commute times, increases local rents, increases retail prices, limits consumer options, and leads to boring, square buildings.

Not all viewsheds are worth preserving.

Just as importantly, height restrictions affect prices in other parts of DC. Absent the Height Act and other (more restrictive) local rules, residential buildings along 14th and U, Dupont Circle, and other areas would be significantly taller and have greater capacity to house people.

Developers don’t take the lost capacity and immediately put another building in Ward 8 when faced with a situation like this. Instead, there are just fewer places to live. The dual-income-no-kids couple who would have lived in the tall condo building instead purchase a nearby row house that used to house a working-class family, further compounding capacity and price problems.

Height restrictions don’t just spread out development, they change the layout of the city in a way that leads to higher costs and unnecessary displacement.

2. Removing Height Act doesn’t increase building heights

Both Mendelson and Bowser extensively questioned Tregoning to try to imagine a scenario in which it would be legal to build a skyscraper next door to a single family home or some other mythical zoning nightmare.

What neither seemed to understand at first is that removing the federally-imposed height limitation wouldn’t legalize tall buildings in the District. In addition to the federal rules, there are local rules about height that are difficult to get around without changing the zoning code. The PUD process allows small increases in height in exchange for offering community benefits, but those increases are very modest.

In addition, local parking minimums, floor area ratio maximums, and setback requirements serve as strict de facto limits on height. The DC Code also gives neighbors many opportunities and venues in which they can halt a project or severely limit its scale.

The actual stakes of what is being proposed–tiny, incremental changes to the Height Acts–tend to get lost in exchanges like council hearings, but let’s make it clear here:

Entirely removing the federal height limits in the District, which is not even being proposed, would only be a first step in a long process to make tall buildings legal. Before anything gets built, the District government would have to remove height limits in the zoning code, amend or remove parking restrictions, more than double the maximum floor area ratio, and lower setback requirements. The only immediate effect of a full repeal would be that the local government, not the feds, would choose how tall buildings can be within the District of Columbia.