Dreaming the Capital City

Hypothetical Washington

Should Washington reconsider its building height limit? Brookings scholar Christopher Leinberger sparked some heated debate after he suggested the city should raise the limit in February at an event at the Building Museum, and readers will remember I offered a few thoughts then. In general, I think the limit should be raised, albeit in a very controlled way. Many opportunities exist away from the monumental core to increase density in strategic places. Today the Post’s Paul Schwartzman contributed to the debate with a thoughtful story explaining Leinberger’s arguments for height. Of course, planners aren’t the only people concerned with future cityscapes, as the excellent BLDGBLOG pointed out in March. “Architecture could learn quite a lot from the spatial and material imaginations on display in both film and science fiction,” he argues in a post announcing an event exploring the topic.

One of the most recent and vivid expressions of cinema’s “spatial imagination” for Washington was Steven Spielberg’s 2002 Minority Report which went to great lengths to imagine a fantastic — yet realistic — future landscape for D.C. The images above and below were created by James Clyne for the project, and envisions a National Mall dwarfed by future structures.

Future Washington?

Another, quite different source of hypothetical images for Washington is the (firmly pro-height limit) National Capital Planning Commission. Their reports contain dreamy, washed-out watercolors illustrating the Washington of tomorrow, reminiscent the plans of idealistic postwar planners. This illustration, from their Memorials and Museums Master Plan, shows proposed changes to South Capitol Street. It will be rebuilt, although not exactly along these lines.

Monuments and Memorials

The NCPC’s 1997 Extending the Legacy: Planning America’s Capital for the 21st Century is a great source for these sort of images, containing a number of watercolors with vaguely futuristic flourishes.

Here’s a view of Anacostia River with a spherical aquarium on Kingman Island, as well as a variety of new buildings along the bank.

Anacostia River

A variety of proposed transportation improvements are shown below. The circulator, at the top left, has been implemented using prosaic city buses. (Where is the future we were promised?)

Transportation Element

Contrast that with James Clyne’s vision for a future highway system in Washington:

Vertical Freeway

In NCPC’s brave new world, even fashion will evolve. This view of a new South Capitol Street Bridge is convinced shoulder pads will be the wave of the future.

Proposed South Capitol Street Bridge

> W. Post: “High-Level Debate on Future of D.C.
> GoodspeedUpdate: “Is D.C. Filling Up?
> BLDGBLOG: Science Fiction and the City
> James Clyne: Minority Report Work

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Well Robert, granted that I am probably nowhere near in command of the facts and statistics as you, I dont see an immeadiate crisis that demands a revolutionary change in the pleasant streetscape of Our Nation’s Capital that Professor L. proposes. I just dont see washington as being anywhere near capacity. Refering to my handy wikipedia statistics (which of course i chastised many a student for using), the DC population in 2005 was estimated at 582,049 people whereas the population in 1950 was 802,178. From 1950 to around 2000 the population was in decline. The last time the population was under 600,000 seems to have been before 1940. My understanding is that the recent population growth of the last few years has been slowing. I trekked 70-80 blocks of Manhattan this past weekend. It reminded me how much I prefer the lower congestion environment and more open airspace of Our Nation’s Capital. It seems to me its really commercial space that is in more demand than residential space. I would certainly favor growth in South Capitol St. corridor and even possibly lifting height restriction to some extent – it has good road access (seperate traffic pattern from NW and convenient Green Line stop) and would complement the revitalization of Waterfront. But I generally dont think its a pressing issue elsewhere. Its hardly as if DC is not using space efficiency compared to the Arlington/Fairfax/MoCo sprawl. In fact I think with the new housing developments in DC planned over the next few years, its possible that the housing market will be saturated (just my intuitive sense – no quantitative analysis or anything).

  2. The WaPo article says,

    Standing at Dupont Circle one morning, he gazed at the vista of low-lying modern buildings and said they could each be significantly higher without compromising the area’s architectural beauty.

    The interesting thing is, Dupont Circle has a greater density than Crystal City or Ballston. The density of Dupont Circle in terms of jobs plus residents is 113, while the same measure for Crystal City is 109, and for Ballston is 97. Crystal City and Ballston have much taller buildings than Dupont Circle, with towers in the 19-24 story range (200-260 feet). Dupont Circle is mostly 3-5 story townhouses, with some 8-12 story buildings along the avenues.

    So the density issue is not necessarily about height. It’s about the desired character of neighborhoods. One option is the Dupont Circle model. That would entail tearing down some of the 2-3 story single family houses, both attached and detached, that make up most of DC’s stock of buildings.

    The other option is concentrations of tall towers along the avenues — the Ballston model. That would allow the 2-3 story houses to be preserved. And that is Leinberger’s point: If we want growth in DC and increased tax revenue and affordable commercial space and affordable housing and historic preservation and preservation of existing 2-3 story homes, then raising the height limit might be the only option.

    I don’t really know how valid that argument is. It would be useful to see some rigorous analysis.

  3. Jonah, thank you for the comment. I haven’t looked in great detail to the matter, but while you are right the District’s population growth is very slow currently, because the household size is much smaller than in previous years. Because of this, it actually takes more housing units to house the same number of people. If you look at my first post about the matter, I cited a report done by Brookings about how much land is left in the city to develop.

    After a careful analysis of the land in the city, they conclude the remaining large parcels could hold 3-5,000 units of new housing, vacant buildings and land could hold 11,000, and a variety of “underutilized” parcels could hold perhaps an additional 7,200 only if they were not used for commercial uses. This is TOTAL housing units, for the entire future of the city! Given current house size, unless this amount of land and the legal density for development is increased, the result is an effective cap on how many people will live in DC.

    In comparison, the Census estimates Loudoun county has grown by over 85,000 people between 2000 and 2005, adding over 31,000 housing units. The region continues to grow, the question should be where do we want that growth to go?

    I don’t have much sympathy for the hype about overbuilding. While it is true for high-end condos, the demand for rental housing and affordable housing remains very high – just check out craigs list. Why more of this type of housing doesn’t get built is another topic entirely …

  4. Laurence, your comment suggests perhaps preservationists should be in favor of high density growth, since it will help protect both the historic neighborhoods and increase city’s tax base.

  5. Without a doubt, Rob, I agree that there is a current under supply of housing in DC – I know from experience! My speculation was more that I see enough new developments opening in the near or semi-near future to serve a demand that has probably already peaked that the market will probably overcompensate a bit – not that I’m complaining. You make an interesting point about the change in the number of residents per dwelling. I guess I was still thinking of this anecdote from a life-long resident who was recounting to me memories of farms still existing within the District (at a time when there was much higher population than now).

    In general, I dont think we can apply a lot of conventional wisdom about urban or metropolitan economics to DC. I see DC as having kind of an artificial economy. There is no industrial, financial, or commercial base here. This city was built on the tax dollars extracted from across the country and largely horded here in Washington. Washington has always been a product of central state economic planning. Really, if the governement didnt happen to be here, or left 50 years ago, would this look like Detroit today? The fascinating thing to consider is that if the federal government refuses to raise height caps and housing costs subsequently rise, then government salaries in the DC area would rise (cost of living adjustment). Subsequently, federal taxes would/should probably have to rise. In this way, the building restrictions may have larger fiscal implications for the federal government. So I suppose as a DC resident and civil servant I like the height restrictions, as someone with libertarian leanings, I don’t so much.

  6. Pingback: The Goodspeed Update » Blog Archive » Does Washington Need a Planning Commission?

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