Is the District running out of land to put new development? The Brooking Institute’s Christopher B. Leinberger made that argument during a recent presentation at the National Building Museum. As part of his presentation, he proposed modifying the long-standing height restriction on D.C. buildings as one way to accommodate more growth in the city.
The proposal to tamper with the height restriction spiraled into a larger debate including a follow up story in the Post, post on DCist, and much discussion elsewhere. In my view, Beyond DC had the most nuanced view, pointing out the change would likely not impact most areas, only where district officials chose to modify the zoning to allow it. After pointing out changing the height downtown might have a detrimental impact, he speculates, “if skyscrapers work in Arlington, why shouldn’t they in Anacostia? Could Tenleytown and Brookland one day become uptown districts rivaling or surpassing near-District nodes like Bethesda? Would that really be so bad?”
Indeed, while so many were preoccupied by the potential impact of taller buildings, few seemed to note the root cause identified by Leinberger: a lack of space for growth. This space problem has been on the minds of District leaders for quite some time. I think the four major districts in the city currently experiencing intense redevelopment (Mount Vernon Square, Swampoodle/NoMa, Baseball Stadium/Navy Yard, Southwest waterfront) can be interpreted as a coordinated effort by both real estate interests and the city to use zoning changes, tax subsidies, and outright investment (baseball stadium: $611 million) to maximize the density of development in some of the few remaining underutilized contiguous districts with appropriate infrastructure for intense development. However, with plans in these four areas largely complete and individual projects under construction, it’s not difficult to imagine the city with them complete. It’s anyone’s guess what would happen then. While it may spur increased investment at a small scale in poor neighborhoods, it seems most developers would be more likely to simply move beyond the District to the far-out suburbs where land is plentiful and politicians cooperative. Perhaps it is Washington’s unique destiny to become a museum city, with architectural innovation frozen by every-expanding historic districts and large-scale growth impossible thanks to a lack of land and zoning restrictions.