The US capital has a short buildings problem

Washington, DC is the capital of the mightiest empire the world has ever known.

It is a curious fact that the seat of the government that invented the Internet, that sequenced the human genome, and that put a man on the moon is oddly averse to one particular aspect of modern technology: the skyscraper.

To be sure, the city is not innocent of the concepts of steel-frame construction or elevators. But it exists almost as if it were. Offices downtown are constructed with modern methods and modern conveniences. But they don’t truly take advantage of them.

Instead of the towers of a contemporary city, the central business district consists of slightly strange, squat structures — all wider than they are tall, and, generally, rectilinear rather than tapered. Twelve- or, more often, ten- or fewer stories high, they could have been built a hundred or more years ago.

The fans of the DC status quo flatter themselves to think that the low-slung profile lends the city a Parisian ambiance. This strikes me as an optimistic assessment of the aesthetics.

The fact, either way, is that DC is no Paris by a number of factors. Most importantly, central Paris is low-slung because it is well preserved.

Downtown Washington, outside the immediate environs of the National Mall, is a thoroughly modern city. The short buildings around L’Enfant Plaza, Farragut Square, or Chinatown aren’t classics of a bygone age.

They’re simply short. Even neighbourhoods that essentially didn’t exist until the twenty-first century — such as “NoMA” and Mt. Vernon Triangle — refuse to take advantage of the modern talent to stack several dozen floors atop each other without facing any crippling structural challenges.

This situation, so anomalous among major American cities, came to pass because of a backlash against the construction of the 164-foot Cairo Hotel (now an apartment building) way back in 1894.

The Cairo certainly was a tall building for its time, and is a pretty large building for a quiet residential street in any city (it is well outside the CBD in Dupont Circle). That people at the time of its construction found it a bit alarming is natural, even forgivable.

Cities all around the world had to respond then to the kind of concerns — crowding, access to daylight — such new buildings raised. The normal approach was to adopt codes limiting tall buildings to particular sections of the city, and generally to require some kind of tapering, or setback, to preserve light on the street below. In addition, high-rise construction required new kinds of rules about fire safety not formerly necessary.

But due to a strange quirk of history, in 1899, Congress chose to give the District not just a zoning code or a fire ordinance but the Height of Buildings Act.

Dc cairo hotelWikimedia CommonsThe Cairo Hotel is the tallest private building in Washington, D.C. Its 165′ height led to the imposition of height restrictions in 1910.

This measure, modified slightly in 1910, caps downtown buildings at a height based on the width of the street they face. In general, this means the tallest buildings in the city are just 130 feet tall (a small section of Pennsylvania Avenue qualifies for heights up to160 feet) with many downtown blocks limited to 110 feet or shorter.

It turns out that forcing a city to limit its buildings to nineteenth-century heights doesn’t turn it into a nineteenth-century city. In particular, Washington’s downtown office buildings generally come with underground parking garages and its inhabitants enjoy large modern dwelling spaces.

Consequently, DC’s 10,000 residents per square mile actually puts its population density closer to Fargo, North Dakota, than to a French capital that is over five times as dense.

Last, but by no means least, France has made a very deliberate effort to cope with the consequences of eschewing density by building an enormous skyscraper cluster just beyond the city limits in La Défense — no further from the Isle de la Cité than the American University campus is from the Capitol.

Thus the true consequence of the stunting is less to make Washington into an American Paris than to force it to serve as an American Versailles, an exclusive community dedicated to ruling a country rather than being an integral piece of the country it rules.

Throughout the long years of urban divestment that followed the introduction of the automobile in the 1950s, the riots of the 1960s, and the crack epidemic and subsequent crime waves of the 1980s, the Height Act seemed perhaps not so significant.

Relatively few people wanted to live in the District or build much of anything there. But the city, like so many other cities in America, turned itself around in the 1990s with a judicious mix of improved public policy, falling crime, and a renewed fashion for urban living.

DCDouglas Graham/ReutersWashington, D.C. is a low-slung city.

Today the city is thriving. Indeed, with the imminent completion of the City Center project, located on the site of the former convention center (a new one has been built in a formerly residential area), the traditional downtown will be entirely built-out.

Future real estate development schemes involve decking over I-395 or the railroad tracks leading into Union Station. But the thriving Washington coexists with a rather unhappy one — a blacker, more working class city disgruntled with festering high unemployment and terrified of gentrification and displacement.

Thriving Washington has also become a source of substantial resentment at a time when the United States has been having a rough economic go of it.

Annie Lowrey’s spring 2013 look at the region’s boom for The New York Times Magazine was headlined “Washington’s Economic Boom, Financed by You.”

Her colleague, the conservative columnist Ross Douthat, was even more pointed, labelling it “a city running on exploitation.” David Leonhardt, the paper’s Washington Bureau Chief at the time, said DC’s prosperity “uncomfortably calls to mind the rapacious Capitol in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series.”

It is true that average incomes in the DC metro area are among the highest in the country. But the cause here is less relentless expropriation than broad economic trends that have benefitted all American metropolitan areas with highly educated workforces.

The regions surrounding Minneapolis, Boston, San Francisco, and Charlotte don’t have an enormous amount in common, but they all share high median incomes and large numbers of college graduates.

Of course it’s true that Washington is a mecca for educated people largely because the federal government is here. But this has very little to do with the expensive and politically controversial aspects of the government — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and the rest of the welfare state.

These programs cost vast sums of money, but the money is paid out to citizens all across the country. Retirement hubs such as Florida and Arizona are, in this sense, much more dependent on the federal government than the DC area is.

No plausible small government agenda exists under which the Census Department will stop hiring statisticians, the Treasury Department will stop hiring economists, the FDA will stop hiring doctors, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will stop hiring scientists, or the Department of Transportation will no longer need engineers. Nor will small government politics turn back the tide of history.

The basic administration of government once required an army of middle class clerks. So many that Washington’s Cardozo High School football field advertises itself as the Home of the Clerks. These days there is less need for filing and fetching and more need for a smaller, but higher-paid, set of information technology professionals, who are often private contractors.

And since the basic work of government takes place in state capitals and county seats all across the country, DC-based firms actually serve a national marketplace as vendors of the tools of governance.

The truly regrettable thing about Washington in 2014 isn’t that it’s become prosperous. It’s that it’s become so exclusive.

In principle, a city full of relatively well-paid college graduates ought to also be a decent place to cook food or cut hair or drive a cab or fix cars or remodel kitchens or sell groceries or perform any of the myriad other service-sector jobs that account for the vast majority of employment in every American city. But if you rig the supply of inhabitable square footage, you naturally create a scarcity.

Scarcity means high prices. And, indeed, Washington has become close to the top of the list for American cities in terms of housing prices, office rents, and hotel rooms. For the relatively small number of Americans with careers and skills specifically tied to the federal government, that’s a price worth paying. But for everyone else, the prosperity of Washington is illusory, with any income gains immediately eaten away by higher prices.

Washington is hardly unique in having become underbuilt and overpriced. But the capital city of a country plays a unique role relative to other cities, and so it is particularly galling for it to be exclusionary. Even worse, the most prominent mechanism of exclusion — the Height Act — is a measure taken by Congress rather than the municipality.

If the national government is going to meddle in a city’s affairs it should be to force a broader view of the national interest, not to play NIMBY from afar.

A Congress willing to repeal the act and open the city to tall, modern structures would do the country an enormous favour. The capital wouldn’t cease to be prosperous. But unlike The Capitol of Collins’ and Douthat’s Hunger Games nightmares, it would be a beating heart of prosperity for the entire country rather than a refuge of a narrow elite.

Think of a London or Tokyo or Berlin — a thriving capital city that is a center of business and culture and not just government.

Americans are somewhat accustomed to the idea of dreary capital cities. We deliberately chose to establish our seat of government in a vacant swampland rather than in New York or Philadelphia, or even nearby Baltimore.

Aerial view of dcJim Bourg/ReutersAn aerial view of DC.

And our state capitals are often in out-of-the-way spots — Albany or Sacramento — rather than thriving metropolises. But even at home we have the example of state capitals like Boston and Austin, multi-functional cities where politics is important to the local economy without dominating it.

Consider even simple tourism. Right now the market for downtown hotel rooms in Washington is expensive and overwhelmingly dominated by business travellers. Opening downtown to skyscrapers would lead to a surge of hotel rooms, and more affordable prices for families looking to visit the Smithsonian and the National Zoo.

This would be a nice favour to an American population whose tax dollars support the attractions. It would also mean many more jobs in the hospitality industry, jobs available to working class people and those with skills outside the political sphere.

But the construction of skyscrapers downtown would have broader and more significant implications. In particular, as existing office buildings are replaced with much taller towers the fate of the remaining building stock will become interesting. The federal city really only needs so much office space, and, with proper buildings, that space could be provided with a quarter or less of the current footprint.

That would open up space for two key things the capital currently lacks. One is ample housing — apartments affordable to the middle class — and the other is office space that’s not reserved for companies willing to pay a premium for access to the levers of political power.

PurseErnesto Ruscio/Getty ImagesRight now, DC is a city for the elite.

The housing would, in effect, un-gate the city, opening its doors to all Americans.
The Hunger Games is not a tract on economic geography. But it’s clear that the only way to maintain the systematic inequality between the residents of the rich capital and the poor coal mining culture of District 12 is to prevent people from moving. And, of course, this is precisely what authoritarian governments around the world do.

Controls on internal population movements were integral to the Soviet social and economic system, and despite reforms a similar system known as hukou still rules the day in China. In pre-modern Europe, peasants were often tied to specific tracts of land and tsarist Russia restricted Jews to living within a delineated Pale of Settlement.

The United States, conversely, has always been a land of opportunity in part because people have been able to move to opportunity.

That’s the story of immigration to the New World, of course. But it’s also the story of the Great Migration of African-Americans away from the sharecropping economy of the Jim Crow South and toward the wider vistas of northern cities. It’s the California Gold Rush of 1848 and the settling of the western frontier as people struck out from the homes in search of affordable farmland.

White house selfieGary Cameron/ReutersDC’s building rules are contributing to its exclusionary feel.

People living in communities that have been negatively impacted by economic trends would, of course, prefer for those problems to simply go away. But picking up and moving has always been a good second option. And yet, the rate of internal geographic migration in the United States has fallen about in half since the beginning of the 1990s.

The reasons for this are partly demographic — the country is older now — but the waning availability of affordable housing in high-income areas is another large factor.

Bringing highrise apartments to the center of the capital city would only make a partial dent in a national problem. But it would be a powerful statement of principle, as well as a constructive step in its own right.

Last, but by no means least, allowing office towers downtown would bring DC more office space. One of the main reasons why the city attracts a demographic some imagine to be “parasitic” is that unlike many national capitals, America’s capital houses very few nationally recognised firms that aren’t related to the business of governing.

This, however, isn’t for a lack of talents or ideas.

Instead, it’s a consequence of the high cost of doing business.

If your company lobbies Congress or litigates before regulatory agencies, then high rents are a small price to pay for direct access to the federal institutions. But companies with other kinds of ideas tend to end up fleeing.

The handful of exceptions, such as the daily deals website Living Social, tend to persist only thanks to generous tax subsidies offered by the city government — subsidies that can only scale so far.

A Washington dotted with skyscrapers would have much less scarcity of square footage, and much more opportunity for firms to grow and thrive no matter what line of work they’re in.

Put it all together, and a taller Washington, DC would be a much healthier city.

Today, it’s a mid-sized, high-income, exclusionary metropolis with an economic monoculture. But it could become a diverse giant that serves as an engine of economic opportunity for people all throughout the country.

But to get there, it needs to dream big — just as its founders did — and get ready to build bigger.

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