Does DC Need A “Height Bank”?


The funny part about the Height Act is that no one is in favor of the Height Act.  Even among elected officials and government functionaries, the idea that visibility somehow fuels interest in – or protects the importance of – the downtown monuments is generally met with a shrug and an eye roll.  (If anything, making the monuments less visible would make MORE people visit them;  I know I’ve gotten out of a handful of tedious treks to the Washington Monument by pointing down 16th Street and saying, “You want to see the Washington Monument?  There it is.  Now let’s go to a bar.”)

You can’t see, say, the Statue of Liberty from anywhere in the concrete canyons of New York City, but no one complains about that;  in fact, verticality alone can put a city on the map.  (Think of Dubai and how it suddenly seemed legit when the Burj Khalifa went up.)  But still – all this insistence that there’s value in keeping downtown DC “low” has created a perception that there’s value in keeping downtown “low.”  And if people think there’s value in something, then, well, you can sell it.  And that’s exactly what Washington DC should do.

Height limits aren’t actually that rare;  in Bali, buildings can’t be higher than a palm tree (?), and in Athens, height is restricted to protect views of the Parthenon.  But in Vancouver, where they cap height downtown to protect mountain views, they have something called a “density bank.”  Basically, if a developer renovates and protects a city-designated “heritage site,” they can transfer the “excess density” created by that project into another project – perhaps one downtown, in a height-restricted neighborhood?  It’s a brilliant idea, and has been wildly successful in Vancouver, where it’s renewed many heritage sites and resulted in a more sophisticated skyline.  But could it work in DC?

Well, we don’t have “heritage sites” that need protection, as in Vancouver – but we could definitely come up with all kinds of alternate trade-offs.  Who’d have the nerve to speak out against a “build a new school/build a downtown skyscraper” deal?  Or what about trading downtown height exceptions for stadium funding?  With more and more studies coming out proving that stadiums have little to no economic benefits for the cities in which they’re built, the era of public funding for sports arenas is coming to an end.  But cities are still going to want to make splashes with big stadium projects.  So where is all that stadium money going to come from?  Developers would line up around the block for the chance to put ten or twenty million in a municipal “stadium fund” in exchange for getting permission to build one of the first skyscrapers in downtown DC.

But then, maybe I’m overthinking it.  Maybe the easiest solution is a simple “height bank” – for every story over the existing height limit, the developer would pay, say, a million dollars into a general fund.  The skyline changes a little, the city makes a little money.  But if it changes a lot, we all get new trashcans and electric buses.  And you know there’ll be some Russian oligarch or Saudi prince who pays a hundred million to put up a gargantuan super-spire.  I’ll see you at the rooftop bar, we can have a drink and laugh at the tiny distant bump of the Washington Monument, far, far below.



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