As D.C.’s downtown struggles, Bowser looks skyward for answers

Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys
Amending the Height Act would allow taller buildings in Washington, which could spur developers to turn offices into apartments and attract more residents to the downtown area, pictured in 2012.

WASHINGTON – As a first-time mayoral candidate in 2014, Muriel Bowser minced no words when she opposed efforts to weaken a century-old federal law restricting how high buildings can rise in Washington.

“I do not support any changes to the Height Act,” Bowser (D) said then.

Her opposition nine years later? Not so much.

Faced with a pandemic-battered downtown, Bowser has been nudging the public to consider ways to transform the city’s core, the landscape of which has long been defined by corridors of almost uniformly boxy office buildings.

“You’ve probably heard I have one idea,” the mayor said at a recent civic meeting. She smiled for a moment before suggesting that taller buildings could help remake downtown as a place not only to work, but to live.

“If we don’t put everything on the table, if we don’t think differently, if we’re not bold, if we aren’t willing to make the investments, we can’t expect to win our workers back or win our fight to create more balance in downtown,” she told the audience.

The idea is not new. Over the past two decades, D.C. officials at various points have talked of trying to persuade Congress to modify the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, a notion that provokes fierce opposition from those who favor the cap that largely limits buildings from rising more than 130 feet on the city’s widest boulevards.

Now the prospect of amending the Height Act has taken on new urgency as city officials seek to build consensus around a vision for reinventing a downtown beset by empty storefronts and office buildings that on their busiest days are inhabited by just over half the workforce.

In recent weeks, Bowser has cast downtown’s revival as a key component of her third-term agenda, urging President Biden to order back to their offices a federal workforce that accounts for nearly a third of downtown’s daytime population.

The mayor also has said she hopes to attract 15,000 new residents to downtown over the next five years, a goal that requires the creation of thousands of new units of housing. Because of the high cost of construction, the mayor and others contend that allowing taller buildings – two or three additional stories, perhaps – would provide the financial incentive needed to help spur developers to turn offices into apartments, and include subsidized units for those who can’t pay market-rate prices.

“You need to change the paradigm,” said Anthony Williams, a former Democratic D.C. mayor and now the executive director of the Federal City Council, a nonprofit business and civic group. Williams said even a “modest” relaxation of the height restriction would help “bring down the cost of housing.”

“I’m not talking about putting up the Empire State Building,” he said.

Yet opponents contend that amending the Height Act is not necessary to revive downtown and that maintaining the current limit is essential for protecting the city’s unique aesthetic and clear views of its monuments.

“It’s a good sound bite, but there’s no logic to it,” D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) said. “If you want to get people downtown, step back and think, ‘How do you do it?’ You deal with the perception of the city as not being safe. You create more activities and nightlife. What’s going to get retired couples to come into the city from Virginia? And what’s going to get them to want to stay and get an apartment?”

“The bottom line is that Washington, D.C., is among the few distinct world capital cities with a distinctive urban design that includes height limitations,” Mendelson said. “I’m thinking of Paris, for example. It’s a distinguishing characteristic, and it makes for a beautiful city.”

Aesthetics are not the sole concern of those who dismiss talk of amending the Height Act as a frivolous issue in a city that already has an ample supply of vacant apartments and offices. “More vertical doesn’t get you better economics, and we already have enough horizontal that’s vacant,” said Paul Dougherty, president of PRP, a real estate investment firm that has developed properties nationwide, including downtown D.C.

He said city officials need to focus more on restoring the city’s image, which has been damaged by high-profile crimes, homeless encampments and violent Trump-era protests that drew national attention. “You can build as many apartments as you want downtown, but the fact is people aren’t going to return to D.C. unless things change,” Dougherty said.

Any change to the Height Act would require congressional approval, which seems unlikely now with a Republican-led House. Even when Democrats controlled Congress and President Barack Obama was in office, proponents of relaxing the Height Act only managed to tweak the law to allow for penthouses.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, which presides over D.C.-related legislation, said in a statement that he favors preserving the city’s design as it was conceived by Pierre L’Enfant for George Washington in 1791.

“Any attempt to amend this legislation is a direct attack on the vision our Founding Fathers had for the District,” Comer said. “Millions travel to the U.S. capital every year, and Congress has a responsibility to preserve it for generations to come. And with several buildings largely sitting empty while bureaucrats continue to work from home, there are other solutions that can be examined to revitalize D.C. than building up.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who is an oversight committee member, said she would not propose changing the law without Bowser and Mendelson concurring on what should be done. Asked if she has a preference, Norton said, “This is a D.C. issue, not a congressional issue, and I leave it to D.C.”

A long-standing facet of D.C. lore is that Congress enacted the Height Act to ensure the skyline supremacy of the Washington Monument (555 feet) and the U.S. Capitol (288 feet). What actually drove lawmakers to draft the law were protests that followed the construction of what in 1894 was an architectural anomaly – the 164-foot-tall Cairo apartment building that still stands on Q Street NW near 16th Street.

According to the law, no building can be taller than the width of the street along which it faces up to a maximum of 130 feet. A cap of 160 feet was set for the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue NW between the White House and the Capitol.

In 2013, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), then the Oversight Committee’s chairman, ordered a review of the law. At the time, the administration of then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) pushed for raising the limits to accommodate the city’s future growth.

When the council held a hearing on the proposal, a preponderance of residents testified against any change. Bowser, then preparing to run for mayor, was among 12 council members who co-sponsored a resolution that opposed amending the law. (Marion Barry, a Democrat then representing Ward 8, was the only lawmaker to not sign on.)

“Our skyline is in itself historic and is a treasure for the whole nation, and I think it’s important that we protect that,” Bowser said on Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU radio show in 2014, the year she defeated Gray in the Democratic primary for mayor.

Bowser said this week that her view of the Height Act has changed as the city’s circumstances have evolved. “I think our situation and need for housing has grown more intense,” she said. But the mayor also made a point of stressing that she was opposed to “any kind of mass change” to the Height Act that would affect the city’s “monumental core, that would dwarf, you know, the impact of our monuments.”

During a recent appearance before the Committee of 100, a nonpartisan civic group, Bowser said she does not favor “blowing up restrictions on height.”

“But I do think there could be opportunities to tinker with it to allow for the types of conversions and density we will need moving forward,” she said, adding, “We know that we have to change buildings, that we have to be willing to think about what changes are necessary to make that transition possible.”

Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the city’s history, said even slight revisions to the law could alter views of downtown, portions of which already exist on elevated land overlooking the National Mall. “Any ‘tinkering’ to the Height Act can be expected to have a significant impact on the character of the city as a whole,” she said.

Christopher Leinberger, an urban land-use expert and a longtime proponent of lifting the city’s height restrictions, said such worries are overstated. From the sidewalk, he said, the addition of 30 or 40 feet along broad avenues would have a minimal visual impact.

He also said allowing for more height would help owners of underused office buildings avoid bankruptcy, a potential pitfall that would leave it to lenders “to figure out what to do with dead buildings.”

That process could take years, Leinberger said. Adding height, he said, “will speed up the process” of reviving downtown.

Richard Lake, a longtime D.C. developer, praised the mayor for “looking for creative solutions.” But he said revising the height limit “is not the silver bullet that will make downtown work.”

The city’s problem, he said, is that “typically we have demand on our side, and we don’t have it right now.”

“The question is, can we put Washington back as one of the top five markets to invest?” Lake said. “We’re not there. How do we get this city back in the conversation?”