The Case for Reforming DC's Building-Height Laws

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I'm eating off Matt Yglesias' plate here, but Washington, D.C.,'s excuses for not raising the height ceiling for buildings is reaching absurd (wait for it) heights, as demonstrated by this three-year old Washington Post report.


As far as I understand, the argument for keeping the ceiling where it is goes like this. George Washington and D.C.'s architect wanted the district to have only squat buildings, to make it look like Paris. When the Cairo apartment building, erected in the 1890s, breached the vertiginous mark of 160-feet, Congress passed the Height Act to force virtually all future buildings to be less than 130 feet. 

In short: We're building a 21st century city with turn-of-the-20th century rules.

Famous district architect Pierre L'Enfant famously wanted D.C. to resemble 18th century Paris (look at his name, after all). I like the district's Euro look, but don't forget that Paris doesn't even look like 18th century Paris. La Ville-Lumière has more than 100 buildings taller than 200 ft -- the size of the tallest commercial building in DC.

The case against tallness is the case for tradition, "preserving the city's character." But at what price? Taller buildings would increase city density (and, by extension, productivity) decrease commute times, increase retail and commerce, and churn tax revenue at a time of nationally diseased budgets. Are there better arguments against reforming the Height Act that I'm missing?

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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