It all started in 1894, when the famous architect Thomas Franklin Schneider designed and constructed the Cairo. At 164 feet tall, the Cairo was the first residential skyscraper in the District of Columbia (the “District”), causing an uproar among the District’s residents. The concern was the safety of the structure of such buildings and the ability to fight flames in the event of a fire. In response, the District’s Board of Commissioners passed a regulation limiting the height of all future residential buildings. By 1899, Congress passed a law, amended in 1910, commonly known as the Height Act, limiting the height of District buildings to 130 feet.
While the fear that skyscrapers in the District could cause the whole city to burn down may have been rational in the late 19th century and early 20th century, today, many believe the Height Act is holding the development potential of the District back. Mayor Bowser appears to agree that the Height Act is outdated as she has alluded to a possible change in the near future.
In her second term inaugural address on Wednesday, January 2, 2019, Mayor Bowser announced that she wants to build 36,000 new housing units by 2025, and challenged the region to build 240,000 housing units. She also called “on all of us to do more and to challenge the comfort of outdated laws and regulations that no longer suit our need to accommodate our growing city and rising housing costs” and urged residents to “no longer resist a close look at building taller and more densely where it makes sense.” This last point suggests that the height limit in the District may be revisited in the near future.
Further, she explicitly spoke about creating targets for ensuring both workforce and deeply affordable housing for individual neighborhoods. This point addresses the disparity of housing production between different parts of the District. For instance, the Southeast and Northeast Quadrants have disproportionately contributed the most new housing units in the District since the Great Recession. In comparison, the neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park have contributed relatively few.
The Mayor’s goals challenge residents to reimagine their neighborhoods with greater density – whether that’s in the form of more cellar apartments, accessory apartments, or even with buildings of greater bulk and height. Similarly, it challenges District agencies to revisit historic and zoning regulations that, intentionally or not, throttle development and redevelopment, and to work to create tools that more-effectively encourage the production of new housing units at all scales and levels of affordability.
As bold as the Mayor’s target will seem to some, recognizing the importance of housing is crucial. The District is a destination for many, given its robust job market and great neighborhoods and its appeal is expected to continue into the future. Now is the time to come together to have an honest discussion about how the District can grow together equitably…and higher?