Wednesday, May 02, 2007

One way to improve DC

Visitors to the District of Columbia seem to like the idea of the District's height code, which limits buildings to a height of 130 feet. Indeed, the possibility of seeing the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument from anywhere in Washington is nice. But, having lived here for almost a year, I dread the sight of the Washington skyline. On purely aesthetic grounds, cities like Baltimore and Philly beat the crap out of DC because of their interesting skylines: driving through these cities after spending time in Washington is always a breath of fresh air. Being able to see the Monument becomes having the monument see you: it's like the Eye of Sauron, asserting government's right to dominate and look into all activity. Combining this with the Stalinist boxiness of the architecture that the policy creates, we could come to an argument for free building that would please the likes of Howard Roark and other Ayn Rand creations.
But let's not; there are other, more practical reasons for ending the height limit, as this article from the Washington Post indicates. The limit on height prevents the creation of new real estate by going up, meaning that real estate prices are increased, pushing out low income residents and increasing the cost of government business. Furthermore, increased density is good for the environment. That's one reason that Manhattan is the most energy-efficient place in the United States. The current policy makes DC into the car-dominated city that it is. It's good to see people working against it.

Added picture, edited some text, changed title.


Blogger curry king said...

I don't see why DC should make an effort to look like every other city in America, which characteristically retain a pattern of (from out to in) exurb to suburb to mid-urban to skyscrapers/downtown. While the sight of skyscrapers in .5 mile radius may prove to be exciting for the occasional tourist, the monotony of the rest of the city (gas stations, big box stores, etc.) would be quite terrible for those who live there.

DC is unique in the sense that it has patterned itself after some of the old European cities, like Florence for example, where the tip of the Duomo is by far the highest point in the city (I think). Likewise, the Capitol is the tallest building in the city here.

Additionally, making a 12-13 story ceiling on building construction allows more sunlight and wind -- natural weather phenomena -- to enter our daily lives. In places like Baltimore and Philly, if one lives downtown, they are surrounding by gloomy 50 story buildings. I think it's nice to be able to more easily see the clouds and sun once in a while.

Hippie Killer, thoughts? Since you live in the most skyscraper-ridden city in the country.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I think your anthropomorphizing of DC leads you to a gross error: DC doesn't have to "make an effort" to look like other cities, and DC certainly hasn't chosen to model itself after any other city. Rather, certain people have purposely restricted DC's growth at great expense to its citizens. Skyscrapers are a constant in American cities because they make economic sense to those who need real estate. They allow people to live closer together and consume fewer resources in coming together to accomplish common goals. DC is unique in plenty of areas already, such as its enormous crime rate and utterly failing schools; I don't think it needs more reasons to stand out.
Moreover, the point of my post is that aesthetic concerns can be set aside: we can look at the concrete benefits that this policy would provide for the environment, the poor, and the economic viability of one of the country's major cities. You need to stop thinking of DC as a tourist attraction and consider the plight of people who live here permanently. Sunlight is great and all, but I doubt that lifetime DC citizens would enjoy having to pay ever more ridiculous housing prices so you could enjoy golden rays raining down on your face.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Hmm, question for Austin: I tend to agree with you that the anti-skyscraper law is silly, as we talked about on my stupendous visit. However, consider this: As you pointed out, years of slow economic growth in DC have, I *think*, kept conditions pretty shabby and dangerous, thus leading to an exodus of the wealthy people that keep the city running. If skyscrapers were allowed, might this not in fact promote wealth-attracting businesses and apartment buildings that steadily "gentrify" the city? And if this opportunity presented itself, might not the elite move back to the city and force out the poorer population? The only thing that doesn't make sense here is that the anti-skyscraper law has *increased* real estate prices, so one would assume that lower class residents would have left already (or homelessness might have increased). I dunno, DC is characterized as being so dangerous outside of capitol hill and georgetown that I assumed that the housing scheme was somehow *helping* lower income people.

I say this with full knowledge that gentrification threads on this blog have generally fizzled, but I'm just curious.

11:34 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Good points, Scantron. I think lower-income people would get significant benefits from greater density. Here's why:
1. Poor people don’t always stay poor. When an area benefits from increased economic activity, I think it’s reasonable to expect that even poor residents will receive gains. If this weren’t the case I don’t think it would be worthwhile from a social-welfare perspective to attempt to rejuvenate cities. Moreover, I think not believing that poor people in DC would benefit from increased growth could push you into some sketchy territory in terms of assumptions about race, poverty, etc.
2. Just as it’s easier for businesses to accomplish most tasks in denser areas, I think it’s easier for poor people and those that want to help them to accomplish these tasks. There’s something to be said for working towards a city that does not require a significant capital investment (i.e., a car) for basic transportation. Buses and subways are more useful in urban areas and their increased use by all classes makes them safer. More people walking around (which happens in denser areas) reduces street crime and so on.
3. It’s a pretty safe assumption that having significant, isolated concentrations of lower-income people in certain areas is not as good as having poorer people living interpolated with more affluent people. This prevents pockets of crime and blight from building up and allows poor people and their richer counterparts to interact and get to know each other. So, even if the effect of density were just to create a vibrant city center surrounded by less-vibrant and slummy rings of despair, it would be better than the current situation in which the majority of the city is blighted while one sliver on the Northwest side succeeds. It would mean that poor people have better access to jobs and rich and poor would be more interdependent in terms of demanding services such as police protection and good schools.

9:03 AM  

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