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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Skyscrapers in D.C.

When I was a kid, in Anchorage, I was giddy with excitement and flush with pride when we got (what seemed like) two bona fide skyscrapers -- big glass boxes, each more than 20 (!!) stories high. 

When arcane baseball stats just weren't enough, I would memorize lists of "the ___ tallest buildings in _____," and I once did a school presentation of some kind on Philadelphia's (then) practice of not allowing buildings taller than the William Penn statue.  Goofy, I know . . .

Anyway, all this might explain why this piece, in Slate, caught my eye.  If the (non-church) skyscraper is a kind of American invention -- a hallmark of great cities like Chicago and New York -- then Washington, D.C., is kind of an American anomaly, no?  I guess that, despite my youthful skyscraper geekery, I have always liked the way D.C. looks (and not because I have any ideologically motivated desire to somehow elevate government buildings over commercial ones).  But, the piece makes me wonder if I'm wrong.  If D.C.'s somewhat "parisian" look increases businesses' rents and tourists' hotel expenses, is it worth it?  How would we know?   

Posted by Rick Garnett on April 24, 2012 at 04:08 PM in Rick Garnett | Permalink


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You left out many of the other harms caused by the Height of Buildings Act, particularly increased housing costs, limits on a growing population, and reduced agglomeration gains from things like information spillovers between people who would otherwise locate near one another or market size effects. But the basic problem posed by the height of buildings act isn't much different from one we see elsewhere -- namely are the aesthetic values, "community character" and reduced nuisances created by zoning rules worth the harm to agglomeration economies and artificially-increased housing and office costs created by supply restrictions. The only difference is that in DC the character is created by national monuments and the restrictions are unbelievably (and to my, bizarrely) strict DC's office market, for instance, is as expensive as downtown manhattan, despite not being as rich or dense a place, and housing prices are similarly astronomical. (Also, to be technical, DC's scale is nothing like Paris, which is 5x as dense, although similarly without sky scrapers until you get to La Defense)

It's also a subject that has been studied quite a bit. For two recent articles that discuss DC's restrictions on building in a broader context -- see http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2037986 and http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1990353.

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Apr 24, 2012 4:40:24 PM

Thanks! I'll look at those articles.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 24, 2012 4:44:00 PM

No, no. Philadelphia's practice is *still* a great subject for a school report. They "topped" William Penn in 1987, then Philadelphia teams stopped winning (the last championship in the city was Villanova men's basketball in 1985). In 2007, construction was completed on the Comcast Center, the new tallest building in the city. Construction workers placed a miniature of the William Penn statue near the top of the building, making Penn once again the highest point in the city. The Phillies won the World Series the next year.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 24, 2012 8:11:27 PM

Great story, Howard! Go Phillies!

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 24, 2012 9:14:25 PM

I'm a DC native, and I've long been a fan of the cities particular no-skyscraper aesthetic. But I've never had a good response to arguments like Yglesias' is. It's a high price to pay for simply what I find pretty and comfortable, and I'm not sure it's worth it.

Posted by: DS | Apr 25, 2012 12:53:06 AM

Developers' campaigns to build skyscrapers are everywhere, not just in D.C., but even in Rome and Paris. The same tired arguments for vandalizing these beautiful cities keep being advanced despite the success of the alternative, such designated suburban skyscraper areas as La Defense near Paris and suburban Washington, D.C., and despite persuasive counter-arguments. For more information about the the ongoing plans of the governments of France and of Paris to blight Paris, see my article "Who Will Save the Skyline of Paris?" http://www.planetizen.com/node/47061. For refutations of the main arguments in favor of towers, see Stephane Kirkland's post "Skyscrapers Are Not What's Going to Save the City." http://stephanekirkland.com/skyscrapers-are-not-whats-going-to-save-the-city/

If you love these beautiful cities, do not despair! The well-established architectural preservationist organization to which I belong, SOS Paris, is asking UNESCO to revoke the listing of Paris as a World Heritage site if the plans for towers go forward. See David Brussat's blog post "More on Efforts to Save Paris from its 'Leaders.'" http://tinyurl.com BrussatUNESCO. Brussat reports on a lawsuit brought by lawyers in Paris to prevent moving the courts from the Ile de la Cite to a costly new skyscraper. The threat of UNESCO de-listing caused St. Petersburg to move the planned 100-story Gazprom tower out of the low-lying historic center city, where it would have overshadowed the cathedral and destroyed the beauty of the place. Liverpool is now under threat of UNESCO de-listing, too. The towers are never necessary, and in a few years new towers will be out-of-date. The beauty of our traditional cities, however, is a non-renewable resource. Once destroyed, it can never be restored.

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D. | Apr 25, 2012 8:32:50 AM

That last post is silly (but typical). While I agree with Kirkland that barring skyscrapers is only one part of the anti-density limits imposed by governments, it's hard to see why we should as a matter of course bar taller buildings (the argument he makes is nonsensical -- skyscrapers, he says, too often "defy economics," whatever that means.) And though Paris is 5x as dense as DC, it's still one of the most expensive places to live and work in the world. Neither La Defense nor Roslyn and Tyson's Corner (nor any other designated skyscraper area) have relieved much of the stress on office prices in Paris or Washington. The Height of Buildings Act in DC is not the only cause of high housing prices, but is a big piece of in the set of restrictions in DC on density (ordinary zoning, historic preservation etc.). And the justification for limiting building to 8 or so stories, particularly off the Mall, is very weak (what externalities are you avoiding by reducing heights from 12 stories to 8 on K street?)

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Apr 25, 2012 10:39:06 AM

DC is less expensive than cities permitting taller buildings, such as NYC and London (which have greater international demand, as well). There does not seem to be much demand for residence or commercial space in DC, either, with plenty of vacancies. And, much of the District can be rehabilitated to provide extra space. I fail to see why the District needs skyscrapers, which would definitely change the feel of the District.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Apr 25, 2012 2:37:21 PM

In defense of height limits, I will note that they are favored by a lot by the New Urbanist crowd. In Alexander's "A Pattern Language" he suggests that the majority of buildings in any given area should not be more than a few stories.

Posted by: JK O'Connor | Apr 25, 2012 3:51:36 PM

My apologies for being utterly humorless and bit obsessive about this, but this one is quite literally close to home....

DC is only barely less expensive than NYC, which is amazing given how much smaller it is (it is the 2nd most expensive office market and one of the most expensive housing markets.) And the vacancy rate in prime downtown real estate is almost nonexistent (DC has the nation's lowest vacancy rate -- http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704847104575532431543205138.html).

The argument that the height limit pushes density around is fundamentally problematic -- it assumes that people don't care where in a city they live or work. And they clearly do -- an office in, say, Cleveland Park is not fungible with one on K Street (something you can see in the differences in the price of office space in the two locations). Further, the existence of places like Roslyn and Tyson's Corner suggests that rules frequently shift development out of the city entirely. Dan Rodriguez and I talk about these questions here- http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2037986.

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Apr 25, 2012 4:08:48 PM

Developers and their supporters argue that the price of real estate is like the price of bread. But while more bread may mean cheaper bread, more office space or apartments in New York City does not mean lower rents, nor should more space have that result in Washington, D.C., either. On the contrary, in desirable locations, space is like highways. Build more highways, and all you get is more people driving on the highways. Build more apartments in desirable locations like Manhattan, and the rents will not go down. Foreigners will buy apartments as investments, and rich suburbanites will buy apartments for their college-student kids to live in. Meanwhile, large developers' investment in office buildings in desirable locations goes onto their balance sheets, and they can afford to keep those buildings empty for decades. Build more, whether in Manhattan or Washington, D.C., and you will get more and more buildings, but the rents will not go down.

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D. | Apr 27, 2012 8:13:12 PM

Oh, wow, that's even more ridiculous. 1. Houses are much more like bread than they are like roads. The reason roads fill up is that they are non-rival until they are used heavily -- my using a road doesn't affect your using a road until there is traffic -- and once there is traffic, any persons effect on traffic is an externality. Housing is a pretty ordinary good -- rival and excludable. 2. This argument is directly contradicted by enormous amounts of empirical evidence. Areas with extensive building restrictions -- see Joe Gyourko's work -- have higher housing costs. Cities that allow building like Houston, Atlanta etc. have much, much cheaper housing. Period. 3. If you build more apartments in NYC or DC, people will live in them and they will be happy (or else they wouldn't do it).

I wouldn't react -- at all -- if these arguments weren't so depressingly common. The laws of supply and demand work equally well in housing markets as they do elsewhere....

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Apr 30, 2012 11:55:39 PM

The better and stronger arguments. on both sides, are made in the comments following Yglesias's article than in the article itself.

Posted by: Tono | May 2, 2012 5:08:49 PM

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