One of the first things a visitor to Washington, D.C., is likely to notice is that there are no skyscrapers in the city, and that is by design.
It is certainly not for a lack of demand for housing and commercial space, as a glance just across the Potomac River to Arlington, Virginia — where the skyline is filled with high-rises — makes clear.
The skyline of Rosslyn, in Arlington, Virginia pic.twitter.com/ON1kn11AO3
— Jon Bilous (@jonbilous) February 19, 2019
A popular false notion out there regarding the lack of skyscrapers in the District is that Congress passed a law saying no building could be taller than the U.S. Capitol Building.
While the effect may have been that, the Height of Buildings Act, passed in 1899 and amended in 1910, set specific restrictions for commercial buildings not to exceed 130 feet and for buildings in residential areas not to exceed 90 feet.
The original layout for the District of Columbia was made by French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant in the 1790s.
“L’Enfant designed the city from scratch, envisioning a grand capital of wide avenues, public squares and inspiring buildings in what was then a district of hills, forests, marshes and plantations,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
“The entire city was built around the idea that every citizen was equally important,” L’Enfant biographer Scott Berg told the magazine. “The Mall was designed as open to all comers, which would have been unheard of in France. It’s a very sort of egalitarian idea.”
L’Enfant placed the Capitol on commanding high ground, rather than the chief executive’s mansion, reinforcing the idea that the people are the most important.
Then-President George Washington supported the architect’s broad vision for the fledgling nation’s future capital city.
One prominent exception to the Height of Buildings Act requirements is the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., which is in the Old Post Office Building.
Construction on the 315-foot-tall structure began in 1892 and was completed in 1899, before the law went into effect.
The mayor called for 36,000 new housing units by 2025, according to WAMU.
Bowser advocated for “more density and taller buildings where they make sense,” but did not explicitly say if she would support changing existing zoning laws.
While the mayor can propose zoning changes, the Height of Buildings Act itself would have to be changed by Congress.
So for the foreseeable future, don’t expect to spot any skyscrapers within the nation’s capital.
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