DC height critics say Paris is pretty… but building Paris was not a pretty process

Charles Marville, Avenue de l'Opéra, 1877, albumen print, courtesy of Editions du Mécène
Demolition near l’Opéra in Paris, 1877, photo by Charles Marville

Those of us who imagine a Greater Greater Washington understand that the region’s population growth is a force that we can harness for great good. More people will mean more of the people and places that together make a great city: more shops and services, more exciting and innovative companies, more tax revenue, more frequent transit service, and yes, more buildings.

Yet many in Washington not only deny that growth has benefits, they deny that it is occurring, and deny that it will have tremendous consequences for our built environment.

One oft-repeated line heard from the (small-c) conservative crowd is that height limits have worked to keep Paris beautiful. That comment ignores a lot of painful history: the mid-rise Paris that we know today was built not by a democracy, but by a mad emperor and his bulldozer-wielding prefect. As Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning said in a recent WAMU interview, “Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them essentially block after block of small apartment buildings… if we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate easily 100 years’ worth of residential growth. But they would be very different neighborhoods.”

A haunting exhibition of photographs by Charles Marville, currently on view at the National Gallery of Art, offers us a glimpse at how this change manifested itself in Paris. Marville was hired by the city government to document the systematic demolition of central Paris’ low-rise neighborhoods, the construction of new mid-rise neighborhoods (the ones we know today) in their stead, and the widespread displacement of the center’s low-income residents to the urban fringe — perhaps culminating in the bloody Commune revolution of 1870. (Numerous books have been written about the era, notably “Transforming Paris,” by David Jordan.) There were technological limits on buildings in that era, too: elevators were slow and expensive, and the new water mains could not supply satisfactory water pressure to the upper floors of many buildings.

Not dissimilarly, downtown DC’s horizontal march has steamrolled numerous low-rise neighborhoods in its wake, from Chinatown to Foggy Bottom. Now that only a few blocks are left for downtown to grow into, office buildings are muscling towards Shaw. This is only natural for a mid-rise city: Paris’ mid-rise urban fabric superimposed on DC would spill outside the diamond, vastly larger than the existing downtown.

That path of destruction is why most other growing cities in this century (i.e., built-out but growing central cities, from London and Singapore to New York, Portland, Toronto, and San Francisco) have gone the Vancouver route and rezoned central industrial land for high-rises. This method allows them to simultaneously accommodate new housing, and new jobs, while keeping voters’ single family houses intact. By opposing higher buildings downtown, DC’s neighborhoods are opposing change now, but at the cost of demanding far more wrenching changes ahead: substantial redevelopment of low-rise neighborhoods, skyrocketing property prices (as in Paris), or increasing irrelevance within the regional economy as jobs, housing, and economic activity get pushed further into suburbs that welcome growth.

Among large North American cities, only Toronto has joined DC in making a concerted effort to redirect growth into mid-rise buildings along streetcar lines — and only as an adjunct strategy in addition to hundreds of high-rises under construction. (The two metro regions are of surprisingly similar population today.) Yet there, just like around here, neighborhoods are up in arms at the very notion.

DC cannot put a lid on development everywhere — downtown, in the rowhouse neighborhoods, in the single-family neighborhoods, on the few infill sites we have left — and yet somehow also accommodate enough new jobs and residents to make our city reliably solvent, much less sustainable. The sum of remaining developable land in the city amounts to 4.9% of the city, which as OP demonstrates through its analysis, cannot accommodate projected growth under existing mandates.

Something will have to give. A good place to start is a loophole-ridden law imposed back when DC was a protectorate and when Greater Washington counted fewer residents than today’s greater Asheville or Davenport.

The Office of Planning has suggested a reasonable framework for a subtly revised Height Act that can accommodate growth and change while preserving the city’s cherished urban design and historic neighborhoods. Adapting the rigid 130′ cap to a street-width rule maintains the Height Act framework along our ceremonial avenues — where our city’s namesake actually set a height minimum. Along streets like L’Enfant Promenade, Washington had the right idea: taller buildings will better frame vistas. Beyond the L’Enfant City, the Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance will continue to ensure that most buildings never reach the 90′ Height Act maximum, but the city will have the flexibility to adapt to evolving construction techniques and special opportunity sites.

As DC re-adjusts to a new century of urban growth, after a lost generation of population decline and disinvestment, inaction poses a far greater risk than action. Paris’ combination of horizontality and verticality is undeniably beautiful, but its unique form resulted from a peculiar historical process that I would not wish upon an American city today.

(The District of Columbia Council is accepting written testimony about the Height Act through next Tuesday.)

a version of this post is cross-posted at GGW


15 thoughts on “DC height critics say Paris is pretty… but building Paris was not a pretty process

  1. Rather than increase the height limit downtown, why not follow through with the idea to make better use of industrial land?

    There is tons of low-intensity and almost unused property along the rail corridors. Some of this, namely that next to NY Ave, is also on high-volume traffic sewers that have long been neglected. Focusing along these paths, both commercial and residential, seems like the perfect win-win: it puts people near the high-volume transportation, and it leaves the existing housing stock alone.

  2. That land makes up most of the 4.9% mentioned in the post. DC’s small existing stock of industrial land does serve useful purposes: small-scale food producers, courier sorting facilities, delivery-truck or Capital Bikeshare repair shops, wholesale suppliers to small retailers, architectural model makers, etc. We don’t think about these sorts of businesses, but pushing all of them entirely out of the city would appreciably raise the cost of doing business here.

    Inexpensive industrial land also serves as a useful incubator for emerging businesses. Thanks to the maker movement, the line between “commercial” and “industrial” is quickly blurring; some of the most successful American neighborhoods at creating high-wage jobs in recent years are quasi-industrial areas like SoMa, the Boston Innovation District, and the Brooklyn Waterfront.

  3. So, you favor preserving low-value industrial land, and re-develop the already high value downtown properties. Does not seem like the most efficient use of money.

    Take a look at a map. The rail yards next to NY ave, and the industrial areas around Brentwood and Union Market are wide open. Not to mention the ample parking around there. These are overlooked, close-in areas near good roads and transit corridors, that are obviously under-used — just like the industrial areas that have been profitably redeveloped in other cities, just as you have pointed out.

    Incubators and new sites for emerging business are better put where jobs are needed — like EotR.

  4. Except that all of those areas are already accounted for by that 4.9% — see the map in OP’s report. The area around Union Market is already in the process of being redeveloped, decking over the rail yards would not be cheap, and redeveloping the USPS facility and Home Depot would be great — but on their own can’t house 250,000 new Washingtonians. The city just does not have a large stock of industrial land in the first place; it’s chewed through plenty of them already (Foggy Bottom, Navy Yard, NoMa).

    Union Market is an interesting case study: it’s also an incubator for emerging businesses, and as such it needs to be close to its customers. It also helps that a lot of its employees are close by.

    One interesting trend is that dead-weight floor loads are decreasing for office uses — heavy paper files are disappearing — and so additional floors can sometimes be added without demolishing existing buildings. Switching from office to residential lowers floor loads substantially.

  5. The area around Union market has already been in the “process” of redevelopment for 10 years. I have been watching it, and its progress has not been impressive. Sang Oh’s sign, which is an advertisement for only a small corner of the area, was so old that the paper peeled — then last year he replaced the sign. But regardless, the Union Market area is very low density (one story) and there are no plans for any major changes or buildings. Wake me up when any of it comes to something close to the FAR of 10 seen everywhere 4 blocks away, in NoMa. I’ll bet that this won’t occur in my lifetime.

    Just a little way up NY Ave there are vast parking lots where they store school buses and the like. Elsewhere, take a drive up RI or Georgia Ave: both old, low intensity commercial strips, with a combined total of around 10 miles — 10 miles! — of one story buildings and parking lots, connecting to major urban and suburban centers. And all this does not even mention Reservation 13, the Pepco plant, Ft Totten, or East Cap EofR, all of which are completely wide open.

    You can’t convince me or most voters that more height and density is needed when there are such large holes so close to downtown. This is at a basic level of common sense that cannot be argued away with arithmetic. Maybe all of the land I have pointed out *is* included in the “only” 4.9% of the land that available for redevelopment from the OOP, but that does do away with perception. DC has been built out since its population peak in the 50s: I wonder if such a survey was undertaken then, or even in its darkest day around 1980, what number it would have come up with? Contrary to its purpose, it appears that the figure is meaningless or suspect.

  6. I keep reiterating this: every last inch of the land that you mention is already designated for redevelopment under the comp plan, is noted within the OP report that I linked to, and will not come close to accommodating 250,000 additional residents. At some point in the not-too-distant future (and we are supposed to be planning for the long term, right?), that capacity is exhausted. The completely arbitrary 130′ limit has been in place for 114 years, and at some point in the future it will interfere with the city’s growth.

    I specifically mentioned Toronto because their analysis finds that redeveloping one mile of low-rise into mid-rise yields about 1000 net dwelling units. It doesn’t matter if there are are “10 miles!” of such roads in DC — that still doesn’t capture 90% of the net new housing demand! I also linked to several instances where proposed mid-rises on vacant land along arterial streets that didn’t even max out the zoning envelope have encountered years of organized resistance from neighbors.

    Perhaps you didn’t see my earlier post about the city’s population peak, either, explaining how smaller household sizes mean that population could not be attained today without major new construction.

    BTW, easily verified fact check: NoMA is zoned C-3-C, for an FAR of 6.5.

  7. Mr Payton, I am familiar with the decrease in household size, and I stand corrected on the FAR in NoMa (I was quoting an erroneous article I read). Btw, I do not find the estimate of 1000 additional units per mile to be credible, as large, medium-rise apartment buildings on Conn Ave easily surpass 500 units in a single building.

    One conceit you may want to reconsider is the expectation that the population will grow by 250,000. Right now we are in a boom, but nothing is forever — the growth will reach its limits as the economics driving it plays out. I’ll bet people in the 1930s thought DC would continue to grow well past the 1 M mark…

    Yes we are planning for the long term; but say in 100 years, when DC has exhausted the available land and is basically at full build-out as we understand it, I dare say the city will be barely recognizable from what it is now and all sorts of unimaginable advances will have occurred. No doubt everything may be different; it may even be under 5 feet of water. The planning horizon should be limited to a period that we reasonable foresee given current technological and economic conditions. There are different ways to define this, but all of them land around 20-30 years, max. Based on that, there is no reason to increase the height limit.

    On last thing: because there is so much land waiting to be developed that increasing the height limit can not be justified given the current conditions, it appears that its proposed from the OOP an example of regulatory capture.

  8. I live in a large, mid-rise apartment building of roughly 500 units, and it occupies what were once 7 blocks. Similarly, the large Connecticut Avenue apartments are on very wide and deep parcels that are not available on Georgia — at least not without demolishing the houses behind them.

    Growth projections could overestimate — but they could also underestimate. The region’s population has exploded in recent decades, the nation’s population will continue to grow, and there’s no reason to think (much less plan around an expectation!) that the city will again become the nation’s murder capital.

    Besides, when the city was shrinking, did we take irrevocable steps to reduce allowable density throughout the city, like lowering the allowable height? No, in fact, we continued to make changes (like rezoning the West End to encourage residential, even though that residential could have gone elsewhere in the city) that adapted to changes in how the city was growing and changing. Even if something doesn’t happen, it’s still the job of planners to prepare: just because snow might or might not happen isn’t a good reason to throw out the snow shovel. To do otherwise is to create an unnecessary, man-made disaster.

    I still cannot comprehend why switching from a width+20′ rule to a width*1.25 rule is worthy of such hue and cry. Extending the same principles to other sites, like L’Enfant Promenade, beyond the multiple exceptions already written into the Act, requires a text amendment but hardly violates the spirit of the existing law.

  9. “there’s no reason to think (much less plan around an expectation!) that the city will again become the nation’s murder capital.”

    Right after WW2 in 1947, there was no reason to think that the population of DC would shrink, either. Back then there were newspaper articles complaining about the critical housing shortage. Then came school desegregation, white flight, the ’68 riots, and the crack wars. This was all unforeseeable in 1947, a mere 20 years before it went down.

    One projection is that the expansion of government due to Sept 11 — Defense, NSA, FBI, and Homeland Security — has run its course, and that migration patterns will shift. The out-of-control housing costs are a contributing factor — why locate in DC when houses cost half as much in Baltimore? Similarly, the growth of Detroit seemed limitless in the 1960s, when GM was hugely profitable and the car market was expanding. Now look at it.

    There is no telling what the future will bring, but I will say that the current rate of expansion cannot be sustained. Just like the incredible stock market in the late 90s, this boom will end.

  10. Mr Payton: The studies you cited point to a trend of increasing fraction of residential construction in central cities. They do not refute my main point that the growth of cities, both the central portion and its suburbs, is cyclical when viewed over a few decades. Your first cite shows that recently DC has grown at the extraordinary rate of 2.4%/year, far higher than most older US cities: we are in a boom. As boom follows bust, bust will surely again follow.

    I don’t see why you would try to dispute that the economy is cyclical, it is almost a truism.

    Regarding *planning*, I suggest that an appreciation for the rhythms of urban development, and accommodating its ebbs and flows is an essential part of the zoning rules. They should not modified because we are at the extreme of a peak or valley; developers and city leaders should act to minimize the problems of any given age within the existing rules that have served so well for a very long time.

    “I still cannot comprehend why switching from a width+20′ rule to a width*1.25 rule is worthy of such hue and cry.”

    Because the reasons are not compelling. If as you say that the city really needs the additional housing, the small modification won’t add significantly to the supply. If we really needed the housing, we would make it width*2. But after a little reflection, 4.9% sounds to me like quite an excess. How much does NYC have? Certainly that city continues to add housing.

    The hue and cry is about fairness — fairness to the exiting property owners that recently built within the current regime.

  11. The economy’s cycles have nothing to do with a broader swing towards urban living — one which began before the previous recession, continued during the recession, and has strengthened afterwards. I would argue that the postwar swing to drivable suburbia is the historical aberration, and that the trend towards cities is based on more than just fashion. The suburban boom was based on many factors which simply have run their course: excess capacity in American manufacturing, cheap fossil energy, a postwar spike in crime, overt racism. Those conditions existed in the 1950s-1970s and thankfully will not return.

    Higher population growth in DC, Denver, and Atlanta is from a smaller base; these are among the smallest central cities (by land area & population) relative to their suburbs of any major US metros. Within central jurisdictions, including within DC, there is a shift of population towards cores/centers and away from lower-density areas — in Chicago, this manifests itself with substantial population growth in the central city and huge losses in outlying neighborhoods, but in the context of this much smaller city NYC adds housing because it has (1) a larger stock of underutilized industrial land, having been among the world’s largest ports and production centers, (2) thousand-foot-tall residential towers, and (3) not just “ten miles” but hundreds of miles of low-rise residential neighborhoods, only a tiny fraction of which have been deemed by their residents to be off-limits to any change whatsoever.

    Oh, and did you see the news about Union Market? The previous plans were advanced by an inexperienced developer right before the credit markets tanked — life happens sometimes. Now that a new developer is in charge, demand has been demonstrated, and lending is sort of back, development is proceeding and will be completed before you know it.

  12. “The suburban boom was based on many factors which simply have run their course: excess capacity in American manufacturing, cheap fossil energy, a postwar spike in crime, overt racism. Those conditions existed in the 1950s-1970s and thankfully will not return.”

    It is a figment to say that cheap energy, crime, and racism are gone forever. Fracking is going to return us to the good ol’ 60s of really cheap gas and excess manufacturing; crime ebbs and flows with the substance abuse du jour; and racism will never be gone so long as those weird people keep moving in from whatever God-forsaken war zone over yonder, and settling in insular, neglected, low-cost outlying areas, continuing their own societies and settling old scores.

    When considered over the *very* long term, i.e., many decades, suburbanization is a small part of the long trend of city growth. Jerusalem had “suburbs” in the Roman era that became a part of the main city that today are referred to as the “old” city. Bethesda is indistinguishable from the residential areas just over the boarder in NW DC. Cities have always grown in fits and starts, with the outlying parts sometimes getting the bulk of investment, and then densifying to the level that exists in the inner core. Some inner parts are skipped over, and developed later. So no, identifying the “new” urbanization trend does not repeal the cyclical nature of urban development; it is more like you have just fixed a label to a fashion, like the whether lapels are getting skinnier or fatter.

  13. Two words that are missing from the author’s assertions are “Social Equity”. DC, Paris, Vancouver, etc. are composed of not only buildings, they are communities were people live. How does one dare to discuss cities without talking about social issues. Those who have written themselves beyond the basic understanding that cities are NOT solely material entities, should be ashamed of themselves. It is shameful that not one person in this thread has mentioned the word “social” nor equity or equality, or human for that matter. I can easily argue to most of the urban development issues discussed, but it will be a waste of my time, because to have a discussion about urban growth of cities without “social equity”, is a very irresponsible rhetoric. Just as irresponsible as what DCOP proposes. Just because they have done a decent job in the past (5 years ago) at gathering community input, does not undermine that the changes they are now proposing will lead to the marginalization of locally grown DC residents, mainly those of color, of low-income, the very young and very old.

  14. If you insist on taking the long view, a glance at Lewis Mumford texts will show that suburbanization proceeds in tune with the available transportation technologies of the day. Alas, transportation technology has not progressed materially, and the initial results for the telecommunications revolution point to… an increase in the value of propinquity.

    And, um, I really don’t know what to make of anonymous people telling me that I “should be ashamed of myself,” when I clearly state that one reason to not emulate Paris is for its “widespread displacement of the center’s low-income residents to the urban fringe.” As for “locally grown,” I simply cannot countenance that any individual has a greater right to any one place simply because of the locale of one’s birth. My vote is worth just as much as yours.

    Since these comments are no longer constructive, I will move on to writing about other things.

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