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William LescureJun 11, 2012 10:09:00 AM3 min read

ArcGIS Online Map of the Building Height Debate in Washington, DC

There has been a lot of discussion recently about relaxing the building height restrictions in the District. The original height limits were put in place, in response to the construction of the Cairo apartment building, located at 1615 Q Street, NW. The construction of the Cairo was completed in 1894 and the District residents at that time were upset by the 164 foot building, which dwarfed the existing construction in the city. In response to the Cairo, the Commissioners of the District, who governed the city at the time, decided that no commercial building should be taller than 110 feet and no residential building should be taller than 90 feet, or taller than the size of the width of the street, which ever was smaller. 

The law was later amended by an act of Congress in 1899 to allow commercial buildings, fronting a 160 foot street to reach a height of 130 feet, and the previous street width limitation was eliminated. The law was later amended by the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910. This new law stated that any building built in the city could not be taller than the width of the adjacent street, plus 20 feet. In addition, buildings adjacent to residential streets could not be taller than 90 feet and buildings adjacent to a commercial street could not be taller than 130 feet.

There is an exception in the law for buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol, where buildings can reach a height of 160 feet. This exception was built into the law to accommodate the old Raleigh Hotel, which was rebuilt in 1911. The old Raleigh Hotel no longer exists, but the exception to the citywide height limit remains. There are also exceptions in the law that exist for spires, towers, domes, minarets, pinnacles, penthouses over elevator shafts, chimneys, smokestacks, and fire sprinkler tanks that are approved by the Mayor of the District of Columbia. In addition, exceptions to the law were made for the construction of the National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Basilica.

The aesthetics of the city have grown up around that height limit ever since many residents value the lower height and density of the city, especially around historic areas and the mall and believe that loosening the height restrictions would lead to Washington losing its current character, its scenic vistas and quiet low density residential neighborhoods.

The proponents of loosening the building height restrictions, including Mayor Gray and Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, argue that the district is running out of space in the downtown central business district to build, which is driving up rents and making it more difficult to attract businesses, residents and tourists to the city. Those arguing for changes to the current rule are not looking to change the height restrictions close to the mall or in historic neighborhoods like Georgetown.

The proposed changes to the central business district are not dramatic, possibly raising the current height limit by one story. Some argue that more dramatic changes to the law should be made for areas further from downtown, which are currently zoned for high density use. If such changes were enacted, it would allow significantly taller buildings to be built along major corridors running out into NW, SE and NE, like New York Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, or in the new development that is happening at the Old Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital site.; The increase in building heights away from downtown could help the District compete for jobs and building projects with areas in Maryland and Virginia, like Rosslyn, Crystal City, Tyson’s Corner, Bethesda and Silver Spring.

This is an ArcGIS online map and blog that explores the debate over raising the building height limit in Washington, DC.


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