As the population of the District grows and land becomes more scarce, developers are considering building upward.

Christopher Leinberger, urban land strategist, developer and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, argues that Washington, D.C., must find a way to meet the growing demand for housing and office space or it will jeopardize economic growth, job creation and maintenance of tax base in the city.

“In 12 to 18 years, depending on the economy, D.C. will be out of land in greater downtown [areas],” he said. “Only two options [remain] to grow: out or up.”

Despite these concerns, many in the city actively support maintaining these height restrictions, which reviews city development projects.

Since 1910, D.C.’s Height Act has limited the heights of most city buildings to around 120 feet, based on the length of F Street.

While there are some notable exceptions, such as the Georgetown University Hospital, the law was created to prevent buildings from becoming so tall that they were inaccessible to fire engines.

“The Height Act helps preserve the city’s horizontal, open quality as designed by Pierre L’Enfant,” the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) said. “It has played a vital role in shaping the urban form of the city, preserving Washington’s vistas and ensuring the prominence of such iconic treasures as the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument.”

The NCPC argues that the federal government has a significant amount of land in the city that can be used for further development, approximating 61 million square feet of “infill” sites still exist in the District. Such sites include underused commercial and industrial sites, failed housing projects and vacant buildings. The NCPC suggests that these sites can be used for future office space and housing, according to a press release on their Web site.

Changing height restrictions could also have a major impact on the District’s finances. If the height restrictions are modified, many developers will likely be eager to purchase air rights, which allow one to own and develop the space above a building.

Leinberger said the proceeds from the sale of air rights could amount to 5 to 8 percent of the District’s annual budget, and could be used to fund affordable housing and decent city schools.

“If we decide to keep the height limit,” he said, “at least we should know the opportunity cost.”

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