The Independent has a piece about recent efforts to revise the DC building height limit of 130 feet (39.6 m). As Washington grows, its century-old height limit becomes a natural experiment in massing regulations and their impact on metropolitan land markets. After providing a brief history of the (aesthetics-driven) massing regulation, the author, Rupert Cornwell, notes:
[T]he price of a European feel is not only to be measured in commuter misery. The ban on tall buildings curbs the supply of space when demand is soaring; the result, naturally, is higher prices, across the board. DC has a chronic hotel shortage, while the cost of office space has hit Manhattan levels, and Washington’s [poor] residents find it ever tougher to make ends meet as . . . gentrification pushes rents remorselessly higher. The city, meanwhile, loses much potential tax revenue.
Washington is an unusually beautiful American city, in the sense that it actually has a classically-proportioned plan. And part of its proportioning lies in the scale of its buildings, which complement the city’s layout. L’Enfant’s 1791 plan predated tall buildings by a century, and in that sense it was silent about building heights. But it was also the blueprint for an airy city of wide boulevards, open spaces, and preeminent public buildings. The 130-foot building limit, imposed in 1899, has been consistent with the original blueprint and its Enlightenment-era political symbolism for America’s capital.
It would be a shame to see L’Enfant’s aesthetic suddenly disrupted; it would also be a loss to market-driven planning innovation to end the city’s role as one of the last American places where old-fashioned land-use efficiency (including the use of courtyards and alleys) is a serious consideration for individual projects. But there are certainly both practical and equitable arguments for relaxing the current height limits. Washington’s recent experience illustrates, starkly (I think), the costs of strictly regulating the massing of buildings in growing real estate markets. Even in cities without such purposive policies, the aggregation of land use regulations is presumably having similar impacts.
L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, DC.
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One topic I’ve addressed here several times is the more participatory development process that shaped the urban fabric of the pre-Euclid era. For lack of a better term, this process could be described as organic urbanism– but such a description would ignore the role of specific legal devices from the English tradition that helped to shape the process. So common-law urbanism might be a more accurate term. The point is two-fold: First, to describe a specific phenomenon– the slow and broad-based process by which towns and cities grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And, second, to distinguish that phenomenon from the ultra-planned New Urbanism of today. I venture to say that one of the essentials of common-law urbanism was the centrality of a simple paradox: regular, large-scale patterns, filled in by the very individualized use of parcels. Here’s a graphic that illustrates:
Brooklyn Hts. Map: Google.
The setting is a few square blocks in Brooklyn Heights– as good an example as any of a well-loved city neighborhood. Some of the blocks were laid out centuries ago, but most of the buildings date from the mid-19th century. Note that the blocks, themselves (outlined in blue), are near perfect rectangles. Yet the building footprints (outlined in violet) show countless variations. Each structure has a different shape. Setbacks are varied. Depths are varied. Heights, too. The presence of bounding alleys and courtyards has clearly been decided on some kind of ad hoc basis. Side-by-side lots are combined to accommodate larger buildings. The larger pattern holds together neatly because it circumscribes the prerogatives of each of the subordinate individual participants. At the same time, the individual contributions are as rich and varied as those who built them, giving the neighborhood a granular variety that tempers the severity of its overriding geometric order.
The common-law approach to urban land use did not arise in a vacuum: It reflected a larger legal approach that predominated in the common-law era of the English-speaking world: Individuals were given a good amount of latitude, up to a well-known threshold at which the law spoke with a certain clanging finality. In a world with fewer people, fewer still autonomous people, and far fewer methods of omnipresent social control, this balance was probably a necessary element of legitimate rule-making.
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A Deco doorway on the Concourse. Source: NYC Landmarks Comm.
Let’s hear it for the Grand Concourse, one of America’s greatest concentrations of Art Deco and Late Victorian apartment buildings. Truly, some of New York City’s most amazing apartments are located there. The Concourse, itself, also has the potential to become a great public space. (At present, it has largely been paved over and is very underutilized.) A large swath of the southern Concourse (between East 153rd and 167th Streets) has just been designated as a new historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
And, yes, it’s true: There’s been a lot of the Bronx on this page.
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The Alclyde. West 94th/CPW. Source: NYPL
This is a great archive from the New York Public Library: floor plans, footprints, drawings, and details of classic New York City apartment buildings, all in original, color lithographs from the turn of the 20th century. The bulk of the buildings are in Harlem, Washington Heights, and on the Upper West Side, but the collection goes as far downtown as the twenties, and as far up as the Grand Concourse. Note the parlors and chambers, rather than living rooms and bedrooms, in these units; and the fact that even modest apartments were designed to have living space for domestic help. I found this cache during research for a paper about efficient land use in Late-Victorian New York City.
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