Thursday, March 6, 2008

I like the sky, thanks.

This afternoon I was desperately in need of some fresh air, so I escaped from the office for a stroll around the neighborhood (Dupont South, at least that's what I call it). It was a gorgeous afternoon and I really enjoyed my bit of time outdoors, especially the sun and sky, the fresh air, the wide streets, the flowers being planted around the trees in the sidewalks, the fact that I wasn't shuttered in and oppressed by behemoth obnoxious skyscrapers.

So when I was once again cloistered away at my desk you can imagine my disappointment when I saw that Matt Yglesias was attacking my fair city. Matt seems to think that we should have taller buildings and destroy the character of our city, I couldn't disagree more.

I was born and raised and currently reside in Takoma Park (right by the metro, and yes that means I get to say that I'm actually from here) and I don't know any locals (natural born or long term enough to have raised kids) who would even consider the possibility of constructing taller buildings in DC. The suggestion that we need taller buildings always seems to come from someone from away, quite often from the land of early twilight and vertigo itself.

The quick background, if you need it - and it turns out I did, self-professed low skyline lover that I am, I had always bought into the urban legend that no building could be taller than the Capitol dome with the exception of the Washington Monument. Actually, in 1910 a building called The Cairo went up and dwarfed its neighbors and generally upset folks around town. Congress got in the mix and passed the Height Act of 1910 which stipulates that a building's height cannot exceed the distance between it and the building across the street, plus 20 feet.

Paul Schwartzman wrote a great article on the history of the limitation and some modern-day challenges to it last May, there are fantastic graphics involved as well, check it out. Paul also handles the principle arguments for and against taller buildings in town.

Roger K. Lewis had what amounted to a response later that same month, reminiscing about being shouted down by Jonathan Yardley, lo these many years ago, for suggesting that DC needed taller buildings. Roger has a great summation of the choice made though:

People offended by the Cairo made a definitive value judgment: The building fabric of Washington was to remain uniformly low-rise. There would be a memorable skyline but no skyscrapers. The Height Act of 1910 ensured that Washington's streets and neighborhoods would remain airy, sunlit and protected from soaring buildings that are inharmonious with their surroundings.
And so we live in a great town, with a unique character and feel that has a lot to do with how tall the buildings are and the sense of openness and freedom that they help impart upon us.

Like I said in my comment to Matt, if you're jonesing to be hemmed in by some tall, oppressive buildings take it across the river.

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