City Limits

There are different arguments to be made about raising the height limit on buildings in the District of Columbia, but both Representative Darrell Issa and New York Times reporter Rebecca Berg are mistaken when they describe the original decision to set height limits as “arbitrary.” Before the Building Heights Act of 1899 was passed, Congress sent a commission to Europe to study height limits in cities such as London (80 feet), and Paris, Berlin, and Vienna (64 feet), and to also look at American cities, most of which had height limits (New York and Philadelphia were two exceptions). The commission settled on a height limit that followed a well-established urban design precedent, that is, the height of buildings should be related to the width of the street on which they stand. In Washington’s case, buildings on streets could be 90 feet high, while those on the broader avenues could be 110 feet. Hardly arbitrary.

2 Responses to City Limits

  • Robert Kwasny says:

    How were limits in London, Paris, Vienna etc. established though? Was there some rationale or were they arbitrary themselves? And if DC based its law on European arbitrary rule, doesn’t it make the DC limit arbitrary?

    • Witold says:

      Height limits were rarely arbitrary, but were usually related to street width. In “Great Streets,” Allan Jacobs writes that most great streets he studied fell into a range of width:building height of 1:1 to 1:2. This is not a science, but it does explain the range of European and American height limits.

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