The High Cost of Short Buildings

I said something last weekend about how it was a shame that Newark, New Jersey has a more impressive skline than does our nation’s capital and that Washington ought to revisit its extremely stringent restrictions on the allowed height of downtown office buildings. This prompted a reply about how it’s nice that the DC streets get a lot of sunlight. I was going to fire back that New York is hardly full of Morlocks and it’s not like there are a ton of people taking leisurely strolls through Downtown DC anyway (it’s mostly people working, it’s an office district) but the whole argument about aesthetics really misses the mark.

The first thing I would like for defenders of the status quo situation in DC to do is not to offer some things about the status quo that they like, but to try to grapple a bit with the concrete, practical costs of the status quo. There are issues, of course, about building size restrictions in residential neighborhoods, but let’s just talk for now about the main office district.

If you were allowed to build taller buildings in DC, then a higher proportion of the metro area’s office jobs would be located in the District. In addition to the white collar professionals working in those offices, an expanded quantity of offices in DC would create additional low-skilled jobs located in the District that would be easier for low-skilled District residents to obtain. That would lead to somewhat lower levels of unemployment in the city’s poor neighborhoods. That would mean that people would need fewer social services and would pay more in taxes. It would also, at the margin, decrease the level of crime in the city. The additional white collar jobs would mean that more professionals were spending their days in the city (through some combination of more suburbanites commuting to the District and fewer Districters reverse-commuting to the suburbs) which would mean higher levels of spending at downtown retail establishments. Again, that’s more tax revenue (via sales tax) and also more low-skill jobs. And, of course, the land downtown would be more valuable if you could build taller buildings on it, which would lead to higher tax revenues without the need to raise tax rates.

Long story short, along a whole number of dimensions the DC government would have considerably more revenue at its disposal and a somewhat lower level of demand for services. This would allow for both somewhat lower tax rates for DC residents, and for more generous provision of key city services — more cops, better-paved roads and sidewalks.

On top of that, the tendency would be toward less “job sprawl” and therefore less total mileage driven, meaning that taller buildings would be good for the environment. And this environmental benefit would be part of an overall improvement in the economic efficiency of resource-allocation throughout the metro area. It’d be something you can do for the environment that would also boost growth, in other words, rather than hinder it. When you add it up, it seems to me not that there are no positive attributes to the current policy — the view from my building’s roof is very nice in a way that would probably be ruined over the long term if they started building skyscrapers downtown — but that we’re paying a dramatically higher price than people realize in exchange for a relatively trivial aesthetic advantage.