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The High Cost of Short Buildings

Every time I find myself in one of America’s small cities — mighty Providence, Rhode Island is featured here — it comes as a shocking reminder of how puny the buildings are in Washington, DC. It’s easy for a New Yorker to sometimes just decide “New York = big buildings, but DC is smaller so the buildings are smaller.” Metro DC is smaller than metro New York, but it’s much bigger than Providence. And yet even Providence supports some modest skyscrapers. DC, of course, could support skyscrapers. They’re just illegal. And a lot of people like it that way. But like Ryan Avent I suspect that the people who like it the way it is haven’t really thought through the costs:

But look, we could take these views or the city’s uniqueness and place some value on it. We could then compare those benefits to the costs. High rents and property prices, for instance, are a cost. Office sprawl is a cost–neighborhoods that should rightly be mixed-use (including downtown) are pushed by cost pressures until they become overwhelmingly office-oriented. This has impacts on neighborhood quality, on business diversity, on commuting, on tax revenues, and so on.

And there are also the benefits we forego thanks to the restriction. It means foregone jobs and tax revenues. It means reduced density, which means reduced productivity. It means less economic activity in a space that’s walkable and well-served by transit, which means more economic activity in places dependent upon cars.

In a nutshell, people look at the height limit and think that it’s free to protect views and maintain our identity, so why not do it? But it isn’t free! It costs all of us quite a bit to keep heights low. It means increased housing costs, increased tax burdens, and reduced wages. The limit also imposes big costs on other people who would like to work or live in the District but who can’t, because the limit on heights has artifically restricted the size of the market.

If you look at the commercial rents currently prevailing in the city, and then you look at the ability of dramatically smaller metro areas to support denser office cores, you can see that we’re leaving an enormous amount on the table. The higher tax revenues that would be associated with taller office buildings could allow vast improvements in the quality of city services. Every time you walk through one of DC’s residential neighborhoods and see the hopeless state of disrepair of the sidewalks, or wonder why the city can’t seem to put more cops on the beat, you’re looking at the cost of the height restrictions. And a more densely built office district would support a greater variety of retail establishments in the ground floor with more — and more interesting — choices.

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But of course part of the problem here, as with many of these land use issues, is that a great many of the beneficiaries are people who don’t get a say in the matter. The negative externalities associated with the policy mostly burden people who don’t live or work in the district. The increased carbon emissions associated with the sprawl are a bigger problem for people in Bangladesh or even Manhattan than for people in DC. And the real victims of the high prices associated with building restrictions are the people who would choose to live or work in a more affordable version of DC, but are instead elsewhere because incumbent actors in the central city have chosen to pull up the ladder.