As vacant land disappears and real estate prices soar there is a movement to make changes in the height limits to allow developers to build taller buildings. The current law limits building heights to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet. There have been several exceptions to allow for construction of the National Cathedral and Georgetown University Hospital. Otherwise, the Height Act has capped most buildings at 130 feet, though heights of 160 feet are permitted on certain areas of Pennsylvania Avenue. (Contrary to popular lore, the city's low-lying skyline has nothing to do with preserving the prominence of the 555-foot Washington Monument's.)
Christopher Leinberger, a land use strategist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, warns that unless more room is found, the artificial cap on space will further inflate already soaring downtown real estate prices, which rank second behind Manhattan.
For plenty of influential Washington planners, the idea of altering the city's skyline borders on blasphemy.
"I think it's very important to recognize the real uniqueness of Washington's physical character, certainly compared to any other American city," said Thomas Luebke, the secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. He called the city's skyline "a national symbol."
Critics also include Marcel Acosta, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission. He argues that unlike parts of New York and Chicago, Washington's streets are much more welcoming to pedestrians, thanks to plentiful sunlight.
"In a world of cookie-cutter cities, this is one of our great advantages," he said.
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