Keeping Washington Down to Earth

Today Congressman Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and proprietor of one of the best AVI’s in all of Twitter, will begin holding hearings into the question of whether to relax the building height restrictions which govern new construction in the District of Columbia.  He even graciously responded to me this morning when I asked him to remember the uniqueness of our city in the Committee’s discussions.  This is a subject I have written about previously, when announcement was made of a 30-story office tower across the Potomac, and when the question of raising heights in D.C. popped back up on the radar earlier this year.

The lifting of height restrictions in Washington is one of those rare instances where both liberals and conservatives tend to agree, and where I tend to get pummeled by both sides.  Liberals believe that by building more housing such as high-rises, in economically depressed parts of the city, that access to quality, affordable housing for the lower classes will be improved in a city that is becoming increasingly too expensive for poor people to live in.  Conservatives believe that you should be able to do what you want with your own property, with as little government interference as possible, in order to preserve Constitutional freedoms and promote capitalism and free enterprise.

The notion that by more tightly packing poor people into mass-produced housing is one that has been tried repeatedly, and failed.  Despite repeated insistence to the contrary since the days of the Bauhaus movement, the home is not a machine for living.  One need only recall the horror that was Cabrini Green to know that this way of thinking is doomed to failure.  If you believe that by building taller apartment buildings in Washington that you will somehow help out the poor, you are very naive.

On the other hand, building whatever you want on your land inside city limits with few constraints, simply because you are an American and you have rights, is hardly a good way to create a livable city. Try to walk around Dallas, Texas, or Tysons Corner, Virginia, and you can see what capitalism can do to property owners when it is allowed to run amok.  Look at the dreadful skyline around St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, that beacon of hope during The Blitz, where Mammon is once again more important to the British people than Jesus Christ.

And of course there is the question of greed.  Liberals look forward to increased tax revenues which would pour into the city’s coffers.  Conservatives think about the revenue stream that could be generated from more densely-packed populations.  The notion that by increasing existing building heights the city will somehow be improved is certainly true – if you happen to be among the class of people who will directly profit from it.

I realize that my view is an unpopular one.  However, all one needs to do is take a look at the surrounding, formerly empty, countryside around this city to see what a gigantic mess governments, bureaucracies, and developers have made of what was basically a clean slate. Why would we allow them to do the same to the place specifically chosen and laid out by the Founding Fathers to be our capital? Let Washington remain unique, low to the horizon and human as it is, with all of its good and bad points, and let governments and property owners concentrate on how to make it more beautiful and livable within its limits.

View of Washington, DC c. 1880

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