Every few years or so, the Washington Post runs a piece about the laws that restrict building heights in the nation's capital. In the most recent one, the focus of the article was one Christopher Leinberger, currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and, according to his bio, "a land use strategist, developer, teacher, consultant and author, helping to make progressive development profitable." Politically, he's a good guy, donating exclusively to Democrats, including Debbie Stabenow, Joe Sestak and Jeff Bingaman. I fear, however, his advocacy of eliminating the Height Act, if successful, could change the course of history against the same party his political gifts show he supports.
At the end of the 19th century an architect and builder named Thomas Franklin Schneider, erected The Cairo, a luxury apartment building in the city's Dupont Circle neighborhood. Schneider was what one could describe as the Leinberger of his day. In addition to The Cairo, he was responsible for the construction of over 2,000 homes -- including some of the city's best-known mansions -- and numerous apartment residences. Schneider also wanted to bust through the imaginary ceiling of the District's skyline. And, in 1894, he did.
"Schneider's Folly," as the residents called it, was the impetus behind the building height limits now on the books. I suspect Mr. Leinberger's proposal may be nicknamed in a similar fashion once folks realize it has the possibility to affect control of Congress.
Democrats have control of the Senate today because someone built a building in 1894 that resulted in a law restricting the height of buildings in DC. Let's not mess with success.
Let's look at the numbers. Washington, DC is the nation's 23rd largest city, nestled between Boston and Milwaukee. In the list of largest metropolitan areas, the city does much better, ranking as the nation's sixth largest, smaller than Philadelphia's metro area and about 100,000 more than Houston's.
Of even more interest is that a greater percentage of residents in the DC area - eleven percent -- live outside the city's boundaries than is the case with any other of the top 25 cities.
Two factors are predominantly responsible for the outward spread of the city.
First, unlike most American cities, DC has never had the chance to expand its borders to accommodate its growing population and the need for a larger urban area. Limited by an act of Congress, the nation's capital is one of the rare cities that, over time, have actually become smaller in land area. (In 1846, afraid that abolition of slavery in the capital would affect the slave-trading based economy of Alexandria, citizens successfully petitioned Congress so that the portion of DC taken from Virginia was returned.)
And second, the Schneider inspired Height Act.
DC is the only city I know of where the skyscrapers are in the suburbs. Rosslyn, a small town just across the Potomac River from DC is not much more than a skyscraper farm (and a meeting place for Deep Throat). Just this past Saturday, the zoning board there approved the construction of what will be the city's tallest buildings. Not one, but two towers, one 31 stories, the other, 30. Had the height law not been passed, those same buildings would be dotting the historic routes of the District. And so would the people who live in them.
Do the math. Without the height law, faithful Democratic voters who live in new housing developments in suburban Alexandria and tall buildings in Rosslyn would be living in 30-story condos on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. Those are the same folks responsible for tipping the election to Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) over former Sen. George Allen. Fewer than 10,000 votes separated victor from loser. It's far better to have Democrats voting in Northern Virginia than it is to have them disenfranchised in DC.
Mr. Leinberger, a successful developer who has had a hand in billions of dollars of development, points to a study that claims the city is forgoing $500 million per year in taxes because of the restriction on tall buildings. The increased tax revenue, however, would make it harder for the city to justify its annual "federal payment" for services provided to tax-exempt properties.
Mr. Leinberger told me that political demographic of those who tend to live in "walkable communities" is more liberal than those of other people. I agree. Build tall mixed-use buildings and people will come, and they will be more likely to vote Democratic. The problem is this: We need those people in Virginia. Tens of thousands of Democrats, if not more, now live in Northern Virginia because of a 100-year-old law that restrict the city's size and current laws that keep development at bay. Build those "walkable communities" in Virginia. Let's do all we can to keep them there... With such a closely split Senate, the future of our country depends on it.