Building Heights in the Nation's Capital
Building Heights in the Nation's Capital
Washington's low and horizontal skyline is unique among most major cities. The lack of tall buildings enhances the prominence of the city’s important civic buildings and monuments, and gives the capital an airy and light-filled environment.
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How Washington's Low Skyline Contributes to the City's Character
Symbolism. Great cities around the world have recognizable skylines. Washington’s horizontal skyline is part of its unique character. It provides a backdrop for public buildings of national significance like the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. Its openness — viewed from afar and at street level — has come to embody shared values of equality and freedom.
Scale. Washington’s broad streets and mid-sized buildings create an airy, light-filled environment. Its human scale invites people into public spaces and preserves views of historic buildings. In combination with the L'Enfant Plan, Washington's scale has made it one of the most walkable cities in the United States.
Sustainability. “Zero-impact” developments and cities are under construction around the world. Planners are finding that smaller scales are desirable for creating communities that require less fuel and release much less pollution into the air and water. Indeed, Washington is cited as an example of livable urban density that that supports public transit and creates active street life.
The History Behind Washington's Skyline
The original L’Enfant Plan focused on creating a city with grand vistas designed to highlight national structures, and wide open spaces to provide room for citizens to interact in a democratic society.
President George Washington ordered that the new capital have a height limit of 40 feet, to prevent the construction of tenement buildings that were appearing in New York City. Thomas Jefferson also supported height limits in the District, hoping the new capital could mirror the human scale of Paris, France – a city he greatly admired.
With the construction of The Cairo, a 12-story residential building in Northwest DC in 1894, officials and residents became concerned that taller buildings would threaten the city’s aesthetics and safety (the fire ladders of the day could not reach the top of the building). In response, regulations on building heights in Washington were first established in 1899. Congress then enacted the Height of Buildings Act of 1910.
This federal law still governs maximum building heights in Washington today. Zoning regulations created by the District of Columbia government also frequently impose lower height limits than those established by federal law.
The consistent application of the Height Act over 100 years has been instrumental in shaping the skyline and appearance of the city.
The Topographic Bowl
Washington, DC is situated in a topographic bowl. The bottom of the bowl, where the White House and U.S. Capitol are located, is in the floodplain of the junction of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. Extending out from the floodplain is a series of rising river terraces.
These high ridges nearly surround the city (the “bowl”) and are where the earthen Civil War fortifications were strategically built.
NCPC approves plans for all federal buildings in the District of Columbia, public buildings within the city’s central core, and all development within the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site. As part of its review, the Commission ensures that structures and zoning law are in compliance with the Height of Buildings Act of 1910.
NCPC's Comprehensive Plan specifies that the Federal Government should "Preserve the horizontal character of the national capital through enforcement of the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 (36 Stat. 452; D.C. Code, sec. 5-401 et seq.)." NCPC is adding an Urban Design Element as part of its update of the Comprehensive Plan update which will also address heights as part of the form of the city.
The Height of Buildings Act of 1910
The Height of Buildings Act of 1910 limits building height in the District of Columbia based on width of the street upon which the structure is located.
Buildings cannot be more than 20 feet greater in height than the width of the facing street, with a maximum of 90 feet for residential streets and 130 feet on commercial streets. An exception is made for buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st and 15th Streets NW, where buildings can rise to 160 feet.
There have been a total of seven amendments to the Act, with most enacted shortly after its passage. The most recent amendment was in 1961, near the height of a real estate boom. Five of the amendments provided exemptions for specific buildings.
The remaining two amendments provided an exemption for churches under construction at the time of the Act's passage, and allowed residential buildings to add two additional floors, so long as the buildings were under the height limit prescribed in the original 1910 Act.