Roger K. Lewis, FAIA, an Architect contributor, writes in The Washington Post that “D.C. as a whole will be a transformed city in a generation.” That part has already happened. I’ve lived in the District long enough to see the transformation of all the neighborhoods he names—U Street NW, 14th Street NW, Columbia Heights, Shaw, H Street NE, Capitol Hill, the Southeast Waterfront—and I’ve only lived here a decade. There’s just no telling what another 5 to 10 years will mean to this city’s growth, and that’s one of the wonderful things about living in Washington. It’s not stagnant and it’s certainly not predictable.
But “a dynamic, truly world-class capital—not just a world capital—where people will eagerly live, work and visit”? It sounds good. But to get there, the District will have to get out of the Capital City’s shadow, and out from under Congress’s thumb.
Lewis focuses first and foremost on services and infrastructure:
The city’s systems for water treatment and distribution, sewage collection and treatment and storm water management will perform more effectively and sustainably. Polluted runoff into streams and rivers will decrease dramatically because of greatly increased storm water retention and filtration. This will be the result of new storm water storage structures being built by DC Water, more green roofs throughout the city, preserved parkland, vegetated urban open spaces and bioswales and the use of more pervious paving.
Public pressure will motivate Pepco and Washington Gas to continue upgrading their systems and customer services. Most notable in the coming decades will be new technologies and equipment enabling utility companies and consumers to better monitor, regulate and reduce energy consumption. This will further contribute to environmental health by reducing the city’s carbon footprint.
Fair enough: DC Water is working both to eliminate stormwater runoff and to become the city’s chief green employer, mainly by promoting low-impact development and green maintenance jobs. Pepco and Washington Gas? Maybe they’ll be inspired, but as energy monopolies, they’re not beholden to public pressure—people who want to use electricity in D.C. don’t have a great deal of options beyond Pepco.
Lewis nevertheless makes a fair point that infrastructure is a focus of D.C. development today. He adds public transit and public education (or public education alternatives) as services that will serve as a draw to the city. Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert assembled a graphic that demonstrates Lewis’s point (at least with regard to transit).
Lewis outlines a vision of density for D.C. that sounds achievable and desirable:
Choosing to live near their workplaces, lots of people will more willingly walk greater distances. They will walk for exercise, but also because the urban pedestrian experience will be more visually interesting and attractive. City streets and sidewalks will be better lighted and landscaped, activated with places to shop, eat, sit and spectate.
What’s not to like?
Unfortunately—and for fairly arbitrary reasons—they can’t all live near their workplaces. So long as development in D.C. is still capped by the Height of Buildings Act, which restricts building height to no more than 130 feet in most places, the kind of density that Lewis envisions will remain always out of reach. In a May series on development in D.C., contributors Sommer Mathis, Lydia DePillis, and Ryan Avent each tackled separate growth fronts in the city—and all of them touched ways the Height Act hampers growth in more dimensions than the vertical.
Density is not a marker that indicates the arrival of a world-class capital. It’s also the process by which that world-class city becomes feasible. Greater density means a larger consumer and tax base capable of supporting more advanced services from Pepco, Washington Gas, D.C. Public Schools, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and other providers.
On another note, density also affords room for mixed income levels. In his essay—which one Facebook friend of mine described as a manifesto for a “District of Utopia”—Lewis doesn’t specifically address D.C.’s history and homegrown culture. It’s worth a mention: What makes D.C. a great city is not just where it’s going, but where it comes from. Right now that movement is from destitute to the opposite end of the spectrum. If D.C. grows too affluent, providing for a luxury market but not the density that makes low-income housing possible, too, then it won’t be the District any more. It will be Nearer Fairfax. A first-class city, perhaps, but not a world-class capital.
There’s a viable solution to the city’s growing pains: greater density. But it will take an act of Congress to do it the right way.