Sam Kalda

You’d be forgiven for stopping to gawk at the construction site for CityCenterDC in downtown Washington, D.C. Not only is the massive, $700 million development one of the largest construction projects currently under way in any American downtown, it’s also one of the deepest. With a below-grade trench of an abyssal 55 feet, building crews have worked like archaeologists since breaking ground last year, digging and digging in search of some elusive, buried treasure.

Bounded by New York Avenue and H Street between 9th and 11th Streets N.W., CityCenterDC will fill nearly 10 acres with six buildings, a park, and a vast public plaza. In its first phase, co-developers Hines Interests of Houston and Archstone of Englewood, Colo., expect to deliver 295,000 square feet of retail, 515,000 square feet of office space, 458 rental apartments, 216 condominium units, and 1,885 parking spaces. (An additional 110,000 square feet of retail and a 350-room luxury hotel are planned for a second phase.)

The project, planned by Foster + Partners with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, is prodigious—and in a city with a famous restriction on building heights, its size is very much its virtue. Unlike so many developers whose squat office buildings have filled up the District’s downtown, developers Hines and Archstone were able to promise the city, which owns most of the land, that they wouldn’t need to squeeze every last bit of square footage out of the parcel to make it profitable. Few, if any, new construction projects in downtown D.C. are able to set aside 20,000 square feet for a plaza, let alone a plaza plus a 29,000-square-foot park.

Hines vice president Howard J. Riker, who is overseeing CityCenterDC for the firm’s D.C. offices, is rather diplomatic when he describes the visible effects of the downtown real estate market’s “significant supply-side constraint”: in other words, the dearth of transit-accessible office and retail space in the central business district.

That a public space–oriented, mixed-use project such as CityCenterDC is such a rarity in Washington’s downtown is the result of two quirks of history.

The first is recent and straightforward: The very reason such a large parcel of land was available in such a desirable part of the city is because it used to be the site of the old convention center, which the city demolished in 2004, in anticipation of the opening of the current, larger Walter E. Washington Convention Center just a few blocks up the street. Hines and Archstone were actually awarded the development rights for CityCenterDC back in 2003, but like so many big projects around the country, it was stalled for years by the recession. Archstone was partially owned by failed investment bank Lehman Brothers, which didn’t help.

The second reason is older and far more convoluted: the 102-year-old Height of Buildings Act, which limits D.C. buildings, with few exceptions, to a maximum height of 130 feet—and in most cases, it’s really 90 to 110 feet.

D.C.’s Height Act didn’t come to pass out of nowhere. Its roots trace as far back as the establishment of Capital City itself, when the nation’s founding fathers were busily concerning themselves with the image they wanted their infant country to project. Though he would never govern the country from here, George Washington played the biggest role of any president in shaping the city when he hired Pierre-Charles L’Enfant in 1791 to design it.

The two men would eventually have a falling out, but on the most basic principles they agreed: Washington should be the anti–New York, laid out according to a Baroque plan, heavy on ceremonial spaces and grand radial avenues. To help ensure the city didn’t fall prey to the dangerous tenements that were already plaguing New York, Washington decreed that, in the new capital, “the wall of no house be higher than forty feet to the roof.”

By the time Thomas Jefferson, who may have loved the Parisian-style design of Washington even more than President Washington himself, moved into the White House in March 1801, the city was still a fairly sleepy place. But as far back as 1791, Jefferson too had been eager to throw his support behind a height limit, “to provide for the extinguishment of fires, and the openness and convenience of the town, by prohibiting houses of excessive height.”

But those early edicts didn’t set the tone for the capital’s boom years. The origins of the Height Act as we know it today can be traced to concerns over the growing city’s ability to extinguish fires. Washington, D.C., had become much less sleepy over the intervening century, and it was the 1894 construction of the 160-foot-high, steel-framed Cairo Hotel—set in a rowhouse-lined, residential block of Q Street N.W.—that sparked the initial uproar that led to a permanent law. That turn-of-the-century firehoses could not reach the Cairo’s top floors was a main concern. In a classic bit of foreshadowing of the century of development battles that would follow, the Cairo’s immediate neighbors were also worried that the comparatively hulking structure would negatively affect their property values.

Contrary to popular myth, Congress tailored the 1910 Height Act so that building heights are linked to street and avenue widths—not in an attempt to protect the Thomas Walter–designed Capitol dome from being overshadowed. But there’s good reason why urban legends concerning the Height Act persist: The preservationists who have made it their life’s work to keep the act in place benefit from the perception that the law is imbued with a mythic quality.

The main keeper of the Height Act flame is a group called the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a powerful nonprofit membership organization dedicated to safeguarding “the fundamental values derived from the tradition of the L’Enfant Plan.” Over the last several years, the committee, along with its allies on the federal Commission of Fine Arts, has come under fire for the first time since the early 1970s for its doctrinaire interpretation of the Height Act’s importance. Urbanists such as the Brookings Institution’s Christopher Leinberger argue that the height restriction places an artificial ceiling on density, driving up real estate prices and pushing middle-class residents out to the suburbs.

“What tends to happen is, buildings tend to be pretty boxy; there just isn’t an opportunity for a lot of relief,” says CityCenterDC’s Riker. But the deal that Riker and his partners struck with the city was structured in such a way that they were able to avoid designing just another set of contiguous boxes. “We mutually came to the decision that a lot of value could be created by including relief, particularly on the interior,” he says.

Sommer Mathis is the editor of The Atlantic Cities.
Sommer Mathis is the editor of The Atlantic Cities.

Interior relief is one solution to provide some much-needed variety in the downtown skyline, but relaxing the Height Act to allow even minor modifications would be far more effective. And it appears to be in that spirit that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House committee that oversees the District, recently stunned longtime critics and defenders alike by reaching out to local leaders and offering to introduce a bill that would do just that. It is a testament to the Committee of 100’s entrenched influence, however, that the city is not seriously considering any proposals that would suddenly allow a skyscraper to pop up anywhere near downtown. Rep. Issa’s proposal is unlikely to call for anything more than the ability to build an additional story or two in the city center, and, in reality, the CityCenterDC site constitutes the last parcel of available downtown land. If taller buildings ever do dot the landscape of Washington, they’ll be erected much farther away, perhaps along New York Avenue or in historically economically disadvantaged Anacostia. So when it’s finally completed in late 2013, CityCenterDC stands to debut as a one-of-a-kind, if still abbreviated, new addition to the public space.