Atlantic Cities
The Big Fix

Should Cities Limit Building Heights?

Should Cities Limit Building Heights?
Reuters

In this week's The Big Fix, we wondered whether cities should ditch their height restrictions to improve density. Emily Badger writes:

At a certain point – whether it’s in downtown Austin or near a suburban Boston transit station – communities will exhaust the real estate that exists below building height limits imposed years ago for safety, continuity or aesthetics. And then what? Will people let go of these rules?

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This sounds counter-intuitive, but taller buildings that are part of a walkable, transit-oriented community can actually help ease congestion. And there’s no reason for these places to be ugly. Tall buildings that make the best neighbors don’t feel like tall buildings at street level. They’re wrapped there in lively retail, townhouse fronts or inviting public space.

Commenter Peter McFerrin agrees, writing that low-rise buildings can be just as alienating as tall buildings:

While this is true, at higher levels of development greater ground coverage can lead to an urban canyon effect. Downtown DC, where block after block is filled with squat rectangular buildings built precisely to the height limit, is alienating; strangely enough, so is much of Paris, for the same reason. Same with the pre-1920s portions of downtown Los Angeles, built to a strict 13-story height limit.

I work on Massachusetts Avenue NW, on the northern edge of the Washington central business district. One of the things that makes it a much more attractive street than most in the DC CBD is the mix of building heights; a lot of that has to do with many of the properties being historically preserved (it was a millionaires' row in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, with most of the mansions now used as embassies). Regardless of the reason for this, the result is less alienating than, say, K Street and its unending progression of 8-story office blocks.

Commenter Issac Persley has some ideas for good high-rise development:

Many people just aren't exposed to good high-rise development, with retail, restaurants and other amenities at the base in some instances to provide street life and small parks scattered throughout the neighborhood to give people a little relief from the canyon effect.

One of my favorite streets in Chicago is North State Pkwy. This residential street has 4-5 story row houses next to 30+ story residential highrises. With the dense canopy of trees covering the street, one rarely notices the difference in scale between the buildings. The trees, manicured front gardens of the houses and other planters give more than enough relief to the street and provide a human scale. Of course, not all neighborhoods can be this way, but it shows that highrise development can be done well.

Perhaps cities should require certain streetscape improvements and some district-wide programmatic requirements (i.e. retail corridors, transit oriented, pocket parks, etc) in the development of highrises instead of simply limiting the building height. It's not necessarily about size, but quality when it comes to this type of development.

But commenter LivingCity wondered whether tall new buildings are better than cheap low ones:

It is an erroneous notion to think density and height are synonymous. Some of densest urban neighborhoods are medium height. New tall buildings are never cheaper than existing housing (unless subsidized). That is an academic myth, just like the trickle-down THEORY that doesn't hold true on the ground.

But DonTishman cautions that higher buildings are more expensive buildings. He writes:

There is another side to building hi-rises. The codes require higher standards as the building is taller. This increases the cost of the building, These increased costs start when the building is taller than 3 stories. The governing body of a city's zoning code can be a major factor in determining who the future residents will be.

Manhattan is prime example where the average one bedroom monthly rent is over $2,000. By accepted management standards, the minimum annual income to qualify for this one bedroom apartment is $100,000. Since the average household income there is less than $100,000, less half the folks that work in Manhattan can afford to rent there. This creates transportation problems, eliminates walkability, etc. One solution is for the city to provide a means for an average income household to live in these expensive apartments. Two means are direct subsidy, or demanding that X% of the units be for households making a specific % of median local income. However, this will cause the other apartment rents to be raised. For the apartment owner must earn the Net Operating Income needed to meet their financial requirements to lenders and investors. Otherwise the apartment hi-rise could be in default of what the owner promised the lenders and investors.

And finally, the last word, from Billwald:

I propose that city core districts have a special taxing structure. New construction will be taxed as though the building was built to the maximum permitted height. Vacant land to be taxed at 20 percent of assessed value with the tax on clear vacant land to be waived in exchange for the city using it for a mini-park. This will provide more downtown open space and no buildings built on spec.

Photo credit: Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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