Real Estate

4 Ways to Fix DC’s Awful Architecture

Photograph by Flickr user Thomas Recke.

Since 2001, DC has added some 61,000 new housing units. In 2017, 8,255 additional residences are slated to open.

But if we live in a golden age of development, it sure doesn’t look like it. For the most part, the buildings coming out of the ground resemble college dorms. Precious few have ambitious exteriors to match their ambitious rents.

Here are four ways to change that.

1. Get rid of the Height Act.

The federal law capping DC building heights is the original sin. Because developers can’t build upward, they’re encouraged to use as much of the lot as they’re allowed, resulting in uniform boxiness.

2. Get over the nostalgia.

Preservation culture runs deep, even outside DC’s 33 historic districts. Take the new apartments at Connecticut Avenue and Military Road in Chevy Chase DC. The glassy design prompted neighborhood outrage when it was proposed. Architect Eric Colbert soon added more masonry to mollify neighbors. But the tower would have been much more exciting had he stuck to the original plan.

3. Limit the power of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

ANCs—the lowest, most local level of District government—are often made up of community activists interested in preserving the status quo. They’re also a typical first stop for developers seeking approval of new projects. In other words, it’s not an arrangement that encourages innovation. DC’s Comprehensive Plan could be tweaked to limit ANCs’ influence on zoning and historic-preservation decisions.

4. Stop making excuses.

Calling out DC’s byzantine rules is a start, but our dull city-scape is also the product of architects and builders who use those requirements as an excuse rather than a challenge to be creative. “We need to provide people with examples,” says developer Martin Ditto. “If you have a town that’s all terrible architecture and you pitch some-thing great, you have limited appeal. People in DC are just now waking up.”

This article is part of the cover story in our April 2017 issue of Washingtonian, on newsstands now.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.