October 1, 2007
The Price of Capitalism
Washington, D.C. debates whether preserving the views from the Mall is worth stifling development.
In 1791, when Pierre Charles L’Enfant laid out the nation’s capital, he had no way of knowing that skyscrapers would one day threaten his creation. More than two centuries later, however, the sanctity of Washington’s ceremonial heart is under assault. A developer-driven plan to erect two high-rises just across the Potomac River in Rosslyn, Virginia, is striking at democracy’s symbolic soul.
The villain, for those who see one, is capitalism, a force as fixed in the national psyche as democracy itself. The victim is the National Mall, a priceless landscape visited by millions. Thanks to the District of Columbia’s height limit—130 feet—the Mall has yet to be eclipsed by a backdrop of skyscrapers with corporate logos and bright lights. Now the mid-rise burg across the river, known mostly as a commuter throughway, is aspiring to become Manhattan on the Potomac. Or maybe Dubai. The project raises questions as old as states’ rights: Should a Virginia locality’s desire to assert itself with a signature “gateway” trump the good of the national capital? Or, with boundaries between city and suburb blurred by daily living, should an educated regional observer, such as the National Capital Planning Commission, be given enough power to put on the brakes?
JBG Companies, the developer, got a go-ahead in May from Arlington County to construct a complex known as Rosslyn Central Place. At 30 and 31 stories, the towers hardly register on a global yardstick. And if Rosslyn were anywhere else, the design by Beyer Blinder Belle might generate applause for fostering smart growth. But here the wave of high-rises would be the tallest in the capital region, towering over the nearest neighbors by at least 76 feet.
Not since Moscow confronted the Palace of the Soviets or Paris the Tour Montparnasse has a capital faced a high-rise of such symbolic angst. Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, sounded the alarm on the op-ed page of the Washington Post in June, warning that the potential for damage to L’Enfant’s legacy deserved further study. The commission has long argued that buildings taller than 20 stories desecrate the panoramic view from the Mall to the point of “urban vandalism,” as the late chairman J. Carter Brown once declared. “We are concerned about it,” Marcel Acosta, acting executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, agreed in August.
Trouble is, neither body has jurisdiction, and the developer is unbowed. “I actually think this is providing the skyline that Washington totally lacks,” counters Kathleen L. Webb, principal of JBG. “There’s nothing wrong with looking up from the Mall and seeing a pretty skyline.”
The clash of wills has so far been mercifully stifled by the Federal Aviation Administration. Rosslyn sits in the flight path to Reagan National Airport, so any building more than 189 feet above sea level needs a special exemption. The agency stamped the towers “presumed to be hazardous” and announced it would analyze the entire region before issuing a ruling, which had not occurred as of press time. Score one for bureaucracy, though it’s still not clear who can defend the Mall from modernity.
“The National Mall is a symbol for everyone, whether you’re from Alaska or Maine,” Luebke says. “How far do you have to go to protect it?” The answer from Rosslyn, which L’Enfant knew as the leafy Arlington Ridge, is: don’t even try. Officials say monuments are nice, but residents want walkable neighborhoods with Wi-Fi cafés and organic markets, just like those in Chicago or Seattle. Planners everywhere have translated these goals into a profitable mix of high-rises over a transit hub, and Rosslyn wants its day in the sun. So what if the planning model intrudes on the nation’s enjoyment of L’Enfant’s historic view?
The roots of the problem reach to 1846, when Rosslyn was transferred from the District of Columbia to Virginia. The place soon became a hideout for bandits. Brothels and oil tanks flourished. In the 1960s and ’70s the enclave was victimized by urban renewal. Gritty streets were replaced with canyons of uninspired office buildings linked by failed utopian skywalks and plenty of highways. The city acquired a Metro stop. But its chief asset remains a prime location directly opposite L’Enfant’s ceremonial plan for a national front lawn, which developers are now hawking as a condo amenity—“views unrivaled anywhere in the world.”
The specter of a Dubai-scale skyline looming over the Lincoln Memorial is still an exaggeration. Nevertheless, National Park Service ranger Dave Murphy, whose job is to monitor development adjacent to parkland, was disturbed to hear support at a zoning meeting for letting Rosslyn “go to 1,000 feet”—a clear signal that the days of deference to the capital are over. Central Place would rise about 470 feet above sea level, while the Washington Monument stands at 555 feet. County officials acknowledge that other towers in the 400-foot range are in the planning stages. “The District can hate us if they want to,” says Arlington’s economic development director, Terry Holzheimer. “We think we’re doing a great job.”
L’Enfant supporters’ efforts to keep a lid on Rosslyn’s skyline have already been rebuffed twice in court. A 1979 suit brought by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), an appointed body headquartered in Washington, failed to halt two 31-story curved-front buildings that define Rosslyn’s skyline today. The NCPC then tried to appeal only to be told by a Virginia court that it had no jurisdiction. To turn those decisions around, “you’d have to have a groundswell of public outrage,” Luebke says. “You’d have to rewrite the laws.”
Congress charged the planning commission with protecting “the beauty and historic fabric” of the capital. After 83 years the mandate has not grown beyond the review of federal and District government projects. The agency can advise on private development only if it would have an impact on “the federal interest.” To give the commission teeth would be to acknowledge a need for regional decision-making, which no one yet has done.
“We don’t do any regional planning,” Holzheimer says. “It’s every community for itself.” In the vacuum, developers become the power brokers. JBG recently announced plans for 93 projects on 42 sites in every jurisdiction of the metropolitan area, a portfolio worth an estimated $10 billion. Webb makes no secret of her desire to rid the District of its height limit “in my lifetime,” which conjures up a ghostly image of L’Enfant’s ceremonial core as a glorified pocket park.
Preservation has always benefited from the roar of gentle lions. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy fought off a high-rise development at Lafayette Square, directly in front of the White House. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan cleaned up Pennsylvania Avenue. Eleanor Roosevelt did her part to save Manhattan from Robert Moses and his Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. The plea she wrote in her newspaper column in 1939 could be applied to Rosslyn today: in the eternal march for progress, she asked, “isn’t there room for some consideration of the preservation of the few beautiful spots that still remain to us…?”
Moses’s bridge project was killed three months later. President Franklin Roosevelt called in the War Department, which declared the proposed bridge vulnerable to attack and a hazard to the Navy, and that was that. The generals have not been asked to rule on Rosslyn, and there’s no evidence that the Bush White House cares. But it’s worth noting that on the FAA’s map a bold purple line notes the proximity of the proposed towers to the Pentagon, a mile or so away.
L’Enfant did not have to consider such issues when designing the capital, but his patron, George Washington, would have understood. There is no trump card as powerful as national security. “Obviously if it’s a hazard to national airspace,” the FAA’s Tammy L. Jones says, “we’d have to make a determination.”
Find out more facts about this subject on the Reference Page: October 2007