Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Drum Him Out of Town

Running someone out of town on a rail is actually crueler than it sounds, but could we at least drum Christopher Leinberger out of Washington? He's a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and he proposes to solve D.C.'s dwindling vacant land problem by repealing the height limitation on District buildings. No limit, he says -- "the market should dictate" building heights. He's not bothered by the lost sunlight.

Are economists idiots, or do they think the rest of us are idiots? City planning is a classic case where pure market forces can't solve everything because of the "externality" problem. Leinberger wants "the market" to dictate building heights, but "the market" can only send economic signals of whether builders can or cannot clear a profit by building high. They can't tell the builder whether society as a whole benefits from tall buildings, because some of the builder's costs get dumped on the rest of us -- the ones who have to walk in the dim, windy shadows and look at the ugly results.

You only need to look across the river to Rosslyn to see what we would get if we lifted the District's height restriction -- ugly, ugly, ugly. As soon as you cross the bridge you're in the midst of an urban hell of undistinguished, characterless, soul-crushingly ugly, high-rise buildings.

The height limit is what gives the District its unique character. It preserves our fine vistas and sunny sidewalks. We don't have to enslave ourselves to free market philosophy all the time, especially when it's obvious that the market can't send complete price signals to its participants because of externalities. Keep the height limitation.


KipEsquire said...

"They can't tell the builder whether society as a whole benefits from tall buildings..."

But politicians, bureaucrats and self-appointed "community activists" can?

Who's being naive, Kay?

Anonymous said...

I agree we should keep the height limitation. That is the reason I like DC and the reason I would not want to live in NYC.
Btw, I live in Rosslyn and it's not so ugly.

Anonymous said...

DC would be cheapened by allowing it to become just like any other medium-sized city in America. As things are now, the capitol building remains one of the (if not the) most imposing buildings in the city, and the monuments are appropriately heroic in scale. I think the grandeur of both would be lost by lifting the height restriction.