Will The Chinese Repay the Favour on Height Restrictions?

Washington, like old Beijing, has height restrictions on its buildings:

An increase in the supply of leasable square footage in the district would solve the problem. But D.C. real-estate developers are constrained by a 113-year-old federal law, the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, under which no city building can be taller than the width of the street it faces plus an additional 20 feet. The maximum building height on a commercial thoroughfare—with a few minor exceptions—is 130 feet. The maximum height in a residential neighborhood is 90 feet. The district also has its own municipal height limits; and in many neighborhoods, the local limit is actually lower than the federal one.

Although the original motivation of height restrictions in the District was a reaction to an ugly hotel overlooking a neighbourhood, the idea of commercial buildings overlooking–let along blocking the view of–the White House and the Capitol has helped to keep these in place.  In some places builders have placed very stout foundations to their buildings, hoping that someday their dream of a higher skyline in Washington would come to pass.  But their dreams are, as of now, unrealised.

Although the article mentions Paris, there’s a far more important capital that had one for many years: Beijing.  At the centre of Old Beijing was the Forbidden City, the residence and seat of power of the Emperor.  There the Son of Heaven could forbid any tall buildings to overlook his palace.  That changed with the failure of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900-1, where a multinational force entered Beijing and forced the Chinese to accept their concessions and privileges.  Part of that was breaking the height restriction around the Forbidden City.  The French were the first to take advantage of that, building the Beijing Hotel just down the street from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (the Tienanmen).

The Forbidden City, taken from the “new” (Soviet) part of the Beijing Hotel, 1981.

Now we have Washington, ruled by the Son of (well, you fill in the blank) and his mandarins on the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  They’re dickering about easing the height restrictions, but compared to most American cities (to say nothing about the rest of the world) there isn’t much easing going on.

But perhaps the time has come for the Chinese to repay the favour we did them more than a century ago by breaking our height restrictions.  There are two ways this could be done.

The first is the way the West did it in China: have the People’s Liberation Army roll into Washington, extract humiliating terms, and then build a big skyscraper with a nice view of the White House lawn.  There are a few in the PLA that would like to see that happen.

But there’s an easier, less expensive way: let the Chinese take all the “hard currency” they’ve earned over here, buy enough land and politicians up, and then build the big skyscraper with a nice view of the White House lawn.

If we keep fooling around the way we do with this and the many other problems we have as a nation, Option 2 won’t be that hard to pull off.  And then we’ll all need a fistful of yuan to get along.

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