Infrastructure & Environment

Is Washington, D.C. Too Short?

December 16, 2013

In the late summer of 1791, a 37-year-old former French art student and veteran of the Revolutionary War presented George Washington with his plan for a new American capital on the banks of the Potomac River. “The city must be beautiful, due advantage being taken of the hilly nature of the spot for grand or lovely prospects,” Pierre Charles L’Enfant wrote.

Two and a quarter centuries later, L’Enfant’s enduring vision has made Washington perhaps the most horizontal — and certainly the most Parisian — city in the United States, an interlocking grid of elegant avenues in which the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome dominate the unimpeded grand and lovely vistas that still abound.

Today’s capital is a city in which square corners suddenly give way to sharp angles, and straight triumphal thoroughfares are broken up by sinuous, verdant traffic circles dotted with monuments to immortal and forgotten heroes. The whole of it spreads, rain or shine, beneath the wide-open skies and approaching jets at Reagan National Airport.

A hot debate is now under way in Congress and the city over whether that should change — at least a bit. Washington will never resemble the canyons of Wall Street, or even the less jagged skylines of Boston, Cleveland, Dallas or Denver. But proposals are afoot that could make the biggest changes in the District of Columbia’s signature low-rise cityscape in more than 100 years.

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