I just got back from five days in Washington, D.C. and New York. These are cities with very different skylines, but both are the result of conscious decisions made by city leaders over many years.
Washington's skyline is like a tabletop thanks to a rule that doesn't allow buildings to exceed a height limit designed to preserve the view of the U.S. Capitol and other monuments from afar. The result has been that virtually all privately owned buildings in the central city are built to a legal maximum of about eleven stories.
Contrast that with New York. There the sky is pretty much the limit. Buildings soar sometimes in what I consider to be beautiful urban canyons. Sometimes they stick up like sleek modern needles rising tens of stories above old five or six story buildings. It's dynamic, exciting and ever changing compared to D.C., which feels dull and staid by comparison.
So, given a choice I'd take New York's wide-open dynamism over Washington's careful regulation any day of the week.
This matters to Madison because we follow the Washington model. Both state law and city ordinance limit the height of buildings within a mile of the state Capitol building. It's a little more interesting here because our hilly topography allows buildings of different heights, whereas Washington's flatness contributes to the tabletop effect.
All this comes to mind now because Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) is now proposing that the height limitations be expanded out by another mile. Now, I have the greatest respect for Sen. Risser. He's done a lot for Madison and our most important institution, the University of Wisconsin. So, it's with trepidation that I disagree with him -- and strongly -- on this one.
The problem with these sorts of limits is that they're all about the skyline and frankly, a city's skyline -- how it appears from its suburbs -- just isn't all that important. What matters is how a city works --- how it looks and feels and functions --- on the street level. It's why I cringe when so many Madisonians talk about any building of even modest height as lacking in "a human scale." Few buildings in Manhattan would qualify as having a human scale, and yet the place is among the most vibrant, healthy urban landscapes on earth. For a place so lacking in human scale, it sure is enjoyed by a lot of humans.
Contrast that with Atlanta, where the city fathers consciously tried to create a Manhattan of the South skyline. Only they forgot to make those buildings interact with the street. So, the place does look impressive as you approach it, but then you get there and it's pretty horrible. People drive massive highways and park in massive underground parking garages, get in elevators to their offices, eat lunch in a restaurant in the same building and drive out again at the end of the day. You walk around downtown Atlanta at midday, look up at all the buildings, and wonder where all the people are.
The point is that a city's skyline is a secondary consideration at best. I don't care much how Madison looks from Middleton. I care how it works on the gritty ground. Designed properly, with limited parking and no expanded roads to avoid Atlanta's mistakes, taller buildings will put more people on the street creating wonderful urban congestion. And looked at that way it seems to me that not only should we not expand the Capitol height limits, we should revisit even having any at all.