"On one point both sides agreed. If a height limit [in St. Louis, a representative case] as low as 125 feet was imposed, the business district would spread out. So much the better, argued some. In the interest of increasing property values, a St. Louis real estate agent claimed, 'It is better to have lower buildings scattered over 15 or 20 blocks than to have a few big buildings in half a dozen blocks.' Not so, responded others. If downtown St. Louis was spread over a wider territory, it would make it harder to do business in the city. The more compact the business district, the better."
And in New York: "[A height limit proposed in 1908] failed for another, more baffling reason. As the Real Estate Record pointed out, a height limit would have spread the business district 'over a much larger area,' and thus would have raised property values everywhere in Manhattan except on or near lower Broadway and Fifth Avenue, where most of the skyscrapers were erected."It appears that some agreement existed that a height limit would produce a net increase in citywide property values, and further that this increase would be equitably spread among a large number of property owners, a compelling point which was met by the argument that the agglomeration effects of high density, in concentration, outweighed this loss in values. The argument of the pro-limit faction, however, necessarily depended on the absence of zoning, for with height limits imposed, the resultant economic benefits could only flow if the business district were permitted unencumbered horizontal expansion into existing non-commercial areas.
In the 1920s, however, the prevailing model of height limits with no zoning was swiftly replaced by a new model of zoning and height limits, except in the existing business core. The exception was Washington, D.C., which retained relatively low height limits while zoning itself into a corner – a sure recipe for space shortages and inflated rents down the line (it also did not help that L'Enfant's city plan, with its extravagantly wide streets, left Washington with less downtown buildable area than almost any other large American city).
So which side of the debate was right? Was there a right answer at all? It is difficult to know, since there is no large North American city with a meaningful height limit but no zoning that can serve as a point of comparison (European examples are abundant, however). In a sense the full urban vision of those who advocated for limits is more distant than ever, for not only has the pro-height and agglomeration viewpoint (as presented in its undiluted essence in Triumph of the City) continued to assert itself, but even the historical preservationists whom Glaeser takes to task frequently advocate against horizontal densification, as the lower-density neighborhoods encircling many a central business district frequently happen to be filled with a city's most notable architecture, or most vocal homeowners. Still, the economic claims of the pro-limit real estate men of the 1920s should in theory be no less valid today than they were at the time, and remain available as a potential, but long-dormant, counter-argument to the economics of the agglomerationists.
A vigorous debate over Washington's Height Act at GGW.