Washington, DC

(Profiled 6-22-21)

Washington, DC, population 692,683 (2019), adopted a plan in 1984 aimed at transforming the downtown into a vibrant, mixed-use, 24/7 neighborhood where people could live, shop, experience art, and enjoy historic landmarks as well as work. To implement those goals, the city organized the downtown into various districts for landmarks, art, retail, housing, and Chinatown. Beginning in 1989, developments in the retail overlay received bonus density for dedicated retail space. In 1991, the bonus development provisions were expanded to the other districts and to historic structures. The height limitations imposed by Washington’s Height Limit Act of 1911 make it difficult or impossible to use the bonus density on site. Consequently, the city allows developers to transfer density to off-site receiving areas in the downtown and areas on the outskirts of downtown.

The transfer provisions were included in a Downtown Development District, adopted in 1991, aimed at creating a “living downtown” featuring residential, retail, hotel, arts, and entertainment activities as well as offices. The Downtown Development District also promoted landmarks preservation, a revitalized Chinatown, corridors for performing and visual arts, a compact shopping area, and, in general, a lively downtown. Bonus for implementing these goals were included in five areas.

Downtown Shopping District – Above a mandatory FAR 2.0 of retail, additional department store floor area generates FAR 3.0 of bonus density for the building. Bonus FAR 2.0 is generated for a legitimate theater. Bonus FAR 1.0 is created for floor area dedicated to a movie theater, performance arts space, anchor store, or minority-owned business.

Downtown Arts District – Here, FAR 1.0 must be devoted to entertainment, art, or retail, including at least 0.25 FAR in true art. Various FAR bonuses are granted for additional floor area in several qualifying art categories including art centers and art schools.  

Chinatown – Bonus FAR is granted for specified uses as well as retail floor area above FAR 1.0.  

Residential and Mixed Use Districts – Bonus density generated by various retails uses including groceries and drug stores. 

Historic District – Unused development potential can be transferred to receiving sites.  

Developers can provide the preferred uses that qualify for FAR bonuses by using a procedure called Combined Lot Development on two separate sites as long as they are located in the same district.

Developments are limited to 6.5 FAR and 90 feet of building height in the downtown. Consequently, TDRs can be transferred to two areas at the edge of downtown. In Downtown East, developments using TDR can achieve 9.0 FAR and 110 feet of building height. In the other receiving area, New Downtown, projects using TDR can reach FAR 10.0 and 130 feet of building height in places where that height is allowed under the 1910 Height Act. 

Washington facilitates transfers by issuing TDRs upon the execution of covenants that incorporate a schedule for required renovations and maintenance of the preferred use as well as sending site restrictions. These TDRs can be held or applied immediately at a receiving site using an administrative approval process. 

Between 1990 and 2007, 9,523,000 TDRs were generated. Of this total, 7,985,000 TDRs were transferred and the remainder were either banked or did not transfer. Historic landmarks generated many of these TDRs until 2005. Beginning in 1998, residential TDRs began to predominate. In early 1990s, TDRs averaged over $35 per square foot but dropped to about $10 per square foot in the early 2000s (Alpert 2009).


Alpert, David. 2009. Downtown’s zoning: How the best of downtown came to be. Greater Greater Washington. Accessed 6-22-21 at    https://ggwash.org/view/1793/downtowns-zoning-how-the-best-of-downtown-came-to-be.