House panel will hear Height Act recommendations Monday

November 25, 2013

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who requested the building heights study, will chair Monday’s hearing. (Harry Hamburg/AP)

The only people who can make changes to building height limits in the District of Columbia — members of Congress — will hear suggestions on doing so next week.

A Monday hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will feature witnesses from the National Capital Planning Commission, which voted last week to recommend only modest changes to the Heights of Buildings Act, and from the District’s planning office, which is advocating for more significant changes.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, the California Republican who called last year for new study of the 1910 federal law, will chair the hearing, titled “Changes to The Heights Act: Shaping Washington, D.C., for the Future, Part II.”

The prospect that Congress will make significant modifications would appear to be bleak given the commission’s vote not to endorse anything more ambitious than a loosening of current restrictions on the use of building penthouses for anything but mechanical equipment. The commission, which includes both federally and locally appointed members, is generally recognized as the voice of federal government’s interests in local planning matters.

But the District planning office, in the wake of the commission vote, has opted to transmit its own recommendations — a minority report of sorts — advocating a significant relaxation of the current law.

In the “L’Enfant City,” the historic core laid out by Pierre L’Enfant in the late 18th century, buildings as tall as 160 feet would be permitted on some downtown streets and avenues, up from the current limit of 130 feet. (In the special case of Pennsylvania Avenue NW between the White House and Capitol, the limit would rise to 200 feet from the current 160 feet.) Outside the historic core, city planners would allow the current height restrictions to be modified by future Comprehensive Plan amendments — a joint local-federal process that occurs infrequently and irregularly.

D.C. planning chief Harriet Tregoning, a fierce proponent of relaxing the current law, said she is optimistic that Issa won’t dismiss the local perspective. “Last I checked, [the House committee] asked us separately,” she said. “If they just wanted NCPC’s opinion, they would have just asked the commission to send them something.”

She also made note of Issa’s GOP affiliation as proof that he’s “not necessarily absolutely devoted to what the executive branch wants to do.” (Six of the commission’s 12 members are appointees of President Obama’s or represent executive agencies.)

“I think he’ll draw his own conclusions,” Tregoning said.

The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. The panel is expected to hear testimony only from commission officials and District government planners. But interested groups and individuals are invited to contact Ali.Ahmad@mail.house.gov to submit statements for the record.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · November 25, 2013