Congress considers lifting height limits on District buildings

The District’s skyline was pitted against its bottom line Thursday, as Congress considered whether the city’s century-old restrictions on building heights should be revised.

The limits have been credited with giving D.C. its particular look and signature views of the monuments and Capitol dome. But they also have been blamed for constricting the city’s already limited tax base and blocking potential growth.

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The debate comes down to aesthetics vs. economics. Both sides were well represented at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing, although no one proposed that the city become a forest of skyscrapers.

“This committee has no desire to turn D.C. into the next New York,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who chaired the session.

The hearing followed informal discussions involving Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, about the possibility of relaxing the height restrictions.

Height restrictions were first approved by Congress in 1899 in response to public outcry over construction of the Cairo, a 160-foot-high apartment building on Q Street NW. In 1910, Congress approved the Height of Buildings Act, which established that the height of a building on a commercial street cannot exceed the width of the street by more than 20 feet and cannot exceed 130 feet overall. (The lone exception is on Pennsylvania Avenue between First and 15th streets NW, where buildings can be 160 feet.)

The rules are stricter on residential streets, where building heights generally can’t surpass street widths by more than 10 feet, with a maximum of 90 feet.

Norton said she had been unable to determine why those exact numbers were chosen. “In over 100 years, we could not find any evidence that the Height Act has been seriously analyzed,” she said.

Issa agreed, remarking after the hearing that “the Height Act did not come down on tablets.”

Congress’s unique role in overseeing the District meant that for a time, the U.S. House held hearings that resembled meetings of a municipal zoning board, with extensive debate over the city’s “topographic bowl,” rooftop setbacks and the best place to put elevator machinery.

The main focus Thursday was on what Issa called a “baby step.” The law allows buildings to exceed the height limits for mechanical equipment rooms on rooftops, and Gray has proposed allowing that extra space to be used for other purposes.

Appearing on behalf of Gray, Harriet Tregoning, the director of the D.C. Office of Planning, did not endorse any major changes to the Height Act, but she did ask for a “modest amendment” on the rooftop space.

The renewed debate comes as the city is adding population and thriving economically, boosting demand for living and office space. Downtown continues to attract more workers, residents and shoppers. But there is little room left for expansion — on the ground, at least.

“Our potential for growth is nowhere near exhausted,” District Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi testified. He said “the District already commands the second-highest commercial office rental rates in the nation” and has a low vacancy rate for apartments.

It’s unclear whether the committee will hold another hearing or propose legislation on the limits anytime soon. But Norton called the panel’s willingness to consider giving the city more authority over building heights a “breakthrough” for the cause of District home rule.

But defenders of the law contend that the lack of skyscrapers helps to give the District its distinctive appeal. Why, the argument goes, should the nation’s capital dilute its identity by trying to look more like every other city? Or like Rosslyn?

Marcel Acosta, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, said his agency supported preserving “the overall building limits” in the Height Act. Even small technical adjustments, if permitted, should be made with care.

“What seem to be minor modifications . . . could have unintended consequences for the urban design of the city,” Acosta said.

Laura M. Richards of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a nonprofit group, warned that lifting the limits “would sever the physical unity between national Washington and local Washington, to the detriment of both. . . . Washington can grow its economy and house its residents without raising its Height Act.”

That view was countered by Roger Lewis, a University of Maryland architecture professor, who called the limits “inappropriate and unnecessarily constraining.”

Lewis suggested that limits in parts of the city’s core could be preserved while changes are made in other areas, including along the Anacostia River waterfront and around some Metro stations. He also counseled caution.

“Adding 15 feet to a number of buildings won’t change the character or profile of the District of Columbia,” he said, but he remarked, “I’m worried about this death by 1,000 cuts.”

 
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