D.C. building heights could rise in some places, federal commission is set to conclude

Correction: A previous version of the story mistakenly said that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) asked for a commission review of building heights.

November 18, 2013

A key planning commission is set to recommend that Congress allow the District to relax building height limits in some parts of the city outside the downtown core.

Draft recommendations released Monday by the National Capital Planning Commission call for allowing “targeted exceptions” to the current building height limitations, set by a 1910 act of Congress. The commission, which is composed of federal and local appointees, is expected to approve the recommendations at a Tuesday meeting.

But the recommended changes come with several caveats. The commission’s draft says changes to the current height limits should be entertained only outside the portion of the city planned in the 18th century by Pierre L’Enfant, roughly located south of Florida Avenue from Rock Creek east to the Anacostia River.

In addition, any changes to the heights of buildings, which are generally calibrated to the widths of the streets they face, must be approved through the city’s comprehensive plan — a document subject to a particularly rigorous drafting and amendment process. The comprehensive plan, which is meant to guide zoning and more granular urban planning, was last wholly revised in 2006.

The commission’s review of building heights was launched a year ago, after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked the body to study the Height of Buildings Act and its effects on the city more than a century after its passage.

An initial set of recommendations offered by the commission was more modest, concluding that the law “continues to meet the essential interests and needs of the federal government” and that broader changes would have “significant adverse effect on federal interests.”

The revised draft offered Monday, while more open to changes, comes nowhere close to the recommendations issued by the District’s planning office in September. Those called for downtown buildings as high as 200 feet — 40 feet higher than the current limit for structures along Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Harriet Tregoning, the city’s chief planner, who also represents Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) on the commission, has argued that the District needs to consider relaxing height limits to accommodate the city’s growth — particularly in light of the city’s recent population boom and broader trends toward denser development and less car-dependent lifestyles.

“This is about the city’s ability to have a stable economy and to be fiscally resilient,” she said in a September interview.

On Monday, she said that the latest revisions reflect “good progress” and that discussion is continuing on the commission’s final report.

But many local activists have strongly objected to the notion that the District’s buildings must grow taller to accommodate growth. Groups including the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and National Trust for Historic Preservation have said the arguments for changing the height limits are unsound and threaten the city’s special character.

“The National Trust’s review . . . leads us to conclude that the Height Act has proven to be effective in shaping and protecting the character of the Nation’s Capital, and the Height Act continues to serve the public interest,” the latter group said in an October letter to the commission.

Inside the historic “L’Enfant city,” the commission appears to recommend only a very modest change — allowing people to occupy “penthouse” spaces currently reserved for mechanical systems. That recommendation would have no effect on overall building heights.

If the draft recommendations are approved Tuesday as expected, they will be forwarded to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Issa, who chairs the panel, has expressed a willingness to examine the law — “the Height Act did not come down on tablets,” he said last year — but has not announced any specific intention to pursue legislation changing it.

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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