D.C. planners propose increasing building height limits downtown

September 25, 2013

Say goodbye to our squat city?

Downtown buildings could rise as tall as 200 feet — 40 feet higher than current limits — and structures outside the city core could climb higher still under recommendations issued by District planners this month.

At the request of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, those planners and the National Capital Planning Commission have spent the past 10 months pondering changes to the 103-year-old Height of Buildings Act.

The commission, charged with evaluating changes to the federal law regulating building heights in the District, has proposed much more modest changes, finding that the current limits continue to meet the city’s needs.

Whether a final report due to Congress in November will offer clear guidance — following consultations between commission and District planners — remains to be seen.

The study commissioned by Issa has encompassed a larger debate over how the city needs to change to accommodate a growing population and the sanctity of the city’s overwhelmingly horizontal skyline.

The recommendations offered Friday by the District’s planning office are more aggressive than the marginal changes discussed in recent years that would allow perhaps one additional story of habitable space in downtown buildings.

Under the District’s new proposal, federal building height limitations would be restricted to “L’Enfant City” — the oldest part of the city, located south of Florida Avenue — where they would remain calibrated to street widths but loosened enough to allow buildings as high as 200 feet along the widest corridors.

Currently, the city’s tallest buildings are generally limited to 130 feet, except on Pennsylvania Avenue NW between the White House and Capitol, where 160-foot buildings are permitted.

Outside of the city core, under the city’s plan, height limits would be left to existing planning devices — the drafting of the citywide comprehensive plan and the zoning process.

“This is looking at 100 years,” said Harriet Tregoning, director of the planning office. “We’re not expecting that we’re bringing tall buildings to a neighborhood near you anytime soon, but this is about the city’s ability to have a stable economy and to be fiscally resilient.”

Without changes to allow more development, Tregoning said, the District would become a city available exclusively for the wealthy. “The demand to be here is so strong that the prices would raise out of reach of not only low-income households but also ­middle-income households,” she said.

But a coterie of local activists is strongly resisting the notion that buildings must get taller to accommodate future growth. Nancy MacWood of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a civic organization that monitors city planning and zoning issues, said she was “stunned” by the city’s proposal, saying many of its recommendations are based on faulty assumptions.

“This is 100 years of predictable growth in the District that in one afternoon or evening is being overturned,” she said.

The National Capital Planning Commission, the body charged with monitoring federal interests in city planning and development, has also expressed reservations about major changes to the height law, issuing much less ambitious recommendations this month.

The commission’s staff recommended allowing the habitation of downtown roof structures previously restricted to mechanical equipment and acknowledged “some opportunities for strategic change” in outlying parts of the city. But it concluded that the existing law “continues to meet the essential interests and needs of the federal government” and that significant changes in the city core would have “significant adverse effect on federal interests.”

Marcel Acosta, the commission’s executive director, said his body and District planners will attempt to come to a consensus recommendation in the coming weeks after a presentation and a public hearing Wednesday. The commission, made up of federal and District appointees, is scheduled to approve a final report Nov. 7.

“We have much different interests on many aspects of this, but we have some commonalities,” Acosta said. But he acknowledged that the parties may issue separate reports: “We may respectfully agree to disagree on certain matters.”

“Ultimately,” he added, “it is Congress’s determination.”

A spokesman for Issa did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday.

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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