Unlike other major cities known for their skylines punctuated by iconic skyscrapers, the District is dotted by low-rises and federally protected monuments. Developers have repeatedly said the rules have led to a squatty, boxy look along major commercial corridors, such as K Street and Connecticut Avenue.
Such complaints have been dismissed by those who are more concerned with the preservation of historic city vistas. But officials said the recent discussions stem from the reality that the city may soon only be able to grow vertically because of scarcity of land and projected population growth.
The District has periodically tested federal authorities’ willingness to budge on height limits, with previous attempts collapsing under the weight of community and congressional opposition. But Issa, who chairs the committee with jurisdiction over the District, said he wants to work with the city to transfer more authority over to local planners.
“The city is just as concerned, and city leaders and community folks are just as concerned, about not raising the height limits in a way that would adversely affect vista or historic areas,” said Issa, who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The question is, ‘Should a federal prohibition be loosened to allow them to make those decisions in concert with historical groups?’ And my general feeling is, ‘Yes.’ ”
Issa, Gray and Norton said they primarily envision minor modifications to the height restrictions, perhaps an additional story onto some projects. But even a small change could make District buildings sleeker, raise ceiling heights and provide more opportunity for green space, architects said.
Issa said he’s also exploring whether the District should have greater flexibility to consider even taller buildings in areas away from downtown, a change that could one day remake parts of Northeast and Southeast and help the city absorb new residents and businesses.
“We haven’t come to any firm conclusions, but we are definitely talking about it,” Gray said. “It would help hugely with economic development.”
While height ceilings in many cities were established in the late 19th or early 20th centuries to respond to the skyscraper, local authorities in other cities have been able to modify or remove them to keep pace with demand and market forces. But in a city where such change would require a unified Congress and a presidential signature, the District’s skyline has been held in check.
Contrary to local lore, the District’s height cap was not designed to guarantee that no building towered over the U.S. Capitol. Congress approved the restrictions in 1899 to temper community opposition to the newly built 160-foot Cairo apartment building on Q Street NW. Congress set stricter standards for the District in 1910.