Major D.C. building height changes are rejected by planning commission

November 19, 2013

A planning body charged with examining changes to the federal law restricting building heights in the District declined to endorse major changes Tuesday, voting to reject a recommendation to potentially allow higher structures in outlying parts of the city.

The National Capital Planning Commission voted 7 to 3 to remove language from a staff report that said the 1910 Height of Buildings Act should be amended to exempt areas of the city outside the historic core planned in the 18th century by Pierre L’Enfant. Instead, the report will say that the issue is worthy of further study and future consideration.

Without that recommendation in the commission’s final report, it is unlikely that Congress will entertain significant changes to the law. It is a setback for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and his planning director, Harriet Tregoning, who have argued that the height restrictions should be loosened somewhat to accommodate the future growth of the city.

Tregoning, who is Gray’s representative on the commission, was among the votes in favor of relaxing the current building-heights limits.

The idea of relaxing building heights in the city has been deeply controversial, even among city officials. Tregoning was joined by mayoral appointee Robert E. Miller, but mayoral appointee Arrington Dixon and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who also sits on the commission, voted to maintain the status quo.

With the exception of presidential appointee Elizabeth Ann White, the commission members representing federal elected officials and agencies voted against making significant changes.

Peter May, a National Park Service official, said the commission’s action is “affirming that this law contributes to a unique and special experience” for District residents and visitors.

Building heights in the city are “a matter of national interest,” he said. “It is about quality, it is about human scale, it is about being a welcoming city, not an imposing city.”

The vote came Tuesday evening after three hours of public testimony, some of it highly charged and almost all of it against making any significant changes to the federal law.

The commission’s report will be forwarded to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), requested the study last year. Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Issa, said the committee expects to hold a hearing next month on the final recommendations.

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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