Poll: Changes in D.C. building-height limits opposed by wide margin

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the support for a D.C. Council resolution opposing changes to the federal building-heights law. The measure was not endorsed unanimously; one member, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), did not join his colleagues in co-introducing it. This version has been corrected.

District residents oppose making changes to the century-old limits on building heights in the city by a wide margin, according to a Washington Post poll.

The broad sentiment against proposed changes contrasts with the position taken in recent years by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and his planning deputies, who have argued that the city needs to grow taller in places to accommodate growth and ease the housing crunch.

The Gray administration’s stance led a key congressman to seek studies of the limits, which date to a 1910 federal law. Separate studies by the city and a federal planning commission are complete but reach differing conclusions, and it is unclear how Congress might proceed.

There is broad public opposition to making changes, the Post survey found. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they prefer to keep the restrictions; 37 percent said they favor allowing taller buildings.

Those preferences are consistent across a broad array of groups, with support for taller buildings failing to gain a clear a majority in any demographic or political subset in the survey, whether defined by race, age, geography or income. Among the modest differences: Men are slightly more supportive of allowing taller buildings than women are, and younger residents tend to be more supportive than older residents.

The poll reached 1,003 D.C. residents between Jan. 9 and Jan. 12 on conventional phones and cellphones. The margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points.

The split is relatively even for only two groups: residents of Ward 1, an area immediately north of downtown that has gentrified considerably in the past decade; and people who have lived in the city for five years or less.

By contrast, more than six in 10 of those respondents who have lived in the city for six years or longer said they support keeping the height limits in place. That view peaks in wards 3 and 4 at the northern tip of the city, where nearly seven in 10 respondents said height restrictions should be maintained.

Although Gray has been publicly supportive of loosening the height law, that position appears not to have hurt him politically. Registered Democrats who oppose lifting the restrictions are more apt, by 10 percentage points, to support Gray in the party’s primary race than those who agree with his position on the issue, according to the poll.

Charles Betsey, an economics professor at Howard University who lives in the Crestwood neighborhood and is supporting Gray’s reelection, said he has some sympathy for the argument that taller buildings could ease housing prices. But he said the height limits “have helped make Washington a very attractive city,” and he expressed skepticism that changing the law would have any practical effect on the cost of living.

“Developers usually have pretty good arguments for what they want to do, and they don’t necessarily follow through on them,” said Betsey, 68.

City planners have proposed amending the law to allow downtown buildings as tall as 200 feet — 40 feet higher than the current limit along Pennsylvania Avenue NW — and to allow building heights outside downtown to be set by the city’s standard planning process. The National Capital Planning Commission, on the other hand, endorsed only modest changes — most notably to allow residential occupancy of penthouse spaces in downtown buildings for the first time.

A hearing on the studies was held Dec. 2 by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has expressed some support for loosening the height restrictions.

Ahead of the hearing, 12 of 13 members of the D.C. Council endorsed a resolution opposing any changes, and Issa expressed “astonishment” at hearing that local leaders did not want the additional flexibility. “I did not expect to hear, for the first time ever, to have people say, ‘Please don’t give me authority, I can’t be trusted,’” he said at the hearing. “But to some extent I’m hearing that.”

Issa said he would determine whether to move forward with legislation or “simply close up the book . . . and wait until the city and [planning commission] come to us at some future time.”

A spokesman for Issa did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, and Gray said he had spoken only briefly with Issa about the issue since the hearing.

“I think he’s going to try to move something, but I’m not sure,” Gray said. “I think the penthouse aspects will probably be moved. The rest of it, you know, is obviously controversial.”

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

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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