November 21, 2013

MEMBERS OF the D.C. Council have passionately argued for more home rule for local officials. They have also said they want to make the District more affordable for residents of limited or modest means. How then to explain their stunning repudiation of both principles Tuesday in a vote to oppose any changes to the century-old federal law that limits building heights in the city?

Hours before a joint local-federal panel was set to take up a recommendation that would give the District some flexibility in managing development, the council inexplicably went on record against it. It was a symbolic vote, but unfortunately the National Capital Planning Commission followed its lead and rejected efforts to make any meaningful change to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. Its recommendation and a competing proposal from city planners go to Congress, which will hold hearings next month.

At issue was a recommendation by commission staff that would have exempted areas of the city outside Pierre L’Enfant’s historic core from the rigid height limits that rule the city’s skyline. Any changes would, under the proposal, come only after a careful planning process that would include approval by the planning commission and review by Congress. The change was needed, said planning officials for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), to accommodate growth. Denser development would bring vitality to underdeveloped areas and deliver more tax revenue, affordable housing and office space.

It is astonishing that this reasonable accommodation to update rules crafted for a different time was rejected. It is equally astonishing that the effort to deny local officials more of a say was led by a local official, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who sponsored the council resolution and also sits on the planning commission.

In commissioning an assessment of the Height Act, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee with oversight over the District, wondered whether it was possible to allow for taller buildings while maintaining the city’s character. “Should we empower the city to answer some of those questions?” he asked. Who would have thought local lawmakers would say no?