Jonetta Rose Barras
Jonetta Rose Barras
Opinion Writer

In praise of a towerless D.C.

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This Thanksgiving week, let’s offer our gratitude to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the D.C. Council for declining city planning director Harriet Tregoning’s recommendations to increase the limit on building heights in the District. They decided to adhere to that adage: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

“Testimony at hearings and in every forum was overwhelmingly opposed to changing the Height Act,” council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told me, adding that the current limit is a “more human scale, respects landmarks — local as well as national — and makes Washington, D.C., unique. . . . People like it, and we don’t get anything for increasing heights.”

Jonetta Rose Barras

Jonetta Rose Barras’s weekly column focuses on local life, government and politics, with an emphasis on the District. With more than 20 years’ experience reporting and commenting for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, City Paper, WAMU and other outlets, she is a familiar voice in the D.C. region.

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Still, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the person who helped launch this entire discussion, intends to hold a hearing Monday on the issue. Tregoning and representatives of the NCPC have been invited to testify.

In the late 1990s, elected officials imagined the District as Paris on the Potomac. The city may not have achieved that distinction, but it is a wonderful cosmopolis. People have flocked here after falling in love with the city’s Southern charm, enviable beauty and dramatic vistas.

Why mimic Chicago and Gotham City? The cultural opportunities in New York are great, but I am not enamored of the city. On a spring day in the District, I can see the sun and feel its warmth on my face. A walk around Manhattan often is like traveling through an endless tunnel. Monstrously huge buildings overshadow everything.

The Gray administration has recommended that the District be allowed to set the height of buildings in certain neighborhoods outside the federal enclave, or what has been described as the Pierre L’Enfant City. Tregoning’s office has argued that such changes could be established through “a collaborative future comprehensive plan process” involving the commission, the council and D.C. residents. Further, it maintains, increasing building heights would help the city “accommodate future population growth.” The alternative would be a D.C. “affordable only to the very few.”

Tregoning and others have thrown out a variety of reasons for the change; the latest was related to home rule and the city’s ability to control its destiny. “Each one has been debunked,” said Mendelson, adding that he “would think residents might be offended if we got a change in the height act before we received budget autonomy or voting representation.”

Perhaps the most ridiculous of the claims is that a height limit increase would result in additional affordable housing in the city. Skyscrapers and penthouses often increase land value.

“Affordable housing” is the overwrought phrase du jour. It is tossed around by politicians and their handlers to assuage the fears of certain constituencies. They pledge to build, hoping to cement their bona fides as protectors of the community.

It’s all political packaging, of course. Consider, for example, that the mayor announced intentions to spend more than $100 million building or preserving affordable housing units. Then, however, his administration advocated swapping the Frank Reeves Municipal Center to instigate the development of additional upscale luxury apartments at 14th and U Streets NW and the construction of a soccer stadium for D.C. United. Still another day, he proposes skyscrapers with penthouses in neighborhoods where housing actually is affordable.

There have been hints that areas in Wards 5, 7 and 8 might be perfect for increasing the height of buildings. Does anyone remember housing complexes in places such as Chicago that reached into the sky? As the tenements deteriorated, residents became prisoners of those structures, unable to navigate the buildings because of inoperable elevators or gangs of drug dealers who formed human blockades.

In the New York area, following Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of senior citizens were stuck in their apartments, unable to travel down or up 20 flights of stairs to secure water and food for themselves. They had to depend on the kindness of neighbors.

Sure, there are underdeveloped sections of the District. But residents in those areas are interested in reviving their middle-class neighborhoods — not in the construction of below- market-rate housing or towers in the sky. Moreover, they want upscale retail outlets that appeal to them and white-tablecloth restaurants where they can have a pleasant dining experience without going downtown or trekking into Maryland.

Linking changes to the Height Act to home rule and affordable housing is nothing more than a propaganda ploy used to reduce residents’ resistance. This is all about satisfying salivating developers searching for ways to make more money than they are now making constructing the usual luxury housing and retail — the city’s character and beauty be damned.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

 
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