MAYBE WE’RE BIASED, but Washington, D.C., is — without doubt — a gorgeous city. Breathtaking vistas, stately architecture, lush parks and an elegant spaciousness have made for a distinctive urban landscape that must be protected. At the same time, it’s worth having a discussion about whether the federal building-height limits that have shaped the city’s character need updating to meet new economic and environmental challenges.
The possibility of amending the century-old law that limits most buildings in the city to 130 feet is subject of a renewed push by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). According to The Post’s Tim Craig, Mr. Gray has spoken in recent weeks to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who heads the House committee with oversight over the District, about ways Congress might amend the regulations. It is not the first time the issue has been raised, and there predictably has been a backlash from those who fear that K Street could become a forest of glass skyscrapers and that the monuments will be obscured by Crystal City-style development.
City officials answer that the monumental core is off limits and that only minimal changes — perhaps an additional story to allow higher ceilings, sleeker lines and more green space — would be considered for downtown. One proposal, for example, would retain the current limits but give developers more flexibility by allowing human occupancy in areas now restricted for mechanical equipment.
A separate issue is whether the District should have greater flexibility to allow taller buildings outside the downtown area in the still-evolving neighborhoods of Southeast and Northeast Washington. Not only could such a change revitalize parts of the city by making them more attractive to developers, but it would also produce more tax revenue, not to mention the environmental benefits of denser development. Great European cities such as Paris and London have shown that dense development on the outskirts of a city doesn’t threaten its inner beauty. Mr. Issa, who is proving to be an important advocate for D.C. home rule, sensibly argued that city officials are just as concerned as residents about not adversely affecting the city’s historic vistas and areas. “The question,” he said, “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.’ ”
Worry that the District would run amok in allowing ever-taller buildings overlooks the unique protections that are already in place through institutions such as the National Capital Planning Commission or the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Unlike other cities, zoning authority rests with a well-regarded zoning commission, not the legislature. There would remain an elaborate planning and approval process in which nearby residents have considerable input.
Nonetheless, any decision about changing the building-height limits that have so shaped the city’s character must be done with great care — and plenty of discussion.