November 22, 2013

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council sent a message to Congress on the subject of self-determination. That message: “Congress, please don’t give us more control over our city. We need you to tell us what’s good for us. We don’t want to make our own choices.”

The issue was the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which limits how high buildings can rise throughout the District. It’s a subject upon which reasonable people can disagree. You might think that the District’s flat skyline is a fundamental part of its character, or that the buildings along K Street are needlessly boxy, or that a few taller buildings are a better way to meet demand for housing than adding density everywhere in the city. There’s general consensus that little should change in the downtown area, near all the monuments and memorials, but what about other areas? What about along the Maryland line, where land is under no such restriction? How about east of the Anacostia River? Many buildings already tower in Arlington, just across the Potomac River from the monumental core, and most people have no problem with them.

Most of the debate about the height limit has indeed revolved around whether one appreciates or reviles tall buildings. It would be understandable to think that D.C. leaders were voting this week on whether to loosen the rules that made the city’s skyline look the way it does.

They were not. The issue was not whether to increase building heights. It was whether D.C. residents and leaders should get a say on the issue.

Two laws determine the maximum height of buildings in the District: the Height of Buildings Act and local zoning. Congress passed the first; a local board made up of D.C. and federal appointees created — and can alter — the second, based on a Comprehensive Plan into which D.C. planners, the D.C. Council and federal officials all have input. Outside downtown and adjacent areas such as NoMa and the ballpark district, local zoning is more restrictive than the Height Act, meaning that, as a city, we have collectively decided to keep buildings shorter than Congress requires.

We can debate the wisdom or folly of that approach, but nobody is suggesting that we return to the days before home rule and have Congress govern all zoning. So why should it dictate maximum building heights in every corner of the city?

That’s the logic behind the recent suggestion by the D.C. Office of Planning and the staff of the National Capital Planning Commission — that the hybrid local-federal process, not Congress, govern building heights beyond the city center. Their proposal was modest; even if it were approved, no building could exceed current height limits unless planners, local leaders and federal officials all signed off. Taller buildings would still be almost entirely impossible to construct, but at least there would be a complex and difficult path to them if enough people thought they were a good idea.

Apparently, council members don’t trust their own constituents, or their future constituents, that far.

Instead, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) introduced a resolution endorsing keeping Congress’s rules in place. Every other council member co-sponsored the resolution save one: Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

A federal agency wanted to give the District the ability to be involved in discussions, possibly decades in the future, about its own built environment, and 12 council members said thanks but no thanks.

Democracy is about letting the people and their chosen leaders make choices. We might not always agree with those choices, but as a society we believe in letting communities choose their own paths.

Certainly, there are times when we place limits on a legislature, such as with our Bill of Rights. We don’t want to let states choose whether to abridge the freedom of speech or deny people a trial by jury. A city’s built environment, however, is not that kind of issue. It’s an issue that’s debated and decided at the local level all over the nation.

Except in the District.

I think it’s fair, in the nation’s capital, for federal officials to be able to override decisions that negatively impact the federal government, but otherwise D.C. residents deserve to govern themselves. That’s what self-determination means.

The D.C. Council could certainly say that it welcomes the opportunity for local residents to decide about building heights but at the same time oppose changing the zoning right now. It might be a little shortsighted, but it’s certainly reasonable to say, “We are able to make our own choices, and we choose the status quo.” To instead say, “Don’t let us choose for ourselves, now or in the future,” just reinforces paternalistic behaviors from a Congress that has meddled in plenty of D.C. decisions in the past.

Several council members were arrested two years ago in a protest demanding more autonomy from Congress. To turn down a chance to take a step toward that goal is shortsighted at best. At worst, it undermines the District’s moral claim to self-government.

The writer is editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington.