Revisiting D.C. building heights law is a win-win


Together we’ll study height limits comprehensively. (Roger K. Lewis/Roger K. Lewis)
December 7, 2012

Might the District one day have skyscraper apartment buildings?

This month the D.C. Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission begin a collaborative study of the 102-year-old federal law limiting Washington building heights. Undertaken at the request of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, this vital study is coming none too soon.

In July, Issa and the committee wisely acknowledged the need for this study during a hearing. In his October letter to the two planning agencies, Issa asked for recommendations based on an examination of “the extent to which the act continues to serve federal and local interests, and how changes to the law could affect the future of the city.”

He specifically noted in his letter that federal interests reside primarily in preserving the capital’s horizontal skyline and visual prominence of the U.S. Capitol and iconic national memorials framing and anchoring the National Mall. But of comparable import are Issa’s words about serving local interests and modifying the act to benefit the city’s future.

The letter calls for “exploration of strategic changes to the law in those areas outside the L’Enfant City that support economic development goals, while taking into account the impact on federal interests,” including security. Issa also refers to other factors affecting change cited by witnesses (of which I was one) during the hearing: neighborhood context, concerns and needs of local residents, quality and character of urban and architectural form, infrastructure availability, topography.

Because the study anticipates reform of a federal statute, the House Committee on Oversight and the two planning agencies recognize that delineating federal interests in the city is paramount. Yet, as Issa’s letter implies, identifying federal interests will by deduction identify municipal interests and possibilities. Indeed, this joint federal and municipal study exemplifies how city planning in Washington should be undertaken collaboratively.

Congress in 1910 established building height limits in the District to ensure fire safety and to respond to aesthetic concerns related to architectural scale, light, air and views. The act set an absolute maximum height in D.C. of 130 feet, except on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, where a height of 160 feet was permitted.

Yet height limits anywhere, and not just in D.C., are arbitrary numbers — why 130 feet and not 125 feet or 135 feet? There is no rule of thumb, formula or universal set of standards for setting height limits. In D.C., numbers adopted in 1910 by Congress were based on streetscape proportions: Building heights along a street cannot exceed the street right-of-way width plus 20 feet. But again, why 20 feet instead of 25 or 30 feet?

D.C. height limits also have nothing to do with the height of the Capitol dome, the Washington Monument or any other structure. Moreover, the D.C. zoning ordinance, enacted and administered over the past century by city government, stipulates zone-by-one height limits often more restrictive than the 1910 federal limits.

Some Washingtonians oppose any reconsideration of the 1910 act or D.C.’s zoning regulations governing height. They fear that no matter how minor or how localized, any changes at all entail enormous risk, inevitably unleashing irresistible pressure to relax height constraints everywhere in the city. Mistakenly believing that lifting height limits citywide is being proposed, others assume that amending the act means towers like those in Rosslyn or Bethesda, or even taller, will pop up all over downtown.

Although understandable, such anxieties are unwarranted. By conducting a detailed, comprehensive city-wide study, the D.C. Office of Planning and the NCPC will produce analyses and recommendations leading to a fine-grain, strategic plan for building heights across the District. Among other benefits, such a plan will help avoid what could be the real risk for the city: scattershot height increases through ad hoc, piecemeal real estate rezonings and variances in response to economic and political pressures of the moment.

The Office of Planning-NCPC study is likely to recommend that building heights in the heart of the city remain substantially unchanged or increase only marginally in suitable locations. For areas away from downtown where federal interests would not be affected, the study could explicitly or implicitly suggest height limit increases, especially for underdeveloped properties or redevelopment sites near transit stations and well served by existing or proposed infrastructure.

Ultimately this study is a win-win proposition for all stakeholders. The city could grow physically in rational ways without compromising or sacrificing its historic urban form. Intelligently planned growth would benefit residents and businesses while yielding much needed additional tax revenue. And the goal of preserving the iconic imagery of the nation’s capital, shared by Congress and Washingtonians, would be met.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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