The day may not be too far off when the federal government will have the final word on project designs, the types of commercial enterprises that can be operated in metropolitan Washington and where they can be situated. In downtown areas of the nation's capital itself, guardians of the federal interest may require federal rather than local approval of building facades, signs and display windows.
While the notion may seem preposterous, recent actions by members of Congress and other federal officials tend to make it less far-fetched than it sounds. Some activities and statements by those officials, in fact, have been more bizarre.
A recent letter from the Justice Department to the National Capital Planning Commission falls in that category. The letter suggested that NCPC stop approving all street closings in the District until the courts rule in a pivotal case involving construction of a major commercial project.
Justice filed a lawsuit a couple of months ago claiming that the D.C. government lacks authority to close a street owned by the United States. The suit was filed after a local developer had received approval to close off a one-block section of Eighth Street NW, to create a pedestrian plaza as part of a major mixed-use project.
Even more preposterous is a bill that was introduced this week by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). Cranston's bill would reduce the height of the proposed 52-story World Trade Center (WTC) tower at PortAmerica in Prince George's County to only 14 stories. Cranston is the latest in a long list of critics who contend that the project somehow represents a "threat" to Washington's skyline.
In Cranston's bill, however, the issue has become much broader than it was when critics excoriated developer James T. Lewis and architects for daring to propose the PortAmerica tower. The much broader issue now is Cranston's proposal to impose building height restrictions throughout metropolitan Washington. The California senator's bill would create three zones in which building heights would be restricted in all of metropolitan Washington. The limits would range from a maximum 180 feet in areas immediately south and west of the District to 400 feet in all other areas of Montgomery, Prince George's, Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties.
This is the plantation mentality in its most bizarre form. Imagine the Congress of the United States deciding how tall a building should be, not just in the District, but 25 miles away. To suggest that a 45-story building in Rockville, Laurel, Tysons Corner or Dale City threatens the national capital's skyline obfuscates reality. An extension of that logic would empower federal officials to restrict building heights near federal monuments and buildings in other states.
Surprisingly, only elected officials and developers in Prince George's County see Cranston's Big Brother bill as an intrusion into local affairs. Officials and developers in other jurisdictions apparently regard the senator's campaign against "aesthetic pollution" as an attack that will penalize only Prince George's County.
On the contrary, the Cranston proposal is a far-reaching assault on the authority of all local governments and a chilling threat to economic development outside the District's borders. It is, therefore, not only a challenge of local authority, but a shotgun remedy that could hurt investment and economic development in nonfederal jurisdictions.
More than the height limitation itself, an expanded federal role in local affairs sends the wrong kind of signal to businesses that might be interested in relocating to the area. Today, it's building heights; tomorrow, some senator's version of "aesthetic pollution" may be telecommunications antennae or some other piece of equipment atop commercial buildings in and outside of the District.
The primary target in all of this, of course, is the PortAmerica tower, which Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) mockingly described as "this gross, proud tower, this arrogant building going up for no purpose save to draw attention to itself and away from the dignity and sovereignty" of the capital. It could be a key commercial project in Rosslyn, Silver Spring or Springfield the next time.
The prospect of being affected by the "aesthetic pollution" campaign seems not to matter, however, to developers, business leaders and elected officials beyond Upper Marlboro. Doubts about the constitutionality of the Cranston bill may explain why they aren't taking it seriously.
More absurd bills have been known to sail through Congress, however. The Prince George's Journal quotes a developer as saying, "I really think it's just blowing wind, but I would be deathly afraid if something like this would pass."
So would a lot of investors, developers and economic development officials.