After failing to reach a decision last week on whether to raise the building height limits around historic Judiciary Square from 90 to 120 feet, the D.C. Zoning Commission voted to hold a public hearing on the question March 5.
The Zoning Commission last fall gave preliminary approval to a zoning change that would allow a 120-foot commercial office building on the west side of the square on land owned by Georgetown University. The preliminary approval came in spite of protests from the city's Joint Committee on Landmarks and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the federal planning agency for Washington. The action also ignored the city's master plan for the area, which calls for maximum 90-foot-high buildings in order to avoid dwarfing the historic buildings around the square, which is north of Pennsylvania Avenue at Fifth, Sixth, D and E streets NW.
If the commercial Georgetown University building is allowed to go to 120 feet -- 10 stories instead of seven -- at least two other new office buildings proposed for now-vacant lots around the square also will be allowed to go to 120 feet. An additional 18.5-foot penthouse is permitted on all buildings.
John Parsons, the National Park Service representative who sits on both the zoning and planning commissions, cast the crucial vote against final approval of the Georgetown project when two of the Zoning Commission's five members abstained from voting on the issue. Three votes are needed for approval.
Parsons said later he wanted the architects for the building to bring in a model "so we can get a chance to look at what's being proposed" and to give the public another chance to comment.
The controversy became confused earlier this month by the position of NCPC. Although NCPC and its staff previously had opposed any change in the existing 90-foot height limit, and though many NCPC members at their Feb. 1 meeting spoke out against any change, the language of a written comment made by NCPC to the Zoning Commission is unclear.
The comment, an advisory statement, states that NCPC "reaffirms" its position on the 90-foot height limit but then adds that the 90 feet is to be measured to the parapet of buildings "fronting on" the square -- a phrase added at the last minute by Reginald Griffith. An appointee of former Mayor Walter E. Washington, Griffith will sit on the commission until he is replaced, even though his term expired in January.
The Zoning Commission interpreted the comment to mean NCPC endorsed buildings that stop at 90 feet on the Judiciary Square side but approved buildings as high as 120 feet, plus penthouse, away from the square. One proposal discussed was to allow additional stories on buildings higher than 90 feet if the top stories were recessed. This proposal called for an additional foot of height for each foot of setback above 90 feet; such a plan would permit three additional stories on buildings if they are set back 30 feet from the front parapet. These additional, recessed stories might not be visible from the sidewalk below but apparently would still be visible from Judiciary Square across the street.
Several NCPC members have since said this was not their intent. NCPC has now set the issue for further action at its March 1 meeting. However, because NCPC is an advisory agency, any action it takes can be ignored by the Zoning Commission under the 1973 Home Rule Act, although this is disputed by some lawyers.
The March 5 Zoning Commission hearing is scheduled at 1 p.m. in the commission's office at the Municipal Building, 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.