Senior members of Congress have quashed a D.C. zoning board's decision to allow a 130-foot private office tower across the street from the U.S. Capitol complex, blocking construction after unsuccessful attempts to convince zoning officials that the building would pose a security risk.
The deal forged in a House-Senate conference Tuesday voids a zoning variance allowing JBG Cos. to build 20 feet higher than the 110 feet automatically permitted on the unit block of Louisiana Avenue NW. It prohibits the city from granting a new variance unless congressional law enforcement officials and the House and Senate leadership agree that doing so does not create a security threat.
"We did not want to get involved in trying to overturn D.C. zoning decisions, but we had no choice," said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William H. Pickle Jr., whose concerns about the project led Senate leaders to propose the language approved by senior House and Senate Appropriations Committee members. "We want to be good neighbors, but we're in a time of war."
D.C. officials, who have chafed under federal decisions to close streets and limit public access to some national sites, said the action was an inappropriate and excessive breach of local autonomy.
"It's undemocratic. We also think it's an overly cautious reading of the security needs of the city," said Vince Morris, a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). "Do people want the District of Columbia, the nation's capital, to resemble the Green Zone in Baghdad? . . . Security should always be our priority, but we should balance it with a realistic assessment of threat."
The amendment was inserted in an Interior Department appropriations bill with little opportunity for public review or scrutiny. The $23.6 billion bill requires House and Senate approval, which could come today, but terms that are negotiated in conference are rarely changed.
Instead, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C. ) and JBG officials said they will continue to negotiate with House and Senate leaders and the Capitol Police Board -- Pickle, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman -- to try to convince them the project is safe.
"I continue to be optimistic that a solution will be reached whereby we'll be able to build the building we hope to build," said Benjamin R. Jacobs, founder and managing partner of JBG. "We . . . are confident that the interests of the federal government, the city government and our interests can be balanced and resolved."
Norton sent a letter late yesterday to the Capitol Police Board questioning the "unprecedented action of summarily overruling a duly considered decision of expert District of Columbia agencies."
Norton said the police board should approve the project because it would actually lessen the threat of attack on the Capitol complex by blocking access from other nearby rooftops that, she argued, are more open to the public. One example is the Hyatt Regency Hotel on New Jersey Avenue. The JBG project would be an addition to 51 Louisiana Ave. NW, a historic office building that houses the law firm Jones Day.
In seeking the variance from the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustments this year, JBG officials identified several nearby buildings that offer clear sightlines to the Capitol -- some closer to the complex, and some higher than 110 feet.
Other land-use officials involved in that debate recalled careful negotiations years ago between federal officials and developers for buildings erected around the White House.
But Capitol security officials said those buildings were approved before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq.
"We had some snipers and counter-snipers and other experts look at the angles and the threat to us, and we think it poses a risk," said Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer. "You can get a better shot at somebody" from a 130-foot rooftop, he said, than one 110 feet high.
Jacobs would not say whether JBG would proceed with a 110-foot office tower. In applying for the variance, the company said it needed the additional square footage to offset underground parking and other building costs.
Federal officials did not appear before the zoning board to oppose the project but sent a letter saying they had security concerns.
Pickle said the police board has since commissioned an independent assessment of the security risks and could ultimately reconsider its position -- in either direction. "It may be that we're not convinced that the 110 feet is good -- maybe they'll say we don't want anything above 90 feet," he said.