There’s new momentum to relax federal building-height limits in the District, reopening decades-old debates about the look, feel and character of the city as well as whether the restrictions stifle economic growth.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has spoken with U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) in recent weeks about ways Congress could amend height regulations that limit most city buildings to 130 feet.
Unlike other major cities known for their skylines punctuated by iconic skyscrapers, the District is dotted by low-rises and federally protected monuments. Developers have repeatedly said the rules have led to a squatty, boxy look along major commercial corridors, such as K Street and Connecticut Avenue.
Such complaints have been dismissed by those who are more concerned with the preservation of historic city vistas. But officials said the recent discussions stem from the reality that the city may soon only be able to grow vertically because of scarcity of land and projected population growth.
The District has periodically tested federal authorities’ willingness to budge on height limits, with previous attempts collapsing under the weight of community and congressional opposition. But Issa, who chairs the committee with jurisdiction over the District, said he wants to work with the city to transfer more authority over to local planners.
“The city is just as concerned, and city leaders and community folks are just as concerned, about not raising the height limits in a way that would adversely affect vista or historic areas,” said Issa, who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The question is, ‘Should a federal prohibition be loosened to allow them to make those decisions in concert with historical groups?’ And my general feeling is, ‘Yes.’ ”
Issa, Gray and Norton said they primarily envision minor modifications to the height restrictions, perhaps an additional story onto some projects. But even a small change could make District buildings sleeker, raise ceiling heights and provide more opportunity for green space, architects said.
Issa said he’s also exploring whether the District should have greater flexibility to consider even taller buildings in areas away from downtown, a change that could one day remake parts of Northeast and Southeast and help the city absorb new residents and businesses.
“We haven’t come to any firm conclusions, but we are definitely talking about it,” Gray said. “It would help hugely with economic development.”
While height ceilings in many cities were established in the late 19th or early 20th centuries to respond to the skyscraper, local authorities in other cities have been able to modify or remove them to keep pace with demand and market forces. But in a city where such change would require a unified Congress and a presidential signature, the District’s skyline has been held in check.
Contrary to local lore, the District’s height cap was not designed to guarantee that no building towered over the U.S. Capitol. Congress approved the restrictions in 1899 to temper community opposition to the newly built 160-foot Cairo apartment building on Q Street NW. Congress set stricter standards for the District in 1910.
Under the Height Act, a building on a commercial street can not exceed 20 feet greater than the width of the facing street, to a maximum of 130 feet. There is an exception on Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st and 15th streets NW, where buildings can rise to 160 feet.
On a residential street in the District, maximum building height is generally 10 feet greater than the width of the street, to a maximum of 90 feet.
But the limits allow for mechanical equipment rooms and non-habitable enclosures on many rooftops, which can increase the maximum by up to 18.5 feet. In his conversations with Issa, Gray has proposed allowing that extra space to be used as “living space.”
“It wouldn’t actually raise the height limit but could add a floor to a lot of buildings, which could substantially grow the population as well as the tax income of the city,” Gray said.
The mayor’s stance will likely prompt a backlash from some civic groups and preservationists, who have long sought to protect city views.
“We hold these national monuments as a treasure to be viewed and enjoyed and respected by people from all over the world and, for that reason, the current height limitations ought to be maintained. Period,” said William P. Lightfoot, a former D.C. Council member. “One story will block somebody’s view, and that is wrong.”
But as the District’s healthy real estate market continues to heat up, land is becoming scare, pushing development farther east along New York Avenue and into once-residential neighborhoods.
After the CityCenterDC mixed-use project near Chinatown and the new convention center hotel are completed over the next two years, there will be no additional buildable land in the core of downtown, according to the Downtown Business Improvement District.
With some federal restrictions likely to remain in place and city planners adamant they, too, care about preserving the sight-lines to the monuments, few expect that congressional action to loosen the rules would lead to the District turning into Manhattan.
“The Washington Monument is 550 feet high; whether a building is 130 feet or 140 feet probably is not going to make much of a difference,” said Eric Colbert, an architect with six projects on 14th Street NW, an area he predicts will be built out in two to three years.
Instead of vast changes to building heights, architects and builders said, tweaking the restrictions would free up a bit more space to allow them to experiment with design. In the suburbs, for example, most buildings are constructed with at least 9-foot ceilings but they are kept to about 8.5 feet in the District, said Shalom Baranes, an architect whose firm is working on the CityCenter DC project.
“If you raise the limits . . . what you would see is buildings getting just a little thinner as they go up,” Baranes said. “You would get a little bit more light and a little bit more space between them.”
If the city would also boost density rules, Baranes said about 100 office workers could be added to each additional floor. Residential buildings could house up to 40 additional residents per floor, he said.
The added population combined with higher ceilings could be a boon for city efforts to entice more retail stores to downtown, said Tom Wilbur, a vice president at Akridge development company.
Noting there are 20-story buildings in Rosslyn and Crystal City, Issa questioned why taller buildings are not allowed near New York Avenue NE or as part of the redevelopment of the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast — a change that could cause property values to skyrocket.
“We have an architectural interest in the nation’s capital, but it’s a pretty small area that we are really interested in,” said Issa, referring to Congress. “When you get to the edges of the city, you have to ask yourself: What harm would it be if those buildings were taller?”
Though any congressional action on the height limit could get tangled up on Capitol Hill for years, Issa believes there may be a window to start the debate this summer or fall, when Congress will be looking for nonpartisan issues to take up in an election year.
“If the mayor and Ms. Norton and I can all agree on it, my suspicion is we can get the president to agree on it,” Issa said.
Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the District’s height limits, cautioned that carving out too many exceptions or segregating certain areas for taller buildings could quickly disrupt the city’s modest scale.
“It always starts incrementally, and then 10 years later they come back and do it again,” Rybczynski said. “It really is a slippery slope. The iron-cladness of D.C.’s law, because Congress controls it, is what makes it such an exceptional city.”