A HOUSE COMMITTEE did not even do the bare minimum this month to free Washington from an irrational federal law that places a hard ceiling on the height of every building in the District. The term “bare minimum,” after all, implies that some reasonable threshold has been reached, a pressing need satisfied.
But don’t blame federal lawmakers. For once, they aren’t the ones trampling over the District’s sovereignty and forcing senseless policies on the city. In this case, it’s 12 members of the D.C. Council who are doing so — with the foolishness led by chairman Phil Mendelson (D). Last year, they voted to oppose not only the mere possibility of relatively small changes to the Height Act but also a process that would put the decision about changing height restrictions in the hands of city leaders, rather than leaving the call to federal authorities. The council’s dereliction of sense left Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the best friend the city seems to have on this issue, with few options but the one his committee endorsed.
Instead of lifting any of the height limits that have restrained the city since 1910, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is proposing merely to ease restrictions on what property owners can put on their roofs. Current regulations allow machinery for elevators or ventilation systems; the new rule would allow penthouse apartments in that space, as long as they aren’t obtrusive. The reform might not add up to much new development, since the demand among property owners for penthouses is likely to be limited.
The Height Act is only one example, though a glaring one, of the irrational policies that restrain sensible growth in Washington. The National Capital Planning Commission points out that, federal height rules or no, there would be opportunities for creating a denser, more vibrant city if local zoning regulators would allow flexibility, particularly around major public transportation corridors. Simplifying the punitively complex process that developers must go through to get building approvals is also crucial.
Washington is changing, a process that is not always easy or comfortable, but one that is on balance very good. Among the side effects of the welcome revitalization of the urban core have been staggering housing costs, pricing all sorts of people out of homes and apartments and unnecessarily taxing the quality of life of those who decide to pay up. Affordable housing policies can only do so much to alleviate the pressure, and they don’t help middle-income residents. The obvious answer is to let the city become denser, with care to ensure that it is walkable and bikeable, allowing more people to live and work where and how they want to. With more supply of square footage, upward pressure supporting outrageous housing and office costs will abate. Neither foggy-eyed nostalgia for a skyline frozen in 1910 nor cynical NIMBYism can justify opposing policies.