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New Task Force To Study Whether To Let D.C. Buildings Grow Taller

The new task force will decide whether or not to amend the federal law that limits how tall D.C. buildings can be.
Joshua Bousel: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshbousel/197722630/
The new task force will decide whether or not to amend the federal law that limits how tall D.C. buildings can be.

Depending on who you ask, Washington, D.C.'s squat skyline is either iconic or a missed opportunity. That's a question that a new task force of D.C. and federal officials has started exploring.

The National Capital Planning Commission and D.C. Office of Planning have teamed up to conduct a six-month study of the 100-year-old law that limits how high buildings in D.C. can rise. By the fall, the task force could recommend that the height act be amended—or it could find that the city's open skyline is too important to be marred by taller buildings, officials say.

Under the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, structures throughout much of the nation's capital top out at between 130 and 160 feet, or between 12 and 15 stories, depending on the width of the street in front of the property. At the time, limiting the height of buildings was a safety measure, as city leaders were concerned that firefighters would not be able to reach the top of taller buildings.

But for years D.C. officials have argued that buildings in certain parts of town should be able to grow taller as a means to promote economic development and offer additional space for a city that has added over 30,000 residents over the last three years alone. Last year, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, heard their pleas and ordered that a study be conducted. 

Yesterday marked the first of four public meetings of the study's first phase, and some 50 residents gathered in the Petworth Library in Northwest to hear D.C. and federal officials explain what exactly the study would look at. Divided into three phases, it will consider:

  • How other cities with height limits—Paris, London and Barcelona among them—have managed vertical growth.

  • How much economic potential exists in easing the restrictions.

  • If taller buildings were allowed, where exactly they would go.

  • How any changes could affect the city's character. 

The issue has regularly provoked heated debate, and yesterday's open house proved that both sides are ready to make their points heard.

Proponents of easing the Height Act's restrictions say that allowing buildings to grow would offer D.C. economic opportunities it is currently denied because of the amount of land within city limits that cannot be taxed. Additionally, said D.C. Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning, D.C. could be better served by growing up, not out.

"You can certainly make an argument that it's better for the planet and it's better for the region if we can accommodate more of the growth here. It's also true that we have a lot of jobs here, and we have a big jobs-housing imbalance, so many of the jobs are held by people who don't live here," Tregoning said. "So being able to accommodate more residents, however that might be, could probably do a lot to help balance out our transportation difficulties." 

But for some residents who attended the meeting, letting buildings grow would negatively affect the city's character. "If you put more buildings there, it's not gonna be Washington. It's just going to change the whole image of the city," said Karla Abney, a 50-year resident of Riggs Park in Northeast. 

"I know this is a very passionate issue for many people in the room," said Marcel Acosta, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission. "A lot of people love the Height Act, a lot of people have disagreements with the Height Act. We want to think about it in terms of the future of our city and what it could become."

Acosta said that the study would fully consider federal interests, as well as weigh where and how buildings could grow if they were allowed to. If that comes to pass, it won't be quick, nor dramatic. "We'll never have Manhattan-type heights in D.C.," said Tregoning.

She also noted that even if Congress did move to change the Height Act, it could take upwards of five years for D.C. to similarly amend its own comprehensive plan and zoning code, both of which spell out height restrictions that are more severe than the federal law. And even if that happened, many residential neighborhoods would be spared, as taller buildings would likely be limited to areas already zoned for high density, she said.

The next public meeting will take place at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library on Saturday, May 18 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The schedule of the two other meetings is here.

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