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Panel Balances Local And Federal Interests In Debate Over D.C. Building Heights

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A rendering of what portions of D.C. would look like if buildings were allowed to grow to 200 feet in height.
D.C. Office of Planning
A rendering of what portions of D.C. would look like if buildings were allowed to grow to 200 feet in height.

No one denies that Washington’s skyline is iconic: from most places in town, you can see the Washington Monument or U.S. Capitol. That’s thanks to a 100-year-old law that limits building heights, keeping them to between 90 and 160 feet, depending on the part of town.

But Washington's population is also growing, and local officials say the congressionally imposed height restrictions limit the city’s development potential and could eventually make the city unaffordable.

On Wednesday, the National Capital Planning Commission met to consider a number of options related to loosening restrictions on height limits. A presentation prepared by a D.C. consultant showed computer-generated images of what D.C. would look like if buildings in certain parts of town were allowed to grow to between 130 and 225 feet.

For Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, the option of allowing buildings to grow in certain parts of town would help make the city more competitive with its neighbors and allow it to adapt to population growth that has reached 1,100 new residents per month.

“I guess I wanted to make clear that there will be consequences, that a height limit imposed on Washington citywide that no other surrounding jurisdiction has will have consequences in terms of our future growth and the cost of living here and who can even be here," she said.

Tregoning said that taller buildings could bring between 4,440 to 7,900 new housing units and 7,100 to 14,000 new jobs and increase the capture rate of new office space by between one and two percent.

Some commission members responded more cautiously, though, saying that federal interests—and those iconic views—would have to be considered before any changes are made. Some historic preservation groups have come out against any changes at all, saying that taller buildings would mar the city's skyline and make the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol and other federal sites harder to see.

Commission member Mina Wright said that while some of the images of the taller buildings made her "stomach lurch," she thinks that a middle ground can be found.

“I think that with some work we could identify areas in the city that make sense and don’t interfere with major view sheds, that make economic development sense, that are located near transit, is good urban policy, all those things," she said.

None of the options presented to the commission envision New York-style skyscrapers, and any proposed increases would be limited to areas that are already zoned for high density. Tregoning also noted that allowing taller buildings would not mean that they would necessarily be built—taller buildings are not cheaper to build, she noted.

Five public hearings on the proposals kick off next week, and the commission is set to offer recommendations to Congress in the fall.

The schedule of hearings is below:

Saturday, August 3, 10:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Tenleytown-Friendship Library, 4450 Wisconsin Avenue, NW

Tuesday, August 6, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Dorothy I. Height/Benning Library, 3935 Benning Road, NE

Wednesday, August 7, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m
Mt. Pleasant Library, 3160 16th Street, NW

Saturday, August 10, 10:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Catholic University, Crough Center, 620 Michigan Avenue, NE

Tuesday, August 13, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
District Office of Planning, 1100 4th Street, SW, 2nd Floor Conference Room

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