Buildings heights in D.C. have been limited for over a century, and depending on who you ask, that reality has created the city's iconic skyline or stunted development.
D.C. won't be getting taller anytime soon. A recommendation to leave intact a 1910 law that limits how tall buildings in D.C. can grow will be presented at the National Capital Planning Commission meeting tomorrow.
The Height Act places limits on the height of buildings in D.C., allowing them to grow relative to the width of the street in front of them. Under the law, buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue NW reach 160 feet, roughly 15 stories, while buildings in other parts of town are limited to 130 feet or less. The city's own zoning code also restricts how tall structures can grow. Proponents credit the Height Act with maintaining the city's iconic open skyline, while critics have said that it has stunted the city's development.
D.C. officials have long pushed for the federally mandated height restrictions to be changed, saying that allowing buildings would allow the city to expand its tax base and house more residents. In October 2012, a congressional committee ordered the commission to study the benefits and drawbacks of any changes to the Height Act.
During public hearings, D.C. officials presented renderings of what the city would look like if buildings in certain areas were allowed to grow to a maximum height of 225 feet. Commission members seemed split on the idea, saying that while some flexibility should be worked into the 100-year-old law, they feared that taller buildings would deemphasize sites such as the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument.
In his recommendation to be presented to the commission tomorrow, Marcel Acosta, the executive director of the 12-member federal panel looking into the issue, seems to come down against any wholesale loosening of the Height Act, saying that allowing taller buildings in the city's historic core could have "significant adverse effect on federal interests."
Acosta does offer D.C. officials one concession: he recommends that the building penthouses currently used for mechanical purposes be adapted for human use. In testimony before Congress in July 2012, Harriet Tregoning, the director of the D.C. Office of Planning, pushed for the penthouses to be converted for use as homes, restaurants and recreation areas.
"Roof top structures are already permitted under the Height Act. While allowed, these roof structures have been limited in their use to mechanical purposes (elevator overrides, building mechanicals) and are currently prohibited from uses that qualify as 'human occupancy' such as recreation rooms or office space. Allowing their use for more active purposes will have no real impact on the overall maximum heights of buildings as permitted by the 1910 Height Act and will not impact the District's recognizable and historic skyline," she said.
Acosta also leaves the door open for further discussion, saying that the commission could still consider proposals to lift height restrictions in parts of the city further removed from the federal core.
"There may be some opportunities for strategic change in the areas outside of the L’Enfant City and beyond the edge of the topographic bowl where there is less concentration of federal interests," he writes.
Tomorrow the commission will vote to release the recommendations to the public, after which the public will be offered a chance to comment. (Dates of planned public hearings are here.) On November 7, the commission will vote on the final recommendations and transmit them to Congress, which has final say on any changes to the Height Act.
Update, 1:30 p.m.: Tanya Stern, the chief of staff at the D.C. Office of Planning, says that the city will have its own draft recommendations on what changes to the Height Act it would like to see. Stern says that the original plan was to submit the recommendations in time for tomorrow's NCPC meeting, but internal consultations have taken more time than expected. The city's recommendations will be submitted to Congress alongside whatever the NCPC votes on.
Height Act Study