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At Hearing, Residents Look Down On Proposal To Let D.C. Buildings Grow Taller

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.
Joshua Bousel:
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. officials may want to see taller buildings sprout up throughout the city, but some residents aren't so convinced.

At a D.C. Council hearing today residents and historic preservation organizations expressed their outright opposition to any changes to the 100-year-old law limiting the heights of buildings in the city. To them, D.C.'s low-slung buildings have helped create the city's iconic skyline, and any changes would not only risk those views, but also the city's character.

"The low profile of the city's skyline is an important element of maintaining the original vision for our city," said William Brown, the president of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia.

Earlier this year, the National Capital Planning Commission began discussing what — if any — changes could be made to the 1910 law that keeps buildings in D.C. from growing beyond 90, 130 or 160 feet, depending on location.

In September the NCPC advised that the law be left largely unchanged, spare for allowing existing mechanical penthouses to be converted for human use.

Later that month, though, the D.C. Office of Planning suggested that the law be amended to allow for slightly taller buildings in downtown areas and to scrap any federally-imposed height limits in fringe areas of the city.

Speaking today at the hearing, Harriet Tregoning, the director of the Office of Planning, argued that the existing height limitations are out of step with a city that is growing and becoming more economically vibrant. She said that if changes aren't made to allow taller buildings in some areas, D.C. would forego economic development opportunities and many residents may eventually find themselves priced out of the city altogether.

"Not changing is not an option," she said. "We are changing. The question is, are we going to allow these changes to just roll on, and let housing prices get higher and higher and do nothing about it? Or are we going to try and be the city where people can continue to live, and try to address what we think are real capacity constraints?"

Tregoning said that only 4.9 percent of D.C.'s land is left to be fully developed. And in a July study, the Office of Planning said that small changes to the Height Act would create 7,100 to 14,000 new jobs and add between 4,400 to 7,900 new units over 20 years.

But many critics rejected Tregoning's argument, saying that D.C. could accommodate residents of all social classes by better using existing land and putting vacant housing units on the market.

"With imaginative growth and without raising the height limits we'll be fine," said Thomas W. Bower of the Historic Districts Coalition.

Roger Lewis, a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland (and contributor to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5), came to Tregoning's defense, arguing that her proposed changes would not significantly affect the city's skyline.

"Such changes will not spoil Washington's historic, iconically horizontal skyline or jeopardize views of the city's historically significant structures and spaces," he said. "There will be no skyscrapers."

But Council member and mayoral contender Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) seemed to side with the skeptics, saying that she wants to see development in neglected areas before taller buildings.

"The reasons for changing are so scant," she said. "It hasn’t been demonstrated that we need to increase the height limits."


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