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A federal panel is proposing that Congress not change the 100-year-old law governing how tall buildings can get in downtown D.C., but also suggests that it allow some flexibility in building heights in other parts of town.
In a report of final recommendations set to be sent to Capitol Hill, the National Capital Planning Commission says that buildings within the L'Enfant City — roughly bordered by Florida Avenue to the north, Georgetown to the west, and the Potomac and Anacostia rivers to the south and east — should remain under the limits set by the 1910 Height Act. (L'Enfant City is shown in yellow on the map at right.)
The century-old law allows buildings to grow to a height 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. Building heights in other parts of town are further restricted by D.C.'s zoning code.
D.C. officials have long pushed for the height limits to be lifted, saying that squat building stunt economic development and could eventually make the growing city largely unaffordable. Historic preservationists have pushed back, arguing that the Height Act has created the city's iconic skyline, one that should not be marred by taller buildings.
In the report, NCPC executive director Marcel Acosta agreed with the latter group, saying that the city's low-lying skyline highlights federal monuments and sites, including the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court and other buildings.
"These individual facilities and landscapes, their settings, and vistas to and from, are at the core of the city’s image and the experience millions of visitors have of our national capital," says the report.
Still, the report doesn't completely dismiss the wishes of D.C. leaders, who had proposed that buildings in the L'Enfant City be allowed to grow slightly taller and that height restrictions be lifted altogether for the rest of the city.
The NCPC report recommends allowing targeted height increases outside of the L'Enfant City that would have to be included in the city's Comprehensive Plan and be approved by Congress. The report also supports a D.C. proposal that existing mechanical penthouses on buildings be converted for human use.
"Like all cities," explains the report, "[D.C.] must address changing development trends, manage long-term growth, provide necessary infrastructure and services, and balance a variety of interests."
The NCPC's members will vote on the report on Tuesday, after which it will be sent to Congress for any further action. The report was initially commissioned by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who agreed with city officials that amending the Height Act should be studied.
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