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D.C. Council Not Down With Plan To Let Some Buildings Grow Taller

Mayor Vincent Gray may be onboard with changing the century-old law that limits how tall buildings in D.C. can be, but the D.C. Council certainly isn't.

Today Council Chair Phil Mendelson introduced a Sense of the Council resolution backed by 11 of his 12 colleagues opposing any changes to the 1910 Height Act, saying that the law has helped create and maintain the city's iconic open skyline and spread development beyond downtown D.C. The law limits building heights based on the width of the street in front of it, with a top height of 160 feet on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"The Height Act has not only distinguished the District from all other major U.S. cities, but it has enabled a legacy that should be continued," says the resolution. "Loss of that legacy can never be recovered."

Only Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) opted not to support the resolution, writing in a statement that changes to the Height Act would allow for more development.

“The District is only 68 miles square, 10 of which are water. Therefore, in my view, we have to do all that we can to maximize height on the land that we have. I’ve read the District’s Office of Planning’s draft recommendations to amend the Height Act, and I am in total support," he said.

The resolution comes on the same day that the National Capital Planning Commission will gather to vote on a report proposing that the Height Act be maintained for the city's historic core but loosened in areas on the outskirts. It also suggests that existing mechanical penthouses be converted for human uses.

The commission's recommendations, if approved by all the members, will be sent to Congress, which has final say on whether or not any changes will be made. With today's resolution, though, it's clear that the Council wants its voice heard.

The resolution cites a late October hearing in which historic preservation groups and residents weighed in against any changes, saying that taller buildings would ruin the city's skyline while not bringing down housing costs in the increasingly expensive city.

The resolution also questions the immediate need for the changes, saying that while amendments to the law could eventually be needed, they should coincide with a rewriting of the city's comprehensive plan. The last rewrite took place in 2010.

Gray and D.C. Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning have argued that loosening the Height Act would help spur economic development and allow additional construction in a city that is growing as quickly as it is running out of land to build on. Their advocacy for the changes provoked Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to ask that the NCPC study the issue and report back to Congress.

Changes to the Height Act were also debated in the 1970s, with a city task force proposing that buildings be allowed to grow to 250 feet. That proposal was never adopted.

Sense of the Council Against Amending the 1910 Height Act Resolution of 2013

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