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Federal Panel Opts To Keep D.C. Height Act Intact, Frustrating D.C. Officials

Building heights in D.C. are limited by the width of the street in front of them, with a top height of 160 feet on Pennsylvania Avenue.
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Building heights in D.C. are limited by the width of the street in front of them, with a top height of 160 feet on Pennsylvania Avenue.

It was attempted in the 1950s and 1970s, but much like back then, a recent effort to amend the 100-year-old law governing building heights in D.C. has failed.

On Tuesday night members of the National Capital Planning Commission voted to scrap a proposal that would have allowed buildings outside of downtown D.C. to grow taller than the 1910 Height Act allows. 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 vote was a setback for D.C. officials who have long pushed for the Height Act to be relaxed, saying that allowing slightly taller buildings would expand the city's economic tax base and offer more development opportunities in a city that is growing as quickly as it is running out of land to build on.

But the prospect of taller buildings in a city bereft of them seemed to touch a nerve both with the public and members of the commission, who argued during Tuesday's debate that D.C.'s squat structures helped create the city's iconic open skyline. Some members who seemed open to changes said that they believed that further study was needed and that the case hadn't yet been made that any changes were needed now.

Even the D.C. government itself appeared divided, Planning Director Tregoning pushed for the modest changes while D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson weighed in against them. Earlier in the day a resolution introduced by Mendelson opposing changes to the Height Act attracted the support of all but one of his Council colleagues.

"Citizens are nearly universal jn opposing what the Office of Planning has proposed," said Mendelson, calling the city "monumental" and equating the Height Act to the U.S. Constitution in terms of how difficult it should be to change.

After hours of debate, the commission voted 7-3 to propose that the Height Act be left largely intact, spare one concession to D.C. officials: existing mechanical penthouses could be converted for human use, provided they don't extend more than 20 feet above the building's roof.

The commission's recommendations will be sent to Congress, where Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who commissioned the study, says he will hold a hearing in December to discuss how to proceed.

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