Campus Notebook: Could the D.C. Skyline Rise Higher?

Posted April 13, 2012 at 5:08pm

For Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the preliminary discussions taking place about revisiting the capital city’s century-old law governing how high buildings can soar came as a pleasant surprise.

“I’ve lived in this city all my life, and no one has questioned the Height Act,” Norton told Roll Call. “It’s always, ‘Well, this is the Height Act!’”

She said that in her more than 20 years in Congress, no local official had approached her about reconsidering the law until Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) brought it up.

Now Norton, Mayor Vincent Gray and Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over District affairs, are having conversations about whether and how to amend the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910.

Whatever comes of it, Norton said the city would have to be onboard and closely involved.

The law, enacted in 1910, sets building height limits on residential streets at 90 feet. In business areas, building heights are mostly limited to the width of the adjacent street, plus 20 feet. There is also a general height limit of 130 feet, extended to 160 feet along parts of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Though advocates say the city’s low skyline protects historical landmarks and public safety in general, others wonder whether the Height Act has become somewhat antiquated.

The city’s population is booming and it’s becoming densely packed enough that the most logical direction to grow is up.

Norton has raised the question of whether it’s still appropriate for the Height Act to impose a blanket building cap on all parts of the city.

Could the Height Act maintain building limits for the National Mall area but be loosened for other areas of the District?

Commercial and residential areas are thriving far away from what Norton called the District’s “monumental core,” the grounds of the National Mall that residents want to shield from the obstruction of skyscrapers.

“The purpose of the Height Act for most people … is maintaining these historic vistas,” Norton said. “There is no proposal to change the Height Act there.”

Another question is whether the Height Act should be changed to allow “mechanical penthouses” — the top floors of buildings that house mechanical equipment — to be inhabited by people. The law currently allows buildings to rise above the height limit to accommodate such penthouses but bars them from human habitation.

Spokesmen for Gray and Issa confirmed that discussions were ongoing but emphasized that they were in the very preliminary stages.

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