Darrell Issa Considers Lessening Restrictions on D.C. Building Heights

Posted July 19, 2012 at 6:00pm

Rep. Darrell Issa led a hearing today on reducing federal restrictions on the height of buildings in Washington, D.C., the first in decades on the subject.

It was the latest move from the California Republican to support giving the District more authority, making him one of its strongest and most unlikely allies in Congress.

The D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Issa chairs, explored revisions to the Height Act, the century-old law that governs the scale of buildings throughout the District.

Issa suggested it should be possible allow some buildings to grow taller while still maintaining the unique, low skyline D.C. is famous for, with all its monuments and historic structures.

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.

But instead of Congress establishing the blueprint for implementing new Height Act strictures and imposing that on the city, Issa suggested Congress amend the Height Act to give local leaders, in consultation with their constituents, the necessary leeway to give exceptions to the law if they chose to do so.

“Should we empower the city to answer some of those questions [about the Height Act] itself and would they appreciate the opportunity, even if they decide not to use the amendment to the Height Act?” Issa asked.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) expressed her appreciation for Issa’s suggestion in a statement released after the hearing.

“The chairman’s comments today indicated another breakthrough with his willingness to consider greater authority for the city under the Height Act,” she said. “Such a change would simply acknowledge that in hometown D.C., local officials would be best able to make changes, if needed.”

D.C. Building Industry Association Counsel Christopher Collins, D.C. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, architect and Washington Post columnist Roger Lewis, National Capital Planning Commission Executive Director Marcel Acosta and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi all testified in favor of increased flexibility in building in accordance to the Height Act, saying there were ways to build higher without imposing on the monumental core or detracting from the city’s unique look.

As an example, some argued the Height Act could 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.

“Allowing habitable space in a roof structure in addition to the normal roof top machinery, while retaining the current roof structure setback requirement, would allow a wide variety of uses, such as restaurants and lounges, health clubs, community rooms and enclosed swimming pools as well as other residential and non-residential uses,” Collins said of the economic benefits of amending the Height Act in such a way.

“Allowing their use for more active purposes will have no real impact on the overall maximum heights of buildings as permitted by the 1910 Height Act and will not impact the District’s recognizable and historic skyline,” Tregoning added.

They all agreed, however, that any changes to the Height Act would have to be made with significant sensitivity to the wishes of District residents, many of whom are very attached to the laws governing the scale of their architecture and believe any modification would open a Pandora’s box of changes.

“You may have every reason to want a few stories, but you will bring down the citizens on you like nothing you’ve ever seen,” Norton warned her colleagues.

Laura Richards, a member of the board of trustees of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, was the lone voice of opposition to changes to the Height Act.

“The Height Act of 1910 plays a positive, powerful role in shaping the cityscape and the experience of living in the District,” she said. “Changes to the Height Act, including the suggestion to allow rooftop construction alongside mechanical penthouses, are not necessary to achieve additional residential capacity or to stimulate economic development. In short, lifting the Height Act will alter irretrievably … [and it] should remain undisturbed and should be enforced vigorously.”

D.C. Commuter Tax?

On an unrelated note and in the final minutes of the hearing, Issa floated an idea based on a comment Gandhi had made earlier in the afternoon: Could D.C.’s charter be revised to allow city government to collect a commuter tax?

“I think we should, after the election, start thinking about how we’re going to deal with the only place that doesn’t have the ability to tax people who earn their income in that place,” Issa said.

Later, in speaking with reporters, Issa said he was coming from “a standpoint of fairness but also from the standpoint of removing the incentive to commute out of the city while working in the city.”

“It costs all of us a lot of money,” he continued, “when people have a reason, an inducement, to commute out of the city for tax purposes, and that is what’s unique here that wouldn’t exist in any other state.”

The Home Rule Act of 1973 prohibits the city from imposing a commuter tax unless Congress passes legislation to change that.

Should such a prohibition be lifted, the money that the city would receive could be staggering given its status as home of the federal government, where hundreds of people come to work each day from suburban homes in Virginia and Maryland.

This is actually the second time Issa has attended a D.C. hearing and mentioned, almost as a whim, that he wanted to take up an issue close to local residents’ hearts.

He does, though, have a track record of follow-through. At a hearing on D.C.’s budget last summer, he said maybe the city should be able to control its own money independent of the Congressional appropriations process. He has been working since that time to make D.C. budget autonomy a reality.