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Congress Seeks Study on Easing D.C. Building Height Limits

More than a century since it was enacted and just four months since a hearing was held to review it, Congress has requested a major study of the law that limits the scale of buildings in the District of Columbia.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), said Thursday that the National Capital Planning Commission and the D.C. Office of Planning will work jointly to deliver to Congress a study on what changes to the Height Act of 1910 might be appropriate and feasible.

The study, which Issa requested in an Oct. 3 letter, will explore “potential changes in height limits to various parts of the city,” according to a summary proposal submitted to Issa on Nov. 1.

“The study will be guided by the following principles: ensuring the prominence of federal landmarks by preserving their views and setting; maintaining the horizontality of the monumental city skyline; and minimizing the negative impacts to national significant historic resources,” the summary states.

Issa requested that the D.C. agencies propose revisions to the Height Act that would “support local economic development goals while taking into account the impact on federal interest, compatibility with the surrounding neighborhoods, national security concerns, input from local residents and other related factors.”

The NCPC agreed to the terms Nov. 1. It anticipates beginning the study in December, with a draft proposal released to the public in the summer of 2013. It has set a deadline of September 2013 to adopt a final plan.

The news comes months after Issa, who has emerged as one of the District’s greatest allies on Capitol Hill, convened a hearing to discuss whether some provisions of the Height Act should be reconsidered for the 21st century.

Currently, building heights in business areas 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.

Issa has said that it should be possible to add floors to some buildings while maintaining the District’s unique low skyline. There could be economic and commercial benefits, he said, to allowing developers to build higher.

“As time has elapsed and opportunities for economic growth in our nation’s capital continue to present themselves, this study will help Congress and local leaders evaluate the case for expanding existing boundaries for vertical growth,” Issa said in the press release announcing the study.

Norton, who has always faced a challenge balancing interests in Congress with those in local government, had said she supports exploring Height Act revisions but not without extensive review and consultation with D.C. leaders and constituents.

“The committee’s hearing on the Height Act has opened an entirely new way to see our city and its possibilities,” Norton said in a statement included in Issa’s release. “However, our committee wisely decided that the first study since the Height Act was passed in 1910 is necessary. This study is just the beginning of what will be a complete public process examining the economic and aesthetic consequences of changing a law that has stood for more than 100 years.”

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said in a statement that he welcomes “an important and strategic look at height in this city.”

Though Issa has generally supported expanded autonomy for the District of Columbia — including budget autonomy — the Height Act is listed in the D.C. charter as one law that can be amended only by Congress. Other issues the D.C. Council cannot address without Congressional action are imposing a D.C. commuter tax or giving itself statehood and voting rights.

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