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On Height Act, District and National Capital Planning Commission Can’t Agree | District Notebook

Less than two weeks after hinting at tensions between federal and local interests over the future of D.C.’s skyline, the District is recommending that Congress modify the citywide height limit and give the local government the power to allow taller buildings in targeted areas.

A 49-page proposal submitted on behalf of Mayor Vincent Gray to House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., recommends changing the 1910 Height of Buildings Act to allow taller structures in the city’s core, some as high 200 feet. In neighborhoods outside the L’Enfant City, especially near Metro stations, D.C. wants to set its own height limits using the city’s zoning process, which requires federal and public input.

The five-member zoning board consists of three mayoral appointees, a representative from the Architect of the Capitol and a representative of the director of the National Park Service.

“The District’s goal is for greater development capacity through increased heights to make more affordable housing possible in the city and enable a higher percentage of jobs added to the city being held by District residents who would pay income taxes to the District,” the report states.

“I hear everyday people’s concerns about being priced out of the city,” Harriet Tregoning, director of the city’s Office of Planning, said during a public meeting on the draft recommendation Wednesday night.

The city’s draft recommendation arrived 10 months after Issa asked D.C. to work jointly with the National Capital Planning Commission to examine how changes to the Height Act might affect the city’s future, and two weeks after the NCPC released its preliminary finding. The commission recommended that federal interests would be best served by keeping in place the height restrictions that have governed the scale of D.C. buildings for more than a century.

Currently, buildings on residential streets are capped at 90 feet, while commercial streets have 1-to-1 ratio between street width and building height, plus 20 feet. The city wants to cap building heights at 125 percent the width of streets. Along Pennsylvania Avenue, buildings could rise to 200 feet under the city’s recommendation, compared to the current limit of 180 feet.

Beyond the downtown core, the District envisions a taller, denser city better able to accommodate new growth. Without a change, the city forecasts existing growth capacity will be absorbed within 30 years.

The recommendations are based on economic studies conducted by outside consultants. The city hired Partners for Economic Solutions, Structura Inc., and the James G. Davis Construction Corp. to explore the economic perspective of changing the Height Act.

Partners for Economic Solutions convened focus groups with about 10 of the District’s major landowners — including Boston Properties, Akridge and Property Group Partners — to study how lifting height limits in 15 areas such as NoMa, Rhode Island Avenue Northeast, L’Enfant Plaza, Congress Heights and Buzzard Point might affect their business behavior.

“They weren’t wild about the idea of increasing height,” said Tregoning, but the developers were “very helpful in kicking the tires” on questions about market response.

The focus groups helped produce an economic feasibility study that walks readers through the thought process of property owners, analyzing the construction costs and benefits of rebuilding or adding more floors in the wake of a change to the Height Act.

It finds that “taller ceiling heights and more windows and views” could help attract new employees and residents to the District, resulting in up to 7,900 additional housing units over the next 20 years.

In addition to economic studies, the city hired a modeling team, led by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, to explore visual impacts. They modeled the change from several perspectives, using more than 250 different panoramic, aerial and street level views of the city from locations inside and outside the L’Enfant City and across the Potomac.

On Oct. 2, the NCPC and the District will hold a public information session to hear public testimony on the draft recommendations. The deadline for public comment is Oct. 15.

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