Parties Scramble for Consensus on D.C. Height Act Recommendations

Posted November 3, 2013 at 6:00pm

Federal and District differences of opinion on Congress’ century-old cap on D.C. buildings’ height may muddy any chance to send a clear message about the future of the city’s skyline to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee later this month.

Proponents of allowing taller growth in the District’s Office of Planning have characterized the issue as a matter of autonomy and self-determination, but some residents are questioning the city’s economic motives.

Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning has said the city will exhaust its development under current models by 2037. She also emphasized the importance of attracting new business and residential growth to expand the District’s tax base during an Oct. 28 appearance before the D.C. Council. This line of reasoning is supported by outgoing D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who has testified before Congress on the Height Act.

“It’s clear that attracting and retaining the middle-class households that fled the city over the last 50 years is vital to stability,” Tregoning said at the council hearing.

But many D.C. residents, who came out overwhelmingly at the Oct. 28 hearing and a Wednesday National Capital Planning Commission hearing against any changes that could alter the unique horizontal character of their city, questioned the soundness of economic studies into the Height Act. Many alleged that the city is understating the supply and overstating the demand and that the Office of Planning has manufactured a crisis to pursue its agenda.

Draft findings released by the 12-member National Capital Planning Commission in mid-September recommend against raising the height limit significantly downtown. Mayor Vincent Gray’s own report, released in late September, suggests changing the 1910 Height of Buildings Act to allow taller structures in the city’s core, as high as 200 feet.

In areas beyond the L’Enfant-designed parts of the city, the NCPC left open the possibility of tweaking height limits, but D.C. cites economic stability and urgent growth needs as compelling reasons to lifting the citywide height cap.

Roger K. Lewis, an esteemed practicing architect and urban designer, was among those urging the two bodies to “collaborate” and “reconcile” their differences so they can provide Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., with a unified report during a recent public hearing on the issue.

Lewis, who testified to Congress during a July 2012 hearing on the Height Act, told the NCPC on Wednesday that he believes it is unstated, but implied, in the NCPC’s draft finding that there is “doubt” about the District’s ability to ensure that skyscrapers don’t pop up where they shouldn’t if the city has authority to set height limits through its local zoning process. He worries that unresolved differences could result in a one-sided decision whereby federal interests “completely trump” the changes the city believes to be best.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant said he fully agrees with the need to reach consensus.

“I think it could be very confusing. Let’s remember that Rep. Issa asked D.C. and NCPC to do a joint study. It stands to reason that he expects a joint report, even if it acknowledges some differences. I hope we can do that.”

Bryant emphasized that the federal government has an interest in economic vitality, but he also said the city’s “sense of urgency” on raising the height of buildings to achieve that goal seems to have arisen only since Congress requested the report.

Tregoning played down the tension between the two reports.

“NCPC’s draft recommendations were actually just that — a draft,” Tregoning told the D.C. Council. “I think NCPC showed a lot of delicacy not wanting to get out ahead of the stated position of the mayor. … It’s fair to say that they weren’t reacting to our proposal because we hadn’t put it out yet.”

The NCPC plans to release its final draft recommendation and report on Nov. 14, and the commission will meet again on Nov. 19, when it will likely vote to transmit the final report to Congress. If the city and the NCPC cannot agree, the city might send its own report to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“Both NCPC and the District government are under a lot of time constraints to try to come up with a common approach,” Bryant said. “Staffs are working as we speak.”