Planning Commission Opens Door to Taller D.C.

Posted November 18, 2013 at 3:25pm

Federal planners have warmed to the vision of some taller buildings in the mix of the District’s skyline, but they want future growth to be deliberate, targeted and tightly controlled.

After hearing from city officials who worry that century-old caps established by Congress under the 1910 Height of Buildings Act are constraining D.C.’s need for new housing and office space, the National Capital Planning Commission on Sunday recommended a process that would allow minor changes to the law.

Under the NCPC’s latest proposal, the city could write up detailed plans for areas where it wants to see buildings taller than the federal limit — generally 130 feet or 90 feet — to be included as an amendment to its next five-year Comprehensive Plan. The D.C. Council, NCPC and Congress would then get a chance to veto any skyscraper neighborhoods.

If taller growth is approved, the specifics would be in the hands of the city’s five-member zoning board, which 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 NCPC’s 27-page report emphasizes that in addition to federal interests, public input should also be incorporated.

The NCPC sticks to its guns on the Pierre L’Enfant-designed parts of the city. It argues that height limits in the downtown core, framed by Florida Avenue and the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, must be maintained “to protect the integrity of the form and character of the nation’s capital.”

If the city had its way, it would eliminate the Height Act completely outside the downtown core and change the ratio between street width and building height from 1-to-1 to a more generous 1-to-1.25 ratio. But the NCPC finds that approach would “likely add the most height where it is least appropriate,” blocking views of the Capitol and White House.

The report is the latest in a yearlong study into the future of the D.C.’s height act, requested by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

The NCPC will host a meeting Tuesday to hear public feedback on its final draft recommendation, before voting to transmit the report to Issa.