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D.C. Asks Congress for Local Control Over Its Skyline

Despite concerns that dual reports on changes to the District’s height limit could send a confusing message to Congress, two recommendations suggesting different fates for the future of the 1910 Height of Buildings Act are on their way to Capitol Hill.

The District’s Office of Planning announced that the city sent its final recommendations to Congress on Wednesday evening, about 24 hours after the National Capital Planning Commission voted to transmit its final findings to lawmakers.

While the NCPC recommends leaving the century-old law largely intact, with one small, broadly supported change to allow for human occupancy of penthouses, the city suggests an approach to the Height Act “that shifts more decision-making to local control,” according to a release from the Office of Planning.

In the Pierre L’Enfant-planned city, where federal planners worry that changes could block views of the Capitol and White House, the city wants maximum building heights lifted as high as 200 feet. D.C. suggests modifying the 1-to-1 ratio between street width and building height to a 1-to-1.25 formula.

Outside the downtown core, the city wants to be given the power to set its own height maximums through its comprehensive plan and zoning process — both of which require the input of federal entities. In the 53-page report, the District emphasizes that it “has yet to make any decisions about where specifically any additional height would go.”

During public comment periods, some D.C. residents alleged that city planners were trying to cater to the economic interests of developers wanting to build skyscraper neighborhoods. They doubted the city’s growth forecasts that project D.C. will run out of room to accommodate new housing and office space, thus stunting economic growth, within a few decades.

D.C. emphasizes that it is not seeking to immediately start building skyscrapers, and that modifying the law would help residents of all incomes.

“If no changes are made to the Height Act, the law’s restrictions will constrain the city’s growth and ability to accommodate it in a future that is forecasted to see great demand from a growing population and job base,” the final report states. “These constraints would create a city where nationally significant structures are protected but only wealthy people could afford to live here to enjoy them.”

If Congress gives it more control over building heights, the city suggests subjecting new design proposals to a special review from the zoning commission. It also wants to require that new, taller development projects “provide for public benefits in support of affordable housing or infrastructure.”

Both the NCPC and D.C. agree on one amendment to the Height Act to allow for human occupancy of penthouses.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will explore both sets of recommendations during a hearing likely to take place in December, according to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who serves as chairman.

Issa said Wednesday that he intends to meet with both parties before then “and discuss a possible middle ground that both could be happy with.”

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