Skip to content

Height Act Hearing Reveals Fissures in D.C.

When Rep. Darrell Issa asked local planning bodies to review how well the federal Height Act served the District, he didn’t expect to see hundreds of models for vertical growth along the city’s skyline.

The California Republican said he “never envisioned” architects would begin to visualize specific changes to the century-old limit on the height of buildings but said he was “very pleased” to see the slides presented during a Monday morning House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the future of the law.

The models show the kind of changes that could be possible along Pennsylvania Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue and parts of Rhode Island Avenue if Congress empowers the city to raise the city-wide height limit — generally 130 feet or 160 feet — through its Comprehensive Plan and the zoning process.

But such changes are far from imminent, thanks in part to disagreement within the D.C. government.

The slides were presented alongside divergent recommendations from the National Capital Planning Commission and D.C.’s Office of Planning. The committee also heard discord between the administration of Mayor Vincent Gray and the D.C. Council.

In contrast to Gray’s recommendation that the city be given more authority, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson submitted testimony asking that the law be “left alone.”

“The clear and deeply felt support for preserving the Height of Buildings Act is due in part to the complete lack of specificity as to where heights would be raised or by how much,” he wrote. “Residents across the city are afraid that if the Height Act is changed now, the city’s unique skyline and human scale will be lost irretrievably.”

The seats of the Rayburn room were packed with members of the public supporting his position, sporting “SAVE the HEIGHT ACT” stickers on their lapels.

Issa mocked a resolution Mendelson proposed to that effect as a rejection of home rule, saying it sounded like the council was saying “please don’t give me the authority, I can’t be trusted.”

Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said she was “confused and appalled” that D.C. would pass on the chance to make changes.

She reminded the committee that Congress, the National Capital Planning Commission and the D.C. Council would still have a say in how tall buildings can rise and said, “A change to the Federal Height Act does not change the height of buildings in the federal city.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., urged the two sides to come to a consensus.

“I hope that the city confronts the issue before us consistent with its position for two centuries that the District, not Congress, must make its own decisions,” she said.

There was one area of consensus between the two bodies. Both the NCPC and the Office of Planning agree that the law should be amended to allow human occupancy in existing and future penthouses.

Marcel Acosta, executive director of the NCPC, suggested that the change could allow for “rooftop gardens, balconies, places for communal parties” and other recreational purposes.

Issa seemed to support that suggestion, but he made no promise of legislative activity.

“Ultimately, the D.C. Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission came to completely different conclusions,” Issa said. “We will not close the Height Act consideration without full consideration.”