Harriet Tregoning, Director of the D.C. Office of Planning, and Lucy Kempf, senior planner at the National Capital Planning Commission, explained competing local and federal studies on changing federal building height limits tonight to a group of sixty concerned residents and local representatives.
D.C.’s study, which the Office of Planning released yesterday, recommends that Congress remove federal building height limits set by the Height Act of 1910 outside the historic L’Enfant City area, which includes, among other things, the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument.
The D.C. study also recommends increasing the federal building height limit within that historic area from 130 to 200 feet, assuming a street width of 160 feet, under a modification of the existing formula that limits building height in relation to street width.
Tregoning made the case for increasing the federal height restriction, which D.C. believes it needs to do in order to meet expected population growth and to keep housing prices from skyrocketing out of reach of middle class residents.
But many attendees at tonight’s meeting weren’t buying it. “D.C. does not build up to the limits of the building envelope,” Joe Grano, President of the Rhodes Tavern-D.C. Heritage Society said. “Why don’t we fill up existing heights on transportation corridors, such as Wisconsin Avenue, before we start monkeying around with the historic height limits?” Grano asked emphatically.
The competing federal study, which the National Capital Planning Commission approved on September 12, 2013, would retain the existing federal restrictions but provide limited exception for use of building rooftops. It would also study alternative ways to address the city's growth.
“Both the federal government and D.C. have a significant interest throughout the city,” said Robert Nieweg, Field Director and attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The Height Act is a time-tested solution. The local and federal government shouldn’t rush to change it.”
On October 3, 2012, Congressman Darrell Issa (CA-49), Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, formally requested that the city and National Capital Planning Commission study the possible benefits of modifying the Height Act and come to a consensus.
Instead, the studies reveal a tension. Both the Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission have asked for comments on the two studies, by October 15, 2013 to the National Capital Planning Commission and by October 24, 2013 to the D.C. Office of Planning.
Based on the preliminary recommendations provided in the two studies, consensus won’t occur. Congress could still change the height limits. If that were to happen, building height limits in the city would still be restricted by the city’s Comprehensive Plan and its zoning regulations. Tregoning emphasized that point. But for some long-time residents who attended tonight’s meeting, that protection was not enough.